The Key to Addressing Covid-19 Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Schools

By: Aaron Daly and Bb Ntsakey 

We’re entering Month No. 11 of the COVID-19 pandemic, and finally—mercifully, really—there’s a vaccine on the horizon to provide relative immunity from the potentially deadly virus. Many Americans have been dreaming for months about getting the jab (or jabs, depending on the shot). Others…well, not so much.

Not all this hesitancy stems from skepticism about vaccinations overall; a big portion of the concern stems from understandable distrust and fear. Many who are working through vaccine hesitancy are from Black and Brown communities—communities that have for too long have been marginalized and denied access to essential services. This reticence is based in part on a history of mistreatment, dishonesty, and oppression. It is the legacy of horrific experiences such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

Many of those we know and love mistrust the vaccine due to an accurate assessment of the history of discriminatory medical treatment and research. To put it differently, the apprehension regarding the vaccine is an understandable response to the lived experience of systemic racism.

Schools can, and must, step in to move the conversation around vaccine hesitancy forward. Public schools are uniquely positioned to help ensure that local communities have the information and confidence that they need to get vaccinated. We can work to address vaccine hesitancy in a manner that elevates trusted local voices and promotes uptake of faculty, staff, students, and families.

Schools can help raise awareness in their school community–we can take the lead on raising public awareness about the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine because we educate.

We can model the importance of trusting and understanding science. We can acknowledge the shortcomings of the past, repair the most egregious mistakes, and build hope around how we have grown. We can reach out to families and work together to get them to overcome their distrust in medicine and hospitals and doctors—all in the name of safeguarding health and wellbeing.

Ultimately, we hope that communicating with families about the vaccine will give them the knowledge they need to make an informed decision around what the vaccine is and what it isn’t. From there, we can rebuild together and support those who are now struggling the most.

How Public Schools Can Make a Difference

Schools can promote more equitable vaccination uptake in several ways.

For starters, they already are places of learning, so students—and their families, for that matter—expect to expand their knowledge and comfort zones with interactions therein.

Second, from a historical and cultural perspective, schools represent one of the few remaining public institutions that Black and Brown people have the potential to trust. Schools provide continuity and a range of services. Mothers and fathers send their babies to schools knowing the children will be cared for while they’re there. If part of this care includes education about the vaccines, perhaps families will be more likely to consider the information worthwhile.

Third, schools have a responsibility to teach the truth about vaccinations and herd immunity. This means sharing with constituents the good and the bad. The goal here is not to indoctrinate, but instead to help normalize science—to get students and their loved ones to recognize that despite institutionalized shortcomings in the past, the science behind vaccines really is aimed at helping the greatest number of people live by building immunity to a virus.

Down the road, when we roll out vaccination programs and invite students to bring their family members to get vaccinated at community schools, families may be more inclined to participate if they can do so at places they trust.

Potential Pitfalls

We admit: This plan isn’t without challenges.

Black and Latino Americans are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at significantly lower rates than white people. A recent CNN analysis of data from 14 states found vaccine coverage is twice as high among white people on average than it is among Black and Latino people. The analysis found that on average, more than 4% of the white population has received a COVID-19 vaccine, about 2.3 times higher than the Black population (1.9%) and 2.6 times higher than the Hispanic population (1.8%).

These underserved populations need the vaccine badly. Black and Indigenous Americans continue to suffer the highest rates of loss—with both groups now experiencing a COVID-19 death toll exceeding 1 in 750 nationally. Black and Brown Americans are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people and being hospitalized at four times the rate, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health advocates blame this disparity on the federal government and hospitals not prioritizing equitable access. We know there’s a cultural disconnect, too; Dr. LeRoy Sims, senior vice president of medical affairs for the NBA, explained it perfectly in this interview with The Undefeated.

Another obstacle: Logistics. You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that the government has struggled with vaccine supply shortages and a chaotic rollout that has caused delays in vaccinations.

The late January announcement that feds will purchase 200 million additional doses certainly has buoyed spirits, but the question remains: Even with a new president who seems committed to challenging systemic racism, can a government that has botched responses at every turn make good on its promise to have enough vaccines for everyone by summer?

What Happens Next

The next few months will be critical. We can help promote more equitable access to vaccination by ensuring that our school communities have the information and confidence they need to get vaccinated.

Vaccines will become available to educators and we must strongly encourage each other to get them–to lead by example and take the shots.

Not only is it important they get the jabs, but it also is important that teachers and members of our local school communities become vaccine ambassadors and promote the jabs as essential to public health. This can be as simple as sharing vaccination photos on Facebook or Instagram. It can be sophisticated as incorporating messaging into classroom lectures or direct appeals to parents.

We aim to create circles of influence. When people see educators demonstrate willingness to be part of a solution, they’re more likely to get on board. The more people who get on board, the more people they’ll influence to get on board as well.

Schools can be an important part of a push to get members of our Black and Brown communities comfortable with getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and push vaccination rates higher.

It’s up to us to put them in the position to do so. We help make sure no one is left behind.

For more see:

Aaron Daly is the Chief Operating Officer, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools. 

Bb Ntsakey is the Director of Academics, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

10 Resolutions for Special Education in 2021

By: Karla Phillips-Krivickas

We are just a few weeks into 2021, and the year is still brimming with possibilities—some that could completely change learning for future generations of students.

In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated layers of inequities that imperil students nationwide, especially those with disabilities like my daughter. These students faced glaring achievement gaps on every measure long before the pandemic shutdowns. And when schools closed, we saw their special programs, therapies and accommodations transform or vanish overnight.

