Quantum Leap

Schools have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine education to be more personalized, engaging, and global.

Topics: Pandemic Leadership

COVID-19 has caused tremendous disruptions to education. But amid the chaos, the pandemic put a halt to some traditional practices and policies and helped produce many innovative new ones. It’s evidence that educators are capable of sudden, significant change, and it presents an excellent opportunity to rethink educational practice.

Education wasn’t perfect before COVID-19, so we should not rush to return to the “old” normal—that is, the practices and thinking we found difficult to improve. We should instead take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build education back better than it was prior to the advent of COVID-19.

While teaching and learning during the pandemic has been challenging for teachers and school leaders worldwide, we have seen teachers take the lead on school innovation and address student needs externally from the classroom. Many changes we have advocated for years are possible if we empower teachers to be frontline service deliverers and lead the changes we need.

We categorize these changes into the what, how, and where of learning.

The What of Learning

Students have been overwhelmed and shortchanged by schools’ overemphasis on didactic, formulaic instruction in reading and math, as well as standardized testing and testing-based accountability. “Teaching to the test” has become the norm, limiting the “what” of learning to curriculum standards for which educators are held accountable.

Students now require new skills and problem-solving capabilities that transcend traditional school curricula. Scholars refer to these skills variously as 21st century skills, soft skills, noncognitive skills, or life skills. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t recognize these skills or don’t have the agency to rethink and recalibrate what students will need in order to succeed in a future that is altered by technology.

Schools must pay attention to personalization of learning, since a one-size-fits-all, lockstep approach is a big challenge for education. We know that all students are different and have different qualities and abilities, says Todd Rose in 2016’s The End of Average, and a standardized and impersonal curriculum and testing protocol doesn’t often cultivate their personal strengths and passions. As a result, too many students get left behind because there is little time to seek opportunities for deeper engagement based on personal interests and capabilities.

Because schools want or need students to focus on a traditional, homogeneous curriculum to meet prescribed standards, they don’t seek opportunities to trigger and develop their unique strengths and passions. Schools must find ways to enable personalization of learning so that students can develop their uniqueness and benefit from schooling.

The How of Learning

To maximize engagement, students need to be more actively involved in their learning. All students, regardless of their perceived achievement levels, should “own” their learning and be partners in much-needed educational change.

Students have different levels of ability and interest that might not align well with the content they are provided in the classroom. Teachers have been encouraged to pursue classroom differentiation, and students must be encouraged to play a more active role in defining their learning and learning environments in collaboration with their teachers.

But personalization of learning cannot be “done to” students. It must be done by students, which requires students to own and manage their own learning. This requires significant change in pedagogy, but more importantly, it requires student agency to learn through their own navigation, interest, and determination.

Student self-determination is both a right and an effective strategy for enhancing learning. We need to enable students to make informed decisions regarding their own learning pathways, including autonomy over learning content and methods. We can begin by relaxing the intense requirements of an overly prescribed curriculum and giving students the power to negotiate at least part of their curriculum.

Great schools are structured to give students teacher-curated pathways to pursue passions, interests, and needs. Most schools, however, don’t have policies and processes in place to help students participate in decisions about the school campus and facilities, rules and regulations, or curriculum and assessment. Schools need to empower students as partners in educational change and practice. In other words, students must not only be the co-owners (with parents and teachers) of their own learning, but also co-owners in the development and culture of the school community.

Furthermore, teachers no longer need to be teaching “machines.” When students own their learning and have access to resources and experts inside and outside of the school, teachers are no longer the sole commanders of information. Instead, teachers serve the important roles of organizer of learning, curator of learning resources, adviser, motivator, community organizer, and project manager.

Learning should be a process of identifying and solving problems worth solving, and students must learn how to apply their unique abilities to address significant problems in their milieu and the wider world. As they identify and solve problems through student-centered, inquiry-based, authentic, and purposeful learning, they will learn to create value for others and the planet.

The Where of Learning

COVID-19 forced almost all schools to provide remote and online learning. Moving education away from the school site has had a significant impact on the thinking behind curriculum delivery, changing one of the most important perceptions about schooling: that all students must be in one location for learning to take place.

The wholesale externalization of learning, online content, and pedagogy has the potential to change the education landscape significantly. It has forced teachers to teach without physical proximity to students, mostly eliminating teacher micromanagement and building trust and partnership with students, school leaders, parents, and teachers. We can now build upon these practices to ensure that they serve the needs of all students in concert with traditional face-to-face learning.

Most students brought their learning home during the pandemic, but their learning wasn’t limited to the home. They were able to interact with people, programs, and platforms anywhere in the world when allowed or enabled, and at any time of day. This shift from classroom to world has enormous ramifications for curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

Physical disconnection can result in expanded virtual connection. School education has traditionally been associated with students being on-site from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at a specific location, connecting with peers only from their local communities. COVID-19 has—at least in the short term—changed the situation. Schools have experienced global connections through the firsthand experience of a global crisis.

Students can and will join different learning communities and engage with people from different locations. They can also participate in learning opportunities offered by remote providers. And students can create select learning opportunities for themselves and invite peers from other communities to collaborate and share their knowledge.

Keep Blended Options

As schools return to the traditional school site, online learning should continue to play a part in a contemporary suite of learning options that better engages and prepares students for the challenges and opportunities ahead. The ideal model is a blend of online and face-to-face learning, with both options focused on exploration and engagement of the individual student.

A well-designed blend of online and face-to-face education, based upon the improvement of recent practice, should be more effective for learning, according to Caitlin R. Tucker’s 2020 Balance With Blended Learning: Partner With Your Students to Reimagine Learning and Reclaim Your Life. Blended learning has shown potential for more personalized and engaged teaching.

When learning is a combination of online and face-to-face methods, disengaged students can be liberated from having to attend what they perceive as meaningless classes at specific times. They might no longer be required to be in the same place to receive instruction from teachers; they can work on individual projects and reach out to teachers and peers when necessary. Most importantly, they can have more autonomy over their own learning when they are not confined to one place, style, and time of learning.

It is tempting for schools to return to the pre-COVID-19 safety of the past, but it would represent a tremendous waste of the courageous innovations educators worldwide made during the pandemic. There has never been a better time to rethink and reorganize education.

We are hopeful that educators and governments will seize this opportunity to reimagine, recalibrate, and reengineer what students should learn, how they learn, and when and where they learn. We are also hopeful that governments don’t rush a return to the narrow focus of an educational system built upon standardized testing and an overemphasis on stand-alone reading and math.

It’s time we liberated students from mechanical, homogeneous learning and expectations in schools. It is also time for our students to be fully engaged and in control of authentic, customized, strengths-based, and globally connected learning.

Yong Zhao is a foundation distinguished professor at the University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences and a professor of educational leadership at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

Jim Watterston is dean and enterprise professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.