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The World Constantly Changed in the Last 150 Years: Will the Pandemic Now Push Education to Change?

What worked well for you, your students, their families and the community in the past year? What did not work well? What changes did you make? What will you keep from your past year of teaching? What will you change? What will you never do again?

In reflecting on the past year, I am reminded of how much the world has changed around me. Wearing a mask everywhere I go is habit and checking the news daily to see what is happening with the Covid-19 pandemic is natural. I do that on my new cell phone or my laptop computer, both of which I did not have 20 years ago. In the last 20 years, both the cell phone and my computers have changed dramatically in size, capabilities and potential. But when I consider education, I think about the visuals below and the factory-like model that we are still working against. If you have not seen the video entitled, "The People VS. The School System", it would be a good place to start reflecting on our school systems. What are children and families telling us they need, what does research say engages our students and does our educational model/system need to change to mirror our world's needs?

So where did the "Factory-like Model" come from?

The factory-like model came about early in the 20th Century to prepare students for the Industrial Economy. More than 150 years ago, Massachusetts provided their children with a free public education. Soon other states followed suit. A publicly-funded school system resulted, with approximately 30 similar-aged students in each classroom and one teacher. Schools were formed to prepare students for work in a factory. Students learned to be punctual, agreeable, and compliant. They were moved through the system grade by grade, taking a more impersonal, yet efficient and standardized industrialized approach to learning. This has been the same model ever since that time. It seemed to adequately prepare students for the needs of the Industrialized world.

Now we have moved to a Post-Industrialized world. By the 1980's, "A Nation at Risk" came out and there was a "Technology" boom. Many thought this would change the course of education. However, technology was added to the same school structure. The factory-like model still seemed efficient, scalable and could be replicated easily. The "Information Age" caused many changes in most industries, but not in education.

How did the Covid-19 Pandemic Change our Current Model? What are the Current Needs of a 21st Century Student Moving into a 21st Century World?

With the pandemic and the need to change modes of delivery from In-person to Distance and Hybrid, students, teachers and families were all thrown for a loop. Everyone stepped up to the plate and QUICKLY learned ways to incorporate new technology and engaging practices for students into the virtual classrooms, varied communication methods with students and families, while administration made sure needed technology and internet access was received by all students, food was dispersed to any student and family that needed it and equitable practices and social-emotional needs (SEL) of students, families and staff were at the forefront. We stepped out of the educational "normal" that we had been in for over 100 years and educating our students looked different.

As we prepare our students for the 21st Century, what skills do students need? According to Hanover Research and Envision, students should be able to utilize:

  • Collaboration and teamwork

  • Creativity and imagination

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem solving

  • Flexibility and adaptability

  • Global and cultural awareness

  • Information literacy

  • Leadership

  • Civic literacy and citizenship

  • Oral and written communication skills

  • Social responsibility and ethics

  • Technology literacy

  • Initiative

In what ways are we teaching our students to possess these skills? How has the pandemic given rise to some of these skills? In what ways hasn't it?

Moving forward, 21st Century skills need to be considered when educating our students. Instead of teacher-centered instruction, let's focus on student-centered instruction that focuses on all thirteen 21st Century skills. Have you thought about Project-Based Learning and Universal Design for Learning based on State Standards? Instead of a one-size fits all approach, as in the past, PBL and UDL account for the differences in each of our students and provide a more personalized approach to learning with choice, student voice and 21st Century skills embedded.

Will schools continue down this path of discovery, student voice and new learning? Or will they revert back to "normal"?

So what practices benefitted students in the past year? Which practices did not? What do students say? Have we asked them? Who benefitted from "normal"? Who did not?

As we are hearing Educators say they want to return to "normal", we need to decide if normal is best for all students. We have learned a lot about educating students during the pandemic and about ourselves as well. As educators we have learned that we are capable of change, that we can adapt and adjust quickly, learn new technology to benefit students and family, that we can collaborate with other teachers and special education teachers to better serve students, and that inequities exist with students and their families and we need to differentiate and think out of the box to best support our students. Educators also learned that engaging students was an even bigger problem than they realized. Distance learning seemed to exacerbate the already present issue and new technology only extended the engagement for a small amount of time.

So how can we better engage students?:

Engagement Method #1: Lively Teaching

This method involves group work, games, and projects. Think social and fun. The emphasis is on the students constructing knowledge, not on the teacher delivering content.

Engagement Method #2: Academic Rigor

The instructor creates cognitively demanding tasks and environments—a culture called “academic press” (PDF)—and emphasizes that students will need to work hard. The teacher also shows passionate investment in the content.

Engagement Method #3: Connective Instruction

The teacher helps students make personal connections to the class, content, and learning. The power of connective instruction comes from the instructor helping students see the curriculum as critical to their current lives, their future, and their culture. Additionally, six instructor behaviors play into creating high-quality relationships where, according to Andrew Martin, students “actually internalize the beliefs valued by significant others.”

  1. Promoting relevance: relating content to students’ lives

  2. Conveying care: understanding learners’ perspectives

  3. Showing concern for students’ well-being: demonstrating knowledge of students’ lives

  4. Providing affirmation: telling students they are capable of doing well and using praise, written feedback, and opportunities for success

  5. Relating to students through humor: showing that you enjoy working with young people (not as a class, as individuals)

  6. Enabling self-expression: connecting learning and identity by encouraging students’ expression of ideas, values, and conceptions of self

Although lively teaching and academic rigor independently and collectively increase engagement, the single biggest effect, according to Cooper’s study, resulted from connective instruction—it was seven times as effective as the other two well-established practices. Why? Because of kids’ desperate longing for high-quality relationships. When a teacher fulfills that desire, students’ achievement behaviors (PDF) and intellectual functioning soar.

For all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, intensive effort to connect with learners is a nonnegotiable prerequisite for engagement.

What could this look like in your school? Sound like in your school?

When you picture a school that incorporates engaging practices, student-centered PBL/UDL, equitable practices, 21st Century skills, SEL, technology and what worked best for ALL your students as you worked through educating them this last year, what do you envision? What does that school look like and sound like? Does it work for every student? Does it incorporate and celebrate student differences? Are students happy? Are they engaged? Does learning look the same for all students and should it? Do you picture that factory-like model where all student are quiet, sitting in rows and taught the same information in the same way? What do you picture?

Let's NOT go back to "normal" because that model did not benefit ALL students. Instead let's take that new image you have in your head and reimagine and reinvent what schools, classrooms, teaching and education should look like and sound like for all students.

Educators, "Good Job" with starting to rise to the needs of all students! Let's not back down now. We have learned a lot in the last year. Now that we "know better", let's "do better" for all our students. It's time to change our educational model to better engage, benefit and educate our students.

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