Now, states face a unique opportunity to establish a new, student-centered normal as they emerge from the pandemic. And in my 20+ years of education policy experience, I have never seen such an exciting opportunity.

With the following 10 resolutions, I believe states can rethink and reimagine teaching and learning for all students, especially those with disabilities.

1. Include Students with Disabilities in Definitions of Equity

A hallmark of 2020 education policy has been a laser like focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Rightfully so, however, references to students that have been historically marginalized or disadvantaged too often do not include students with disabilities.


Ensure all state initiatives, including those led by non-profit organizations, include students with disabilities in definitions of equity.

2. Embed Principles of Universal Design in All Education Initiatives

Universal design is the opposite of the traditional one-size-fits-all approach, where thoughts of modifications and accommodations are an afterthought. Universally designed approaches begin with the goal of ensuring accessibility to the greatest number of students possible.


Begin redesign efforts through the lens of universal design to benefit all students, with a specific focus on those facing the greatest challenges.

3. Dispel Myths and Raise Expectations

Most students with disabilities have no cognitive impairments that would prevent them from reaching the same level of learning as other students—and for those that do, we have witnessed exciting increases in post-school outcomes in recent years. Even so, students with disabilities consistently experience heartbreaking academic outcomes fueled by misperceptions and low expectations.


Focus efforts on improving measurable outcomes for students across all disability categories and refuse to take learning gaps for granted.

4. Expand Innovation at the School Level

In 2020, it became abundantly clear that we must focus on preparing students not preserving systems. Schools and educators must be empowered to change systems, strategies and approaches to benefit students, especially those with disabilities.


  • Launch innovation networks devoted to students with disabilities and provide schools the necessary flexibility.
  • Create grant opportunities that include competitive priorities dedicated to serving students with disabilities.
  • Help schools pursue all available flexibilities in both state and federal funding sources.

5. Fund Students, Not Disabilities

States often weigh per-pupil funding based on a student’s diagnosis. This archaic approach assumes all students with a certain disability need identical services and supports. Even if funding is weighted for severity or placement, it still does not reflect the individual services students require to succeed.


Fund students based on the specific services they need to succeed, rather than a disability label.

6. Allow Funding to Follow Students to the Schools Serving Them

State funding formulas often assume students with disabilities are evenly distributed throughout the state. However, that is rarely the case, and robust public school choice environments in some states are resulting in an increasingly uneven distribution.


Ensure that funding follows each student to the school they attend.

7. Begin Post-School Preparation Sooner

Federal requirements for transition planning for students with disabilities begin at 16, but nothing prevents schools from beginning much earlier. In fact, over half of U.S. states and territories require transition planning to begin prior to 16.


Require transition planning to begin by age 14 or freshman year, whichever comes first.

8. Benchmark Progress Toward Postsecondary Goals

Closing the K-12 achievement gap is essential, yet insufficient on its own. States must also expand access to postsecondary opportunities for students with disabilities and support their success. The foray into postsecondary education represents a new frontier for many individuals with disabilities, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But today’s parents and students expect—and deserve—more. 


  • Launch a Postsecondary Network for Students with Disabilities, in partnership with universities and community colleges, to identify existing obstacles to postsecondary success and promote solutions.
  • Ensure postsecondary attainment plans include goals and strategies for students with disabilities. (To date, 45 states have set postsecondary attainment goals aligned to the Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation initiative.)

9. Strengthen Career Pathways and Participation

Students with disabilities are a valuable asset states must develop to help meet both education and employment goals. For this to happen, states must develop intentional strategies to increase the number of students with disabilities in career and technical education classes/programs.


Create innovative, obtainable pathways to valuable workforce opportunities for all students—intentionally including those with disabilities—through career and technical education, college acceleration opportunities like dual credit and other programs designed to enhance work skills for high school students.

10. Increase Workforce Participation

In 2018, only an estimated 37.8% of adults with a disability, ages 21-64 were employed. Preparing all students for college or career is our ultimate goal. Ensuring there are abundant opportunities for students with disabilities is a critical goal.


  • Prioritize students with disabilities in apprenticeship programs as well as partnerships between business and education.
  • Spotlight employers who have embarked on strategic initiatives to hire people with disabilities and build programs to provide peer-to-peer modeling, education and awareness.  

Last year challenged us in many ways, but it also elevated issues long overdue for discussion and gave us the opportunity to identify what is essential. In 2021, states are poised to boldly envision and begin implementing a new education system that prioritizes each child and their long term success.

This is our moment to act on behalf of students with disabilities. Let’s not waste it.

For more, see:

Karla Phillips-Krivickas serves as Senior Director of Policy at KnowledgeWorks. She is the proud mother of a 17-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome. Follow her on Twitter at @azkarla

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Smart Review: Lenovo VR Classroom 2

The use of virtual reality in education has been on the rise in recent years. In particular, this school year when we are working through the challenges of remote learning and also are limited in the possibilities for taking students on field trips or other limits in providing real-world experiences for them. When it comes to VR, there are always concerns that come with it.  Will all students have access? What are the benefits of learning? What is the cost involved?

Companies have been working to provide more options for schools so that students can all experience learning through innovative environments and emerging technologies. Lenovo has been working on creating more options for educators and schools to embrace the use of VR and to make it accessible for all students.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rich Henderson, the Director of Global Education Solutions at Lenovo. We spent time talking about the use of VR and the benefits for education. He shared some of the upcoming features that will be available for use with their virtual reality products. In speaking with Henderson, he talked about the need for a concentrated effort around embracing change, in particular, that teachers need to adopt to best prepare students for workforce readiness.

