A Guide to Rethinking Education After Pandemic

As the pandemic kicked in and much of the world went into lockdown, schools everywhere were forced to adapt. Much of the national media coverage made the result look like a total disaster:. Students everywhere set back; teachers burnt out; and parents at wit’s end. And certainly there have been plenty of challenges for educators during this health crisis.

But there is another story—a story of rebirth, of opportunity, of hope, of beacons of light.

During the pandemic, there were those who rose to the occasion—innovators who forged a new path, students who learned more than they knew they could, teachers who felt unbound by convention, administrators who mobilized bureaucracies known for inertia and parents who saw first-hand that another world is possible. There were many individuals and organizations who knew it was a once in a millennium moment to rethink what has been, to experiment with what could be, to create an upgraded education model and a better school experience.

Michael Horn’s new book, “From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child,” highlights key organizations and individuals who seized the moment—some because they were prepared; some because they were lucky enough to have a quirky vision which suddenly made sense to try during pandemic lockdown; some because they were forced to adapt and had no other choice. From those, Horn sheds light to help others learn a brighter path forward.

The book is in some sense a guidebook for where to go now with education.

In short, he suggests that education:

  • shed our fixation with seat time and instead move towards mastery-based learning.
  • rethink grading and assessment, and turn it into meaningful feedback that improves learning and informs strength of character.
  • reimagine the organizational model of teaching – breaking up the role of a single teacher and entrusting it to a team of educators who collaborate and cooperate, and are given the time and process to do so.

His book, though, is also a call to arms. We must understand that as the pandemic becomes a memory the real threat begins—a threat of increased rigidity. If schools that try to go back to business as usual double down on what wasn’t really working, that’s bound to create further entrenched patterns, ossify bureaucracy and further lock educators into bad practices that should have been shed long ago.

The book hits at a critical moment for schools. By now most are back to in-person teaching. But not all of the students returned after lockdown. A million or more parents are sticking to homeschooling or colearning or unschooling or otherwise opting out of the traditional system.

Here are just some of the problems with our school system that became clearer during the pandemic:

  • Time is held as a constant even when each student’s learning is variable.
  • Our assessment and grading systems are sorting students in deeply pernicious ways rather than helping students learn and progress.
  • Teachers are burnt out, fed up, and many are on the verge of leaving the profession.
  • While students had Zoom fatigue like most of us, Parents saw it first hand that listening to teachers deliver content for long periods isn’t a great way to learn.
  • The curriculum largely covers antiquated subjects defined circa 1913, and this curriculum squeezes out learnings bound to be more useful—applicable skills, habits of success, health and wellness.
  • Most educational institutions can’t really define their priorities because there are too many. But they need to.
  • Innovating at schools is no one’s job.

So as schools rush back, we should take a huge moment to figure out what we’ve learned from the challenges the pandemic foist upon us.

Where did we innovate? Where did we adapt? Where did we thrive? Where did the pandemic unmask problems that have been long covered up? Where did the pandemic shed light on the challenges that created as the world moves to remote and hybrid work?

More importantly, how can we gather, solidify and put into action these insights?

Horn’s prescription is so simple anyone might overlook it. He wants educational organizations to create an “autonomous opportunity unit.”

What is that? The basic idea is that giving a small team of educational decision makers the capacity to innovate, and giving the autonomy (removing them enough from the main organization so as to not co-opt their thinking and action) is actually the important first catalyst that will make all else possible.

Once they do that, Horn has some specific ideas for what those innovation teams should do:

  • Switch to mastery-based learning.
  • Stop sorting students by grades and scores, and instead support them on their unique journeys towards mastering concepts and skills. Counterintuitively, this doesn’t mean less assessments – it means using assessments to create better data, and using that data to make better decisions.
  • Create teams of educators who specialize, cooperate, and collaborate. In particular, he thinks that the grading function and the instruction function should be entrusted to two different educators. Someone in a teaching team should be responsible for making sense of all this new data.
  • Give feedback to students that is timely, actionable and constructive–which means fundamentally rethinking grading.
  • Integrate parents and families as a core part of organizational design.
  • Experiment with microschools, hybrid homeschooling, and colearning with learning hubs and pods.

Horn’s advice is worth a read for anyone interested in the future of education. For those professionals involved in making key decisions about how to move forward from the pandemic, the ideas that will come from the few hours of pouring through the book will be more than worth the sacrifice in this time of overwhelm and stress. Mastering innovation itself is critical in this moment because without innovation, our education system could revert back to the old days. Even before the pandemic, we knew it’s a system that doesn’t work well enough for our children and is far off the mark of preparing them for the future.

In short, this moment could be the opportunity to create something much better. Or we could end up making everything worse.