The kids are alright... and they'll be even better if we actually start planning for a new normal.

Yesterday I read Maurie's blogpost 'Time to Calm The Farm - Schools are not in chaos' which provided a much needed reminder about the power we have to make to decisions in how we lead our schools and lead the narrative about education during a pandemic. It was a reminder also, that for many schools, teachers and learners that continuing to learn online was not the end of the world, nor was mandatory vaccinations, it was simply something we could, and for the most part, are managing just fine. It did however make me ponder what feels like a undercurrent of much of the push back and clickbait media headlines and stories, this idea that we are living through this massive and shocking disruption and that all of it is getting in the way of our much loved and lauded normality, which many still seem to think we may be returning to at some point. Even those of us who realise, in our most rational moments, the chances of returning to life as it was at the beginning of 2020 is really little more than a self-soothing day dream, it is at least something that gets us through the grindingly ground-hog nature of lockdown life. 

However, my feeling is, rather than hanging onto that pipe dream, what we actually need to be doing (at local and government level) is proactively and collectively co-designing the new normal we want, a new normal that acknowledges the ongoing disruption ahead and seeing it as an exciting opportunity to reframe and reprioritise how we do things. Last year I write about 'High School 2.0 - It’s time to prepare for a new normal' and whilst I actually stand by what I wrote then I now actually think that it probably didn't go far enough. In fact another piece I wrote for Idealog before COVID-19 was even "a thing" where I was asked to imagine what education might look like in 500 years time, Education in Post-Anthropocene Aotearoa now seems to be a something of blueprint for what education could like in 50-100 years, albeit with a nod to science fiction. Funny side note - Idealog actually edited out the no travel idea, I'm guessing because the idea seemed a bit absurd, who knew it would take so little time to make that aspect a reality! But I digress, now, nearly two years into this pandemic and feeling increasingly frustrated at how little we seem to have engaged in forward planning between the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, I feel like we MUST now realise that we need to plan really ahead and ensure we are ready for a different, consistently disrupted future. 

So, for what it's worth here are a few things I would do, ideally as of yesterday:

1) Close that goddam digital divide once and for all

I am a squeaky wheel on this topic and don't need to go back into the detail here. You can read more about the topic here. But basically, we need to ensure all students OWN their own device, EVERY household has reliable broadband and EVERY school leader has a digital strategy that supports their teachers to use technology effectively. We need to ensure that anytime in the future we move in and out of school the transition is as seamless as possible and that connections remain and learning continues. 

2) Get rid of those bloody exams as a national event

The amount of stress and worrying about an arbitrary time and location bound assessment is causing students, schools and communities is absurd. If educators are convinced that a timed test is the only way they can assess some specific piece of learning, then create a test that at least can be done anytime and anywhere. Personally, I struggle to believe exams are still relevant in any form, but if they are your thing, let's at least find a future-proofed and flexible way of doing them. They are certainly not worth the worry, energy or resources that are being poured into them at present. 

3) Let's move to a single school leaver's qualification

Maurie has written about this often, as have I. I tend to agree that this relentless focus on assessment is doing no one any favours and seriously, I don't see the need to sort and stream students throughout their schooling life. Assessment for learning, yes. Tracking personal progress, yes. Comparing, sorting, scaling, judging whole cohorts based on when they happened to be born, I can personally leave it or take it. I absolutely see the value in students being able to evidence what they can and can't do and I have no issue with young people have a final qualification that they aspire to achieving as they finish school, but doing this three times over makes less and less sense. When we add the complication of schooling that must become more flexible, mobile and more personally relevant I can't help feeling the qualification that matters is the one that our young people leave school with, and this should be a qualification that is relevant and useful (i.e a personal portfolio) for whatever they might choose to do next. Not just something that can be easily sliced, diced, weighed and compared just to be published in some magazine that then uses it to further weaponise ethnicity, gender decile and postcode. 

4) Make schooling more flexible regardless

I think the time has come when we can start planning schooling differently. Whilst it may remain easiest to design learning around age based cohorts of students moving through 40 weeks of learning a year, it would be nice to think that the idea that all days must be in school are not a given. Just as our colleagues in the "world of work" are discovering, there is merit in flexible hours and locations. I recognise that for our younger students and our working families, abandoning physical schools is for the most part, a terrifying idea. However as students mature and they get closer to have one foot in the world beyond school I would love to think that attendance didn't always need to be measured by being physically in school. There is absolute power in the sense of community and security that a physical school provides, and I am not suggesting abandoning that concept. What I would like is for us to be able to offer a hybrid model that evolved and matured with the learner, allowing young people to "leave to learn" and approach learning in a more flexible way that suited their needs and wellbeing. We are already seeing many student disengage physically from school already, what if those students had other options whereby learning happened in school, but could also happen remotely supported by a system inherently designed around the principles of universal design for learning and responsive assessment processes? I actually think many of us could deliver and support that now. I wonder what would happen if we were given permission to explore further?

5) Make schools community wellbeing hubs

Our young people and many of our communities are battling with increasing complex wellbeing needs. Schools are dealing with many of these increasing complex needs to varying degrees of success and with increasingly creative resourcing and often at the expense of teaching staff. Schools and educators need to be supported to focus on teaching and learning and we need to redesigning how we can resource schools so as to "bring the mountain to Mohammed". Ministry of Social Development, Health and Education need to work together to look at how we might provide nurses, doctors, dentists and various social services into or alongside our schools and they need to do it now. I am lucky to lead a school with phenomenal counsellors and nurses but there is no question, they are going above and beyond, with incredible support that is unsustainable at best and downright dangerous at worst. And when we consider why many students are disengaging and unable to continue with their education, I can't help thinking that more extensive support for them and their whānau within a school community has to be a good thing. And not just for our low decile schools, for all schools, because as far as I can tell, mental health issues don't care about your postcode. 

6) Shelve the NCEA Change Package and the New Zealand Curriculum review

Finally, a pragmatic suggestion. I get that there is some merit in the suggested in the NCEA Change Package and there may well be good reason for the New Zealand Curriculum review. I do think we need  continue the work around Mana ōrite mō te mātauranga Māori as I think now is absolutely the time to ensure we have an education system that we genuinely honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and I get the sense that teachers and schools are ready for this work. However, when I think about what I think is "urgent" and what is "important" I can't help feeling that the current NCEA standards and the current NZC by and large are not broken and whilst reviewing and evolving both is important, it is not actually urgent. What is urgent, right now, is how we care for and connect with our young people and how we teach them what is relevant, in a way that is fit for purpose. We can do that with what we have, we can par back the number of credits, we can par back the focus on assessment, we can flag Level One and rethink exams. We don't need to reinvent a wheel that is holding up and moving the cart forward just fine. 

I am sure I could go on (and on and on), but after reading Maurie's post yesterday I went down an internal rabbit hole and needed to share what I was thinking. 

Keen to hear what others think about what we need to differently and how we might start designing for the education we need and want, and how we might enact these changes sooner rather than later. 


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