The pandemic has changed how schools operate — for now. What should we keep?
History’s record of watershed moments in human experience — when the lives of millions of people change significantly — may contain no moment so dramatic as the one we are living through right now. Seven and a half billion people in the world had plans, and in March 2020, nearly all of them changed. Unlike previous pandemics, global conflicts or technological innovations, no other experience affected the daily lives of so many people so suddenly. “Overnight,” says David Attenborough in a recently released documentary The Year Earth Changed, which chronicled the past year’s impact on the natural world, “our lives [were] put on pause.” Everywhere.
While the pandemic brought great losses, it has also brought new life and propelled innovation. The natural world flourished over the course of the past year — pollution plummeted and birth rates of endangered species climbed. Families grew closer together, and in broader social, economic and educational contexts around the world, our adoption of new and virtual technologies catapulted us into the future. In schools, this was particularly profound.
Nothing in the history of modern education has changed teaching and learning as suddenly and completely as this pandemic. When the 1918 influenza pandemic happened, many educational institutions in the world shut down, and there was little to replace them. In the present, however, technological, pedagogical and social changes proliferated. Facilitated by the unprecedented digital network infrastructure of our modern world, schools rapidly evolved to serve the moment.
Now, as hope dawns for an end to the pandemic, what have we learned? What innovations from the past year should we keep? How can this moment lay the groundwork for our next stage of growth? The pandemic isn’t over, but as vaccines and other mitigation strategies return us to a more familiar, social setting, the ways we have changed can propel us toward an even better future. King’s Academy has always been built on powerful, authentic, character-driven and relational learning experiences. How our community-based learning looks has necessarily changed this year, but we can learn from this moment. Here are four lessons and principles from the pandemic that have affirmed and will continue to shape how King’s Academy progresses into the future.
Technology drives new forms of learning
King’s Academy has been at the forefront of technological change in education since our school’s inception. As a founding member of Global Online Academy (GOA), King’s Academy first offered online courses as part of our program over a decade ago. Beyond GOA, technology in both STEM and humanities courses has been ubiquitous for some time now, including collaborative online tools that are part of the vocabulary of every teacher. More recently, our program has included courses and workshops in digital art and music, and this year our curriculum included a one-of-a-kind digital humanities course in which students used mathematical software to explore new ways of analyzing literature and history.
The global lurch forward around us enabled even newer opportunities. As experts came online around the world, we brought them into our classrooms, school meetings and our two COVID symposia. When the pandemic recedes, a world trained in Zoom will be ready to share and collaborate anew. We can expect online campus visits from luminaries to continue, and we can also expect e-access to many more artists, experts and inspiring individuals.
At its heart, technology offers us the power of computation and the power of connectivity. Its computational power is what enables digital art, science, math and humanities work to flourish. It puts new tools in our hands to understand the world around us. These tools excite the mind to new opportunities and offer fresh insights into how we can progress as a global citizenry. However, while technology’s power to compute opens us to new subject matter, it may be technology’s power to connect that drives the most profound change. Our connectivity is what ultimately expands our capacity to build bridges across difference, to help students see the world through other people’s eyes, and to meet individuals who inspire them to grow and learn, whether these individuals are experts in their fields or peers at another school.
The power of technology meaningfully advances student learning. But we must also be cautious. Novel inventions can be intoxicating, and one often hears the excited question, “How can we use technology in the classroom?” But this is the wrong question. Deeper and more compelling learning is served when we ask the question: “What are our learning objectives, and how can technology advance our objectives?” We must see technology as the means to achieve an end, not the end in itself. A healthy skepticism avoids the all too frequent, blind adoption of trendy trinkets, and instead focuses our attention and energies on what leads to powerful learning. In this golden age of innovation, the world’s migration online has connected us with more diverse and distant relationships in ways that will only enrich the individual and community relationships that live at the heart of our own, local experience.
