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Recovery Through Reinvention

Tara Nattrass profile photo

Tara Nattrass

Dell Technologies

A district leader recently asked me, “How can we find the time and space to innovate and reinvent when we need to focus on recovery?” Through our conversation, we determined that recovery will happen through innovation and reinvention. We can support the wide variety of needs of our students, the challenges faced by educators, and the expectations of our families if we innovate and reinvent our current model of schooling. Recovery is not an alternative to innovation or reinvention – it is a process that is instead strengthened by innovation and, perhaps most critically, supported by reinvention that leads to stronger, more equitable outcomes for students.

We are seeing this happen now as educators and leaders examine their models, practices, and systems in response to the dramatic shifts necessitated by a global pandemic. We are seeing the implementation of virtual and hybrid schools, micro-schools, new staffing models, innovation centers, competency-based learning models, and more. However, these elements of reinvention continue to happen in pockets, despite the recognition that we need broader and more systemic change. We are not seeking to quickly return to “education as usual.” Of critical importance will be addressing not only the problems brought on (or worsened) by the pandemic, but also attending to those systems and structures that did not set students up for success in the first place – and reinvention plays a key role in making this happen.

Showing What’s Possible: Amplifying Reinvention

Change is particularly challenging when we are asking students, educators, and communities to implement something that hasn’t been done before. Most of us have been through school and find it difficult to imagine a model beyond what we experienced. Therefore, a core component of innovation is to demonstrate what’s possible – through case studies, videos, and site visits that amplify the voices of those who are changing the model.

The Learning Accelerator is helping educators and communities overcome this challenge through their Hop, Skip, and Leapfrog Guide. This guide provides concrete examples of the ways educators are shifting to more student-centered learning environments on their journey to reinvention. These examples are key to moving us forward in adopting new practices “that have the power to rapidly accelerate progress and help give all children the full set of skills and competencies they need to thrive today and in the future (Winthrop, 2018).”

Using the Hop, Skip, and Leapfrog Guide

Working across schools, districts, and states, I have had the opportunity to use this guide with educators in multiple contexts, all focused on reinventing learning. It has proven to be a valuable resource for providing educators a framework to design innovations because it includes the needed examples to guide their journey. Whether working with district teams focusing on systemic change, technology directors tackling the impact and sustainability of 1:1 models, principals and grade-level teams striving to meet the needs of all students, or media specialists revamping student learning experiences, the guide sparks not only meaningful conversations but also meaningful action through the collaborative process outlined below.

Step One: Focus on the ‘Why’ While Articulating Intended Outcomes

The last several years have amplified the inequities in our education system and demonstrated the need for change. But increased awareness of inequities alone is not enough – we need to be clear on why there is a need to reinvent learning within specific contexts and communities. Before talking through examples of reinvention, we need to engage in a dialogue around our reasons for reinvention. What is driving the need for change? In many instances the “why” focuses on:

  • ensuring systemic and equal outcomes;

  • preparing students for post-secondary experiences through a focus on content, skills, and attributes;

  • adjusting student, family, and community expectations;

  • responding to digital acceleration (e.g., what does learning look like in a world with ChatGPT?); and

  • recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders.

Before delving into potential strategies and solutions, we also need to determine the outcomes that are aligned with our “why.” What is the purpose of school? What are we hoping to achieve for students, staff, families, and communities? What is most important to them?

Step Two: Determine Readiness

We are all in different places when it comes to readiness for reinvention. While everyone may be on board with taking more learner-centered and learner-driven approaches, not everyone is in the same place with the degree to which they are ready to change the model of school. With the Hop, Skip, and Leapfrog Guide, we each have a place to start. Some may be ready to “leap,” while others may focus on “hops” because of their locus of control. Each individual or team can reflect on their current practices and decide if they are in a place to implement:

  • a hop: small tweaks or improvements, usually through the implementation of single tools or specific instructional strategies;

  • a skip: adopting new systems of practice, changing the student experience on a greater scale; or

  • a leap: systemic, longer-term changes to the “grammar” of school, where traditional organizational structures for learning such as use of time, space, grade levels, and progress assessment are fundamentally altered.

Step Three: Delve into Examples

One of the barriers to reinventing learning is imagining a system beyond what we know and have experienced. Examples make a difference. It has been most helpful to delve into examples from the Hop, Skip, and Leapfrog Guide after setting the stage for reinvention through focusing on the why, articulating outcomes, and determining readiness.

After setting the stage, educators collaborate in small groups to review the examples from the guide as well as other examples of innovations. They then capture what most resonated with them (e.g., using tools such as Padlet or Jamboard or chart paper and sticky notes). These reflections from educators across the country capture those practices that resonated as they have delved into the examples together:

By exploring concrete examples in the Hop, Skip, and Leapfrog Guide, educators and community members not only have the opportunity to see what is possible and learn from one another, but also to determine what most resonates with them as they focus on implementation.

Step Four: Commit to a Hop, Skip, or Leap

In order to begin the work of reinvention, we need to commit to specific actions. After considering the reinventions that most resonate and reflecting on the impactful practices of others, educators should commit to changes that mirror those they reviewed or iterations and new ideas that best align with the needs of their specific contexts. After working with the guide in small groups and engaging in dialogue around the core elements, educators have committed to:

  • Flexible learning experiences:
  • Various iterations of personalized programs:
    • “Allowing students to have time, mentors, and guidance to choose what they want to learn is imperative. Mixing students based on interest and skill, rather than age/grade level, would be a huge shift, but it is what we truly need.”

    • “Personalized learning what you want, when you want it. Students don't just consume learning – but direct experiential instruction.”

    • Learning paths are set by teachers, while choices in resources, amount of practice, and learning strategies are determined by the student.

Sometimes initial commitments might more broadly guide the approach to reinvention – such as ensuring “we don't lose what is working well with what might need to shift” and that “we need to embrace ‘hops’ and ‘skips’” to move the work forward. Regardless of the specific commitment, if these actions lead to positive impact, we know we are heading in the right direction.

Moving Forward

Reinvention is the way to recovery. That district leader I spoke with has followed the steps outlined above and continues to push forward with a lens on reinvention. She has used a wide variety of resources, including the Hop, Skip, and Leapfrog Guide to support equitable access to high-quality learning experiences for students, and she has embraced this pivotal moment to focus on innovating and reinventing to shift our current model to meet the varying needs of all students. Because of her work and the efforts of a wide variety of educators, we are building learning models that are engaging, sustainable, and filled with promise.

Tara Nattrass profile photo

Tara Nattrass

Dell Technologies

Dr. Tara Nattrass is a Senior Education Strategist at Dell Technologies working with educators on reinventing learning with a focus on innovative programs and learning models, professional learning, and cybersecurity. Tara most recently served as Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning for Arlington Public Schools (VA) and earned a Doctorate in K-12 Educational Leadership and Policy from Vanderbilt University.