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Charting a course to a (better) new normal

It is human to yearn for a return to "normal." Yet sometimes following any disruptive event, a return to normal becomes impossible. What typically emerges from these events is a new normal that is based on what we have learned from that disruption. This emerging new normal occurs on a societal level, such as the security measures put in place following the attack of 9/11. It can also occur on a personal level, such as a change in lifestyle after a medical problem. 

When it comes to our schools most educators know in their hearts that a return to normal is probably not possible, yet what will replace it, is at best uncertain and ill defined. 

Schools are now stuck in a liminal space. Limen is a Latin word meaning threshold, a point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is a time between what was and what is next. It is time of transition, a place of waiting and not knowing. It is usually a time and place not of our choosing. Most of us would like to avoid this time and space and leave it as soon as possible but it can be a time of positive transformation and growth.

Educators and students have always lived and worked in the same time and space of schools, but their experiences are worlds apart based on the traditional hierarchical structure of school. The experience of the pandemic, however, has leveled the playing field for educators and students; they are both in a liminal space of both uncertainty and transformation. This is an opportunity for schools -- a chance to reimagine what education can be for all members of the school community.

When students and educators were in the same time and space, the physical structure of the school building provided the connection for everyone living and working there. Now, regardless of whatever reopening plan a school adopts, that physical connection can no longer can be counted on to provide that connection. Something they took for granted is gone. Educators and students are in this liminal space between the digital and physical environments. This provides the opportunity for finding a different way of connecting -- to chart the course for finding a better what's next or new normal.

What can educators and students do to insure that their time in this liminal space leads to a positive transformation of education? There are no clear road maps or guides for doing so, but here are some ways to get started.

Admit the existence and their common experience of being in a liminal space or period of transition. This can be a challenging conversation to have since educators and students are not accustomed to being on a level playing field -- a relatively equal state of uncertainty. They need to talk about the fact that physical building and all the predictability it provided cannot no longer be counted on. They must find a new way to be -- to adjust their relationship to meet their new circumstances.

Talk about the questions, doubts, and feelings associated with the uncertainties of the moment. This is an opportunity for educators and students to establish new connections: their common experience. Educators and students can develop these connections based on sharing their feelings in response to the current state of education.

Hope and imagine together the possibilities of a new and better normal. This is the best way to resist the very human temptation of directing time and energy to the impossible task of restoring the old normal. Educators and students can co-create what the new normal will be.

Consider some "new rules" to follow. Success in a traditional school is almost guaranteed, for any student who consistently follows these three unwritten rules: 1) Do what you are told to do., 2) Complete all the work you are given to do and 3) Learn to mind your own business. Whatever the "new normal" becomes, these rules will probably not work as well as before, so why not talk about them with students and work together on developing some better ones. Here are some ways to reframe the old ones:

  • Do what is right. This rule is admittedly harder to follow than the ones in the old normal. It means that "right" can no longer be narrowly confined to just following the rules. It means that educators and students must talk about what "right" means. Doing what is right involves values and principles rather than being just a set of "do's" and "don’ts." 
  • Own your own learning. This rule does require educators and students to find what I call the MVP of learning: its meaning, value and purpose. This doesn't mean that students can be allowed to only learn what they want to learn or that education should be like picking items off a menu. Students can discover that learning is not a series of hoops to jump through to gain some external approval or avoid a negative consequence. MVP should be the basis for all learning. Students and educators can find it together.
  • Learn together. Students take tests on an individual basis and receive individual grades. There is nothing wrong with that. However this fact has led to students to think that learning itself is an individual matter and not a social one. Educators can also inadvertently fail to make this distinction for their students. Students learn from other students, educators learn from students and other educators. When students learn together they learn more; learning together meets their need for social contact rather than compete against it. 

I offer this perspective as a retired educator, who would still like to help educators see the opportunity that could be hiding in the challenge of evolving from an old to a new normal.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of "Peaceful School Bus" (Hazelden), "No Place for Bullying" (Corwin, 2012), "Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities" (Corwin) and the picture book, "Okay Kevin" (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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