When the coronavirus upended school earlier this year, parents had lots of questions. We launched the “Class Disrupted” podcast to address some of the challenges families faced with the switch to remote learning and explore how this experience might lead to long-term changes in our schools.
We come at this from different perspectives: Diane is the CEO of Summit Public Schools, a network of high-performing schools in California and Washington state; and Michael is an education scholar and founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. But both of us have been working for many years to transform education to better meet the needs of all students.
In our careers, we’ve seen how the infrastructure of education—the practices and assumptions that make school look like it does today—accumulated over generations. They have become such an accepted part of life that they are hidden in plain sight. Our goal with “Class Disrupted” was to discuss how our education system evolved to serve more than 50 million children per year—and how we can rethink it to prepare all individuals for a life of success and fulfillment. Over 10 episodes in the first season, we connected parents with some of the best thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in education. Here are three of the themes we explored:
1. The purpose of school is more than just getting into college. There’s a tried and true formula for high school students: grades plus test scores equals college. When schools closed, grades were no longer calculated in the same way, and colleges rushed to make SAT and ACT scores optional for admissions—or eliminate them entirely. If students can no longer play the game to get into college, what’s the purpose of school?
Many of us would say that the purpose of school is to prepare students to be productive members of their community and to help them find purpose and meaning in what they’re learning. Gaming GPA and prepping for the SAT is not the path to get there.
In episode 4, we discussed how high-quality project-based learning—centered on authentic problem-solving, embedded feedback, and performance tasks—can shift the emphasis from grades and gaming the system to skills and building community. As Adam Carter, executive director of Marshall Street Initiatives, said, “The heart of education is relationships, and project-based learning allows us to form relationships across disciplines and across the school community as adults.”
2. Students can learn habits of success. One of the paradoxes of remote learning this spring was that students spent much less time engaged in academics than they did previously. Of course, not all schools provided real-time instruction, but even for those that did, classes, homework, and tests could often be completed in just a few hours. So what went on during the traditional school day? A lot of time was spent on transitions and classroom management that didn’t result in much learning.
That doesn’t mean the school day should only be a few hours long. We can capture that time to help kids develop a whole other set of skills—social-emotional skills or habits of success like time management, working with others, and the ability to self-direct. These are incredibly vital skills for success in college and the workplace—and they can be developed alongside academics.
In episode 5, we spoke with Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and the founder of Character Lab, about the importance of self-regulation and empathy: “I think those two are skills that all young people shouldn’t be expected to just have spontaneously and miraculously. But throughout the process of schooling, we help them develop those skills.”
3. Our education system perpetuates inequity, and we have to change it. While we were producing “Class Disrupted,” Americans took to the streets in massive protests against racial injustice and police violence. In episode 10, we examined how the structures of our education system exacerbate racial and economic inequity.
It starts with the length of the school day and an extended summer break that require parents to pay for childcare while they are working. Affluent families sign their kids up for camps and enrichment activities that help them continue learning and develop their hobbies and interests, while everyone else scrambles to make sure their kids have care.
But it goes much deeper than that. Our schools are designed—with a few exceptions—to give all students the same experience, no matter what their background. A truly equitable approach would understand each student as an individual, and then based on that profile, provide a set of resources, supports, and opportunities that make sure they can succeed.
The school year is beginning with lots of uncertainty. Whether classes are in person, remote, or a combination of the two, we are all getting used to the things that aren’t going to return to normal anytime soon. Nor should they. With “Class Disrupted,” we tried to show that it is possible for schools to meet the challenges they face today and change the way we approach education for the better.
Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools, a leading network of public middle and high schools in California and Washington, and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. Michael Horn is an education scholar and founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. Horn is the author and co-author of multiple books, including the award-winning Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.