Re-Design, Don’t Reopen

Are we going to be the same but different post-Covid?

I read a post recently that said re-opening is going to be like playing three dimensional chess in a hurricane on one leg.

Ok, maybe in New York public schools.

Besides that, it’s really not that dramatic.

Use common sense. Social distance. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. It’s not rocket science.

We didn’t have IB exams this year. Did the world stop spinning? Maybe for schools that overpredicted, yes. Otherwise, did we learn that maybe summative exams don’t determine the course of our lives?

This is a real opportunity for school leaders to make a difference and to stop making excuses 21 years, yes 21 years into 21st century learning. What is truly amazing about this pandemic is that it has literally created classrooms without walls. Now let’s step into the void and create something special.

If you are opening full virtual, then you have a huge opportunity (sorry primary) to get students out into the field to do things they’ve never done before, to have an impact on their communites and environment, to interact with nature and their surroundings rather than the four walls of a classroom and to do something. (With masks, social distancing and handwashing of course).

If you’re opening hybrid then you can do similar things now that the learning spectrum has expanded, bringing back their experiences, redesigning timetables to accomodate this work, and developing interdisciplinary teams across subjects to

Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO said, “Creative confidence is the ability to come up with great ideas and the courage to try them out.” Pundits have called Covid-19 ‘the great accelerator.’ In other words, innovations that would have taken 10 years in normal times, such as in healthcare, online shopping, food service, travel, and yes, education, are happening now.

Re-opening cannot simply mean putting all of our energy into temperature checks and cafeteria grids. It has to mean so much more. The line ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ has been bouncing around and it’s incumbent upon leaders to understand what this means for schools beyond returning to status quo.

Yes, it’s unsettling to introduce new things when everyone just wants to revert back to September 2019. Yes, it’s tempting just to make everyone feel stable again by lining children up in 2 meter separate rows. But, what does this disruption tell us about the fundamental role of schools? Why do we gather in a space to learn? Do we really care anymore about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand for crying out loud?

I have too often enabled the comfortable boundaries of investigating uncertainty through the academic lens. All of that important stuff, whether it be socioeconomic injustice, environmental collapse, racial divide all through the relative ease of a formative assessment.

But now we cannot even go to school because of something that has called everything into question.

What an opportunity.

It is our responsibility to realign the WHY of what we do (thanks Simon Sinek) and connect it to the HOW. It’s no longer good enough to proclaim exceptional IB scores on LinkedIn or brag about university admittance. If we value things like learners having the “mental agility to solve problems we’ve never seen before,” or to “see the big picture, zero in on minute details, and move things around to make a difference,” (Vivien Luu, HR Vision, 2016) then we have to do a much better job of connecting the world to our schooling than a CAS project that hardly scratches the surface.

We continue to train kids to do school. Now that this has blown up, it has exposed a lot of shortcomings (well beyond access to WiFi). We act like we are teaching resiliency and adaptability, but this crisis has really shone a spotlight on the fact that we can do a LOT better (this goes for teachers and admin too). We act like we are building capacity for problem solvers and creative thinkers, but we panic when a student falls short on a conditional offer in HL Math. I don’t get it.

Don’t waste this crisis when you go back. Take care of the hand sanitizing and the temperature checks and the socio-emotional learning, but most of all, resist the temptation to restore order. This is your crisis to move forward on the type of learners we are going to need to save the planet.

Don’t waste it.

TEACHER WELLBEING IN THE NEW NORMAL

Schools are soon going to reopen next month after the summer holidays; teachers, staff and students will be stepping into a new normal in the midst of a raging worldwide pandemic. Schools will be either online, onsite or blended, depending on their geographical region. A common factor in the new normal is that everyone wants to return to school even though there are many different permutations and combinations involved in doing the same. School leaders and administrators are working tirelessly to ensure a safe, flexible and practical way of returning to school. One thing the entire education fraternity, and this includes higher education institutions, are focusing on is the staff and student well being as they try to adapt to the new normal. Whilst student well being has been a paramount focus in teaching and learning for many years, it is time to implement solutions to focus on teacher well being.

Why? Teachers have not had a break since the pandemic broke out in early 2020! Whether it was teaching online, or struggling to juggle home and work, or dealing with the stress of losing their jobs, teachers have been through a lot. Some other reasons include international school teachers have been displaced from their home countries, caught between borders, separated from families, have had to take pay cuts, look for new jobs, the list is not exhaustive.

