Sketching the “new normal” in education: What does the next school year look like?


Finally, this anything-but-normal academic year has come to an end for most educational systems. And, perhaps for the first time in our years as educators, we are inclined to ask a very valid question: what on earth is happening? Before we even had the time to think, we abruptly moved to remote instruction, some of us then returned for a brief “back to school” uncommon situation, and now we are working out an uncertain future.

Lots of new responsibilities have fallen on our shoulders during this school year, and we’re expecting more to come during the next one. Our anxiety is piling up, and we may have already reached our limits. But, with our efforts, we kept education “up and running” – so, let’s take a deep breath and reflect on the most important fact: we did well. And we can – and will – do even better.

What lessons have educators learned?

This disruptive period of the pandemic has shed light on many blind spots for both educators and educational administrators. For example, it’s possible that we have just recently realized that our instruction is heavily lecture-based, or that technology had only a complementary role in our classroom. Ultimately, we were forced to take action and turn our practices upside down; to do so, we brought innovative educational strategies to the forefront that had long been on our waiting list.

One of the first things we had to accept was our limited access to students’ learning processes. In these circumstances, we ultimately became learning facilitators, with substantial help from parents and caregivers, and gave students more ownership of their learning than we normally would have in the classroom. This happened inevitably with our shift toward inquiry-based approaches since lectures became rather painstaking. Αsynchronous instruction, long-term projects, and authentic assessment are just a few of our new pedagogical tools – and they can also be used after the storm has passed.

To make all these come to life we took technology as a given, but this comes at a price for some without proper access. Education became mean-dependent but educators attributed pedagogical value to this transformational endeavor. However, the recent lockdown has vividly demonstrated long-existing inequities: teachers and students who don’t have the adequate equipment, a fast internet connection, and the proper level of technological literacy are categorically left behind. What are they forced to miss? In this case: the world.

Technology is nonetheless, by far the most feasible way to touch base with the educational community and pursue teaching and learning goals during physical isolation. Getting together in a virtual classroom, collaborating with peers for team assignments, supporting inquiry through online resources, delivering tech-savvy end-products for assessment; the list is literally endless for what students can do with the proper use of technology, along with their educators’ guidance. This is the technological world we have been living in for several years, but now we finally realize to what extent it can serve education. 

How “normal” is the “new normal” in education?

Sooner or later, we will take steps toward this “new normal”, which will be a huge turn from the things we “normally” used to do in educational settings, like let students come to school every day, sit at their usual desk, touch equipment with bare hands, and socialize in large groups during breaks. This “new normal” may come naturally to some cultures, but it’s very likely the vast majority of teachers and students will find these shifting rules challenging.

There is definitely no room for negotiation with our students if we all should or shouldn’t follow scientists’ guidelines during a global health crisis. In the face of an invisible virus, especially if the outbreak is in recession, they may attempt to push the limits. Here and now, every educational unit should take on the responsibility of providing accurate information – not to grow a generation living in fear, nor let them be oblivious to the consequences of reckless actions. They trust us to walk them safely out of this crisis; we should honor this trust by providing truthful guidance, acknowledging their struggle, and empowering their resilience. 

This “new normal” is far from becoming just a memory of an abnormal period. At all educational levels, several scenarios are being considered. Should schools open or not? Should all students attend regularly or not? Should remote operation continue anyway, or not? In this phase, we can only place our bets on what happens next.

What to expect when you’re expecting a new wave?

Regardless of what this next wave brings, we know that it will require a mix of old and new arrangements: schools running physically and/or virtually from time to time. Keeping both options on the table from the start and organically integrating them into the everyday routine, can keep anxiety for the future under control and set the expectations right. An ultimate full transition to remote instruction or return to school can take place rather smoothly.

In the same successful model many companies already use, schools can use the continuum of working in- and out- of physical spaces. Practically speaking, educators can summit certain students in the classroom for a planned “event,” like discussing a crucial step of a project or conducting an experiment. Beyond that, students should be supported with a detailed plan for their learning responsibilities while working from home, with the obligation of online deliverables.

Next year, schools settling on a hybrid model from day one would prove to be an important milestone in 21st-century education. In no way will a hybrid arrangement mean that educators should be at two places at the same time; on the contrary, it will mean that we should allocate our time in physical or virtual settings. Throughout this hybrid arrangement, we can offer students opportunities to cultivate their research and self-management skills, while we facilitate their inquiry-based learning from a safe distance – literally and metaphorically.

So, let’s recharge our batteries and prepare ourselves for a “new normal” school year – full of challenges but also with a great potential to empower what we do best: teach young minds to learn.

What are your suggestions for a smooth next school year?
Share your thoughts in the comments below – let’s start a discussion!

Pepy is an IB Diploma Programme Physics and Mathematics teacher, with an MA and PhD in Education. She is currently a Post Doctoral Researcher in teachers' education and also teaches at the University of Patras. As the Educational Consultant at 100mentors she empowers educators to turn theory into practice with educational technology solutions.

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