One More Time: Let’s Not Go Back to Normal | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

I know there’s been a lot of talk of late about getting back to “normal” and the quest to regain some of our old rhythms in life. Everyone is exhausted. We just want to stop having to think about all of this and find some predictability. 

Well, truth is, we may have to get used to the unpredictability of this moment and the future. In her great essay “Willing to Be Disturbed,” Margaret Wheatley writes:

“The world now is quite perplexing. We no longer live in those sweet, slow days when life felt predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.”

Margaret Wheatley

So maybe it would be good to take the stance of “not knowing” when it comes to thinking about what schools might look like when the disruption recedes. Especially when we’re so familiar with “normal” in schools to begin with. 

Let’s not forget these “normal” realities in the lives of most students, teachers, and schools:

  • a curriculum that is forgotten as soon as the test is over.
  • kids learning how to get a good grade over everything else.
  • a “lesson” rather than a discovery.
  • unnatural segregation by age.
  • chunks of time that interrupt the flow of learning.
  • inequitable access to modern learning tools.
  • silos of knowledge that rarely connect.
  • surveillance.
  • an emphasis on teaching not learning.
  • a lack of relevance to the modern world.
  • White scientists, explorers, authors, and histories.
  • anxious, stressed, depressed children.
  • increasing illiteracy to recognize misinformation.
  • self-worth as measured by numbers.
  • power over as opposed to power with.

I’m sure there are others that you could add to this list. 

Either way, I doubt that too many reading this would push back with any serious muscle against the idea that these are in fact what make up “normal” in most schools. (I’ve asked quite a few people to do that; no one has.)

Which begs the question, why do we want to go “back” to that exactly?

I know that it’s comfortable. I know our sense of selves as educators is wrapped up in it. I know that it’s what parents and policymakers and others expect the experience of school to be like. The status quo is always the path of least resistance. 

But is it the path to powerful learning? Especially in this time of uncertainty and change?

It might be interesting to interrogate each item on that list (and any others that you might add) and ask what the better version of normal might be. 

Like, what if we said we’re going to focus every conversation on learning before we start talking about teaching? What might that change? Well, for one, it would change assessments, right? We’d focus our testing time and attention on what our students are learning, not what they’re being taught. It would force us to rethink curriculum, reevaluate our conception of agency, and force us to envision the sum of student work in schools. 

That would create a “new” normal, no?

Or what if we took a hard look at the daily schedule? What might we create in its place that would foster deeper learning on the part of kids? We know the normal of interrupting learning flows every 50 minutes or so doesn’t serve children. What might?

Work your way through that list and dream a bit, even if you might not be able to realize the dream. Let your imagination flow. 

Despite the deep-seated narratives and experiences and expectations, we owe it to our students to ask with all seriousness whether or not the current normal is what we seek to return to after the pandemic abates. And we owe it to everyone to change it if the honest answer we arrive at is a “no.” 

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future. In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

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