3 Urgent Systemic Shifts to Better Serve Learners

This post was originally published on https://learnercenteredleadership.blogspot.com/ on April 5, 2020.

Almost two decades ago I wrote a paper on key shifts to move from mechanical, industrial-age education to a more biological, information-age approach.  While I had no idea that we would now be radically redesigning education during a global pandemic, it was clear that rapid changes in the environment required us to be re-thinking how we organize our educational systems to better align with a world where stability and predictability would give way to acceleration and adaptability.

I also understand that right now many children, families, communities, educators, schools, and school systems are in crisis.  It is appropriate and necessary for urgent attention to be focused on safety, health, wellbeing, and basic needs such as food and shelter.  Given the imperative to remain isolated through quarantine, we also must ensure that devices and internet connectivity are available to all so that we can have the ability to remain connected in spite of our physical separation.

Some will say that until our health, safety, and connectivity needs are addressed it is premature to consider how to adjust the learning experience of the more than 50 million K-12 students that affected by the school closures.  I would argue that we can’t afford to wait.  I believe that as a society, we need to be making progress on all fronts in parallel so that we are developing collective capacity and readiness to navigate through a prolonged crisis.

Several states have announced closures that will extend through the duration of this school year and I believe that it is likely inevitable that these closures will persist through at least June for the vast majority of our nation.  There is a strong likelihood that whenever students begin physical attendance in school it will require some form of social distancing which may compel creative scheduling and hybrid models that combine in-person and remote learning.  Experts are also predicting that there may be multiple waves of the pandemic which may require entire communities to go back into some form of quarantine even after the first wave passes.  In other words, we are likely at the beginning of a long journey.

Part of my urgency comes from being a dad to two children who are in school now.  It also comes from my understanding of how challenging it is to make systemic shifts in schools and in school systems.  These changes require adjustments in mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets.  They require us as leaders to change our habits, practices, and routines.  Because these are not quick fixes, if we are serious about better serving all learners, here are three systemic shifts that leaders need to embrace now:

We’ve been consistently orienting to the same metrics of success for decades (seat time, GPA, and test scores).  Now is the time to be flexible in our definition of success.  Let’s think about more holistic ways to represent progress that can actually drive ongoing learning.

Once we establish more holistic outcomes, there is no way that a “one size fits all” model will meet the varied needs and contexts for all learners.  Shifting from prescribed approaches to co-design is more likely to create opportunities for contextualized and targeted methods.

The industrial model of mass-produced education has been attempting to optimize efficiencies for decades with very little real change in outcomes such as high school graduation rates.  The context now is very different.  Having a system that is efficiently oriented to producing “standardized” outcomes in a dynamic, rapidly changing environment makes no sense.  We need to be oriented to the quality of the experience in order to ensure that learners know themselves, see themselves and being full of possibility, and are actively contributing to a community of mutual support.

Each of these shifts requires skillful change management, including the cultivation of new capacities for school leaders, teachers, and staff.  There is no way that we’ll be able to make these necessary changes in isolation.  We need to come together and support one another with an orientation to authenticity, vulnerability, and a spirit of cooperation.  Based on what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, I am increasingly confident that we will continue to rise to the challenge together.

Please share your ideas using #LCLeadership

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