COVID 19 is accelerating the educational shift from compliance to agency

Devin Vodicka

We have reached the point where students can literally turn down the volume on their teacher. The dynamics of education have clearly changed. If traditional, compliance-driven approaches worked to engage students before, they absolutely will not work during a global pandemic and they are not likely to be effective in the future where we anticipate continued accelerations in the rate of changes in society. The implications of this reality are significant, and require us to reexamine our relationship with learners, and to fundamentally rethink the way we approach school. 

Here are three reasons why compliance-based approaches won’t work in what I consider to be education’s Agency era

We are dealing with an enormous set of adaptive challenges. Heifetz and Laurie distinguish between technical problems and adaptive challenges. There are certainly technical elements to many of the problems we face in education today, but the biggest challenges are overwhelmingly and increasingly adaptive. These are challenges for which there are no clear or known answers. They cannot be solved by “experts” or “implemented by edict”. “Solutions” require “experiments and new discoveries”, and people with the problem need to “do the work of solving it”. 

In the industrial era, more of the problems we confronted were technical and the mode of work was largely based on adherence to established routines. Hence the industrial, process-oriented design of our system. But, even before COVID, the shift to a post-industrial economy, combined with other changes in our values and expectations related to equity and outcomes, meant that we were increasingly trying to solve adaptive challenges in schools with technical solutions. COVID accelerated this transition. For the foreseeable future, the primary challenges confronting education leaders will be adaptive ones.

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We face a drop-out and tune-out issue. In this era, the distractions and alternatives to engaging in school have been amplified. More and more forces are competing for students’ attention, and consuming their cognitive load. For some, it is stress and pressures associated with poverty drawing their focus away from learning. For others it is ubiquitous access to technology, whether the alternatives be gaming, social media, or connection with friends. Teens now use an average of just under seven and a half hours’ worth of entertainment screen media per day, not including time spent using screens for school or homework (Commonsense Media). For many, it is both. 

COVID has increased food, housing, and employment hardship and has exacerbated inequality, while expanding our use of technology and reliance on it. Post-COVID, it is inconceivable that schools could ignore either of these tremendous societal forces and achieve positive results. Neither is conducive to a compliance driven solution. Going forward, schooling will be competing for attention with food insecurity on the one hand and access to anytime, anywhere entertainment on the other. 

We never had control in the first place, only influence. In a traditional classroom setting, where everyone was together in one place, rules could be more easily established and enforced.  An effective classroom management system could (in most cases) create an environment where at least it seemed like most students were more or less engaged and paying attention. COVID has revealed the extent to which the “control” we thought we had was mostly just an illusion. 

As I wrote in Learner-Centered Leadership, we all exert influence on one another, and in spite of the illusion of control, we are always fundamentally interacting with other individuals who also have agency. When learning shifted to virtual, the systems created over time to maintain this surface-level semblance of “engagement” no longer worked. Many learners have long felt that school has lost its relevance. With COVID, disengagement that had been there all along revealed itself in new ways. Now, the cat is out of the bag and it is hard to imagine that traditional systems will be able to reassert even that superficial level of control once in-person learning fully resumes. 

In summary, we are dealing with complex and adaptive challenges, learners have more reason to tune out and more options for doing so, and (lo and behold), we never had the control we thought we did in the first place. So what does this mean when you add these pieces together? 

It means we have to create the conditions that invite our staff, students, and families in as chief problem solvers. We have to get to know each student personally in order to understand and address the reasons they may be choosing to (or being forced to) prioritize other options. We have to accept and welcome technology into our schools and classrooms and leverage it for its tremendous upside while mitigating its risks. Fundamentally, we need to embrace (rather than resist) learner agency, and abandon our prior conceptions of leadership based on positional authority. 

As leaders, we need to use whatever remaining authority we have after the pandemic is over to promote even greater levels of agency within our schools and social systems. Rather than anchor on compliance and procedures, we must focus efforts on ensuring that shared values serve to align individuals within the community around a greater good. This will require a fundamental reset of our relationships with students as partners in their learning.  As we do so, we will challenge some of the most basic features of traditional school design. 

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