Lenovo started the VR classroom in 2017 and has continued to seek input from educators and work to provide a versatile product for use in classrooms.  The lessons learned in Lenovo’s initial VR offering for schools have been reflected in new features that are particularly compelling in today’s environment, where 90% of the world’s learners were impacted by school closures.

During our conversations, we talked about the ongoing challenges that now exist for educators and students due to the pandemic. Finding opportunities to connect students with real-world experiences and to develop skills beyond the content area is critical. Henderson said that the focus should be on providing future-ready education experiences for students and also help teachers promote increased student engagement. To accomplish this, he says that VR solutions help to engage students more in learning.

Benefits of using VR

Using tools for exploring and immersing more in learning through VR enables students to connect more closely with what they are studying and in a more meaningful way. Through VR, students can be fully immersed in experiences that enable learning beyond the classroom “space” which can lead to the development of empathy, a greater understanding of more complex concepts being studied, and increased knowledge retention. VR also allows more access to experiences for students who don’t have the ability to travel.

When it comes to what Lenovo offers, they launched some updates to the education solutions they provide, including the Lenovo VR Classroom 2 which is powered by ThinkReality.™  With these solutions, they provide greater support to schools as they adopt new curriculums and virtual learning styles for this school year and in the future. VR also allows more access to experiences for students who don’t have the ability to travel.

How does it work

Making the VR content available to students is easier because they now use the platform to log in and the content has already been uploaded to the cloud which then makes it available on each of the headsets. Teachers have a separate login and can choose to start the classroom experience at the same time for all students or instead enable the students to engage in the experience at their own pace. Teachers can also pull all students into the same VR experience through a portal.

Henderson shared that the VR Classroom 2 will help especially with the distance learning environments when it can be a challenge to work amidst distractions. VR Classroom 2 offers students and teachers “a visually and audibly isolated environment” to fully engage with instructional materials that come with preloaded content, classroom management, training, and device support.

Their focus has been to provide something simple for IT to set up so that teachers and students can get started without needing a lot of steps in the process. IT sets everything up for teachers to access and push the content to the cloud through the ThinkReality platform which makes everything available to students on the headsets. They are currently working with Veative to offer 500 modules for students. Through the classroom management tools from LanSchool, teachers can sync a fleet of headsets and take their entire classroom on a guided virtual lesson, 360 tours and provide other VR experiences all from a single source. Whether it’s taking students on a virtual field trip around the world or looking closely at something in a biology class, for example, DNA strands, there are endless possibilities for immersing students in learning with VR.

Benefits for teachers

One concern that Henderson mentioned is that virtual reality is at the risk of being a gimmick. He said the key is focusing on that instructional connection and how to best use it to provide students with a way to more meaningfully connect with the content that they are learning. VR can be a great engagement tool for students, especially at this time when we are experiencing hybrid and virtual learning and are limited in our possibilities to immerse students in experiences by travel or simply because of limited resources available.

For teachers, and I’ve seen this in my classroom, virtual reality can be a great engagement tool. For some students, it might just be that spark that promotes curiosity for learning, gives them a different perspective to explore and better understand the content, and in the process develop empathy. In the research done by Lenovo, 97% of the teachers who are using VR said that it was improving engagement.

Lenovo’s partnership with Veative offers up to 550 curriculum-mapped lessons in STEM fields like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Math, and also virtual tours from around the globe. Each lesson includes learning objectives, immersive learning modules on topics like photosynthesis or the human heart, and formative assessments that help students and teachers track progress.

They are also in a partnership with Launch Your Career which interviews students explores using Myers Briggs and determines spirit animals. The platform then asks students about careers that people might be drawn to. Students can even do a virtual job shadow experience. It then also provides links to websites and students receive a code where they can then explore colleges or career fairs.

The Wild Immersion Jane Goodall partnership offers stunning opportunities to be up close and personal with animals in places such as Africa, the Amazon, and even underwater. They leave cameras in those locations so students can see how the animals are interacting in a natural environment and get the feel as though they are there in person. Hearing Henderson explain this reminded me of the show “Wild Kingdom” from years ago.

Lenovo also worked with schools to get an idea of different objectives and materials that would best benefit students and teachers. For helping students to build empathy, Lenovo offers New Realities. They interview 10 young women about their lives which helps students learn from different perspectives and to be more closely connected to those experiences through VR.

VR Classroom 2 offers a complete solution through its content, device management, the hardware, training available, and the support offered for getting started with it in middle and high school settings. It is important to offer options to audiences that will lead to more authentic and meaningful experiences that will also promote the development of essential skills for their future. With virtual reality possibilities, we now have the opportunity to reimagine learning and create immersive and more engaging learning opportunities for all students.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

How to Overcome the Challenge of Teaching Marine Science Online

By: Heal the Bay

2020 marked an unprecedented shift in how students learn, and remote and hybrid methods of teaching have become the new norm. As in-person classrooms are replaced with computer screens, it is important to provide educational resources that are engaging and prioritize student-centered, active, hands-on experiences.

When it comes to teaching subjects like science, distance learning has its challenges. How can we effectively teach the complex foundations of marine science through a computer screen? Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to keeping the waters around Los Angeles safe, healthy, and clean, launched SEA Education to help solve this issue.

Their Science, Environment, and Action online curriculum is designed to teach students in 3rd through 5th grade about marine biology and environmental science through engaging videos and interactive activities. SEA Education aligns with Next Generation Science Standards, Ocean Literacy Principles, and International Society for Technology in Education Standards, and accommodates multiple learning styles.

