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5 Major Shifts Needed Post-COVID-19 to Transform Education

We have a unique opportunity during the pandemic to reimagine the education system for the future. Here are five places to start that will help educators serve students more effectively during COVID-19 and beyond.

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As American educators battle the COVID-19 crisis, we are rightly recognizing that providing quality education faces incredible new challenges in the short and long term. As John Bailey writes in Education Next, “In planning to reopen, schools will be forced to question long-standing assumptions and develop strategies that can lead to building a better education system. The process can help to distinguish between the superfluous and the essential and build from those fundamentals.”

These transformational challenges do not allow us to return to previous, largely ineffective academic methodologies that have not allowed us to accomplish the goals we have for our students, nor do they call on us to believe that the best we can do is to merely cope through a temporary, hybrid system. Rather, they require us to rethink the future of education and radically improve our current system, a transformation that will include at least five major shifts to better serve all students.

1. Restructuring time 

We need to shift from a system where time is the constant and learning is the variable to one where learning is the constant and time is the variable. “Though far from optimal, the way we've done schooling during the pandemic might help us break free of outdated time structures for learning,” write Chris Gabrieli and Colleen Beaudoin in ASCD’s Educational Leadership. Sal Khan famously argues, “Let’s teach for mastery, not test scores,” where he shows the inherent illogic in time-based education systems.

In 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning released “Prisoners of Time.” This report, which has been reprinted and which teachers still hold in high regard, argued that our schools and systems are flawed because they are based on fixed ideas about the school day and the school year. The report argued that time is something educators can vary even in the face of other established standards (e.g., testing minimums, technology protocols, children per class). Yet, teachers have struggled to apply the concept of the report to practical, in-class operations. Further, school systems still run on adult-driven priorities and a rationale of “we’ve always done it this way.” 

Now, as schools try to figure out how to simultaneously serve students and accommodate social distancing, we see parents, administrators, legislators, and health professionals exploring new time solutions. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended both staggered arrival/drop-offs and flexible hours in its school reopening guidelines. Similarly, we can re-evaluate the length of individual lessons or units, use of weekends, and whether to hold class year-round as well as rethink the time when students enroll and when the school year begins and ends. More importantly, we can use time as a tool to ensure schools meet students where they are and move them ahead only when they have mastered their current lesson.

2. Student-centered models 

Previously, teachers have relied on batch-mode, factory, industrial, or similar models, particularly at the high school level. These approaches do not sufficiently acknowledge the unique traits, hurdles, or disparities students experience. We routinely see, for instance, that affluent students come out ahead compared to disadvantaged students. Other students start behind and fall further behind, because of the outdated school model in place. 

COVID-19 is forcing the public to acknowledge variations among students like never before, such as within the basic ability to access the Internet for distance learning. Another consideration is time and space available for homework, when some older students are caring for siblings while parents work or may not have the proper setting for study. Thinking about how different each student is will help teachers reject the idea of one-size-fits-all education and focus on educating each student step by step from where they are. We can begin to build truly student-centered education with a full spectrum of possibilities.

This approach is already working in schools across the country (Lindsay Unified School District in California and Westminster School District in Colorado are just two examples), but has not yet been widely adopted. But schools who have succeeded can share their success with others who are now eager to move to a true 21st-century educational approach. And groups such as KnowledgeWorks and Aurora can provide the support schools need to help them shift to models that educate more students more fully.

3. The educator’s role

A shift to student-centered education will also require us to change the role of the classroom teacher. Right now, the teacher typically serves as the resource for their students. You see this perhaps most clearly in the persistence of the lecture approach in which the teacher stands in front of the class and delivers information to students, who are expected just to accept the data and repeat it back on multiple-choice tests. (We test what is testable, not what is important, and multiple-choice tests are inherently bad as they allow guessing).

With information (data) readily available at our fingertips via smartphones and computer screens, education needs to shift from data transmission to skills acquisition, including the ability to think logically, research quickly and efficiently, and more. And there are many new skills to be learned to navigate the flood of information and misinformation available, and to make correct decisions in the new world of rapid change.

With student-centered education, teachers focus not on being a resource by themselves but on providing whatever resources are necessary for both individual students and the group to learn best. They help each student learn at the student’s own pace, from the last point of mastery to the new point of mastery. They help students find the resources they need to learn what they need and want to learn. As teachers shift to be resource providers and guides over student-directed learning, they will also look at new ways of observing students and learning about them to ensure a good resource-to-student match.

4. Curriculum analysis and development

The reality right now in classrooms is that we don’t always teach what’s most important. Some of it is just busywork, and it often only focuses on content and getting kids to give the “right” answer from a textbook. There is evidence that much of the curriculum in use is not good. Ashley Berner at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy writes: “National studies of America’s classrooms find that most of them under-challenge students, particularly underprivileged students. The RAND Corporation’s national survey on instruction found that the vast majority of teachers cobble together their own lessons from a variety of sources, including from Pinterest, Google, and TeachersPayTeachers."

Post-COVID-19, with a better focus on student independence and proper resourcing, we will better analyze what we are teaching overall. We will ask ourselves what facts or processes we want kids to really remember years down the road. We will also identify the underlying skill sets we want students to walk away with and focus on practical, hands-on application that’s easy to transfer to real-world settings. 

5. School culture

School culture discussions can include a deeper address of issues like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But with COVID-19 forcing administrators to debate why they should support specific directions, policies, or tools compared to others, schools are also learning to better define and support exactly what they value (e.g., honesty, integrity, determination). Once they’ve figured out which ideologies they hold dearest or fundamental to the way they operate, they then will need to incorporate those values directly into the curriculum. In this sense, schools will take a stronger role in social development aside from merely preparing children to enter competitive careers, influencing belief systems and associated behavioral expectations/outcomes.

In a host of ways, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our stability and way of living — and we aren’t done. It isn’t behind us. But the challenges of these times offer an outstanding opportunity for us to transform what we do in the classroom for the betterment of all. Many of us knew that the system needed fundamental transformation to serve current and future students. Transformation is survival from all points of view. If we properly use this moment for the better, it could mean improved education for more students. Those students could emerge with knowledge, skills, and abilities we’ve only dreamt of being achieved broadly. But the working models are there, the thought leaders are there, and we have the ability to transform all of our schools. Society will benefit, but more importantly, we will be more prepared than ever to help every student reach their fullest potential. Working together, let’s quickly bring the five shifts outlined above — and perhaps even more — to fruition for the benefit of all. Remember — transformation is survival!

Mark Siegel
Mark Siegel is assistant headmaster at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore., where he’s been since 1974. He has headed the Oregon Federation of Independent Schools since 1988 and served 25 years on the board of the Council for American Private Education. He's served on Oregon Department of Education task forces and helps public and private schools transition to proficiency-based student-centered models. He travels the country advocating for private education and for proficiency-based education, urging the shift from factory-model schools to more personalized, student-centered programs.