It has been said over and over recently that we are living in unprecedented times. We are not sure how long the COVID-19 crisis will last, but with discussions revolving around ‘flattening the curve’, there is an acknowledgement that we will, eventually, come out on the other side. It is a question of when not if.
One thing I’ve learned by leading schools through campus closures twice before (first in Japan in 2011, followed by Thailand in 2014) is that, early on, it is important to think on two levels: dealing with the urgent and immediate (and being in crisis mode will take most of your time and energy) while also finding the headspace to think strategically. Regardless of which phase of the crisis your school community is in now, you need to be thinking about what educational future will be created post-crisis. There will be a future ‘new normal’; it is just a question of whether or not you craft it. And to do so, you need a vision.
Creating a vision in challenging times
Consider this idea: What if, back at the beginning of the school year, your school’s leadership team held a retreat and came up with the somewhat crazy idea to close the campus for four weeks in April and implement e-learning? Could you justify it? Maybe not fully, but I suspect you could find different reasons to support it: developing technology skills, improving independent learning habits, embedding digital citizenship, providing amazing professional growth for teachers, and last but not least, throwing off the shackles of the daily schedule. Whatever justifications you personally come up with, through this thought experiment, are your de-facto vision.
To help share your vision with others, a great technique is to create a ‘vision narrative’ by describing an hour-by-hour day in the life of an individual student (or two) post-crisis. How do their routines and learning change? This exercise could also include teachers, leaders and parents. The vision becomes tangible pretty quickly when you have a narrative.
The core question to ask is ‘What will we have at the end of this crisis that we don’t have now?’ Think in terms of resources, capabilities and capacity. And be specific. Keep in mind that this applies to you as an individual professional as well as to your organization. If you don’t know where you want to go, how are you going to get there?
Practical advice for enacting your vision
Maslow hierarchy meets ‘Snakes and Ladders’: As we all know, in crisis situations, people will naturally slide down Maslow’s hierarchy as their safety and human connections are jeopardized. Personally, I imagine Maslow’s famous pyramid superimposed with the game of Snakes and Ladders, and our job as leaders and educators is to build ladders (and remove as many snakes as we can) so everyone can move up to higher levels. Remember, you cannot enact a vision without self-care and care for others, and if people don’t feel cared for, they won’t care about the vision.
The future of education has never been about tech. Tech initiatives in education have a long history of falling short of expectations, largely because people wrongly focus on the tech tools rather than the underlying human behaviors. (The best tech integrators I know, have amazing relationships with others, rather than being the most tech-savvy.) Now with new behaviors being imposed upon us, through social distancing, tech must finally assume its proper place as our humble servant. So, don’t waste this chance to develop a process for thinking through what new normal human behaviors should be embedded post-crisis when things get ‘back to normal’.
Do you know what great learning looks like? One of the best ways to define, visualize and communicate what great teaching and learning looks like is through a rubric. We all have classroom observation rubrics in our schools, but one for the online space are less common (partly because the asynchronous learning means a snapshot observation can’t work the same way). If you haven’t already done so, I would suggest you adapt/tweak what observation rubrics you already have in place, to create a modified one, as a tool for planning, professional dialogue and feedback. This rubric will also paint a clear picture of excellent teaching and learning. (We are piloting our own at the Al Futtaim Foundation, and if you would like more information, just message me – we would be more than happy to share our rubric and other resources.)
New types of learning are now possible – embrace them! While physical doors on campuses are closing, virtual doors to new learning are now wide open. This is a great opportunity to enact technology learning standards like ISTE. With the shift to online learning, everyone will be using tech in new ways, so why not embrace and celebrate new learning possibilities and communicate to your community that e-learning has upsides, too! Students, teachers and leaders will be developing new 21st-century skills.
Remember that a crisis amplifies strengths and exposes weaknesses. For example, cracks in decision-making processes become fault lines, and already healthy professional relationships move to new heights. Get ready to have a SWOT analysis imposed upon you and your organization!
Learn from experience as you go. Good drivers don’t just look forward – they also check their rear-view mirrors. Being able to look back and reflect is essential to learning, so actively seek feedback and be prepared to adjust your vision accordingly.
These are not easy times…
As I write this, fatalities in countries around the world continue to grow, economic hardships are threatening some of society’s most vulnerable, and seemingly everyone is feeling uncertain. But I am reminded that while we cannot choose our circumstances, we can choose how we respond. Education will change as a result of this pandemic, and we all need to decide how we want to shape the change.
By: James MacDonald
Originally from Canada, James began his career as a classroom teacher before going on to lead two separate IB schools in Japan (Yokohama IS) and Thailand (NIST IS). James also led a large cluster of US & IB curriculum schools with GEMS Education (UAE), before taking on his present role of Managing Director of the not-for-profit Al Futtaim Education Foundation (UAE).