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Future of Learning

The Most Important Lesson of 2020

By Will Richardson & Homa Tavangar
The Most Important Lesson of 2020

This is an excerpt from the free ebook “9 Big Questions Schools Must Answer to Avoid Going ‘Back to Normal’ (*Because ‘Normal’ Wasn’t That Great to Begin With)” from the BIG Questions Institute co-founders Will Richardson and Homa Tavangar. The book provides extensive context for the disruptive moment that we now find ourselves in, and it offers practical steps to reflect on who we are now as individuals and institutions, and to begin a process of reinvention to make sure our students can thrive in an increasingly uncertain future. The ebook can be downloaded from the link above.

No question, we educators learned a great deal from the disruptions in 2020. In fact, for educators in general but especially for educational leaders, 2020 was arguably the most powerful year of learning in our lives. The amount of collaborative problem solving required to navigate all of the seemingly unending and unpredictable challenges was no less than astounding. One can only be impressed with the ways in which schools and school communities learned to cope with the difficult new realities that came on in such short order.

And it’s that story of learning that provides optimism for what’s to come. That’s not to say that the challenges and the disruptions and problems to be solved will abate any time soon. The “new normal,” for the short term at least, will be more like a “no normal,” where change will be constant and uncertainty will remain.

That said, what we learned about learning over the last 12 months offers us a powerful model for what classroom learning might become, virtually or face-to-face. The most important lesson from 2020 is the reminder that deep and powerful learning only happens when it’s relevant, real-world, collaborative, driven by inquiry and passion, and shared transparently. That captures the learning that we adults did this year.

The question now is, how do we apply that lesson to our work with children in school?

From Crisis to Opportunity

As we begin to move toward a post-pandemic world, finally, we sense opportunity at our doorstep. As writer and activist Arudhati Roy declared, the pandemic is a portal, “a gateway between one world and the next.” In terms of education, it’s a chance to begin to rewrite the narrative of school, to make it more relevant to the realities of the world today. To make it more just and equitable for every child. To make school a place where learning happens much in the same way that we adults learned this year, not out of a textbook or a worksheet, but through real-life problem solving that prepares students to thrive in a very different and fast-changing future.

We believe that the questions around “why” we need to change are clear, and that growing numbers of educators and parents (as well as students) around the world are ready to pass through that gateway to the next iteration of school. As Roy says, that will require us to make some difficult choices:

“We can choose to walk through [the portal], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

In other words, real change will require us to leave many of our old ideas about school behind. And the pandemic gave us a kick start: Cancelled SAT, AP, IB  and state and national exams. Pass/fail assessments. Reduced time on task. Less homework and fewer tests. In these ways, the pandemic has already lightened our luggage.

Now, as we begin to emerge from lockdowns and quarantines, will we fall back and add on the dead weight that we already shed? Or will we choose to leave it and other aspects of school behind?

From “Survive” to “Thrive” - Nine Big Questions

As the first vaccines are being administered, it seems likely that the disruption and dislocation of the pandemic in schools will slowly but steadily begin to fade. And that means that the pull to get “back to normal” will intensify. It will be difficult not to embrace old systems and practice, if for no other reason as to find some space to breathe, recover, and latch on to what is familiar. That is understandable.

To have survived the immediate though prolonged crisis of the pandemic is one step. Now the question becomes: how do we thrive into the future? To arrive at an honest and realistic answer, we must take stock, reassess and recalibrate what the fundamental purposes of school are in an age of deep uncertainty and change. Now is the perfect time to ask whether the learning environments our students need today are the same as the ones schools offered them pre-pandemic.

To even entertain the notion of reimagining schools for this new age, we have to be willing to think “radically,” to pull up at the root as the definition of that word suggests. To truly thrive, we need to rebuild our foundations at the same time that we widen the aperture of what children need to flourish. We believe that means going back to and spending time interrogating the more fundamental questions about the way we think about not just the practice of school but the idea of school itself. To that end, we offer nine big questions to start us on that journey:

  1. What is sacred?
  2. What is learning?
  3. Where is the power?
  4. Why do we _____?
  5. Who is unheard?
  6. Are we literate?
  7. Are we ok?
  8. Are we connected?
  9. What’s next?

At a glance, these questions may seem fairly straightforward. But our collective 40+ years of working with schools and organizations around the world suggests the opposite. While these are fundamental questions, most school communities do not have shared, coherent answers for them that are then lived in practice. In fact, even the most basic question, “What is learning?” in many cases proves to be a very difficult negotiation.

We are convinced that as we enter 2021, the work not to go back to normal starts with these fundamental questions. The answers we articulate will form the foundation for our collective work to reimagine the experience of school for children not just in a post-pandemic world but in whatever future may be on the horizon.

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the last 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use "fearless inquiry" to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future. In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global "Changemakers in Education" by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 "Edupreneurs to Follow" by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents.

For over three decades, Homa Tavangar’s work has addressed themes of culture, innovation, leadership, global citizenship and global competence, and deep diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion. She connects timely topics of the moment with the timeless desire to work with purpose and make a difference – whatever one’s circumstances. Homa is the author of best-selling Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World (Random House), co-author of five books for educators, and most recently, Global Kids (Barefoot Books), a colorful activity deck exposing children to world cultures, rich diversity, and global mindsets.

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