A list of problems students want solved this school year. (From "Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID" by Justin Reich and Jal Mehta)
As we reflect on the experience of learning during COVID, a big question looms: What will schools look like after the pandemic?
Currently, two prevalent narratives are rising over the horizon. In the first, schools seek to return to “normal” and resume the familiar rhythms of teaching and learning much as they were before the COVID disruption. In the second scenario, schools intensify their programs to remediate learning loss with summer school, longer hours, tutoring and learning pods.
Its findings were drawn from interviews with teachers and students across elementary, middle and high schools about their pandemic learning experience. The report’s co-authors, educational researchers Justin Reich of MIT and Jal Mehta of Harvard, also facilitated ten design charrettes with teachers, school leaders, students and parents to generate ideas about the future of schools. Charrettes are collaborative design sprints – originally used by architects and urban planners – that integrate the views of multiple stakeholders.
“It's important to listen to the voices of students and teachers – especially when you're in unprecedented times – not because they're always right, but because they're always there,” said Reich who described policies aimed to address learning during a pandemic often didn’t include voices from these two critical groups.
Notably, not one of the 200 teachers interviewed for the report discussed remediation as a priority. Rather, respondents advocated an approach that favored reflection, healing, community and humane reinvention.
“The narrative around learning loss was becoming the only narrative in which to think about schools and what students might need for next year, but there's a much broader set of questions about what's been lost this year, what strengths kids have gained this year and how we might build on that in a constructive way for next year,” said Mehta.
Connections and Autonomy: What Students Said They Lost and Found
The experiences shared by the 4,000 interviewed students ranged from being more focused and less distracted at home, to feeling completely disengaged and hating remote learning. Many expressed concern about the loss of irrecoverable chapters of their childhood and adolescence, while also lamenting the loss of social connections to their peers, and missed field trips, sports and extracurricular activities. A few even worried about the erosion of their interpersonal skills. Teachers attuned to their students’ needs stressed the importance of relationship and community building in the years ahead.
For example, one teacher said that, “I need to make so much more space for connecting with students, and for students to learn about each other. I have to stop thinking of community building as one ‘unit’ at the beginning that I rush through, and how community can play a much larger, systemic, role in my classroom.”
Students also valued the independence and autonomy they enjoyed while learning from home. They relished the freedom to wear comfortable clothes, nap, snack, access the bathroom at will and move around when restless. Living through an alternative way of doing school raised many questions about uncomfortable learning spaces, crowded curriculum at the expense of human connections and interest-based learning, undue policing of bodies and behavior and early start times that contribute to adolescent sleep deprivation. The report recommends that educators build on the positive aspects of their pandemic learning experience in the years ahead and support increased student independence to cultivate a safe and healthy environment that is more conducive to learning.
“I might say to teachers who are struggling to give up control, that you're working too hard. You're working against students’ natural inclinations to contribute, act and make. You're expending a huge amount of energy policing what they're wearing, where they're going, etc. You could focus much more on the content if you change the relationship a little bit,” said Mehta.
Neema Avashia, a Boston middle school teacher who works closely with Reich and Mehta also advocates for a shift to greater student autonomy.
“One issue that surfaced during the pandemic was how much time and energy we spend policing children's bodies, and how much of our day is spent on redirecting kids for what they're wearing, how they're sitting, etc. In urban public schools in America, there's a lot of focus on controlling kids,” said Avashia. “Kids realized during this pandemic, 'What the hell? Why does it matter what I wear if I'm learning? Does it really matter if I’m in pajamas?' Kids’ tolerance for policing is gone because they know that this is not about learning at all. We have to do a lot of reflecting on how much of that policing is actually about learning and how much of policing is actually just about an ugly mix of classism, racism and adultism.”
Why Resist a Return to Normalcy?
Teachers and students, especially those who come from economically challenged and racialized communities, are apprehensive about the impulse to resume business as usual.
“The narrative of back to normal, which I feel has been so pervasive from so many policymakers, has felt really troubling to me because normal didn't work for too many of our kids,” said Avashia. “And so why would we go back to that? Why is that what people want to go back to? Are there things that we could learn during the pandemic? The notion of a return to normalcy I really think is a wrong headed approach to this moment. And I hope people resist it.”
Avashia’s concerns speak to the widely reported phenomenon that the fracture lines of inequity that have long plagued US schools became alarmingly pronounced during COVID, as vulnerable groups were disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. Economic disparities widened while in-person school support systems in poorer schools – ranging from counseling to community support and food programs – disappeared when classes moved online, with direct consequences to mental health, racial achievement gaps and inaccessiblity due to technological limitations.
In many cases, already underfunded schools were left to try and support struggling students and families whose situations – due to evictions, job loss, overcrowding, mental health issues or illness – deteriorated during the pandemic. But family support from schools is significantly constrained by a scarcity of resources.
