A problem was presented to us in a recent class, “What about those students who don’t return to school next year?” For most, getting back to normal means that kids will return to classrooms and the great engine of schooling as we have known it will begin to roar to life again. As the problem proposes however, it may not be the case that all students will make this choice to return to school and get back to normal. A recent New York Times article gave examples of students who will make the conscious choice NOT to return to school after the crisis moment of the pandemic is over. The reasons for this could include working as a choice or family necessity, preference for staying at home which is labelled as ‘school hesitancy’, and perhaps simply fear for safety. For some students, this choice to not return could be an expression of how the pandemic has hit low-income and minority students harder and makes getting back to normal both a less possible and possibly less desirable choice. In the short term, 2021-22, schools will determine how significant of a factor student choice will play in their return to school planning and schools will need to be ready with plans for blended learning and other approaches which will accommodate and provide meaningful learning to these students. In the long term, as the article asks, what are the implications for extended remote learning by choice? Is this the moment when the bricks and mortar structure begins a slow death as the base structure for education?
Michael Fullan discusses how the pandemic and its many impacts on society can be leveraged to drive a reimagining of education. Long an advocate for system wide reforms, in Education Reimagined Fullan and his colleagues present their hybrid model for learning as “more than a quick fix” and a “way to enhance and accelerate learning by providing student centered approaches to meet diverse learning needs” (p. 9). He asks six questions to drive the reimagining conversation including, “what kind of learning is needed for this current and future complexity?” Fullan also provides recommendations for instruction that, “quality is more important than how lessons are delivered” and that providing support for, “pupils to work independently can improve learning outcomes” (p. 15). Fullan concludes that this current moment is what Kuhn identified as a true paradigm shift, and that seizing “the opportunity to create a whole new and powerful learning system is more appealing than slipping back into a status quo that does not work” (p. 21).
There are many authors and organizations also engaged in this conversation. In a blog by Heather Wolpert-Gawson called Has the Pandemic Ushered in New Norms in Education?, some “new norms” have already been established including involving the community as a true partner and increasing engagement with students to allow more choice about what they are learning. In Back to the Future of Education, the OECD looks at four potential alternative pathways for the structure of schooling which it calls: schooling extended, education outsourced, schools and learning hubs, and learn-as-you-go. Each of these responses is designed to respond to the situation according to the amount of continuity or discontinuity which may result after the pandemic.
How much will this be a time of real change in education? Are we really at a time of reimagining or will the drive for a return to normal, with all of its deficiencies, prevail? Predicting the future is always perilous and education will need to respond to these pressures in a thoughtful, collaborative, and student-centered way. A good place to start is by establishing new pedagogical approaches which Fullan identifies as hybrid or blended learning and which needs to become the new norm. Learning occurs anywhere and everywhere and limiting learning activities to the classroom only restricts the possibilities for engaging and relevant learning that can occur outside of the classroom. Next, the OECD idea of schools as a learning hub in the community in partnership with others needs to take greater hold. The fortress education mentality has denied children opportunities for learning outside the walls and as stated in this scenario, the walls need to come down to make education truly a community effort. As the OECD (2020) states, the benefits of opening the walls will be to “connect schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation” (p. 49). Finally, leadership and organizational models need to keep up with the changing environment in society by building adaptive organizations as explained here by Arena & Uhl-Bien to better be able to respond to these pressures. School systems are complex are generally traditionally organized and better need to reflect how organizations are changing all around them.
The future remains uncertain & complex, and it is difficult to anticipate what direction course instruction, school structure and organizational design will take. While there were certainly calls for serious reform prior to the pandemic, there is no doubt these will only be increased after the current moment of COVID crisis passes and a post-pandemic re-assessment of how we should best imagine teaching and learning occurs. This is not a moment that should be wasted no matter how strong the desire is to get back to normal and school systems need to engage with their communities and teachers, students, and administrators to truly take learning out of the classroom and into the world.