Hence, in the academic year 2020, the primary focus of educational institutions across the globe should be teacher well being. Here are a few pointers that school leaders and administrators should have in place to help their teachers settle in after having undergone a tumultuous half-year of stress and anxiety.

1. Workload- Reassess workload of each and every teacher, starting with the contact time, duties and responsibility hours wherever possible to prevent teacher burnout. Increase efficiency not productivity.

2. Timetabling- While creating the time table for the academic year 2020 opt for longer periods which will allow the teachers to have longer free periods for planning. Longer lesson time also facilitates meaningful teacher-student interactions creating a culture of positivity.

3. Human Resource- Ensure HR plays a crucial and supportive role in maintaining teacher well being. If logistics like bank accounts, housing, permits, visas, taxes etc, are well organised by HR, teachers get more time to breathe.

4. Communication- Be brief, be bright and be gone! This is a mantra I have applied as a leader; be direct, keep emails short, reduce emails, maybe to once a week. Remember lengthy and repetitive communication only stresses people out, also research says most people don’t even read emails due to their length.

5. Stay connected- Anything that can be discussed in person should not be communicated through emails. As a teacher I find it extremely agonizing to reply to emails in the middle of a teaching day, it only leads to a nagging pain in my head throbbing with the words: “reply to the email, reply to the email…”

6. Mindfulness practices- Indulge in weekly activities for teachers like cultural dress-up days, healthy snack day, share your food day or even drop everything and breathe for 5 minutes a day!

7. Intrinsic motivation- Educators are motivated by career development or intellectual discussions, schools need to budget for meaningful professional development opportunities and ensure no one is left out, this will keep teachers passionate and motivated.

8. Cut down on meetings- Weekly collaborative meetings can only be productive if there is an agenda, send out the agenda in advance and if there is no agenda don’t have the meeting. Try to combine department meeting allowing more planning time for teachers.

9. Documentation- Reduce redundant documentation by creating a database for all resources to ensure no one is tasked with recreating and reproducing the same work which already exists. Meeting minutes should be linked with resources online and in-house, making it easier for teachers to look for necessary documents.

10. Culture of Appreciation- Send out more positive emails, shout outs to acknowledge the great work teachers do every day, shower praise and positive reinforcement to drive away any residual blues from the past few months of stress and anxiety.

There are many more action points schools can put in place to nurture teachers’ mental health after the trauma they have undergone due to Covid19. Let this year set an example of how taking care of teachers’ well being became an educational aim and translated into necessary school policy. Remember happy teachers create happy classrooms whether online or on-site.

Schools of the Future

Recently I went back to the Schools of the Future report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). It’s dated January 2020. If you haven’t had a chance to take a look at their recommendations and the exemplary programs they chose to highlight, you probably should take a minute to do that now. I won’t be offended.

If you want a preview, here are my takeaways.

The report recommends shifting the learning experiences we educators provide our students. They encourage teaching and learning to look like this:

  • Personalized and self-paced learning;
  • Problem-based and collaborative learning; and
  • Lifelong and student-driven learning. 

To better understand the need for a shift, we could ask ourselves what we are shifting away from. So let’s imagine the opposite. I’m going to overstate the contrast here a bit, but I think my list is a good discussion starter. In short, the WEF is recommending we do less of this:

  • Depersonalized learning that maintains the myth of students learning in sync;
  • Focus on recall and the insistence of “eyes on your own paper” / “do your own work;” and
  • Content from a worn out canon determined by institutional inertia, which limits the creativity of schools and teachers.

Does this second list describe too much of the way we go about education? Does it describe what you see and hear, what you perhaps feel pulled into more often than you would like? 

Do systems like off-the-shelf and/or standardized curricula, bell schedules, assessment regimes, curriculum mapping, over-reliance on rubrics and other accepted teaching practices pull us toward the second list, the list of WEF opposites? 

And what are we to do about it?

