Cross Currents in Education: Waves and the Undertow

By Devin Vodicka

We work with hundreds of schools across the country and in my conversations with others I am often asked what I am noticing as we interact with educators who are immersed in very different contexts.  Given all of the complexities of the pandemic, it has been very challenging to make any generalizations other than to say that people are working very hard under difficult conditions and that fatigue and exhaustion are legitimately influencing many aspects of our lives.  

With that said, I also believe that we are feeling pushed and pulled in two very different directions at the same time.  I would compare it to being in the ocean and being pushed to the shore by strong waves and at simultaneously being pulled by the undertow out into the sea.  These cross-currents make it even more difficult to maintain balance, stability, or any sustained direction.  

Photo by Kammeran Gonzalez-Keola on

The waves are pushing education back to the shore that was familiar before the pandemic.  Examples include a focus on in-person learning, seat-time, recovering “learning loss” on narrow sets of outcomes that are easily measured.  In some ways these can be viewed as quick wins during a time of great challenge but the recurrence of COVID variants is making just about everything more difficult than we had hoped in the early stages of vaccinations.  In addition, we seem to forget that we had uneven experiences before the pandemic which is why many schools and districts had plans to try to resolve chronic absenteeism and numerous intervention programs to assist students in need of additional time and assistance to demonstrate academic mastery. 

The undertow is pulling education out into the sea in search of a new and different shore.  Conventional metrics such as standardized test scores and letter grades have been unhelpful or impractical which is opening an opportunity for other evidence of learning.  Families are exercising choice more assertively than before the pandemic which is resulting in an overall reduction in enrollment in traditional schools and increases in innovative learning environments.  During the “great resignation” staff members are also influencing changes in working conditions or finding alternatives.  Perhaps most significantly, students are exercising their agency in small and large ways. While many of these changes were underway before the pandemic, the pull of this current is getting stronger and more powerful now. 

At a macro-level, the result of these cross-currents is that educators are being thrown about with very little resolution.  The solution is to determine where we want to go.  Do we allow the waves to push us back to the shore where it feels comfortable or do we dive down into the undertow and allow ourselves to explore the open sea, beyond where it feels comfortable and in pursuit of a new destination? 

From my perspective, the choice is clear.  We know the risks of the familiar, institutional model of schooling include massive disengagement and a compliance-focus that no longer aligns with the world outside of education.  The shore was eroding before the pandemic and its decline is even more clear now. We must dive deep and go to a new place.  One that embraces the unique strengths, interests, and identity of each learner with new outcomes that include agency, collaboration, and problem solving.  We need authentic and contextualized learning, competency-based models, personalization, and inclusive and equitable community experiences for all.  We need learner-centered education.  

We should also recognize that if we fail to commit we will continue to feel the cross-currents and remain in a dangerous state where we will work hard with very little progress.  The waves are noticeable and public attention is presently focused on the observable push back to what we have known.  At the same time, we feel the pull under the surface.  We know what needs to be done.  

Let the adventure begin.  

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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