The Educator’s Dilemma

A Transformative Response to Crisis.

The issues raised by campus closures during the coronavirus pandemic have little to do with people getting sick or not being in classrooms together, and everything to do with the access to learning, the value of school, and the role school plays in our communities and our lives. Our task now is to design the next chapter of education in ways that empower learners and families to thrive, whether campuses open or not.

This is how adaptation works.

We can do this. As schools, families, and communities, we are learning how to adapt. Just a few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine a world in which schools closed in favor of online instruction, or entire university systems decided that SAT/ACT exams were no longer part of the college admissions process.

This is how adaptation works. Stephen Jay Gould and other evolutionary scientists showed how gaps in the fossil record prove that evolution is not slow and gradual, but the result of “punctuated equilibrium” – radical, sudden changes in specific populations. This is the best kind of good thing. When the water rises, you want to be in the group that grows fins and gills.

In organizations, we can for design punctuated equilibrium, or at least the conditions that favor it. One way we can foster innovation is by creating brain trusts that are empowered to operate outside the usual culture and routines – Lockheed’s Skunk Works is a famous example. Imagine faculty, students and community partners who collaborate and rapidly develop solutions and prototypes that empower and engage students in deep learning.

The absence of any cohesive federal, state, or regional learning policy and governance actually favor our ability to innovate – since our learning communities are being left to our own devices, let’s build better devices! Diversity is an advantage here. Different communities have different needs. What works will be shared. The more strategies, tactics, and tools we develop, the more we can share ideas and learn together, and the better off all students will be.

Innovation and sharing will restore trust and inspiration to the institution of education.

What’s holding us back? The reluctance that education policy makers and administrators show in making the bold decisions taking big risks that will move their institutions forward is characteristic of what Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen described as the Innovator’s Dilemma.

What is the Innovator’s Dilemma?

Organizations fail to innovate not because of bad management, or because they are blind to new, potentially disruptive technologies or strategies, but because they want new ideas to create value within old frameworks. This is especially true in education, where organizational structures and functions are built to defend design elements of classroom instruction that are hundreds of years old, and where standardized testing practices and school funding models never directly contributed to learning in the first place.

Pivoting away from tradition requires institutional us to face our fear of the unknown – we may even lose support or money in the short-term. However, the pandemic has taken away our comfort and clarified our choice. If we don’t sacrifice practices like evaluating students on “seat time,” we are damned. If we don’t personalize curriculum and make it interdisciplinary, and directly address issues such as race and inequality, we are relegating school to irrelevancy. Oh, that other elephant in the room: if we don’t collectively adopt practices to end the pandemic and keep each other safe in the meantime, we are dead.

Innovation and sharing will restore trust and inspiration to the institution of education.

We need to see this situation for what it is: a call to innovation. The water is rising, so we must continue to adapt, using what we’ve learned so far. The pandemic response has provided a road map for implementing hybrid and online programs that augment in-person instruction and other aspects of campus life.

Here are some lessons we have learned so far:

1. Every learner and every household must have high-speed access to the internet. This is no longer a luxury – it is a human right, a civil right, a necessity in our society and the job market as it is evolving. Each school and district must provide access. This may be done through partnerships with providers, or local campaigns for partnership, or DIY solutions via hotspots and mesh networks. For those who can’t get immediate access, we can use SMS and other tools to bridge the gap, and raise awareness about who has access and who doesn’t.

2. Learning communities can creatively leverage free and open-source resources on the public internet, in the process of taking courses, building communities, collaborating, and curating and evaluating their work. There are many tools to choose from. The key is establishing a shared vision that informs these choices.

3. Active learning is essential to students’ success, whether they are sheltering at home or on campus. It is inhumane to tether a child to a screen for six hours a day. We should remember this when campuses re-open and we consider forcing them to sit still in classrooms all day.

4. Putting everything online increases the value of teaching and learning. Students can share work with a community of critique and support. Using digital platforms to teach and learn provides thousands of analytic data points that provide insight well beyond posted content.

Integrating online, transparent, inclusive elements to courses will provide alternatives whether we are in crisis or not. At present, in the absence of a plan for re-opening schools, students and families who have heightened risk or concern about COVID-19 can coordinate with local teachers and administrators to use these resources and complete their coursework online.

Most schools have about 70 days until the 2020-21 school year is scheduled to begin. Now is the time to take next steps, and to design for the fall – of 2024.

Educators: reach out to colleagues, faculty, staff, parents, students, and community members. Invite them to innovate. Give them your off-campus email and your phone number, and make it clear that you’re available. One of them may have just the thing you need.

Students, parents, educators, employers, community members: Share this with an educator and schedule an(other) online meeting. Now is the time to start these conversations and create strategies that will help students thrive.