Agility, relationships, and the role of technology are top of mind as schools of the future take shape
A discussion of schools of the future in 2018 and the same discussion in 2021 would likely be two very different conversations. The lessons of the pandemic, which are largely still being learned and processed by most education professionals, include much about what schools of the future will need, from technology to relationships and everything in between. Technology leaders in schools across the country acknowledge that the last 18 months revealed areas for improvement, sometimes surprising positives, and an optimistic view of teaching and learning.
One thing that is clear is that students, teachers, faculty, staff, parents, and communities all need some space for recovery. Relationships, schedules, and emotional health suffered during the pandemic, and everyone needs a recovery phase. At Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, Director of Technology Daisy Steele said that the administration has built-in time, one afternoon per week, to focus on community building, health and wellness, emotional health, and other aspects of thriving that are often not part of the academic schedule. “In the short term,” said Steele, “we will be focusing on a recovery phase. Where can we restore community? Mental health? Safety? What makes it feel safe at school?” Some schools are looking to a return to what they think of as normal insofar as that’s possible. At Thaden School in Bentonville, Arkansas, Jason Curtis, director of technology and associate head of school, said the isolation of the pandemic affected kids more than many adults realize. At his school, faculty and staff are seeking to restore a feeling of community. “My hope is that we restore that feeling of connection, community, and normalcy,” he said. “We want students to sit at a table at lunch with someone else and not feel worried when they’re together.”
At The Blake School in Minnesota, David Boxer, director of information support services, noted that the chaos of the past months actually led to some interesting ideas about how to rebound and repair. “We went through three redesigns of our schedule in the high school last year, and there have been some really helpful changes built around the ideas of rebound-ing and repairing,” he said. “The way students are spending time allows them to get better sleep, and it minimizes distractions. Teachers have more opportunities to collaborate and work together.”
Teachers are always asked to give of their time, care, and knowledge, but 2020 demanded more than ever from them. Technology leaders often laugh when they talk about teachers and new technology. “A lot of teachers don’t fear tech, but they like perfection,” said Curtis. “They like things to be predictable and to bank on an outcome.” In 2020, teaching meant embracing technology, like it or not. If technology directors were nervous, it was rightly so. Many technology specialists spent the early part of 2020 searching for the tools that would best support teaching and learning in their institutions, and even schools that had 1-to-1 policies in place had to make some big adjustments. Frances Cortez O’Connor, academic technology specialist at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., said, “It was incumbent upon me to find something that worked. I felt tremendously responsible in choosing tools that would feel intuitive, based on peer research.” Selecting the best tools was only the first step; training teachers was intense. O’Connor focused on providing support beginning at wherever the teachers were in their technology skills At Catlin Gabel, Steele said she frequently reminded staff, “‘This is how we are doing it for now, and let’s do it as well as we can. It might change in a month,’ and it did.”
The result was sometimes surprising. Even institutions that tend to move slowly, using careful processes, found that agility was possible and that changes can happen fast. The pandemic and the requirement to teach remotely “revealed that schools can be much more agile than I ever would have guessed,” said Boxer. “Being able to see that agility from a growth mindset and a tool mindset, teachers had to evolve their skills very quickly. They had a shared mission and a shared urgency. I’m not surprised but enamored and blown away with the speed they made changes and adjusted.” For Inge Wassmann, director of innovation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Coconut Grove, Florida, the changes forced by the pandemic were, to some degree, par for the course. St. Stephen’s has always embraced a culture of improvement and change. Although agility is built into the school culture, Wass-mann said the school still needs to focus on responding to change. “The world we live in is changing so fast, it’s almost hard to plan for the long term because you may close yourself in on that one purpose,” she said. “I think it’s useful to think about keeping short-term goals flexible and to keep our vision and have an actionable plan. But part of that needs to be able to address change.