The authors of the report note that “Much work is being done by private sector chief human resource officers on customizing work experiences to enable lifelong learning and integrating alternative work models to improve flexibility” (Schools of the Future, 2020 p. 11). They refer to a table in an earlier WEF publication (Shaping People Strategie in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2019) about the “changing nature of how learning is approached in an organization” (p. 18). They report again on a shift:

From Know-it-all mindset … to Learn-it-all mindset

From Planned learning programs … to Lifelong learning culture

FromPeriodic learning … to Continuous learning

From Company-directed learning … to Self-driven learning

From Homogenous learning … to Personalized learning

Are we doing our part by preparing students for an adult life characterized by the right hand column above? I’m frankly worried that it is too easy to make parallels between much of our current teaching and learning with the column on the left. For starters:

We as teachers may not feel comfortable in an environment where we are not the expert, limiting the chances we provide to explore with students, to allow them to teach us, to be learners side by side. Our assessments reinforce this know-it-all mindset because they are overwhelmingly about being right or wrong, black or white, true or false. (See Elon Musk’s entrance exam to his school, Ad Astra, for a refreshing contrast.)

Further, our curriculum and instruction is full of planned learning, in quite specific and predictable periods (grade 10 biology, grade 11 chemistry, grade 12 physics – sound familiar?), overwhelmingly decided by the “company” and certainly favoring a particular style of learning at a predetermined pace. 

Companies are shifting. I believe schools are trying to shift, too. In schools, however, there is less fear of shareholders, competition, and going bust. There is perhaps too much room to be cautious, changing perhaps so slowly that it’s hard to notice much change at all.

Self-paced, student-driven, collaborative learning that creates lifelong learners is not unattainable if we let go of the assumptions and practices that constrain us most. Be courageous to identify those assumptions and practices and to openly question them. If you are a teacher, create the conditions the WEF is recommending, when and where you can. If you are an administrator, avoid the temptation to sound smart by reciting yesterday’s “knowns.” They are safe, yes. But they are hamstringing us, and worse, our students. When you can, be bold. Be just a bit more outspoken about how teaching and learning can fulfill the promise of self-regulated learners. 

Or, I suppose, let companies re-educate adults who didn’t get the right hand column from us when they were students.

World Economic Forum. (2020). Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Geneva, Switzerland.

World Economic Forum. (2019). WHR4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva, Switzerland.

2020 Results Rollercoaster

Last week the International Baccalaureate(IB) results were declared and since then I have heard many complaints from students and teachers alike about how unfair the results have been. Surprisingly only a handful of stakeholders in education have truly understood how the final grades were calculated. I will not be discussing how these grades were generated as IB has done a great job in explaining it; many educationists and school leaders have also simplified the whole process for all stakeholders. But there is a tension between the students and their parents, the parents and the schools, the school and the students, the students and the universities and the universities and the school, almost like the vicious cycle of mistrust, there is doubt, suspicion, anxiety, fear and negative assumptions. In the next few days, I am sure this will grow exponentially when the A-level exam results are published. This year all ‘Class of 2020’ grades have been generated sans the actual end of year exam, hence there has been an increasing dissatisfaction amongst students and parents as they are unable to foresee a tangible way these grades have been generated. So what can the entire teaching and learning community do to restore the trust and faith in each other and the grading system? Here are a few things all of us can do:

Schools

Since schools are closed for the summer, there is limited communication from the schools to students and their families regarding the grading process of the ‘Class of 2020’ exams results. Even though the results come out the same time every year, schools need to consider the extenuating circumstances that led to the cancellation of exams and the impact of this on students. Since most schools have already gone online, they can also open up virtual channels of communication to answer FAQs regarding results and to give students and their families an opportunity to clarify their doubts. For example, schools should consider having an FAQ page on their website or a helpline or an information session for all stakeholders in order to explain the rigorous process and data analysis that has been put together by different organisations to generate the final exam grades. At the same time, schools need to review the internal assessment process and internal grading system to identify the gaps in the assessment process or in the process of generating the school-based grades. The school-based grades are the benchmark for all stakeholders, the students, parent, the education organisation and even the universities. If there is a considerable difference in the actual grades and school grades, it is time to scrutinise the system that is not efficient in order to build a more robust grading and predicting process.