“The pandemic really highlighted how easy it is to fall for vulnerable families and how fragile our safety nets are, and so schools were left to do a lot of sewing up of the safety nets, which is a tremendous amount of human capital,” said Avashia. “In our school, we would fundraise to get that cash to them from our pockets because there wasn't a structural way to do that. Our mechanisms for supporting families have to be a lot more robust and they have to be able to respond to the needs of families.”
Stability at home is a vital precondition for successful learning, and the pandemic underscored the urgency to better equip schools to support economically challenged families. A return to normal and/or intensified learning schemes would only further disenfranchise the most vulnerable sectors of society. But how can meaningful changes be enacted? According to Reich, the pandemic revealed how much things actually can change.
“There are lots of things in our school system that previously looked totally fixed and completely immovable that now everybody realizes are contingent and changeable,” he said.
“A Pragmatic Strategy for Gradual Reinvention”
The authors view the learning loss and “back to normal” narratives as symptomatic of governance where policymakers issue broad directives without consulting those who are most directly affected by their decisions.
“The disconnect between the local level and the policy level has never felt more intense to me than it has been,” said Avashia. “It's like erasing your lived experience. It's not responding to it. It's not allowing schools to meet kids where they're at or support them. We're all being subjected to such intense institutional violence because the people making the decision have no willingness and no clue as to what it's like to be young in school today.”
Also, the authors argue that blanket policies are ineffective at addressing a mosaic of highly localized needs and circumstances, a reality made apparent by the sheer variety of divergent experiences shared by the report’s respondents. The myriad of views, opinions and experiences is not lost on school leaders, as many of those interviewed openly wondered how they might bring their fragmented communities on the same page.
In lieu of top-down centralized policy, such as one-size-fits-all learning loss remediation programs, the authors recommend leveraging their user-centred design charrettes. This approach enlists relevant stakeholders, including students, educators, families and school leaders to help articulate, identify and solve issues that directly address their unique needs and circumstances. Charrettes require a very small investment of time, energy and resources, but can yield powerful dividends.
The charrettes run by the researchers for the report included an “amplify, hospice and create” activity, where participating stakeholders were asked to consider what pandemic learning experiences they would keep and grow (amplify), what experiences should be retired (hospice) and the “create” activity asked participants to chart a tangible courses for implementation.
“It’s important to delve a little bit into different people's perspectives,” said Mehta. “To that end, the amplify, hospice and create activity is quite doable. It only takes 75 - 90 minutes, and all you really need is a meeting where you put people into manageable sized groups. If you're doing it with the whole faculty or a wide group of faculty and students, you probably want to do it in groups of eight to ten.”
The design charrettes yielded a number of actionable initiatives that might help improve future schools. Some of these include implementing Zoom-style chat features in regular classes because they encouraged shy students to participate, continuing to hold parent-teacher conferences online, emphasizing depth over breadth by scheduling fewer but longer classes, increasing engagement through personalized learning programs, shifting from punitive to restorative disciplinary action, and building-in more time and space to reflect and connect.
“If you're remote, you can run a charrette with Google Document or Google Slides,” said Mehta. Each group gets a slide with amplify, hospice and create. After an hour, have people look across the slides to see what things popped up again and again to decide what to move forward. Schools are just resuming, so while it's still fresh, while everybody still remembers what happened last year, I think that this exercise would be really powerful.”
A helpful toolkit in the appendix provides support material to effectively interview teachers and students, and guidelines to run a charrette with an amplify, hospice and create focus. These initiatives are contextualized by an acknowledgement that everybody is tired, and that change will not happen overnight. The upcoming year should be seen as an opportunity for reflection and recovery, and the charrettes can be used to support what the report terms a “pragmatic strategy for gradual reinvention.”
The Possibility of Making the Impossible, Possible
Also, the charrettes asked participants to think about metaphors that capture the future of schools, such as “school as temple” or “school as family reunions.” These conceptual frames can act as big picture “tentpoles” to help guide and synchronize the efforts of the learning community.
“A lot of the early planning documents for this last pandemic year were organized as checklists. That was kind of like the dominant rhetorical structure of policy advice to schools. And we thought: you cannot communicate one hundred and seventy three point checklists to families,” said Reich. “It is better to communicate one, two, or maybe three big ideas about what the response to the pandemic might look like and let people organize themselves around those big ideas, so that a high school biology teacher and a first grade teacher can both find themselves in those ideas. We went to metaphors this time.”
Unlike a contained checklist of bullet points, metaphors are generative and open a structured mental space to think creatively about practicable possibilities for building better schools.
The common thread that runs through all these voices, proposals, aspirations and visions for the pandemic-informed future of school is a resounding call for more humane schools. And, it is important to remember that, rather than being at odds with academic success and learning, an emotionally healthy and community-focused learning environment will only heighten engagement and make lessons learned more meaningful and consequential.
As one student put it, “I hope teachers approach whatever our return to normal looks like with the same degree of empathy as they have during the pandemic. People are just much more understanding of our lives and pressures.”
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