In two months, the world of education has shifted faster than it has in the past 200 years. Seemingly overnight, nine out of every ten students in the world were sent home. Elementary school students missed their friends. High school seniors missed prom. College students missed graduation. Teachers lost their classrooms. Parents lost their childcare. One thing not missing, however, was innovation.
From New York to Nairobi, educators, parents, and students have been finding ways to keep on learning. Many of the creative workarounds that have emerged in response to the pandemic are more than Band-Aid solutions; they are postcards from the future. Hidden within these adaptations are clues to how education might evolve.
The pandemic has both surfaced new needs and exposed the brokenness of our existing system. As designers who bend towards optimism, we view these needs as opportunities to build back better. We aren’t blindly optimistic, of course. Systems that work well for some and not for others didn’t get that way by accident—they were designed that way and could be reinforced if we aren’t purposeful.
We also know that there are many people out there who are already thinking about possible solutions, so we put out an ask to those doing the work to reform education: How might we adapt to remote learning while also using this moment to radically reimagine what we need our education systems to be?
In just three weeks, we received nearly 450 responses. We heard from parents and students, but also architects and entrepreneurs, whose insights you’ll read in the quotes below. A panel of high school students reviewed promising submissions, and top ideas will receive support from HundrED, Sesame Workshop, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, TED-Ed, and IDEO to bring them to life. But in the meantime, we were too inspired not to share some of the early ideas with you.
“When learning from home, not all students have equal time or space to focus on their classwork.” —Kristen Myers, Communication Designer, Chicago, IL
The pandemic has amplified existing equity gaps and brought new ones into stark relief. Simply put: when students are less visible, it’s easier for them to simply disappear. And if a student’s house doesn’t have reliable internet, it doesn’t matter how much they show up ready to learn—the barrier to success is structural. Instead of trying to rectify inequities after they emerge, schools must proactively make decisions that serve students proportional to their needs.
We were particularly inspired by some ingenuity from countries where access to technology is less reliable. The country of Panama, for example, crowdsourced lessons from its best public school teachers and broadcast those classes on national TV. For the last five minutes of each lesson, a special ed instructor explains adaptive techniques for families whose kids have special needs.
By sharing lessons on television, over 6 million students across Panama had access to the country’s best teachers. Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean leveraging the latest technology. Panama’s approach meets students’ needs at scale. In the future, being radically inclusive will be the norm, not the exception.
“Arts centres, museums, libraries, forest schools, universities, they could be used to accommodate small cluster groups (same children and teacher at all times) to help spread the school population across venues in communities.” —Nia Richards, Learning Experience Designer, Wales, UK
With no vaccine yet in sight, returning to a physical campus in the fall is a daunting challenge. But hidden within the challenge to adapt to this new normal hides a larger truth: Schools’ biggest constraints are their own walls.
What if we saw this not as a space constraint but a space opportunity? When you expand the boundaries of the classroom, there’s almost limitless untapped potential. In response to our ask, we received dozens of innovative uses of physical space. From garden classrooms where students can learn from their natural environment to virtual classrooms that connect students from around the world, expanding our perspective on where learning can happen broadens how and what we teach. And when students learn in the context of the real world, they’ll be better equipped to solve real-world problems.
“The schedule ... It's archaic. It's inflexible. It no longer works in today's society.” —Kevin Varano, High School History Teacher, Lancaster, PA
For the past few months, we’ve all been living in a time warp. Days pass in blinks. Weeks last for months. The markers of time seem arbitrary. But the same was true for students before the pandemic—the school day, school year, and division of subjects are all constructs. The fact that the school day ends at 3pm and has a three-month summer holiday may work for families who can afford childcare and camp, but not for families who can’t. The rigidity of school schedules is a structural barrier to equity.
Then there’s the schedule of the school day. Josh Stern, a rising senior in high school from New York, believes a lot of his work was limited by the demands of the standard school day. During quarantine, he’s been able to do his work when he’s feeling most energized and take mid-day meetings with professionals in fields that he’s interested in pursuing.
During this crisis, students like Josh have been managing their own time while balancing school with hobbies, work, and family care. It will be hard to pull that flexibility back. It’s time for schools to adopt flexible schedules that better meet the needs of students.
“Parents (such as myself) became involuntary Teaching Assistants overnight when schools closed. We had no preparation, no experience and, frankly, no clue as it came to teaching.” — Erik Mooij, Parent, Utrecht, Netherlands
If we have learned anything from the past few months, it’s just how hard teaching can be. Families are developing an intimate understanding of all that goes into helping their children learn—and schools are developing an intimate understanding of how ill-equipped they are to help families serve their children. In the future, schools will rethink how they can better support families.
Take Kidappolis, a bilingual learning app that helps families stay engaged in their children’s education through SMS-based updates. When parents are empowered to help their children, not only will families become more invested in their children’s success, but learning outcomes will improve too.
“Using standardized tests to evaluate schools exacerbates inequity & distorts educational purpose.” — Hi Howard, Nonprofit Executive Director, Denver, CO
For years, test results have been the metric that matters for teachers, students, and schools. But during the pandemic, the outsized importance of grades, tests, and attendance has paled in the presence of greater needs—like whether a student has a computer to use or enough to eat. We’ve seen how, for students, school and life are not separate entities. It's hard to focus on finishing an assignment when you have to watch over your baby sister. That will hold true on the other side of this global pandemic.
For far too long, we’ve relied on proxies for what students know—courses completed, grade level, and test scores—rather than giving students an opportunity to show what they know. Moving forward, we’re encouraged by competency-based approaches to assessment that reward a broad definition of growth.
We’ve been blown away by the innovation borne out of the constraints of the pandemic. Schools around the world have tapped their communities to buy and distribute hundreds of thousands of laptops to students in need. Remote learning plans that could have taken districts years have been implemented in weeks. Teachers have found ways to bring creativity, joy, and levity to this heavy moment.
Though everyone is rapidly adapting, systemic change is far from guaranteed. Ensuring that student- and family-centered solutions stick will require following the lead of those doing the work. Educators, families, and students have ideas for how to reimagine the future of learning. Let’s use this time to listen to their voices.