Parents

I got a few frantic emails and texts from parents expressing their fears and concerns over the exam grades. Most of these queries were complaints, this was surprising for me as I am also a parent of a 15-year-old who complaints about how unfair life is to him when he gets a lower grade or loses a football match. Of course, my role as a parent is to empathise with my child but my more challenging role as a parent is to understand the root of my child’s problem and the anxiety associated with it. Agonizing over an agony is like adding fuel to fire. As a parent we have a very big role to play, that of understanding the agony of our child and take an unbiased stance based on critically examining the situation, hence I urge parents of ‘Class of 2020’ to reach out to the school in order to understand the grading system, look into their child’s grade objectively and have a thorough conversation with their sons and daughters to hash out any doubts or negativity that might have risen since result day. In this process, if they find a loophole in the school’s or education organisation’s grading system, they should absolutely go ahead and fight their case, but do not make this an social media event to sign petitions and breed negativity and cast aspersions on established and tested grading systems. Do not add fuel to the fire, our role as parents is to douse the fire. This fire will only burn the students’ faith and hope in the institution of education.

Students

Students are the most impacted by the results, good or bad. Their disappointment and desperation are understandable especially if they do not meet their predicted grades or university requirements. It is time for students to take things under control and communicate with their university to confirm if their offers still hold; it’s also necessary to meet the Programme Coordinator or the Head of School to discuss the options of re-evaluating or re-sitting the exams. Students need to note that they were aware of the grading method for this year’s result, hence they should stop comparing results of other schools and other students as this is not helpful, it only builds negative assumptions and causes mental anxiety. A bit of open-mindedness and honesty will go a long way, stop blaming the system and the circumstances which led to this outcome, it’s time to move ahead without negative assumptions. Break the cycle of mistrust and remember even when the actual exams are conducted and the results come out, many students and schools are surprised to find a difference in the actual grades and the expected grades, the difference this year is that there were no written exams, but point to note is that the assessed work is still the student’s own work. The grades are generated from the students’ work and evidence provided by the school supported by data and statistics.  Hence, I would advise all students to keep their faith in the process and after thoroughly analysing the process of grading, if it is not acceptable then students should look at ways to find a solution. The solution also depends on how well the students understand the grading system, for example, the decision to re-sit or re-evaluate will completely depend on the understanding of the grading. Students need to be well informed and stay motivated in the pursuit of higher education.

Universities

A lot of universities across the world have been flexible with admission requirements, some have become test-optional others are willing to consider school transcripts and recommendations in conjunction with the exam grades. Universities are being increasingly accommodating to ensure they give maximum opportunities to international students to continue their education. Whilst the conversation of admitting students via multiple flexible options has been ongoing since the time the pandemic started, there are still universities who have not done enough research to understand the grading system adopted by different education systems across the world. Students have been denied the opportunity to continue with university education just because they did not make the exact grades as predicted by the school! At this time of uncertainty and confusion, the most reassuring consolation is a place in the university for the next 3 to 4 years. This has been taken away for many students as there is a difference between the school predicted grades and actual grades this year. But again this happens every year and there are ways around it, so this year there should be even more ways to ensure admission offers are not taken away. It is a known fact that students have been most impacted and the class of 2020 has been further disadvantaged by the cancellation of exams. Hence I would request and recommend universities to understand the grading system that led to the current grades and be fair in their decision to decline or accept a student for 2020-2021 admissions. “System-generated” or “default” emails are not the answer, it is frustrating for students and families to receive an email which says, “unfortunately you have not met all the conditions hence we will not be able to confirm a place at…”. As an educator, I thought this year will be an exception, a positive change when academicians across the world will come together to support the ‘Class of 2020’. It is shocking to note that some universities are issuing this kind of emails right after results day proving that no homework has been done to understand the grading process and no empathy is shown towards students even though there is a global pandemic destroying lives and career aspirations for millions of students. If there was ever a time to make an exception, this is the time. I do not mean to criticise any university but I would like to appeal to them to be more considerate and think twice before sending “default” emails and take time to offer an alternative solution especially when the difference in actual grade and required grade is 2-3 points!

This is a very challenging year for everyone, what has kept us going is hope and faith that when all of this is over we would still have opportunities to realise our dreams. But for this to happen we need to keep hope and faith alive; negative assumptions, hasty decisions, mud-slinging and lack of empathy are big impediments on the path to success. These success barriers have to be removed and all stakeholders have to come together in order to do so. After all, results are not the final objective, they are the means to the end. Understand the process, to achieve the desired result.