Read on for three ways SEA Education overcomes typical distance learning hurdles to effectively educate the next generation about marine and environmental science.

  1. Engaging, fresh videos keep students focused. Students get up close with interesting animals like octopuses, sharks, and seahorses as they take a journey through Heal the Bay’s marine science education center.
  2. Hands-on experiments support complex topics. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a high-tech lab to demonstrate science theories. SEA Education features hands-on experiments that can be completed using household items like water, a bowl, or scissors.
  3. Outdoor activities connect students with nature. Students need a break from the screen. SEA Education incorporates observation and activities that bring students away from the computer to experience the nature around them.

SEA Education, along with other Heal the Bay programs, supports the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 14, Life Below Water, is to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. The future of our ocean is dependent on educating and inspiring the next generation to become environmental stewards. By bringing the ocean into the virtual classroom, SEA Education not only teaches students about the wonders of the natural world, but it also inspires them to protect it.

Educating and empowering youth is an essential part of Heal the Bay’s mission, so the organization created new virtual options for students, schools, teachers, and parents to experience the ocean and local wildlife remotely and has scholarships available. In addition to SEA Education, students can register for a virtual science camp to participate in animal and wildlife exploration, hands-on experiments, live demonstrations, and interactive activities. In collaboration with Los Angeles Unified School District, remote classrooms have the opportunity to attend a virtual field trip at Heal the Bay Aquarium to meet the local marine life and learn from educators, scientists, and aquarists.

Before the pandemic hit, Heal the Bay hosted beach field trips for 12,000 Pre-K to 12th-grade students annually from dozens of school districts in Los Angeles County. While nothing beats a trip to the beach—digging for sand crabs, observing wildlife, and seeing pollution issues first-hand—Heal the Bay is determined to bring the ocean and its inhabitants to the virtual classroom.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

A New Vision for a New Administration: Whole-Child Development, Learning and Thriving

“But what if, all along, these well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap have been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing black child in a poor black school is different from – and not inferior to – the intellect of a high-testing white child in a rich white school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective educational system is not by standardizing our curricula and tests but by standardizing the opportunities available to all students?”

–Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist

A New Purpose for Education

Imagine a world where every child’s life is a succession of opportunities – opportunities where children come to know who they are and discover who they could become. Imagine learning settings of all kinds where those kinds of opportunities are not only possible, they are intentionally built and optimized, regardless of where a child lives or begins school. Imagine too that educators could identify each child’s abilities, interests, and aspirations and align them with the contexts that promote them. Finally, imagine a world that removes the constraints of racism, poverty, disparities, and injustices and provides each child with the specific relationships and supports to thrive.

COVID-19, the related service economy recession, and ongoing racialized violence have laid bare the inequities of experience and opportunity for many young people in our country. It may be hard to find silver linings through so much suffering. But as recovery and reopening take shape, there will be a chance to design something different and better for children. 

Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design

Here is the opportunity we have today: developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. Children’s brains and bodies are malleable. The contexts and relationships they are exposed to are the primary driver of who they become, including the expression of their genes. Today, we can use the principles of Whole Child Design to build environments in all of our classrooms, schools and other settings for learning that enable children to cope with stress, build resilience, and develop the 21st century skills and mastery level competencies they need to live lives of fulfillment and choice.  

There is burgeoning scientific knowledge about the biologic systems that govern human life, including the systems of the human brain (Cantor et al., 2019; Cantor & Osher, in preparation; Darling-Hammond et al., 2020; Osher, Cantor, et al., 2020). Today, researchers can study the brain’s structure, wiring, metabolism, and connections to other systems of the body and to the external world. And they are documenting the deep extent to which brain growth and life experiences are interdependent (Immordino-Yang et al 2019). Researchers know much so more about the brain than they did when the 20th century U.S. educational system was designed. Now is the time to use this knowledge to design “a system in which all individuals are able to take advantage of high-quality opportunities for transformative learning and development” (Osher, et al., 2020b, p. 3).

When thinking about how to apply new science to reshape the 20th century education system, it is helpful to consider other fields. What was done when researchers learned that germs – not miasma – cause disease? When scientists learned that cancers can be transmitted, not like infections, but instead through gene mutations? Although health disparities continue to exist, and contribute to racial and socioeconomic inequalities, there have been dramatic changes in medicine in the last 50 years based on new knowledge – cures for diseases, changes in how scientists conduct research and physicians practice medicine, in part because of willingness to challenge assumptions and build new knowledge. Unfortunately, education has not experienced the same willingness to challenge assumptions.

A Dynamic Systems Approach to Human Development

Think about the human embryo. An embryo is an extraordinary feat of human development. It is a structure comprised of multiple substructures, with every future system that a human being will have or need represented. The embryo also contains the potential to interact with and influence all the other systems and structures involved in human life.The embryo is, therefore, a pluri-potential structure – meaning its potential development is not fixed – and it is a powerful example of the dynamic systems theories of human development. In fact, the embryo can be both the metaphor and lens through which we represent the structural sequences and processes that produce a whole human being who becomes an engaged, productive learner. At every moment throughout the human lifespan, environments, experiences and relationships are activating the processes that bring each human being to life. 

