Shortly after schools across the country closed their doors in March 2020, we heard calls to use this as an opportunity to reinvent education. Going back to “normal” would not, and should not, be good enough.
Now, in the third year of the pandemic, we are still making incremental changes to a system that is in need of a redesign. A one-size-fits-all approach to education, built to select and classify students, was created for the industrial age: preparing some students to go on to higher education and others to work in factories. Our educational system was designed to deliver content with one teacher, using one textbook, at one pace and in one place, keeping time on a factory-like bell schedule. Traditional education is doing what it was designed to do: producing unequal outcomes and opportunities, but it can be redesigned.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it is how urgent is the need to modernize education. Overnight, we saw how inflexible our system was and how easily learning was disrupted.
But it does not have to be like that. We can reimagine our system to be flexible and student-centered.
Imagine an education system where learning can happen anytime, anywhere, and where students can get credit for experiences outside traditional school walls. Imagine a system that is personalized and recognizes each child’s gifts, histories, cultures and lived experiences. A system where students progress when they master content, not when they reach a certain birthday or spend a certain number of hours sitting at a desk. A system that allows us to know in real time how students are progressing and what supports they need to thrive.
The good news is that there are already examples of schools and districts working to make this vision a reality, here in Virginia and beyond. The Virginia is for the Student Innovation Network (VaLIN), an innovative statewide professional learning initiative to advance educational innovation, is working to make future-focused, personalized education a reality in our community.
Districts and schools are working to redesign learning to achieve outcomes in the Virginia Profile of a Graduate. We know that some students thrive in virtual learning environments; in Newport News, all students in grades 6-12 will have the option to enroll in full-time virtual learning next year. Y on the virginia beachpersonalized learning allows students opportunities for choice of learning pathways, flexibility for where learning occurs, and developing skills for more self-directed learning.
We must go beyond rigid notions of what schooling can be. We no longer have to restrict learning to traditional classroom walls, grades, or tests. We must create spaces for innovation, continuous improvement and creativity. We must move beyond a false dichotomy of discussing the pros and cons of in-person and/or online learning, and instead focus on creating high-quality learning environments. If we think of the intent of our educational system as preparing our students to be future leaders and contribute to our society as informed citizens, we must ask ourselves: Is our system currently fit for purpose?
We know that COVID will not be the last disruption to learning. We cannot afford not to act at this time. Education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and if we want the talents of all our students to be available to our communities, our educational system must be fit for purpose, not just for yesterday, but for tomorrow. We cannot go back to outdated models that have been missing for decades. The future of our young people and, indeed, the future of our Commonwealth, is tied to it.
Susan Patrick is President and CEO of the Aurora Institute in Arlington, a national nonprofit organization that works to drive the transformation of education systems and accelerate the advancement of innovative policies and practices to ensure high-quality learning for all.