Five “how might we?” questions for educators during an ongoing crisis

Devin Vodicka

As a Superintendent I learned to think about worst case scenarios. But I could not have predicted when the pandemic started that we would be where we are: part way through a second disrupted school year, facing the worst case counts to date, grappling with mounting evidence of the impact on learning loss and drop out rates, and still lacking a unified approach to closing and reopening schools. 

Fortunately I also learned to maintain optimism in the face of crises, and, perhaps most importantly, to listen. As the crisis continues, I have been reading and watching as countless resource libraries for virtual learning have been assembled and “best practices” compiled. I’ve been sorting through them in my own mind, seeking ideas that seem to be 1) based in evidence, 2) relatively practical to implement, and 3) aligned to the future of learning we want to see post pandemic. I have also been trying to keep in mind that the goal is not to get “back to normal”. Normal wasn’t working for far too many learners. 

Here are five questions that I’ve been wondering about during my reflections. I’d love to hear from you. They seem to check all of the boxes (evidence-based, potentially practical, and aligned to the future we want) and yet they may merit additional attention in the current dialogue. How would you answer these questions? Do you know of schools or communities whose work might provide insight? Are there any good examples we can learn from? Any innovators or entrepreneurs taking them on? Take a look and please let me know!  

  1. How might we leverage independent reading? 

One of the best possible ways learners could be spending their time at home is reading. That may sound dated, but it’s absolutely true. Time spent reading independently has been linked not only to reading achievement (Allington, 2014; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Krashen, 2004 and 2011), but to greater cultural literacy, increased agency in learning, and the development of lifelong learning habits

Choosing texts is a great way to encourage learner agency, and there are great social and emotional benefits as well. Just imagine if learners were spending a fraction of the time they’ve been at home just sitting and reading books. Yes, there are barriers, and yes, the playing field here is far from level. But there are countless school libraries “sitting on the shelf” right now. There is also some software that is enabling educators to organize schoolwide reading challenges, and others, including our own Altitude Learning platform, that can help easily set goals related to independent reading. What would it look like to drive towards at least one hour of independent choice reading per day across an entire school? An entire district? To open up school libraries or deliver books much as many schools have distributed lunches? If this has been an emphasis in your school system, I’d love to hear how it’s going and what it looks like. Appreciated the suggestions in this post.

  1. How might we think differently about “extracurricular” activities?

This piece in The 74 is a great reminder that it is often sports, drama, dance, band, debate and other activities that keep kids engaged in school. They are a place where deep relationships form, special talents and strengths are cultivated, and agency is exercised. Participation has been linked to reduced dropout rates and improved academic performance, and helps with college admission. But they have been hugely impacted by the pandemic.

I wonder if they can’t be part of the solution. These activities generally occur in small(ish) groups. They also seem conducive to leveraging alternative, and (often) larger and even outdoor spaces. They are conducive to the formation of “bubbles” as has been explored with a variety of sports and activities in the “real-world”. With the rise of esports and other online communities, are there ways to reimagine the types of extracurricular options that lend themselves to virtual collaboration, potentially providing some of the same benefits during a time when many are compelled to be remote? What would it look like to explore extracurricular activities as a starting point rather than an afterthought, starting now and continuing beyond the pandemic? Would love to hear if anyone is doing this and what it looks like. 

  1. How might we double down on authentic problem solving? 

My colleague Katie Martin has long written about and promoted authentic problem solving as a practice that promotes agency. She likes to say that “Little people are capable of solving big problems” and I couldn’t agree more. If there was ever a time flooded with big problems it’s now. If students can start organizations and movements in normal times (also see here!), imagine what they can do with more flexibility to think outside of traditional bell schedules and school walls. There is an opportunity to connect globally, and put kids to work on the very problems we adults are trying frantically to figure out on their behalf! What would it look like to engage kids in trying to figure out how to better deliver remote learning, or support peers without great technology at home, make sure their peers have access to nutritious food, or any one of the other myriad challenges we have been working through? What is every learner was taking on a big challenge like one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Again, I would love to hear how you’re engaging young people in authentic problem solving this year  and what it looks like.

  1. How might we reimagine learning exhibitions?

Another topic Katie has written about is the power of sharing learning. “When learners have an authentic audience they are more invested.” I’ve seen this again and again in my own career. Students engage differently when they know they will have to present their work to an expert in the field, to peers, to members of their community, to a celebrity they admire, or, dare I say, to their own parents. The stakes are raised and students rise to the occasion. They also feel valued, trusted, and heard. 

In pre-COVID days the logistics of facilitating learning exhibitions could be daunting. But might this be a place where Zoom learning becomes a boon rather than a bust!? Getting that local celebrity or international expert to travel to the school for a day seems near impossible, but getting them to log on to a 30-minute Zoom call seems entirely plausible. What would it look like if there were two or three big learning exhibitions on the calendar for this year, and students knew they would be presenting their work to a panel of leading scientists or even at a real conference? Lastly, what about community exhibitions where localized problem solving challenges (see question #3 above) dovetail with opportunities to (virtually) share ideas with community members and neighbors? Would love to hear if anyone is doing this and what it looks like. Here is a post someone passed along that I found inspiring. A number of our partner schools are doing great work here too, including Odyssey STEM Academy in Paramount Unified School District. 

  1. How might we listen to learners? 

I must admit that I’m tucking this in here even though it’s much less of an open question for me. Listening to learners changed my own career, and Learner-Centered Leadership is my professional passion and personal platform. Listening to learners fundamentally altered what I believed about school, leadership, and change. But yet again I see it being something that we don’t seem to make time for, especially during a crisis, when it is actually the best place to start. Student surveys are one powerful tool, and some have been created specifically to gain feedback on COVID-related issues, and remote and hybrid learning. But our aspirations for engaging learners, and giving them a true voice in their education process, should be higher. In its highest form, this includes co-creating tasks projects and assessments, and, as I’ve written for Getting Smart, leading more and more of their learning as they progress through school. Great work has been happening on this in many of our partner schools, and there are lots of educators pushing hard on this front (examples here and here). Rather than backing away from this shift, it seems like the perfect time to lean into it. I would love to hear some examples of where this is happening.

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