This spring’s pivot to full-time remote learning sparked many questions about school, from the profound and challenging (how to sustain community in a virtual environment) to the mundane yet urgent (how to stop “Zoom bombing”). The most fascinating question to me during this time has been: What will this mean for the future of education?
We don’t yet know what new skills, creative solutions, necessary contingencies, and inspiring insights will outlast COVID-19. But we do know that we have an extraordinary opportunity before us: to leverage the most dynamic educational moment in our lifetimes to make changes that benefit our students.
The onset of the novel coronavirus and the closing of our campus was unexpected and unwelcome. It required every teacher to dive into the crashing surf of remote lesson planning, seeking to bring energy and creativity to a two-dimensional interface. It placed significant cognitive demands on all students, surfacing strengths and weaknesses in organizational skills and motivation, and reshaping or reinforcing self-perceptions. The stay-home order also created new dynamics for parents and guardians, who have been called on to support their children’s education and partner well beyond the intent of our mission.
As we assess what lies ahead on the horizon, I can’t help but feel we are at an inflection point. We have adapted our approach and methods, clarified what is most important to learn, and mustered the will and creativity to sustain school as best we can. We have learned what in-person systems and practices are not feasible online, and how some systems and practices may be better when remote. We have seen which students thrive and which struggle in an online setting. For professional educators, the experience has been both affirming and revealing. I believe that synthesizing what we are learning now with what we already know will help us to realize educational excellence in a more future-focused way and better deliver on the skills and dispositions we identified in our Strategic Plan. The following is a list of ten features borne of that synthesis:
Time is our resource, not our boss. We can allocate it in longer blocks that allow for fewer transitions, varied learning modes and experiences, making connections across disciplines, taking wellness breaks, and engaging in experiential learning on and off campus.
Learning is a social activity
We learn with and from those around us, and assess our thinking, opinions, behaviors, and values in the company of others. Social isolation can erode mental and physical health and limit empathy and depth of thinking and understanding.
Simplify for the learner
Students should spend their time learning about complex concepts and applying their skills. Navigating unclear expectations and multiple platforms wastes time and mental energy. Schools can make learning objectives clearer and more visible and simplify systems to ensure we maximize learning efficiency and outcomes.
Blend the learning environments
The future will require students to be adept at learning anywhere, anytime, in and across multiple environments. Different students thrive in different settings and roles, just like adults in workplaces. They need diverse and blended experiences to learn about themselves and to reach their potential.
It’s all about the teachers
Remote or in-person, creative, attentive, empathetic, skilled teachers still are the heart and soul of a modern education. Their ability to understand each child’s social identity and learning profile, build trust, and guide them to master new skills and knowledge is the art and science students need.
Challenge students with complexity
Pace, volume, recall, and recitation are not indicators of rigor; they are relics of dated thinking. Students are motivated and engaged when they are challenged to think and do in complex, sophisticated ways, process new information critically, adapt their thinking, make choices, and defend their point of view.
Connect school and personal learning
Learning happens everywhere. The learning that students pursue based on personal interests relates to who they are at school and adds value to their Catlin Gabel education. In many cases they’re gaining experience and knowledge that reinforces their classroom learning. By independently exploring, questioning, and problem-solving, they’re building mastery beyond what is reflected in letter grades.
Prioritize mental and physical wellness
Sleep, nutrition, joy, healthy relationships, and physical activity have more to do with learning and achievement than homework. Centering wellness at the heart of education prepares students to learn in deeper and more durable ways.
Require and pursue collaboration
Interpersonal activity supports understanding and creativity. Collaboration among teachers, schools, and organizations inspires new thinking and leads to new relationships. Learners and schools benefit from intentional collaboration across boundaries.
Rethink concepts of “community”
Schools like Catlin Gabel, by nature of their history, cost, and location, reflect a specific, not universal, community culture. That creates implicit and explicit inequities. Increasing student and employee diversity, combatting racism, and embedding learning in the broader community will create more a just and equitable school community.
These ten features are not new or unique to Catlin Gabel. But they have the potential to lead us to a healthier way of thinking about education. They are opportunities that point the way to a true learning community, where students are encouraged to own their learning, where everyone is infused with the spirit of the possible, where we translate insight into action, where we lose the fear of the unknown and the new, where together we can be “thinkers, tinkerers, and dreamers,” for our benefit and the benefit of others. It’s up to us as adults to put into practice what we now see more clearly and to seize this opportunity. We won’t let that moment pass at Catlin Gabel.
Originally published in The Caller, Summer 2020