Leading from Disruption to ‘Next Normal’ in Education

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

Running Twice as Fast

2020 has brought worldwide disruption to multiple sectors in ways we could not have imagined when the calendar ticked over on January 1st. Education is one field in which reform has, by necessity, been happening at a rapid rate that some have described as “building the plane while flying it.”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a text I have previously explored as a metaphor for education and school leadership (Netolicky, 2015, 2016, 2019), and here I use it as a springboard to explore leading education during a pandemic. In the novel, the Red Queen tells Alice: “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

COVID-19 has educators running twice as fast in order to educate students amidst changes to our world that sometimes seem as fantastical as Wonderland’s fictions. In some ways we are realizing the nonsensical-ness of ‘education normal’ and wondering why we do what we’ve always done. In 2020 educators feel in some ways as though we, like Alice, are tumbling down a steep, unfamiliar rabbit hole. We have been innovating while in constant motion; prototyping, testing, and refining new pedagogies, technologies, and pastoral models with students in real time.


Too Big and Too Small

In her adventures, the character of Alice grows and shrinks. She often finds that she is too big or too small for her surroundings. The current global pandemic has turned our worlds topsy turvy and brought into question our feelings of connection and belonging. Many students, families and teachers have felt disconnected or like they don’t fit with the current reality.

At this time more than ever, educators need to consider and address “Maslow before Bloom” (Doucet et al., 2020). That is, we need to put safety, health, and well-being before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy, and especially assessment. Community, connectedness and relationships need to be at the forefront of education decisions and practices. This is a time to focus first on the humanity in education, from a position of seeking to understand and accommodate for the complex circumstances of those in our communities.


Reclaiming Agency

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. Transformational professional learning happens not when we are enjoying ourselves, but often when we are deeply uncomfortable (Netolicky, 2020b). Those who argue for flipping the education system (Evers & Kneyber, 2016; Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018; Netolicky et al., 2019) assert that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered, and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy, so that teachers themselves can be active participants in hopeful alternatives to the education system. COVID-19 has illuminated that the teachers on the ground in our school systems around the world are the education system, and they are currently learning, adapting, and leading while reshaping and flipping the education system from the ground up.

Education leaders of schools and systems are currently “leading fast and slow” and tapping into the shared moral purpose of the profession, in which service to our students is at the centre; teacher expertise, agency and autonomy; and meaningful modes of teacher collaboration (Netolicky, 2020a). They are thinking productively about solutions to education inequities. Schools are responding sensitively to their own local and national contexts while joining together in global discourse about how best to address students’ changing educational and pastoral needs during this time of crisis and constant change.


Painting the Roses Red

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the gardeners are found painting white roses red. As educators we can ask: Are recent changes to education and schooling skin-deep, a mere paint coat to cover what’s beneath, or are we beginning to plant an entirely new garden of ways to address education issues of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, success, and equity? In considering our “next normal” we can mindfully consider what we want to hold onto that we lost during this time, and what we are glad to reconsider or remove from our ways of doing and being in education.

At the end of the novel, Alice awakens and realizes that her experience was all a dream. She returns to her “dull reality.” Our challenge now is to ensure that our tackling of this emergency is not a dream that passes as we return, unthinking, to our previous version of “normal.” We should carve out time and space to deeply consider the purpose and possibility of schooling and education, before we rush back into school as we used to know it.