Three questions every parent should be asking their school right now

Devin Vodicka

Parents – you have been amazing through this pandemic. You’ve rolled with uncertainty, adjusted to unimaginable logistical complexity, and done your best to support learning at home. You’ve done it all while expressing empathy and support for teachers, principals and others trying their best to navigate the pandemic alongside them. I’m a parent too, and I know it hasn’t been easy. 

This is not to say that there hasn’t been frustration.  We are dealing with monumental challenges right now and in many ways, the pandemic has been a reminder that during tough times, we can put small differences aside to figure out what is best for our children. 

I hope that with school back in session, you will continue to model resilience, flexibility, and creativity. I also hope you will continue to ask your educators how you can help, and what they need. Our children are watching, and your actions are one of the most important ways children learn. This is an opportunity to demonstrate some of the most important skills learners will need as they come of age in this period of dramatic change. 

However, I also hope you will not stop there. If this school year is to be salvaged, you also need to ask superintendents, principals, and teachers some tough and important questions. You can and should support educators, but you should not let us off the hook. By now, schools should have clear answers to these questions, answers that show that they too are exhibiting creativity, flexibility and resilience in these challenging times. 

With this in mind, here are the three questions every parent should be asking, and some responses that we would hope to hear. 

Question #1: What outcomes are you prioritizing for my student?

If your school cannot clearly tell what outcomes it is trying to achieve for your child and why, that should be cause for concern in any case. After all, the most successful organizations in any field are ones that are clear about what they are trying to accomplish and why. But in a period of disruption, it is even more critical that schools and leaders have specific goals in mind to guide their decision making. Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, these goals should make sense given the nature of the times. 

If your school can’t answer this question at all, that’s obviously bad. More common though, will be a vague answer about preparing students for success in college, career and life. Drilling down, you’ll likely find outcomes heavily centered on academic achievement, or, more accurately, “high test scores”. This is because for the past few decades, the overarching goal for students could generally be summarized as “achievement”, primarily measured by standardized tests. This already made little sense given the way the world and economy are changing. It makes even less sense in the current context. 

There is a much more important set of outcomes for children’s success in the modern world. Many organizations are thinking this way, and there are many frameworks that are emerging. I boil it down to three outcomes that will most empower learners and set them up for success in the modern world: 1) developing high levels of agency, 2) building skills related to collaboration, and 3) gaining the ability to effectively solve real-world problems. These are the outcomes that will increasingly make the difference for students over the course of their lives. 

Not only are these outcomes more relevant and useful, they also happen to be more feasible to achieve in the kinds of learning environments that we are being forced to explore – environments that are forcing us to mix in-person and remote learning, offer students more independence and autonomy, and communicate and engage them in new ways. There is opportunity in the current crisis, but if your school is aiming at the wrong target, they’re going to miss it entirely.

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Question #2: How are you designing school to achieve these outcomes? 

If we agreed that agency, collaboration, and real-world problem solving were our shared goals, we would be spending far less time wondering how to get school “back to normal” and far more time figuring out how to best design school to actually achieve them. 

Doing so would likely involve some features of the kind of schooling we are familiar with, and some features of the pods and hybrid models that are cropping up today. A good answer to this question from a school leader would demonstrate a thoughtful synthesis of design features that would likely include 1) a combination of virtual and in-person learning,  2) humans and technology both playing purposeful roles aligned to their respective strengths, and 3) nuanced thinking about the relationship between health and safety risk and other developmental needs.  

Zoom meetings and laptop distribution should be the beginning of technology utilization, not the end. In fact, some elements of the curriculum would be delivered almost entirely through technology. This is most suited for learning that is linear. This learning, like a ladder, follows a clear progression of steps that naturally follow each other. This kind of learning, such as multiplication or division, is conducive to certain learning technologies such as cognitive tutors that scaffold students effectively from one component of the skill to the next. 

Similarly, “in-person” learning would not be limited to whole-class meetings. Small-group formats on and off the traditional “campus” would also be employed. These sessions would focus on collaborative, messy learning, where there is more than one way to solve a problem. This kind of learning is much more similar to the kind of learning the modern workplace demands. It’s best in small groups, can happen anywhere, and can mix virtual and in-person collaboration. 

Finally, the school design would recognize the spectrum of risk, and its relationship to developmental needs. Fully virtual learning is obviously the “safest” in terms of limiting risk of spreading Covid-19. Fully in-person, in traditional large group settings is obviously the least safe. Neither are very conducive to the kind of learning and developmental outcomes we are aiming at here. There are actually many different hybrid options that would reduce and manage risk while increasing alignment with the outcomes we want to achieve. They include pods & bubbles, microschools, and hybrid solutions that many parents, especially those with the most power and resources, are apparently already pursuing on their own. Your school’s answer to this question should demonstrate that they are exploring these options openly and rigorously. 

Question #3: How will you know if your plan is working, and make course corrections if not? 

A good answer to this question from a school leader would demonstrate a plan for measuring progress towards these new outcomes, even if it is an imperfect one. It would also show a real commitment to sharing results, and making adjustments along the way in a collaborative manner that models the very skills and dispositions we are trying to develop in our learners. 

Part of the reason achievement, measured by test scores, has been so persistent as the primary outcome for schools is that it is measurable and concrete. This is a good thing, and it continues to make test scores a tempting target to aim at. Those of us who believe in aiming at broader, more meaningful outcomes like agency, collaboration, and real-world problem solving acknowledge that they are harder to measure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. 

One key piece of the puzzle, perhaps the most important one, will be listening to the learners themselves. Listening means asking directly, and collecting lots of feedback from learners, regardless of age. In addition to hearing what they are telling us explicitly, it also means “listening” to what they are demonstrating through their actions. This is similar to how successful companies are listening and responding to the feedback and behavior of their customers – through a mix of direct surveys and analysis of behavioral data. 

This means that your school should be listening to your child. It should be triangulating their feedback against data about their actual actions: engagement, completion of goals and assignments, and, much as is happening in the workplace, 360 degree feedback from teachers, parents and peers. 

This is a different way of thinking about measuring success, and will be imperfect, especially at first. So another part of the answer you should be listening for is a commitment to learning, and improving over time. In other words, you should see evidence that your school leaders and educators model the outcomes we have discussed throughout. 

This last point brings us full circle. The most basic ask you should have of your educators and school leaders is that they are modeling these outcomes themselves, demonstrating their commitment to lifelong learning, creating space for others to have agency in their education, collaborating effectively with others, and showing the capacity to solve real world problems in a way that moves us forward to a better system for everyone.  

Educators will need your help, your partnership, your encouragement, and your support as we navigate through this pandemic.  By focusing on whole-child outcomes, designing experiences to align with those goals, and making adjustments based on feedback from students, we stand a chance to come through this crisis with a better educational system than we had before COVID-19.  

Please share additional ideas using #LCLeadership

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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