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Archive for November, 2021

Why has it been different this time?

This is a question I think a lot about when I walk through our high schools, see the structures they are experimenting with and talk with students and staff. It feels different.

Now into my second quarter century in the business the idea of making shifts in high schools is not new. Hearing grumblings about the traditional bell schedule, the perceived lack of student engagement, concerns over relevance of courses and leaning experiences, and someone saying something like, “they need to be more like elementary schools” are all views that I have heard every single year of my career.  And with complete earnest efforts each year I saw schools doing everything they could to find ways to think about time differently, reorganize class structures (e.g. for many Socials 8 and English 8 became Humanities 8) and an amazing array of strategies to build connections with students.

Of course, I can see how it would feel a bit like Groundhog Day.  In their totality the shifts were really tinkering at the edges.  And in truth, there was no urgency – for most students the system was working fine, and its resemblance to the system of their parents was reassuring to the community.  And while much attention was given to those really pushing the model of schooling like High Tech High or Big Picture Schools, the model of schooling for most has seen little change.  That is not to say there has not been change – I have argued here before that today’s school experience for students is very different than for those even 20 years ago, but it is not different in fundamental ways.

So, why do things feel different this time?

COVID has upended everything in our world and while new challenges are exhausting, they also create curiosity and urgency like no other times.  But I don’t think it is just COVID itself that has pushed us, but it has accelerated and exposed other elements.  It is not as much as they are new trends, they are just more obvious and really moving quickly.  Here are some other things I think are going on:

Equity – You cannot attend a conference or read an education publication without some discussion around equity.  Now it is a broad term and is inclusive of everything from Truth and Reconciliation to poverty and food security to students with specific identified needs.  A mindset around equity is having all of us question our practices in ways unlike times before.  It has both the curiosity and urgency elements.  When we talk about equity we immediately need to look at our teaching and assessment practices.  

Time – We have been trying to rethink the use of time in schools forever.  In high schools we had 2 classes at a time, we had 4 classes at a time, we had 8 classes at a time, we had 3 before lunch and 2 after lunch, we had moved the pieces around to many different combinations.  A lesson from COVID was time was more flexible than we thought it was.  In our region almost every high school is using some version of flexible time where students make choices over their learning.  For us, it is X-blocks in our high schools every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon where students can make choices over where they need to go.  We have long known not all students need the same time in each course, but we have used solutions like tutors and extra homework to deal with it – now we have thought differently.  Of course, these efforts were moving slowly before COVID, but COVID has absolutely accelerated the shifts.

Modern Skills – I am not really sure what to call this – it is all about making and creating.  While already trending before the pandemic we are seeing a massive interest in robotics – which was once limited to high schools, now having interest in specialized programs from the primary grades.   A similar trend is entrepreneurship.  What started as courses limited to students in grade 11 or 12 is now seeing great attention across the grades.  When students and parents talk about it, they talk about real-world skills and being competitive for the world.   No doubt the impact of emerging technology and everyone seemingly having a “side hustle” has been impacting schools for a while, but again COVID has really ramped it up.  

Post-Secondary – There is some really interesting data coming out of the United States.  A recent story indicates that US college enrolment is on pace for the largest 2 year drop in US History (interesting to see the only schools which are seeing increased registration are the most elite schools).  I have one of those friends who sends me every story he sees about the struggles of the post-secondary sector.  He is saying “I told you so” a lot these days.  Colleges have for a very long time just expected the students would come.  But maybe the pandemic has shifted some thinking – maybe students don’t need to build up the huge debt from the ever increasing post-secondary school costs, or maybe there are other ways to get credentialing and maybe large employers like Amazon and Google might bypass universities and hire and train students directly themselves.  All of this which is potentially fundamentally shifting post-secondary will absolutely impact the work in K-12.  Exactly what this means is hard to know yet, but again this is a larger trend that is pushing us.  If post-secondary is shifting, so must high schools that help prepare students for life after grade 12.

Now, the global shifts and increased commitments to equity were present before COVID but COVID exposed how much we haven’t done and still need to do.  There have been a new list of skills for the new world emerging for a while.  Time has always been a topic of discussion in high schools but a global pandemic really opened the door to doing things differently in how we organize.  And there have been questions for a while about post-secondary schooling but COVID sped up changes taking place.

All of this churn in our world is creating curiosity – from staff and community about how we can do things differently and better going forward and it is happening with an urgency unlike at anytime in my career.  

I am convinced this ain’t Groundhog Day – high schools are changing in real ways right in front of us.  

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