Untitled Design (19)

Imagining, and Reimagining, Education

I’ve been writing recently about both my family’s experience with remote learning this spring, and what’s missing from our preparation for remote learning in the 2020-2021 school year. I hope I’ve made the point that remote learning deserves major investment and innovation, and currently we aren’t seeing that investment. Some districts are planning to open only remotely this fall, others are providing a blend of in-person and in-school learning, and still others are making both available and allowing families to choose. What’s not clear is the degree to which districts are prepared to offer remote learning with any quality. I don’t blame the districts for this; they are just at the tail end of our failure to manage this pandemic.

This paragraph, somewhat buried in Imagining September, a recent release of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and the Deeper Learning Dozen of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, sums up the situation.

Schools are being asked to take on a range of new responsibilities–addressing pandemic health management, conducting deep sanitization and cleaning, running dual-track low-residency/remote learning programs– with budgets that will likely face significant cuts. For all their incredible growth and resilience during the pandemic, students are returning to school with mixed experiences with remote learning, new gaps in their understanding of core curriculum content, and the wounds of recession, family job loss, police violence, and pandemic-related deaths. Schools are being asked to do much more for students with greater needs and disparities with far fewer resources, after an exhausting spring.

But I want to introduce this document more broadly—not for its gloomily accurate description of the current reality—to any of our readers who are thinking about schooling amidst this pandemic, and especially those who agree with our pre-pandemic conclusion that schooling needs to get much less focused on limited content standards and much more focused on building skills that young people need in a future, rapidly-changing economy and world. Because Imagining September uses the opportunity of the current crisis to help us reorient towards what matters most.

Imagining September, the output of several design charrettes with educators and stakeholders, articulates seven principles for education amidst covid. Each principle is accompanied by a set of vignettes, told from a student or educator perspective, about how their school has responded to covid. These principles are:

1. Relationships are the Foundation of Schooling

2. Liberatory Approaches to Equity

3. Amplifying Student Agency

4. Marie Kondo-ing School Priorities

5. Building Time will be Gold

6. Nurturing Home and Community Learning

7. Iterative Organizational Learning

This set of principles, and the greater detail provided in the descriptions and vignettes in Imagining September, is built off of some of the same ideas that underly the “first principles” of remote learning that I articulated in a previous post. These are ideas that were missing not from all schools, but from acknowledgment and support in education policy, long before the pandemic. Concepts like letting student interest drive the work, particularly with project-based learning, focusing on student-teacher relationships, and staying focused on what matters most (in my view, the development of critical skills like creativity and critical thinking).

Imagining September focuses primarily if not explicitly on middle and high school years. I think the principles apply as well to the earlier grades, but how to apply them at ages when technology is arguably a bad solution could have used more fleshing out. I have a few other quibbles as well. I’d love more attention to social emotional learning as particularly critical this year, a greater definition of critical student skills, and I can’t get on board with letting students skip senior year and volunteer, for instance. I am all for re-imagining senior year, but especially for young people who may struggle to enroll or persist in college, this seems like a dangerous proposition. That said, overall, I think this report could be a useful framework for communities, schools, and districts to organize conversations for re-imagining schooling this year.

The truth is, both what I’ve articulated and this much more in-depth report from MIT and Harvard are responding to the current moment as an opportunity to re-think what matters most in education. This year, it’s more critical than it was last year to cultivate student agency, design engaging educational experiences, and focus on necessary capacities like communication. But it was in fact critical last year, and it will still be critical when this pandemic is over.  

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is the Vice President for Michigan Future Inc. and a partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good.

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