Looking Ahead: How to Thrive in (and Beyond) the 2020-21 School Year

Road with years listed between yellow lines - 2020 - 2021 - 2022 and beyond
What steps can you be taking now to better prepare your students, yourself, and your school district for the future? When you think about the learning environment that your students will need, does it encompass any of the principles of student-centered learning?

We began our student-centered learning blog series by exploring what student-centered learning is in a theoretical sense, defining the relationship between student-centered learning and blended learning, and taking an inside look at what student-centered learning looks like in practice.  

We discussed the motivating factors behind why some schools make the shift towards student-centered learning as well as the catalysts that may facilitate change and give student-centered learning momentum. 

In our Stories from the Field: Student-Centered Learning mini-series, we celebrated and highlighted the successes of three different Michigan schools that are embracing student-centered learning: Hamilton Community Schools, FlexTech Schools, and Fraser Public Schools

And in our Engage and Empower Learners mini-series, we have revisited the core tenets of student-centered learning—voice and choice, competency-based progression, and continuous monitoring of student needs—to explain how student-centered learning supports learning continuity. 

Last spring, as schools closed their doors due to the pandemic, as teachers (some for the first time) were asked to move their instruction online, and as students (some for the first time) were asked to learn online, schools were given some grace and forgiveness as we were all adjusting to our “new normal.” 

While the transition to remote teaching and learning was easier for some, it is safe to say that many struggled. 

However, as we begin another school year, failure is not an option. 

This school year, we have two choices: survive or thrive. 

We conclude this series by looking ahead—looking ahead with the intent of exploring what changes can we make now to better prepare our schools, our teachers, and our students for success not only this year, but in the years to come. 

As we begin another school year, failure is not an option.

This school year, we have two choices: survive or thrive.

Survival mode

For those school administrators who are trying to survive this year by sustaining their pre-covid model of education, we understand. It’s understandable to want to mimic how education occurred prior to the pandemic but in a remote learning environment. 

Some school administrators are reporting that even parents want “school” to return to the way it was, insisting that their children aren’t disciplined enough to complete their work on their own when they aren’t provided with the structures of synchronous instruction. 

However, implementing and enforcing strict rules like requiring that students always have video on, that they follow along from home with classroom instruction on hybrid learning days, prohibiting the use of virtual backgrounds, making a virtual learning day just as long as an in-person learning day, and forbidding snacking during class are not necessarily the answer. 

However, could the lack of self-discipline and initiative on the part of students simply exist because students have never been given the opportunity to learn these skills before now? 

We can’t expect students to have the capacity for learner agency when they have never been provided with opportunities to practice. 

The way to thrive is to innovate 

Rather than trying to survive by sustaining a pre-covid model while teaching in a remote or hybrid learning environment, some innovative schools are looking for opportunities to advance their vision and consider new possibilities. 

We have come to learn that some of the pre-covid structures that have existed in our schools but limited our ability to implement change such as bell schedules, seat time, and the physical limitation of teachers solely delivering instruction in-person, are no longer a necessity for learning. 

How can we institutionalize a different kind of practice—one that is not dependent on the physical presence of teachers and students together, one that meets the unique needs of every individual student, one that keeps in mind the stress that teachers, students, and families are already under—and deliver instruction otherwise? 

Innovative schools are looking to structure what has traditionally been done in the past in ways that are better, easier, and/or faster—not only for teachers and administrators, but for students and families as well—so that when the previous practices are pulled away, people don’t revert back to their old ways. 

There are schools that are ready to take advantage of this opportunity and to dream about what’s possible

So what can we do between now and life post-pandemic to create an improved learning model and to help students thrive? 

Design opportunities for student-centered learning

As you contemplate the possibilities that the future of learning holds, we encourage you to consider incorporating the components of student-centered learning at appropriate levels, wherever it is possible. And if you already implement some student-centered practices, continue to nurture them. It will help both you and your students grow not only now, but also into the future. 

In our discussions with school leaders, many have indicated that those school districts that implemented some student-centered learning principles prior to the pandemic made the transition to remote learning and teaching more easily. 

“For us to shift to fully remote learning, we only had to shift slightly, modifying content somewhat as we already had the infrastructure and protocols in place to support remote learning,” said Carrie Wozniak, superintendent of Fraser Public Schools. “Being student-centered already, we simply stayed focused on student learning instead of figuring out how to teach remotely. This allowed our teachers to focus more on learning, rather than emergency remote teaching. They didn’t need to entirely shift their focus.” 

Student-centered learning means focusing more on student learning than on creating content and structuring lessons. 

“Being student-centered already, we simply stayed focused on student learning instead of figuring out how to teach remotely. This allowed our teachers to focus more on learning, rather than emergency remote teaching. They didn’t need to entirely shift their focus.” 

Let them choose. Let them show what they know. 

Another way we can help our students thrive both now and in the future is to find opportunities to give students choice. Building choice into instruction and assessments gives students an element of control.

