Education Disrupted: Leading Educational Systems Through Times of Crisis and Uncertainty

Special Focus : Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership July 06, 2020

Over the past four months, as COVID-19 has swept across the globe, many politicians and news media have adopted war metaphors to describe the challenges that countries and communities are facing. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutiérrez recently embraced the comparison during his remarks at a G20 virtual summit on the COVID-19 pandemic. He stated: “We are at war with a virus—and not winning it. This war needs a war-time plan to fight it.”

In this metaphor the enemy is the virus, and our frontline strategy to fight it has been to “flatten the curve” through physical lock-down, with our soldiers being the brave healthcare workers in the hospitals and clinics who are working tirelessly trying to mitigate illness and save people’s lives. 

But like all wars—as this one has continued to wage on—as one front seems to die down another one erupts. For example, as we have seen the flattening of the illness curve in some places, we have also seen the economic hardship curve spike in others, with dire long-term consequences on people’s lives and livelihoods. The same holds true for education. As we are beginning to face the prospect of reopening schools—in some places this is already happening—the data on the last three months is starting to come in and we are seeing signs of learning loss on an unprecedented scale that could take the equivalent of years off of the productivity and future earnings of our students, especially those who are the most vulnerable.  

Importantly, as our students, teachers, and school leaders prepare to usher in a new academic year, many are wondering what school and learning will look like in a post-COVID-19 world in which uncertainty is the ‘new normal’. From the research I lead at WISE, we have found that time and again, the data has shown that school leadership is a key factor in the health of education systems. But at a time when the structures and systems of the traditional school model have been completely unraveled, has good leadership become ever more critical to building back better, fairer systems?

Last year we published a report, co-authored with James Spillane on Educational Leadership: A Multilevel Distributed Perspective, which seems incredibly relevant now. In fact, one unprecedented outcome of the crisis has been the emergence of an extreme distribution of the traditional education roles—teacher, leader, and learner—across the entire learning ecosystem to ensure that learning has continued to happen during a prolonged period of wide-scale school closure. Over the course of a semester, the traditional hierarchy of the schoolhouse has flattened, and students, parents, teachers, and school leaders are now working side-by-side on leading learning. As we come out of this crisis, and see the new school year unfold in a reimagined, post-COVID-19 space, how will these roles and responsibilities of educator, leader, and learner re-emerge? Which aspects of education are likely to revert to the ‘old normal,’ and which will remain? 

In April 2020, WISE and Salzburg Global Seminar held its first convening in our Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined series, which focused specifically on exploring the immediate to mid-term education responses from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. We invited practitioners, researchers, and policy makers from around the world to share their perspectives on the impact of the pandemic on education systems globally. This section of the anthology is populated with essays from five contributors to our April event, who are working as educational leadership policy makers and practitioners. The pieces featured share the thoughts and experiences of these experts and examine the immediate, mid- and long-term consequences of COVID-19 on school leadership. What emerged from the discussion was a set of themes for policymakers to take back with them as they began to think about how to build their systems back better after the crisis. These themes included:

1. The central importance of well-being, social and emotional learning, and the hidden curriculum in education.

One thing that we’ve been reminded of over and over again during this crisis, is that education is a social experience and part of the magic of learning comes from the learner’s interaction with their teacher and their peers. As all contributors agreed, well-being should be a core goal of education so we can help people develop resilience and live satisfying lives even in adversity. We need to develop more than just academic skills in our schools. We need to develop the skills and competencies needed to better manage our responses to the challenges that life brings; we need to be able to continue to learn, live, and thrive amidst uncertainty and crisis. 

Deborah Netolicky in her article: Leading from Disruption to the ‘Next Normal’ in Education emphasizes this point when she writes about the need to address the well-being of learners and educators during this time more than ever before. Educators are in complex situations, so we need to think about humanity before learning.   

Similarly, Daniela Labra Cardero of Atentamente writes that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for social and emotional learning imperative for both young learners and adults. She also warns that this crisis has increased mental illness and emotional problems, including depression and anxiety. Like Deborah, Daniela reiterates that we need to bring the human component back into education, so that we teach our youth to be better able to live with ourselves, with others, and the planet.

2. The role of teachers as collaborators and co-designers.

One thing that I have seen from an educator’s standpoint during this time is the important role of teacher collaboration—collaboration between and among teachers but also between teachers, school leaders, parents, and even policymakers. Collaboration has been a key characteristic—across the board—of successful education responses to this crisis. In my own research and work with schools, I have seen the power of such collaborations, even in normal times. Teachers and school leaders should be supported, empowered, and welcomed into policy discourse as collaborators and co-designers. Top-down bureaucracy stifles creativity, innovation, and change in the classroom.

