October 19, 2020
Last October (2019) I gave a speech at the OESIS Conference in Boston entitled “Working through the Mess: School Change for Sustainability and Salvation.” Admittedly I worried that my suggestion that independent schools faced existential threats from which they needed to save themselves might sound a bit hyperbolic and overblown. Wasn’t I catastrophizing a bit? After all, people have been predicting disruption for a long time, and, even in the face of continually rising tuitions and technological advancements that have transformed almost every other industry, the disruption has yet to occur. Everything will be fine.
Well, now it has happened. And it happened sooner and more abruptly than anyone anticipated. Concerns about sounding hyperbolic and worries that maybe Miss Porter’s, where I work, was changing too quickly have dissipated. Instead, I now regret that we didn’t move faster to adapt and prepare for the inevitable: a situation in which 1) independent schools are forced to operate differently causing prospective students and families to further question our value and 2) the problems with our operational models, both programmatic and financial, are exacerbated to the point where schools will have to question whether or not they can reopen.
While I am sure many schools now wish they had been more prepared, it is clear that schools already on the path to innovation have been able to adjust more successfully to the current challenges. Thus, as a strategy for moving forward in an attempt not only to survive this disruption, but to thrive beyond it, it is worth looking at practices and collective mindsets that seem to have helped schools in navigating the COVID-19 disruption.
A willingness to think creatively about time and space
If your school’s schedule was flexible and allowed for adjustment and repurposing of time, focusing on learning outcomes as opposed to “seat time” in class, then you have been able to think more broadly about how learning might occur with a schedule that has been adjusted for remote learning. If you are used to having students outside of the classroom both to provide them with experiences in the world beyond the walls of the school and to support those who cannot be at school, then in many ways having students out in the world has provided, not limitations, but possibilities for exploration (even while in quarantine).
A willingness to experiment with program and iterate based on feedback
If your school has recently launched major programming initiatives that have asked students and faculty to “do school differently,” rather than a disruption of the “one right way to do school,” what is happening now is simply another way to try things — not necessarily better or worse, but different. And if you have solicited feedback on those initiatives and used that feedback to improve them, you’re doing the same now and things are getting better as you move forward.
A focus on interdisciplinary, experiential, and project/problem-based education
These three forward-thinking pedagogical strategies respectively ask students 1) to see how disciplines of study are interconnected (much as we see with any discussion of the pandemic), 2) to connect their experiences to their learning, or better yet, to learn from their experiences, and 3) to complete an extended project based on an authentic problem through sustained independent work outside of class. Compared to a more traditional model in which one “learns” in class, studies what was “learned” out of class, and then are assessed in class, these alternative methods of learning are much more conducive to a remote learning model.
A student-centered approach to curriculum marked by student-choice, self-pacing, and individualized feedback
Ultimately, this is about student agency and individualization of instruction. We want students to develop independence and we know that their skills will progress better with individualized attention and feedback. A remote learning environment allows the potential to even better leverage opportunities for both of these through the design of individualized pathways through asynchronous learning modules and the ability to increase 1:1 support during the asynchronous time.
Emphasis on authentic assessment
A foolproof way to avoid issues of academic integrity has always been to create assessments that students can’t cheat on. That’s certainly not the only reason to do it — and, in fact, might be the least important — but those already implementing these practices were far more ready for the move to remote learning than those who relied solely on in-class quizzes and tests for their assessment data.
A mastery approach to learning, assessment, feedback, and grading
Many schools have abandoned the graded evaluation of student work this spring. In some cases, that has been for good reason, but unfortunately, what this means for many is a lack of feedback and no ability to know where they stand and how prepared they are for next year. Schools already moving to a mastery approach to evaluation — one that gives students multiple opportunities to show what they can do and that honors a student’s best performance rather than averages performances — were able to continue assessing, giving feedback, and ultimately grading. In these cases the grade does not penalize students for circumstances beyond their control; it is simply a report of where a student is relative to a standard, which is important information to be transparent about.