Medicine has already had to embrace this dynamic, whole-person approach. Physicians know that they cannot treat kidney or heart disease, or cancer as if a malady were an isolated problem that can be addressed without understanding the conditions of the organs, the patient’s family history, gender, their culture, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and life situations, and proclivity to follow physician advice. Holistic medicine is not an optional approach to human health; rather, it is a requirement of modern medical practice (Halfon & Forrest, 2018). The system of relationships among cells, tissues, and organs, and their relations with the world surrounding the person – in other words, their context – must be understood because mutually influential relations (that is, dynamic relationships) exist among all parts of the system (Halfon, Forrest, Lerner, & Faustman, 2018; Slavich & Cole, 2013). From the genetic to the social and cultural, human development across the life span involves a dynamic, fully integrated system (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Slavich & Cole, 2013). In fact, this is the story of evolution itself – an expansive and expanded story of inheritance that exists across generations. It operates beyond the level of the gene, and takes in the forces that drive gene expression, including the context, especially the cultural context, of each human life.

Scholars working in the fields of developmental and learning science and educational research and practice are now beginning to better understand the necessity of a holistic approach to learning, thriving, and development (Cantor, et al., 2019; Osher, et al., 2020a). Focusing alone on the cognitive facets of achievements in language, mathematics, or science is insufficient because context – environments, experiences and relationships – provides the energy that drives the brain’s electrical circuitry and develops the neural pathways that build increasingly complex skills (Fischer & Bidell 2006; Mascolo & Fischer, 2015). Relationships are the precursors for learner engagement, competency development, and mastery of domain-specific knowledge, motivation, higher-order problem-solving skills, and ultimately, academic growth (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006).

Adverse experiences occur both inside and out of school. Such experiences will influence a young person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and attainments in any learning setting. Disparities in opportunities and marginalization based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, community, access, etc. can enhance or obviate chances for thriving (Sampson, 2016), both in school and in environments outside of school. In turn, belief in one’s ability to grow, learn, and succeed through education – both in and out of the classroom – may be more important than any specific curriculum for predicting and nurturing educational outcomes and life successes. But, unfortunately for marginalized students, this belief is shaped significantly by racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes, and discriminatory practices, including inadequate funding to schools in low-income communities. In short, multiple factors influence a child’s growth and development, for good or for bad.

Given the reality that context – positive and negative – drives human development and, more specifically, brain development (Immordino-Yang, et al., 2019), to understand and enhance the healthy development and successful learning of each child, we believe that developmental and educational scientists and practitioners must adopt a holistic approach based in dynamic systems. This approach will allow developmental scientists and educators to specify the elements of an integrated design to support 21st century learning based on 21st century science and directed toward equity of experience and opportunity.

 Why this Matters: Implications for Equity

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

–James Baldwin 

What we are facing: It is not possible to talk about the development, learning, and thriving of young people without talking about opportunity, access, resources, and social capital. And it is not possible to talk about any of those things without talking about race.     

Our societal structures were designed to privilege some and not others. Our education systems were designed for sorting and selecting, based on beliefs and assumptions that we now know to be false. But these false assumptions are not only drivers of the design of our public systems. Our public systems, including our education systems, were intentionally and systematically designed to promote, privilege, and advantage specific groups, predominantly white, middle to upper class males, and to oppress and marginalize other races and genders. The institutional forces that have enabled this racist system to exist can be found in every corner of our social, economic, and educational infrastructure.

“Our society,” wrote Jamelle Bouie in a June 2020 New York Times column about the Black Lives Matter movement, “was built on the racial segmentation of personhood. Some people were full humans guaranteed non-enslavement, secured from expropriation and given the protection of law, and some people – Blacks, Natives and other nonwhites – were not. That unequal distribution of personhood was an economic reality as well. It shaped your access to employment and capital; determined whether you would be doomed to the margins or given access to its elevated ranks; marked who might share in the bounty of capitalist production and who would most likely be cast out as disposable.” 

If the U.S. wanted to right the wrongs of today – and 402 years of policies and practices since the first enslaved Africans arrived in modern-day Virginia – it would have to re-think systems based on the scientific principles outlined above. The principles can serve as a guide not only to what we can do to benefit all young people’s learning and development, but also what we must stop doing now because it is actively harmful to the learning and development of many young people. This includes dismantling the institutions that preserve and sustain harmful, racist practices including tracking, harsh discipline, exclusion, shaming, and many others.

The 20th century U.S. education system was not designed based on knowledge of human development and the learning sciences. It was not designed to develop the whole child. It was not designed for equity – to see students as individuals and to unleash the potential inside them. It was designed based on the belief that some children were more deserving of opportunity than others.

The Need for Transformation

Education has reached the limit of what it can achieve through standardized and outdated approaches, as has happened in other fields. These approaches work for some – mainly those born into privilege – but not for many others. When other fields, such as medicine, hit a point where fundamental assumptions and beliefs needed to be challenged, this led to breakthrough solutions that benefitted many more people.

For example, 25 years ago, cancer researchers were stuck using therapies that worked for some, but not others. When they asked themselves why, they recognized that they needed to understand more about the microenvironments around specific cancer cells so they could personalize individual treatments by building more targeted, context-sensitive therapies. This insight fueled new breakthroughs in cancer treatments, enabling doctors to successfully treat far more patients. It also led to the creation of a new field – immunotherapy – where an individual’s own immune system is recruited to fight a cancer.

In this example, a standardized approach to treatment was disrupted, and moved to a personalized approach. This pattern – disruption of standardization leading to personalization – has transformed other fields, too. Examples include travel through Airbnb, music through Spotify, and entertainment through Netflix.

This kind of transformational shift must now happen in education and youth development.

