When COVID-19 came knocking on our doors, it upended the world, forcing us to rethink teaching and learning in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. COVID-19 forced schools into using 1:1 devices and adopting greater technologies to simply reach students. Many schools had to shut their doors to in-person learning and found themselves acutely unprepared for the crisis. This happened even though research has shown that the push for one computer device per student and hybrid instruction have been in play for nearly two decades. Many schools and districts had not yet embraced technology or hybrid instruction due to financial constraints or lack of understanding.
To address this issue, schools rushed to put devices into the hands of students. Because of efforts to mostly repair schools, many may be missing the larger opportunity that presents itself: reimagining schools. Tech companies are not suffering a crisis of change. Instead, they are feasting on the pandemic as everyone depends on their technology to move through the moment, and they know our dependence on technology will continue to grow. In contrast, many schools are challenged about how to best teach after getting 1:1 devices into students’ hands, which brings me to an interesting phenomenon that is occurring in our communities.
Scores of affluent parents are embracing the “new normal” by seizing the moment. In their neighborhoods, they are joining forces, hiring their own teachers, and creating small educational pods of four to eight students. Well-to-do parents are increasingly reframing this crisis as an opportunity to provide small-group, intimate instruction, leveraging technologies to propel learning for their children. They are proactively using their social capital and group networks to provide their children with critical opportunities for innovative learning. Their kids are teaming up and collaborating in learning pods, utilizing devices like iPads, MacBooks, and Chromebooks to access online courses, investigate, research, iterate, and create fresh new ideas that are interesting, relevant, and meaningful to them. This type of active learning could also be described as one where students experience greater “voice and choice” about the curriculum they engage in and how they learn. These social learning pods are progressive spaces that increase personalized learning. The result for students is that they are engaged with fun projects, express passion for what they are discovering, have more flexibility in learning, and participate in lots of outings. These families and their children are reimagining schools and rethinking what it means to learn in fresh, responsive, and relevant ways.
On the other hand, there is growing evidence that inner-city students and those in low-income communities are falling further behind. Instead of a summer slump, they experienced the COVID slide, which could impact their learning for years to come. So, where do we go from here? I offer 10 considerations to those schools and districts.
- Find ways to make kids laugh and connect to one another. In a world where everyone is picking sides and hate is on the rise, we must reconnect with humanity, and there’s no better place to start than with our youth. Purposefully create opportunities to laugh every day and for kids from different backgrounds to connect. For example, classrooms from different schools can come together daily/weekly via Zoom to collaborate on major projects.
- Think about the long-term game. What are you really preparing kids for? Hopefully, it is not tests, but to be caring, creative, critical thinkers able to contribute to the world in 2030 and beyond; educated, empowered, and civically engaged citizens who are not easily swayed by whatever appears on Facebook or Twitter; individuals who are tech-literate and astute communicators prepared to tackle complex issues with decency and poise; and lifelong learners who are committed to leaving a positive footprint and who are not afraid to embrace and work with folks who don’t look or act like them.
- Get the biggest bang for your buck. Determine what technology or devices are needed to provide the largest return on your investment of time, energy, and resources. Do your homework. Don’t just rush out and put together hodgepodges of devices, because schools need comprehensive systems that are built on back-end support services and structures to ensure that the front-end use of devices by students and staff are smooth and seamless—and don’t forget to employ a single sign-on system!
- Consider the myriad ways of getting there. Once you determine a clear idea of what you are preparing kids for, think of novel tools and methods, including educational apps, software programs, and the use of design thinking as core components of teaching and learning.
- Take virtual field trips locally and globally. Use the internet to visit the world by taking advantage of virtual tours. Work with your local zoos and museums or virtual field trip companies for weekly excursions. More than that, visit favorite sites and restaurants around the world so that by the time your kindergartners are in high school, they can tell you about their favorite places worldwide. Have a virtual lunch outing every day!
- Use virtual reality. Employ the use of virtual reality and the funny headsets to dissect everything—simulate driving, flying, propelling through space, saving patients in the operating room, visiting amusement parks. You name it!
- Reimagine what curriculum should be. Consider fresh ways that give students voice and choice and that celebrate their heritage. Since we are in a globalized world and should be considering ways to bring people together, create curricula that look like your kids and those around the world.
- Find ways to use public libraries as enriching and meaningful resource centers. Often, public libraries provide unique learning experiences and events. They also supply a rich collection of hard-copy, high-quality books. Attending libraries helps foster a love of reading and debate around pluralistic views. Throw out the classics; think again about intended learning outcomes and let kids experience “voice and choice” by reading and writing according to interest—leading to the overarching goal of academic learning. Remember, get out of the way, give up the “sage on the stage” approach, and embrace being a true facilitator of learning (which does mean lots of training for our teachers).
- Find ways to work with local businesses. Many companies and businesses are willing and able to provide real-world experiences and internships for high schoolers. Invite the business community weekly to share their experiences. Because everyone has a device and Zoom, the business folks won’t even need to leave their place of work.
- Help students launch their own business or nonprofit organization. There is no need for students to wait until they graduate from a university to pursue starting a business or nonprofit. A school community has many resources, mentors, and contacts that can contribute to the student’s business success, which pays dividends locally by helping to grow and support the small business community.
Let’s not waste a good crisis!
Cheryl James-Ward, EdD, is the chief engagement and innovation officer at e3 Civic High School in San Diego.