A competency-based framework
Expanding on the point above, if students are evaluated mainly on core competencies, and that evaluation continues to change over time, then the end of the year report card is not actually the end, but just an indicator on the student’s journey toward growth. Additionally, if a curriculum is based on the development of competencies, not the completion of classes as measured by “seat time,” then any disruption is all the more easily handled. You don’t need to worry so much about students finishing a class; rather, they just continue on their journey, and any experience — a class assignment or a random activity undertaken during quarantine — can all serve as evidence of learning and growth.
A mindset of innovation, creativity, and flexibility on the part of the faculty
This more than anything is likely to have served schools well in adapting to remote learning. Faculty members believing there is only one right way to teach and learn threw up their hands, phoned it in, and students lost out. This likely happened more at the university level (where the instructors don’t necessarily think of themselves as teachers anyway), but I can imagine it happening anywhere. Those who viewed this as one more obstacle that they could overcome through creativity and flexibility and who were used to trying new things, figured out how to make learning happen.
All of the strategies and mindsets outlined above lead to a richer and more meaningful educational experience, and they also allow a school to be more flexible and adapt more easily to disruption. They prepare students better for an uncertain future and they do the same for schools. All of the above will continue to help schools as they navigate the future both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The ideal, of course, is to combine them with all of the benefits of in-person education, many of which are sorely missed right now.
So, when I hear people talking about returning to normal, I cringe a bit and have to ask what they mean by “normal.” If normal means being back on campus and taking advantage of the benefits of in-person teaching and learning, not to mention shoring up revenue streams, then I am all for it. However, if it means the traditional frameworks and practices of the school-as-factory model, then I have to disagree. Schools already on the path of progressive innovation need to continue, taking what they’ve learned from this experiment and moving forward even more quickly. Schools who struggled to adjust because of out-moded practices and rigid thinking need to get on board or, frankly, risk losing relevance and possibly even their existence.
Don’t get me wrong, I am eager to get back to face-to-face learning — remote learning will never be a completely adequate substitute, and if I end up being wrong about that, it will mean we have lost an important element of what it at one point meant to be human — but that does not mean we don’t have a lot to learn from it that we can bring back with us when we are finally able to come back.
Let’s continue to think not in terms of class and homework, doing and assigning the same things in perpetual rotation. Let’s realize that we have synchronous and asynchronous time: we can have time when the whole class is together when there are small groups, when there is 1:1 support, and when people are alone. These don’t have to happen at one particular time and, in each case, we should choose activities that best fit the particular format.
Let’s remember that learning can happen — yes it’s possible — when the teacher is not present!
Let’s realize that not every course needs to have the same amount of “class time” and not all courses need to be the exact same length in terms of duration of class time and term. Let’s give teachers more freedom in how they set up the time, and let’s create schedules and calendars that support that.
Let’s truly acknowledge that students learn better at different times and at different paces, and while we need opportunities for students to work together on and discuss the same thing, we also need to set up individualized pathways and provide opportunities for self-pacing.
Let’s continue to be creative with assessment and not rely so heavily on quizzes and tests, especially not as culminating assessments. We worked hard to figure out innovative ways for students to share their learning with others, so let’s keep that up.
Finally, I hope in many ways we realized that great teaching is great teaching, and the true essentials do not change. Great teaching is certainly not about classroom lectures and quizzes; it’s about providing inspiration, it’s about forging relationships, and it’s about being a role-model. Lots of circumstances can make these things harder or easier to accomplish, but great teachers find a way to get them done regardless!
And because in my role I straddle the divide between an internal focus on teaching and learning and an external focus on institutional strength and sustainability, I need to add that while we have to get this right for the students, we also can’t afford to get it wrong for our institutions. More than ever, prospective families will question our value, and they should. We cannot be just expensive clubs that have been doing the same things for decades; we need to be cutting-edge organizations that adapt to and prepare students to solve the problems of the future. And better yet, our innovation may allow us to come up with ways to increase access to what we offer, strengthening our business model while also helping us to become forces for equity in the world, rather than organizations that perpetuate exclusivity. Through this work we not only serve the needs of the students and strengthen our institutions, but we do more to help make a better world.
Let’s get through this, but let’s not go back to a place where we have the very same problems when the next disruption comes. It will come, but we can be ready.