Today, education systems must be willing to embrace what we know about how children learn and develop. The core message from diverse sciences is clear: the range of students’ academic skills and knowledge – and, ultimately, students’ potential as human beings – can be significantly influenced through exposure to highly favorable conditions: learning environments and experiences that are intentionally designed to optimize student development (Bloom, 1984; Fischer & Bidell, 2006). 

With what we know today, we can design environments that help protect children from developmental harm, including racist policies and behaviors, and promote their healthy development and success as learners. The non-negotiable elements of whole child design described here will simultaneously ignite brain development and learning, promote wellness, support positive identity formation, enable the acquisition of knowledge, skills and mindsets that are critical for success in learning and work, build resilience to future stresses, and provide the intellectual challenge and rigor that enable children to discover the specific personal, academic, and social achievements they desire and are capable of attaining under the right conditions. Settings designed in these ways will provide a developmental continuum of experiences, both in and out of school, and across age bands, that optimize each student’s developmental range and reveal the talent, skills, and potential that all children have.        

In the design process, we can ask and answer the same question that the cancer researchers asked: what can we do that will work optimally for this specific child, in this context? This question will move scientists and educators to fundamentally different answers about the way our schools and education systems of the future must be designed: toward integrated and individualized processes and supports; using tools and platforms that enable educators to integrate academic instruction with the intentional development of the skills and mindsets that all successful learners have; and attuned to student well-being. 

Breakthroughs do not occur when we seek to achieve them by doing what we have been doing, just a little better. The approaches we have been taking thus far to learning and schools have not fully challenged our assumptions about talent – is it plentiful or scarce; about human skills – are they malleable or are they fixed; or about human potential – what is any child capable of under the right conditions?  

A broad base of scientific evidence supports the case for a profound shift in the assumptions and practices that dominated 20th century education. On top of that, insights from brain science align profoundly with what so many parents want for their kids, and what so many teachers have been saying for years: that we can create a system that recognizes children as whole people, values their assets and supports them to excel in myriad ways. Building highly favorable conditions into all of the environments in which children grow and learn will give many more children and youth equitable opportunities to thrive and reach their full potential. 

The message in the science is so optimistic: genes are chemical followers and context shapes the expression of our genetic attributes. This is the biological truth. And schools designed, as Bloom (1984) described, using the levers of human development – so that what one child can do, nearly all children can do under highly favorable conditions – can be our new 21st century learning system: a system designed to see and unleash talent and potential and ensure that all young people can thrive. This vision constitutes a transformational shift in the purpose and potential of education, a dismantling of the systems that constrain this vision, grounded in what we know today about human development, the development of the brain, and learning science.

This post includes excerpts from Whole-Child Development, Learning and Thriving: A Dynamic Systems Approach By Pamela Cantor, Richard M. Lerner, Karen Pittman, Paul A. Chase, Nora Gomperts to be published by Cambridge University Press.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

3 Unexpected Benefits of Virtual Learning and Its Impact on Engaging Students

By: Crystal Lovelady-Jackson, Workforce Development Manager, Shell Oil Company

As many teachers can attest, engaging students and ensuring that the material shared actually resonates can be a challenge even at the best of times. Now in 2020, teachers are faced with the relentless task of imparting knowledge via virtual channels, without the advantage of being in the same room to hold students’ attention. This has led to a general belief that virtual learning cannot begin to replicate the emotional responses that students typically receive from live interactions with peers and teachers; virtual learning can be categorized as a distant and uninviting experience.

Beyond both student’s and teachers’ negative experiences, a common complaint is that virtual learning exacerbates the education gap – the socioeconomic and technological divide between students as it pertains to the accessibility of education. However, many do not realize that when done well, virtual learning can bring unexpected benefits and re-shape the future of education. In fact, two annual STEM-focused summer camps: Energy Venture Camp and ASTRO Camp, had been reimagined this past summer to support a virtual model.

A Kit-Based Model Bridges the Digital Divide

Although the importance of STEM learning has been widely acknowledged, for many there are still quite a few barriers starting with limited access to the necessary education exasperated by the ongoing pandemic. After all, for more traditionally hands-on subjects like science, it is hard to engage students and impart the necessary knowledge through a lecture alone. Therefore, a kit-based teaching model can be highly effective for these types of subjects since students will be able to replicate relevant science experiments at-home. By creating a package of the necessary experiment materials for each student, teachers can bring an element of interactivity to the lesson and fully engage students.

Seeing this systemic issue in STEM education, Shell Oil Company launched the Energy Venture Camp in 2015 and has been supporting in-person Energy Camps for as long as 15 years to foster interest in the STEM subjects within middle and high school students, especially in underserved communities. One successful educational partner in this space has been Fletcher Technical Community College in Schriever, Louisiana, who developed the innovative “Bayou STEM” K-12 STEM outreach program. This past summer, the Bayou STEM team was challenged, due to COVID-19 restrictions, to deliver a fulfilling and equitable summer camp experience. Employing a team-based approach with their collaborators and sponsors, the Bayou STEM team developed a kit-based approach for the virtual camp format. Notably, almost 50% of this year’s camp participants identified as underserved, under-represented and at-risk. The notion of a digital divide presumes these campers would have less access to educational tools and struggle in a virtual format.

Yet, socioeconomic status did not impact the campers’ experience since all campers received packages of absolutely everything needed to perform each activity – from measuring cups to safety equipment. Through virtual lessons and experiments, campers remained engaged throughout the week-long camps. Notably, ASTRO Camp TO GO had the highest number of registered summer camp users online at once, of any ZOOM camp during the summer of 2020 with a single day peak of 365 unique logins. Camper satisfaction was over 90%, proving that distance learning experiences can be deeply satisfying experiences when they are well-crafted and instructed.