Rather than trying to keep the lesson content, delivery, and assessments the same whether students are learning face-to-face, in a hybrid environment, or remote, building choice into instruction and assessments has the potential to create greater levels of student motivation and engagement

Here are some additional resources that explain how to create opportunities for student choice and what it looks like in the classroom: 

Building choice into instruction and assessment can give teachers a more accurate picture of what students really know as students have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a way that makes the most sense to them, not the single option offered.

In the remote learning environment that many teachers and students are finding themselves in, teachers may not be able to be as dependent on summative assessments because of the increased concerns of academic integrity. As a result, teachers may want to rely more on formative assessments to more closely and frequently monitor student needs and assess student learning. 

If you can create assessments and design learning opportunities now—to whatever extent that you can—that incorporate voice and choice, that give students an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in a way that highlights their strengths, it will help students thrive and gives them a chance to develop skills needed for learner agency.

“Schools that have created the conditions for student agency are going to have an easier time with rapid or extended closures because students aren’t waiting on the adults or the system to tell them what to do,” says Dr. Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership at FlexTech High School. “They [students] are inspired by the work they’re doing because they had a voice in shaping and designing it—they created it and it doesn’t live in the school building. When the student drives the learning, the arbitrary structures like class periods and teacher-driven lessons in the form of worksheets or rote learning tasks become obsolete.”

When schools and teachers can create these student-centered learning environments, the responsibility to move forward is really on the students. They have the resources they need, they know the learning path they are on, and they are engaged and motivated to advance. 

“They [students] are inspired by the work they’re doing because they had a voice in shaping and designing it—they created it and it doesn’t live in the school building.”

Provide ongoing professional development

While some teachers will naturally thrive in a situation like the one we are currently in, where things are new and challenging and unpredictable, others will really struggle. Neither teachers nor administrators necessarily know how to make student-centered learning work, especially when many are teaching and learning remotely. 

It is crucial that ongoing professional development is put in place to help these teachers. As you consider what to incorporate into your professional development plan, make sure to keep in mind the following considerations: 

  • District level vs. building level needs: There will be varying professional development needs within your district. It may be appropriate to have district-level professional development with some autonomy and flexibility for differences at the building level. 
  • Teacher needs: Satisfying the needs of your teachers should be your first priority. Help them be effective and functional whether they are teaching in a virtual or a hybrid model. Help them understand what good instruction looks like and how to slowly filter in voice and choice. *Remember to be sensitive to the fact that some of your teachers may be struggling with home obligations, especially those with little ones, in addition to their teaching obligations. 
  • Focus on assessment: As we discussed above, assessment strategies will need to change. Teachers may need to focus more on formative assessments rather than summative assessments. Also, keep in mind that assessment may look very different at the high school compared to the middle school or elementary levels. Make sure to incorporate the building-level flexibility that we mentioned earlier. 
  • Parents: Make sure to work with parents and keep their needs in mind. Remember that in a remote learning environment, teachers are delivering instruction in students’ homes. This has given teachers a glimpse of what home life is like for some students. *Remember to be sensitive to the fact that some of these parents are trying to work a full-time job while helping their children with their school work. 
  • Social-emotional component: Recognize that many students and their families may be feeling isolated and experiencing added stress. Are there ways you can embed social-emotional components into communications with families? Newsletters with suggestions probably won’t be enough. Families’ needs are shifting, and developing relationships with them is essential. 

While the ideas above do not form an exhaustive list, incorporating these components into the professional development you design for your teachers should help. In addition, it is crucial that professional development is ongoing for it to be successful long-term. 

One of the best ways to incorporate ongoing professional development is to build time into teachers’ schedules dedicated specifically for collaboration. Teachers need more time to collaborate—to share information about students, to share best practices in instruction, and to help each other grow. 

Give teachers the opportunity to learn from each other. 

Shape the building blocks of a new model now

This virtual or hybrid model that many educators are now working in out of necessity is actually being recognized by some families and students as a better way to learn and to receive their education. 

Once the pandemic is under control and some schools move back to their traditional model of only offering face-to-face instruction, that may not be acceptable to some families. This need for remote learning may actually force some schools into offering a hybrid model…and force them to play catch up to those schools who were early adopters and already have it figured out. 

Rather than being behind the curve, perhaps we can take advantage of the current situation and the removal of some constraints that have been barriers to student-centered learning to try some new strategies. 

We should begin to pay particular attention to what is currently working for students and families through a student-centered lens, grab onto those things, and consider how we can keep them in place even after the pandemic subsides. 

Can you build upon and enhance your current model by adding in some student-centered learning principles?

“It’s not about throwing out what was done before, it’s about determining what we are going to bring with us to a new model. It’s about adding and enhancing,” says Dave Tebo of Hamilton Community Schools

Will you spend this school year in survival mode or will you look for opportunities to innovate and allow your students to thrive? 

What will you bring with you to a new model? 

“It’s not about throwing out what was done before, it’s about determining what we are going to bring with us to a new model. It’s about adding and enhancing.”

Student-Centered Learning Blog Series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion each month about student-centered learning: what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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