Student raising hand in front of laptop

Erin Osborn October 12, 2020

Why ‘Returning to Normal’ isn’t the Highest Path for our Schools

Erin Osborn

Co-founder of BetterLesson

This opinion piece was originally published by District Administration Magazine.

As schools reopen, which looks different from community to community, educators, students, and parents are grappling with the realities of how to “do school” during a pandemic. There’s an understandable desire to return to normal.

Unfortunately, “normal” education wasn’t working very well for all students even before the pandemic struck — particularly for Black and Brown students. Educators, students, and families have known this for a long time.

While we address the serious challenges caused by the pandemic, we must also create together a more equitable, resilient approach to teaching and learning. We have an opportunity to evolve education so it truly meets all students where they are: academically, socially, and emotionally; in-person, online, or in a hybrid modality.

We should certainly evolve past “crisis education” as quickly as possible. But let’s learn from the incredible time and effort we’re investing, as we try new modes of instruction, new ways to light up students and connect with families, and new ways to gain insight into student learning and thinking. The innovations we decide to keep will support students in becoming their brilliant, shining selves, contributing as global citizens to the success of our society.

This is why we must shift away from the idea of “getting back to normal,” and instead focus on creating a better normal for all students.

Academics vs social-emotional learning is a false choice

We don’t have to choose between academics and relationships, between rigor and creativity. Instead, if we take a flexible, student-centered approach, technology becomes a powerful tool to enhance student agency and build community. If we take a flexible, student-centered approach, our pedagogy will be driven by student needs, strengths, and goals – not by rigid, non-inclusive school structures from 100 years ago.

This spring, educators began to speak about resilient pedagogy. In this approach, student engagement and outcomes drive the learning; modality comes second. Student-centeredness and flexibility prove critical for resiliency.

So what does student-centered, flexible learning look like?

Based on over 10 years of working directly with educators, our team has distilled student-centered, flexible learning into five elements. And this year, we’ve seen how educators innovated within these categories:

Class Culture and Student Engagement

Learning needs to be supported by a sense of community, collaboration, and authentic relationships between teachers, students, and families.

Educator examples: The pandemic introduced many teachers to new flexible and student-centered approaches for creating classroom community, like setting up a Positive News Board where students could submit shoutouts on online bulletin boards or through video; or creating digital “Backchannel” structures for students to submit – or answer – their peers’ questions outside of “class.” Both of these methods build student agency.

Inclusive and Responsive Practices

Learning needs to honor students’ whole selves and be driven by equity: supporting students’ social-emotional realities, addressing the impact of systemic racism on all students’ growth, and responding comprehensively to trauma.

Educator examples: Teachers enter this year much more aware of students’ social emotional needs and the importance of connecting with families. Strategies like “I Wish My Teacher Knew,” creating Family Partnership Plans, and virtual parent office hours can be enhanced through online collaboration tools, whether students learn remotely or in a classroom.

Flexible Instructional Models

Learning needs to seamlessly integrate technology and student-driven personalization to allow innovative instructional design, meaningful tasks and assessment, and ensure continuity of learning regardless of physical learning configurations.

Educator examples: During the pandemic many teachers experimented with “blended learning playlists,” choice boards, and HyperDocs – i.e. self-paced learning where students choose the activities that meet their needs and interests, while progressing towards standards. These personalized learning models combine tech with authentic activities to meet students’ unique needs.

Curriculum and Academic Content

Learning needs to meet all learners where they are, supporting them to overcome content and academic gaps through rich and relevant tasks, student-centered curriculum, and thoughtful assessment of learning.

Educator examples: One time-tested approach now being widely leveraged is “flipped learning” – where teachers record or find a video that conveys the lesson material, and then use time together with students for questions, discussion, application, and synthesis. Teachers who used flipped learning before the pandemic reported greater student engagement, collaboration, and creativity.

Instructional Leadership

Learning needs to be guided by leaders with skills in change management, coaching, and feedback.

Educator example: While leaders and teachers had to forgo their usual classroom observations and feedback models this spring, there are new models for digital “learning walks” structured to support teachers in their growth, not evaluate them. Virtual coaching could be an avenue to provide more teachers with job-embedded, personalized, flexible support at a distance.

The essential task: supporting ongoing teacher growth

To seize this moment, we must start by supporting educators.  This isn’t just about choosing the right tech tools, or restructuring what the typical classroom looks like. Tools without a strategy fail every time.

We must set a vision for flexible, student-centered learning. Then we need to support teachers and leaders with the skills, mindsets, communities, time, and tools to achieve the vision.

This means that teachers need to experience effective professional development at a distance; collaborate with peers and mentors; understand and address their own social-emotional needs; be supported in healing and mindfulness work; and experience growth-oriented support that includes cycles of experimentation and feedback.

Collaborating with thousands of schools and districts, we’ve seen the powerful change that comes when leaders invest the time and resources in professional learning, valuing teachers enough to ensure they receive rich, continuous support.

The desire to “get back to normal” is understandable. That old way felt safe and comforting for some. The truth is, it wasn’t working for many students; it wasn’t inclusive or responsive enough to support the beautiful potential of the diverse set of bright beings in our collective charge.

Let’s call one another to the highest path, and let’s take the uncertainties of this moment as an opportunity to build better and to create a better normal.