Moving Beyond the Existential

Here is the understatement of the day/week/year/decade so far:  It’s been a tough couple of years.  This is true for everyone, but I believe it’s especially true for schools and learning organizations.  We have been forced to deal with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) on a new scale.

COVID brought existential challenges to schools (especially independent and international schools) in simply staying viable as institutions.  Mandates, moving back and forth between remote

, blended and face-to-face learning, shortages and all of the tensions that have accompanied this time in history have taken their toll.  Political polarization, societal shifts, economic challenges and climate concerns have added elements of complexity that make moving forward difficult to envision . . . for districts, schools, leaders, teachers and, most importantly, students.  On the flip side, the role of schools in supporting thriving communities has never been more apparent.

It’s easy to feel exhausted, disillusioned and disenfranchised.  However, now is exactly when we need to pick ourselves up and move forward.  Here are a couple of thoughts on the future starts here.

We’ve Learned A Lot

COVID has taught us a great deal about what works and what doesn’t, whether in remote, blended or face-to-face learning environments.

The EdCan Network states that “the experiences of the pandemic and the lessons learned should serve as motivation for radical new and alternative approaches to teaching, learning, and leading.  Calls to ‘get back to normal’ by some ignore challenges and structural inequities across all sectors of society that have been laid bare and exacerbated by the pandemic.” (Lopez, 2022)   I would also posit that it has laid bare many of the assumptions and myths about traditional schooling.

The World Bank published “twin reports” (“Remote Learning During the Global School Lockdown: Multi-Country Lessons” and “Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow” (The World Bank, 2022) that provide some interesting (yet not new) insights, namely that:

  • Availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning
  • Teachers are more critical than ever
  • Education is an intense human interaction endeavor
  • Parents as key partners of teachers
  • Leverage on a dynamic ecosystem of collaboration

My own take-aways are that:

  • Compliance is not engagement and people cannot truly learn without being engaged.
  • We can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the traditional plan–>deliver–>test–>grade–> move on to the next chapter will work, if it ever did.
  • More worksheets, digital or physical, do not improve anything.
  • There are some things that may be more important than a basic academic standard in the long run . . . agility, perseverance, critical thinking and empathy spring to mind.
  • Education is a very human process, not a curriculum.
  • Inequity takes many forms and is a very real impediment to learning
  • Student ownership of learning is not a just cute term but a necessity. We say we “empower” students a lot . . . but do we?
  • Schools following competency-based, project-based and other forms of deeper learning fared much better than schools who simply tried to move antiquated practices online . . . and their students continued to learn and grow. Many schools are now looking to these approaches to combat “learning loss” (a questionable term given the metrics often used).  (O’Donnell, 2021 and Walser, 2021)
  • Schools with a strong sense of purpose and vision fared better than schools who had not put in the work to build this foundation (see below).

We Need To Thrive, Not Simply Survive

In my work supporting schools with transformational aspirations, I have seen the recent weariness to engage in challenging, long-term work.  I have seen futures thinking and design revert to traditional strategic and contingency planning.  I have seen building organizational capacity through deep and sustained professional learning shift to traditional “PD” and training.  I have seen efforts to modernize teaching and learning wane in the face of recent challenges.

And, I get it . . . energy is not an infinite resource.  It is hard to climb up the hierarchy of needs when dealing with daily challenges that make normal functions difficult.

However, I believe that an organization and its people must have a strong purpose and meaningful aspirations in order to move ahead in any environment, but especially one as challenging as we have experienced over the past couple of years.  Without a shared commitment to a better future, we lack the foundation to move ahead.  In times of uncertainty, we need a strong foundation and something meaningful to work towards and sustain us.  We cannot simply tread water until the waters recede.  The waters may well rise again in some form or another.

“Having a vision of the change we want to see matters and can help guide discussion, debate, and—ultimately—action.”  (Vegas and Winthrop, 2020)  This is something of a timeless truth, but it matters more now than ever before.

Fernando Reimers and Andreas Schleicher discovered that there was a great deal of innovation occurring in schools out of necessity during COVID.  However, this needs to be “catalysed so that education systems do not merely attempt to ‘return to the past normal’ but address what have been well-recognised shortcomings in the capacity to educate students with the full range of skills essential to build a better future.”  (Reimers and Schleicher, 2020)

How we emerge from the past couple of years will be important to the future of education and our communities.  It’s difficult not to feel exhausted, but we cannot afford to relapse into comfortable spaces and worn practices.  If ever there was a time to renew our purpose and practices, it is now.  Our children’s (and our own) future will be affected by what we do (or don’t do) now.  So, please, let’s take a deep breath and create the future so that we don’t become victims of events around us again.



Lopez, A., 2022. Reimagining Student Success in the Aftermath of the Pandemic. [online] Available at: <>[Accessed 3 August 2022].

O’Donnell, P., 2021. Helping Students Learn at Their Own Pace: Why Some Ohio Schools Are Adopting a ‘Mastery’ Approach in Hopes of Closing COVID Learning Gaps. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 August 2022].

Reimers, F. and Schleicher, A., 2020. Schooling Disrupted, Schooling Rethought: How the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education. [online] Available at: < – Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought.pdf> [Accessed 2 August 2022].

Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow. [online] The World Bank. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 August 2022].

Vegas, E. and Winthrop, E., 2020. Beyond reopening schools: How education can emerge stronger than before COVID-19. [online] The Brookings Institute. Available at: <>[Accessed 1 August 2022].

Walser, N., 2021. Emerging from the pandemic, districts look to expand personalized competency-based education. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 August 2022].