Self-directed learning and teaching mastery have their breakout moment
Technology and the pandemic have also amplified two other elements of King’s academic experience: student-driven learning and mastery learning. Our flexible curriculum opens extraordinary choice for students, who may enroll in subjects as diverse as neuroscience, art history and entrepreneurship, in addition to core disciplines like history, math, English, Arabic and science. Providing students with voice and choice in their academic trajectory enables them to discover and pursue passions, and to be driven by intrinsic motivation, which is a key driver of success in education and life.
Driving the learning experience has also been a growing transition to a standards-driven, mastery-based approach to learning and teaching. As a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, King’s Academy has been a pioneer in shaping feedback and assessment around student mastery. For five years, the Middle School has offered narrative feedback to students, focusing student learning not on grades, but on the skills, habits and mindsets needed for success. This has played out in an extraordinary over-representation of our Middle School students in leadership positions during their high school years.
Now, during the pandemic, student choice and mastery approaches to learning have further thrived. In particular, this past winter both the Middle and Upper Schools piloted a school-wide, two-week January term that built off successes from the Middle School model. For the last half of January, students from all grades enrolled in two-week electives based on diverse areas of interest. Courses were mostly asynchronous and remote — opportunities enabled by the pandemic — and students progressed in many of the classes through a series of self-directed performance tasks. Overwhelmingly, students reported deep interest in the electives that they pursued.
Research has shown time and again that autonomy and mastery stimulate intrinsic motivation in students. Now, the pandemic has driven progress toward providing greater degrees of choice-driven and mastery-focused learning. While there is a place for required curriculum, grades and standardized tests, they should not be understood as the ultimate aim of education. The pandemic has further demonstrated how powerful learning can be driven by passion and mastery-based performance. In the future, these will grow as a deeper part of the student learning experience.
Relationships remain at the center
There is something more essential, still, than the pedagogy of our learning. Almost exactly one year ago, as the pandemic was just settling in, our partner GOA posted results from their internal research declaring that “relationships are the foundation of online learning design.” They had found the greatest success as an organization when students felt known by and connected with their peers and their teachers. It was strong relationships that fostered the kind of engagement that leads to meaningful learning.
This is the heart of the boarding school model. When students are known by their peers and by teachers in the classroom, on the playing field and in the dormitories, they build relationships that form a foundation for learning and life. The pandemic challenged this model. In the Upper School, the Green Zone ensured that close social ties between students and adults could be sustained. The Middle School, however, which was required to be online by nationwide decree, innovated to sustain the relationships characteristic of a King’s Academy education. The Middle School team created new and different forms of social engagement: tea and chats around subjects like music and art, shared movie screenings, non-academic workshops outside of class, and more. Despite being online all year, learning in the Middle School is slated to be on track with a standard year of academic progress, and the development of meaningful relationships outside of class undoubtedly played no small role in this success.
Care and support from teachers pervades school life at King’s. Sit-down meals offer more contact opportunities, small advisory groups ensure that every student has a teacher who knows them, evening check-ins and study hall hours build relationships in the off-hours of the day, especially when residential faculty open their homes to students for late night snacks and gatherings. The friendships and relationships that form in the classroom, on the fields and around campus are essential not only to the best learning experiences, but also to a strong social foundation for life.
Connecting past and future requires collaboration
The pandemic has propelled innovation, but our greatest innovations both cast us into the future and ground us in the values of the past. Our greatest triumphs of imagination both excite us to new possibilities and remind us of ancient understandings. Modern modes of transportation have carried us around the world, and through them we learn to further cherish the closeness of family. Social media has connected us to billions of people, and through it we have also come to recognize the importance of empathy and respect, decency and dignity. The pandemic has propelled us into the possibilities of online learning, and it has also reminded us of the foundational importance of physical presence and relationships.
In the months and years to come, I look forward to strengthening these relationships, not only with students, but also with the broader King’s Academy community of alumni, parents and friends of the school. As early as this summer, the community can expect to hear from us about strategic planning efforts that will shape the next stage of King’s Academy’s growth and development. Leadership for a changing world — in arts, sciences, government, business and more — requires ongoing attention to our constantly evolving setting, and this requires partnership. Together, we can continue to ensure that our students learn deeply and grow into leaders capable of handling — and even shaping — whatever the future may hold.