For decades, educators and industry leaders have been strategizing about how best to prepare students for the complex challenges of a rapidly changing world. And almost overnight, this theoretical future has become a reality. Rapid change and complex challenges have been daily events in the lives of our students for the past two years. Helping them navigate this new normal is the urgent challenge facing schools today.
When we set out to interview educators on the leading edge of school transformation, we hadn’t planned to talk with them about COVID. But the challenges brought by the pandemic came up in every conversation. It has become an unexpected lens for looking at school change.
Portrait of a Graduate
Many of these districts have engaged their stakeholders—including teachers, students, parents, and community partners—to create a collective vision, often called a Portrait of a Graduate. Through this visioning process, communities define what students should know and be able to do by the end of their K-12 experience focused on what students need to thrive, rather than backsliding into outdated practices. Not surprisingly, the school systems best able to adapt have a strong culture that enables collaborative problem solving. (In a previous post, we described the “green light culture” that sets the stage for school system innovation).
Collaborative Problem Solving in Action
Students as problem solvers: Early in the pandemic, the Encinitas Union School District in Southern California turned to students to identify challenges with remote learning. “They didn’t just tell us what the problems were—they created solutions,” Superintendent Andrée Gray told us. Engaging students as problem-solvers is embedded in the culture of this elementary district. “For every problem we’re dealing with as adults,” Gray added, “how do we have students working to solve it?”
Teachers as leaders: Humble ISD, a suburban district near Houston, Texas, hasn’t let the pandemic interrupt peer-led learning aligned with the district’s Portrait of a Graduate. The district’s Digital Learning Team, for example, has pioneered digital badging around technology integration. Students have teamed up with teachers to make assessments more meaningful and aligned with the district vision. According to Deborah Perez, director of contemporary instructional design and professional learning, “one of the biggest shifts for our teaching and learning team was grounding everything we’re doing in our essential why,” which is defined by the Portrait of a Graduate.
Personalized learning: Lindsay Unified School District, serving a low-income community in the Central Valley of California, began its transformation long before COVID. To support its vision of lifelong learning, the district shifted to personalized, competency-based education. It made technology universally available, including wi-fi reaching every home. Those building blocks have enabled teachers to collaborate and students to continue learning at their own pace, earning the district an innovation grant in the midst of the pandemic.
Three Strategies to Help Schools Serve All Students
We know that school systems continue to face daunting challenges—from addressing academic learning losses to tackling persistent inequities to helping teachers cope with ongoing stress. We also know that change requires concrete action. To help your school system navigate toward a new normal that will serve the needs of all students, consider three practical strategies.
- Engage your community in positive conversations. What are your parents’ hopes and dreams for the future of their children? How can community allies support student success? These are the sorts of questions that invite positive discourse with stakeholders, rather than divisiveness driven by politics. Launching your community on the Portrait of a Graduate process can help refocus discussions on what matters most for students. (For more ideas, download our free discussion guides for parents and students, available in English and Spanish.)
- Build on recent innovations. How has your school system collaborated to solve problems during the pandemic? For example, have you introduced approaches to better support students’ social and emotional wellness? Have you reimagined professional learning to respond to teachers’ needs? Have you engaged students in rethinking assessment? How can you celebrate success and build on recent breakthroughs?
- Double down on self-direction. What have you learned in recent months about your students’ ability to set goals, manage their time, and advocate for what they need? Make sure you are building students’ skills of self-direction—essential for navigating whatever challenges and opportunities lie ahead