Opportunities for Increased Diversity and Inclusion

Virtual learning can be a highly equitable avenue, especially for those with special needs or those in underserved communities. For special needs learners, in a traditional learning environment, it would be difficult or even impossible for them to participate in certain educational and recreational endeavors. However, through virtual learning, those learners can partake in those learning experiences from home with the support and comfort that relatives and caregivers often provide.

This past summer, over 20% of ASTRO Camp TO GO participants in grades K-12 self-identified as having a learning accommodation. By the end of the camp, these 72 special needs campers not only attended – but finished the full week – leading to a 100% completion rate. More so, over 75% of campers reported making new friends throughout the week, proving that virtual learning models can still foster a sense of community.

On the other hand, for those campers joining from underserved communities it was vital that printed instructional materials be included to ensure that a lower technology threshold did not hinder the experience. In the pre-camp survey, no respondents identified that they would not be using technology during the experience. Yet, in the post-camp survey over 20% of respondents admitted to a lack of technology.

By understanding the needs of all attendees, the program positively impacted the lives of over 1,000 individuals during this one-week experience.

Virtual Guest Speakers Expands the Scope of Lessons

Through virtual learning, teachers from different schools can now work together to secure prominent guest speakers and have all of their students attend the lesson at once – broadening the scope of lessons. While this would not have been possible in the past due to physical restraints, schools and subsequently teachers, are no longer limited by physical logistics like space or transportation, opening the doors to a myriad of new teaching methods and the possibility for unprecedented levels of collaboration.

In fact, this method proved highly successful during Energy Venture Camp and ASTRO Camp, where Shell and other sponsors were able to teach students about future career opportunities in STEM and share real-world examples. Stemming from these guest appearances, 99% of participants “consider [themselves] better at STEM.” Additionally, 88% of those who attended ASTRO Camp are now “considering a career in STEM,” up from the pre-camp statistic of 57%.

At a time when many schools are considering re-closing due to a rising second wave, a more open-minded approach should be considered for virtual learning. Like any other teaching method, virtual learning has benefits in addition to downsides. Quite possibly though, schools and teachers may need to continue leveraging this method for the remainder of this school year and beyond. Therefore, for virtual learning to truly be effective and a viable strategy, it will take cooperative and creative thinking from both the administration and teachers. After all, although unexpected, the virtual models of Energy Venture Camp and ASTRO Camp prove that these strategies can have a positive impact when put in action.

For more, see:

Crystal Lovelady-Jackson is a Workforce Development Manager at the Shell Oil Company. 

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

PBL and Early Childhood Education: The Perfect Match

For those that work in early childhood education, they often deal with misperceptions – often suggesting that younger learners have barriers to deeper learning or high-skilled activities. Not only are these inaccurate, according to teacher and early childhood education advocate Sara Lev, but the situation is also quite the opposite.

For Lev – who teaches Transitional Kindergarten at Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles and recently co-authored the book Implementing Project-Based Learning in Early Childhood: Overcoming Misconceptions and Reaching Success – her learners deserve the same rigorous, engaging, and meaningful learning that project-based learning incorporates as learners of all ages do.

Understanding Young Learners

Although younger learners do bring some unique needs developmentally and social-emotionally, Lev feels that PBL is important in creating a sense of agency at a young age.

“PBL gives learners the opportunity to develop ownership of their learning and their lives,” said Lev. “This is particularly important in that younger children often do not have many opportunities for ownership in the rest of their daily lives.”

Lev suggests that when young students engage in high-quality project-based learning, they are setting a foundation of how they see themselves and their place in the world.

“They can learn from an early age that they can make a difference in their communities and that their voice counts,” said Lev. “Early on, school can still be anything for them and I want them to love learning from the beginning.

Part of the challenge, according to Lev, is the values that we as a culture and society often associate with young children.

“We can’t lower expectations,” said Lev. “We have to believe that kids can do things.”

Providing Purpose

PBL is not only valuable in terms of the aforementioned developmental opportunities but also supports established early childhood learning goals related to literacy and academic skills.

The added value PBL brings is that now literacy has a purpose, according to Lev. She feels that these younger learners are advancing their foundational skills – language, speaking, listening – as well as social-emotional literacies through the integration PBL provides.

“When children can see the purpose or the why they will engage and ultimately learn more,” said Lev. “PBL leverages the knowledge that children have and then expands on it.”

Projects For Younger Learners

Lev believes that younger learners engage more when the products they may be producing seem tangible to them. She says she avoids driving questions that are abstract such as ‘How do you define friendship?’ for more concrete pursuits such as ‘How can we build a class website?’

“They want to create, make and get their hands dirty if you will,” says Lev. “I really recommend tapping into their interests and strengths.”

To illustrate, Lev cites the project Creating Our Classroom Community – a PBL unit designed for in-person, hybrid, or distance learning for grades PreK-2. She said projects like these illustrate that students respond to a real need. And whether their final products are a class website, ebook, or even printed book, this resonates with students.

“This is authentic and they know that. It’s a real product in service of an actual need,” said Lev. “Their work has an actual purpose.”

Other examples from Lev include project ideas such as having students design an outdoor classroom or a project called Home Base – a 10-day distance learning project whereby students design an online resource for kids and care-givers containing activities they can do at home. This might include a video (explaining different options like games or books), a YouTube channel, a Pinterest board, or any other digital display that can be shared (it could be a simple pamphlet or a set of photos and directions).

