Increasing workplace flexibility means that schools can’t become more rigid

By Devin Vodicka

A casual review of school and district vision and mission statements makes it clear that we hope to prepare students for the future.  While there is enduring wisdom in the idea that we should provide study in a broad set of academic disciplines to help students develop metacognition and lifelong learning skills, schools have also been designed to prepare students for the world of work.  

While attention often goes to career pathway programs, we should also recall that our current approach to education was largely designed to align with an industrial-age society, modeled to have assembly-line efficiencies with schools configured like factories.  In this setting, it made sense to focus on attendance and compliance.  After all, students who showed up and followed directions would likely be productive workers who could complete routine tasks.  

While the world of work has changed from an industrial system to more of a knowledge economy, our education system has been slow to adapt.  This leads many students to rightly conclude that school is “irrelevant,” contributing to high disengagement and dropouts rates throughout our nation.  This misalignment was a fundamental challenge before the COVID-19 pandemic and recent developments now lead me to believe that the pandemic has accelerated changes in the workforce, potentially widening the gap between schools and the world of work. 

This concern was reinforced by a recent report indicating that pre-COVID 64% of organizations were “fully in-office” with office configurations.  This means that even before the pandemic about a third of all organizations had shifted to some type of flexible configuration.  Amazingly, only 6% of organizations now plan to be “fully in-office” after the pandemic with the vast majority of companies indicating that they will continue with flexible, hybrid, and remote options for their employees.  

Source: Lightspeed Venture Partners

As a person who has been working in a hybrid setting pre-pandemic and fully remote for the past year of the pandemic, I can tell you that the demands for workers are quite different.  Skills such as initiative, communication, and self-management are absolutely imperative. We don’t track attendance and we don’t have uniform expectations around work hours.  What really matters in this type of environment is performance.   

We should also ask why so many organizations are shifting away from “fully in-office” configurations.  If being in person all of the time was optimal for productivity, we would see a much stronger desire to get teams back into the office together.  As it turns out, the pandemic has revealed some clear benefits to remote work and the combination of some in-person collaboration coupled with the advantages of remote working appear to be evolving into a consensus plan for the future. 

At the same time as we’re seeing a workforce shift to more flexible models, our educational system seems anchored on a return to a rigid system, often with an idea that if we add days to the calendar we will somehow be able to remediate “learning loss” and get back to normalcy. I am baffled by the continued orientation to seat-time, particularly since the founders of the Carnegie Unit model came out with a report almost a decade ago advocating for a new approach. 

It seems unwise that at a time when the workforce is shifting to more flexible options we may be reverting back to a familiar and outdated uniform approach in our schools.  

There are profound challenges with distance learning and I am not advocating for any form of a “one-size fits all” solution.  I believe that we need to prepare all learners for flexibility.  If workplaces are moving to hybrid options where team members need to be prepared for productivity in-person and remotely, we should ensure that our students have a broad range of skills to be productive in any environment.  

In addition, I was struck that the percentage of employers who are allowing employees to choose their work setting has gone from just 2% up to 19% during the pandemic.  This choice requires the employees to know themselves, their strengths, and to align the optimal environment with their needs.  From an educational perspective, are we preparing our students to know how to make these types of decisions? 

The flexibility that is emerging as a characteristic of the workforce is reinforcement that we need to shift to learner-centered education.  We must orient to whole-child outcomes, develop learner agency, implement competency-based assessments, provide authentic learning experiences, and personalize for every student within an inclusive and diverse community.  

Learner-centered education for all will require us to create, implement, and improve multiple modes of “school” that provide options and diverse experiences, thereby preparing students for the flexible world of the future outside of schools.  I believe that there are at least five modes that schools must create and offer in order to provide a range of options to meet the unique needs of learners while waves of the pandemic rise and fall.  Fully-remote, pods, microschools, hybrid models, and traditional in-person are all legitimate and feasible options that can be viewed on a continuum of health risk, academic, and social emotional characteristics. Each of these modes have advantages and disadvantages and I predict that students will move through the continuum of options based on their unique needs and as conditions change.  

I encourage educators to offer the full range of options for all students.  Use afterschool, weekend, and summer programming to implement trial programs that can be refined and adjusted based on whole-child goals.  As always, begin by clarifying your goals and establish metrics that matter to align your success indicators with your aspirations.  

The key is to get started now.  The world around us is not waiting for us.  It is up to us to create flexible experiences for all students today that will prepare them for the future. 

Additional Resources:

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

Use #LCLeadership to share your ideas

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