Teachers as Learners
Teachers are, naturally, lifelong learners, and that was evident throughout the pandemic. It’s also something that technology leaders hope continues in a visible way. As teachers tested, embraced, or discarded technology tools, students were often watching the process. Technology specialists observed the positive aspects of teachers being forced to embrace tech-nology in new ways and students learning to focus on the process. “One teacher said, ‘I don’t know why I’ve been printing out papers. I can assign work digitally; they can do it digitally and return it.’ He was ecstatic that he didn’t have to keep printing,” said Curtis, adding that understanding and building on those kinds of opportunities is crucial. O’Connor described teachers finding they could use publishing tools a bit differently. Wassmann said the use of tools “will always be evolving,” and that everyone’s input is necessary, adding, “We are where we are because of the teachers’ dedication, hard work, and continuous willingness to learn as a team.” One interesting observation, and perhaps one that is especially important as schools move into the future, is that the way teachers and students who had to use technology put the iterative process of learning on full display and gave students an opportunity to implement it in their own studies. When a teacher tried a new tool and failed, but then came back the next day or week with a tweak or a similar tool, the students saw that failure was simply part of the learning process. “When we have a mentality of failing forward and are applying multiple iterations until we get it right,” said Curtis, “students get to see the iterative process. What a great lesson for kids as they go through life—sometimes things don’t work out the way they want, and it’s a learning process.” Boxer said that approaching learning as a process in this way gives students the opportunity to complete low-stakes projects. “The school of the future will embody and embed projects with low stakes, be more discursive, provide deeper experiences with open-ended problems,” he said.
Benefits for Parents, Too
Often, in private schools especially, the participation and support of parents is a given, but the pandemic showed some technology leaders that schools of the future could offer more opportunities for parents and community members to be part of the school. “Going forward, we are thinking about how we can be more inclusive for parents to attend parent meetings,” said Steele. “The online component increased both access and participation for families and employees. This year, we’re looking forward to returning to in-person activities to promote community and creating opportunities for those who can’t be there in person.”
As in so many other ways, using technology to bring parents into the school community also has an in-person impact. As parents have more opportunities to participate in education, meetings, and school life in general, they will also be more aware of chances to meet in person.
Most people don’t think much about their organization's mission statement, but when times are tumultuous, having a clear knowledge of your focus makes all the difference. Technology leaders in independent schools with clear, strong mission statements found guidance in remembering and following those statements. Regardless of whether a school’s mission is to be flexible and embrace new initiatives or to move slowly and carefully through a tried-and-true process, knowing that everyone is moving in the same direction to help students makes working through difficult times a little easier. Moving forward, technology leaders expect to continue focusing on the mission statements of their organizations. In Steele’s case, that means working to bring back some of the joy of learning and teaching that faded a bit in 2020. For Wassmann, that means an ability to adjust. “Our best is always a moving target,” she said, quoting Silvia Larrauri, head of school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School.
Less Really Is More (Sometimes)
The pandemic “helped us to distill down the important parts of our work,” Curtis said. “We didn’t have time to focus on extraneous things. It really helped us focus on how to communicate this knowledge to this kid. It stripped away the things that get wrapped around the axle.” For educators, the personal and the professional sometimes become entwined, and an examination of what matters the most can be surprising. For technology specialists, schools of the future will likely be “less.” For example, O’Connor suggested that many teachers found that students need time to simply think through problems; they need “time to noodle.” Boxer said the pandemic demonstrated that small groups of students working together with less teacher involvement were often more successful than traditional whole-class exercises. “You’re not going to solve a problem in isolation,” he said. “If you develop content mastery, how do you apply it? Students must identify a problem, work in collaboration, and figure out how to communicate ideas.” While technology is certainly not going anywhere, Steele hopes that it will become less noticeable. She said that her school will be keeping only the tools that really helped students or collaborations, or demonstrated thinking, and will discard those that aren’t truly needed to enhance teaching and learning. “Technology fills a supporting role and tries to be both seamless and ubiquitous,” she said.
Even a school that seeks out new initiatives and is ever-evolving sees a role for “less.” Wassmann noted that she sees a trend toward a more distributed leadership model along with vertical and horizontal alignment. “What we saw,” she said, “was that we needed everyone’s input. We listened. As leadership, you need to listen to everyone, form teams around what needs to be done, then follow through and be receptive to change.” “When we have a mentality of failing forward and are applying multiple iterations until we get it right, students get to see the iterative process.”
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