The impact of both incremental threats such as climate change as well as sudden and pervasive disruptions like COVID-19 is affecting all aspects of our lives – including education.
A recent Mckinsey report highlights how these sorts of disruptions are becoming more frequent and more severe, while the OECD trends analysis reveals how we must be planning forward to ensure we are prepared for when such disruptions do occur.
The overwhelming message is clear. Our current school structures, systems and processes are not sufficiently designed to ensure there is continuity of service provision (i.e. learning) when confronted with such disruption. We need to re-think how we ‘do school’ in the 21st Century in order to create a system with the resilience required to allow the continuity of service provision.
Nearly every other area of society is facing the same challenge. And in the process, we’re discovering that alongside the inevitable downsides, there are other, unexpected benefits. Take, for example, supermarkets. For decades they have required you to visit them in person to select and purchase your grocery items. When physical attendance wasn’t possible, they moved to various forms of online shopping – including delivery to your door and ‘click and collect options’. When the opportunity to return to in-store shopping was restored most shoppers did that – but there were a number who’d discovered the personal benefits based on choice, life-style or health reasons that the online options actually provide them with greater agency and meets their needs better.
So it is with education. Becoming resilient isn’t about moving to entirely to distance education and having kids and teachers at computers 6 – 8 hours a day. The physical settings of schools and kura etc will continue to be important, particularly in terms of the social and emotional benefits for growing young people. But we must be looking to establish a more robust system design that will enable a more diversified response to continuing our work as educators when the option of physical attendance isn’t possible.
The track record for many schools in New Zealand has not been flash in this regard. Every time there has been a disruption it is responded to with surprise (and sometimes panic!). In some cases a number of ‘interim’ things may be put in place, while in others the response involves simply ‘leaving them be’ and doing lots of catch up once the learners are able to return to school.
Neither option is a responsible or professional option. If schools were operating in the commercial world with those sorts of responses they’d soon be out of business.
Becoming resilient must involve re-thinking the way(s) we ‘do school’. This involves all of the structures, systems and processes that currently frame our approach and thinking – including the physical structures (e.g. buildings, classrooms etc.), organisational structures (e.g. classes, curriculum, timetable, school day etc.) and operational structures (e.g. teachers and classes, assessment and exams, ‘subjects’ etc.)
And, equally important, we must also use the opportunity to ensure that the long-held goals we’ve written about as aspirations are actually addressed also – things like equity, transparency, community partnerships, personalisation of learning, inclusion etc.
We have to consider here that the disruptions we face in our system are not only external (e.g. pandemics, cyber-attacks, weather events etc.).
We’re also experiencing disruption of our own making, as evidenced by the high rates of truancy, difficulties in recruiting and retaining great teachers and the growing disillusionment of young people when it comes to thinking about the future and what it may offer them.
A resilient school system, then, will be one that has the capability to recover from or adjust to any sudden disruption and cope equally with the pervasive impacts of longer-term disruptions.
This post is an extract from my recently published paper Being Resilient: Characteristics of Resilient Schools. This paper provides guidance for school leaders as they seek to work with their staff and communities to design the systems, structures and processes required to ensure they are able to continue providing high quality learning experiences for their students in the wake of any disruption they experience, be that short or long-term, impacting all or some of their staff and/or students.