Deborah Netolicky supports this view in her piece, and through the brilliant metaphor of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  explores the theme of teacher agency and leading  through a crisis. Deborah writes: “at the end of Carroll’s novel, Alice refuses to bow to the Red Queen’s authority. She realizes by this point that the trial is ‘nonsense’ and that she has the power to end its madness”. The current COVID-19 scenario is offering opportunities for teachers to realize their own power to act and to innovate. In leading this crisis, teachers need to be supported and empowered to innovate their own solutions to the challenges that they are facing.  

Similarly, Gregory J. Moncada of Qatar Academy for Science and Technology writes in his essay that despite a school’s best efforts, including advanced planning, professional development, and open lines of communication, a teacher’s way of thinking about and approaching learning during this crisis is ultimately shaped by their in-school ideas and experiences. Thus, in his experience encouraging teachers to build on those, design solutions relevant to their students, and mirroring those in-school experiences have allowed them to iterate quickly and improve student learning and well-being during this time.

3. Education can and must be reimagined.

Education has notoriously lagged behind the world of business and industry in its ability to adapt and innovate—this crisis has given us the opportunity to change that. If there was ever a time to try new things, test ideas, and innovate, it is now. Amongst the trauma that this pandemic has caused, so is a unique opportunity to build a better education. For the first time in 150 years, we get to blow up the industrial model of education and think anew. 

Even prior to the pandemic, one topic that is often a source of fierce debate, and even acrimony, in education circles is the role of assessment. Educators and policymakers alike have endlessly debated the what, how and why of assessment for years, largely agreeing on the need for change, but with little to no consensus on what change should look like and how it should be implemented. In Beatriz Pont’s essay, Reimagining Assessment, she writes that this crisis is providing us with the rare opportunity to take a critical look at assessment and innovate. In many systems world-wide normal assessment cycles were changed or even dropped completely during the pandemic. Out of necessity, schools were left to find new and innovative ways to measure student learning, providing a unique opportunity to design and develop new methods. Moving forward, as we emerge from the crisis, system leaders will need to ultimately decide what is next for assessment, but we may well find that this time of innovation and new thinking has impact far beyond the crisis itself. 

In the case of China, reimagining education means a future where AI is an ever-present reality. Xueqin Jiang suggests in his piece—After COVID-19, Will Chinese Education Achieve Artificial Intelligence?that in a context like China investing in AI for the right reasons, including developing teachers and enabling collaboration between urban and rural schools, could help build a better, more equitable system. He adds that while Chinese policymakers have wanted to implement AI in education for years, the EdTech field has always been too fragmented to implement AI in a systemic way. The COVID-19 crisis offers a good opportunity for policymakers to step in and consolidate the various EdTech platforms controlled by local governments in the country. 

4. What type of leadership do we need?

It is clear to me that to lead schools and systems through the COVID-19 crisis, we need to reprioritize our values. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation among education policymakers and experts had already turned toward building a 21st century learning paradigm, a model that marries the acquisition of academic skill with the building of behavioral competencies such as agency, collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and life-long learning. The outcome of this approach—the so called 21st century learner—would be a resilient, agile, and collaborative problem solver capable of taking on the challenges of our ever-changing world. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that the time to implement such a future-forward approach is now. In a world in which schooling can be disrupted or entirely suspended overnight, agency and problem solving will serve students better than the rote memorization of facts. 

But if we are serious about accelerating such transformation of our learning systems, it is also necessary to consider the implications for our educators and school leaders. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that radical change in education can happen, but you need the right leaders to make it successful. 

Gregory J. Moncada in his piece about leading his school through the crisis refers to “preparedness leadership.” He explains that the role of preparedness leadership is to understand how to respond to the unique context of crisis, and, in his case, that meant using data to support their actions and to also engage with a variety of communication tools. This method, he writes, helped his teachers move forward with confidence during a time of uncertainty where answers weren’t always evident.

In Beatriz Pont’s piece she describes the role that leadership teams have played in creating environments that support teachers, students, and their families during the pandemic. In times of uncertainty, building a network of leaders, with shared roles and responsibilities has offered schools and communities a means of support and coherence. 

Similarly, Daniela Labra Cardero in her piece calls for ‘motion leadership’—a term often used by the likes of Fullan and others—in leading through crisis. For her, the primary role of school leader during these times should be to maintain a sense of belonging and coherence for educational communities. In motion leadership, the leader understands his or herself as a learner and supports teachers in forming a community of learners through trust and relationship building. 

In conclusion, it is clear that all of our contributors agree on what kind of changes need to be made to our systems, what type of educator leaders are guiding our schools. The final question becomes where do we go from here? Now that we know ‘what’ kind of education we need, we need to turn our focus to the ‘how’ of building back better systems for the future.