Short-Term, Long-Term Implications

Lev points out that younger learners are more prepared for PBL in some ways than their older counterparts. She argues the way that school is traditionally structured, it doesn’t necessarily foster creativity, choice, or exploration. And therefore, younger students haven’t had school define learning yet.

“Young learners are naturally curious and want to investigate,” said Lev. “They are creative problem solvers who seek independence and mastery. PBL leverages that.”

As these students continue to navigate through school, these early PBL experiences will prepare them even more for deeper learning and lifelong success, according to Lev. She said she wants to empower young children to be joyful learners who have experienced self-efficacy.

“Competence proceeds confidence,” said Lev. “If we want independent learners, we need to give them agency, ownership, and choice as early as possible.”

Final Reflections, Advice

For those early childhood educators who want to implement PBL, Lev recommends starting with the mindset that children – all children – can do this. She recommends continuing to create a learner-centered environment whereby the teacher continually reflects on what their role is as the teacher.

“I seek to overcome not validate the perceived barriers,” said Lev. “I tell myself every day that I facilitate learning for all of my students,”

In addition to the aforementioned resources, Lev recommends that interested educators check out the Early Childhood PBL Facebook Page as well.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

How Speech and Language Deficits Can Affect a Child’s Academic Success

By: Leanne Sherred

Language is the foundation of all communication. It affects how we express ourselves, experience the world around us, and analyze, process, decode, and understand information.

This is precisely why a strong command of language is essential to a child’s classroom and academic success. Language itself is not just another school subject; it’s the cornerstone of how all subjects are learned. It impacts how children communicate ideas, retain and recall information, remain active and participatory at school, and interact with peers and teachers in an educational setting.

Unfortunately, nearly 8% of all children in the United States between the ages of 3-17 have disorders related to their speech, language, and voice. These children not only are more likely to struggle academically and receive poor grades but are also more prone to experiencing poor confidence, low self esteem, and lack of socialization.

Fortunately, in many cases, these speech and language issues can be corrected with professional help and intervention. Let’s begin by covering some common deficits that can affect a child’s classroom performance.

Common Speech and Language Impairments

Before remediating these issues, it’s important that parents and educators have a thorough understanding of the types of communication disorders that commonly affect children and their ability to succeed in school. These issues include (but are not limited to):

  • Expressive Language Disorders: The signs of language disorders often present at early ages, yet they can become more apparent as children use more complex forms of language. Expressive language disorders affect how children communicate their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Commonly, children know exactly what they’d like to say, but struggle to form intelligible phrases or sentences through verbal communication. They may, for example, use words in sentences out of order, repeat words, mix up word tenses, or omit words altogether. In a classroom setting, this affects how children hold conversations, ask or answer questions, tell stories, and express their feelings.
  • Receptive Language Disorder: Children with receptive language disorders may use words correctly, however, they struggle with “decoding” language. In other words, they have trouble with extracting and interpreting meaning from the words they hear and read. Within a classroom setting, this can impact their comprehension of new lessons or concepts, their ability to listen attentively and follow instructions, and their understanding of new vocabulary.
  • Speech Disorders: Speech disorders encompass a wide range of conditions that can make it difficult for a child to create and form sounds needed to communicate. Therefore, children with speech disorders are often difficult to understand. Examples can include stuttering and fluency, in which a child prolongs or repeats certain sounds and words, or experiences sudden stoppages to their speech. Another common example is an articulation disorder, where children have trouble pronouncing certain sounds and letters, such as /s/ or /z/ or /th/, often due to incorrect tongue placement or a lisp.
  • Cognitive-Communication Disorders: These disorders are often biological in nature and caused by abnormalities in brain development. They can also be caused by genetic factors, brain injury, or certain neurological conditions. Cognitive-communication disorders can affect a child’s working memory, reasoning and judgment abilities, problem-solving skills, ability to stay organized, and more.

The Link Between Language and Literacy

Many studies have shown that a young child’s ability to verbally communicate is highly correlated to their literary skills. In fact, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), which is the professional and credentialing body for speech-language pathologists, there is a high correlation between communication problems and reading and writing.

This is largely because reading and writing are language-based activities. Learning to read requires two main skills: recognizing words and comprehension. Children must be able to isolate, pronounce, and manipulate the sounds and letters that comprise words in written text, and then derive meaning from those words to understand what they read.

Let’s start with sounds. The ability to recognize and differentiate speech sounds is called phonological awareness. For example, the word “mall” is comprised of three different sounds: “m-aw-l.” Phonological awareness is so important because as children learn to master speech sounds, they begin to map these onto printed letters of books. This forms the basis for the emerging reading and writing skills.

Additionally, children must be able to interpret the meaning of the printed text. One misperception is that kids that are proficient readers are also master comprehenders. To the contrary, it’s very common for children to read fluently but struggle when it comes to recalling what happened in a story, applying critical thinking, understanding fact vs. fiction, or making predictions about what will happen next.

This is because language comprehension isn’t necessarily just one skill, but a backset of several skills that must be collectively improved in order for children to demonstrate progress. They include a child’s language abilities, working memory and cognitive abilities, their attention and ability to focus, and the speed at which they process information. While phonological awareness and comprehension are technically different skills, their development is highly bidirectional.

How Speech and Language Disorders Affect Children’s Emotional Health

Try to remember your experience as a young child first entering school. Yes, it may have been a few decades ago, but it’s also the time when suddenly you were surrounded by children your own age. Did you find yourself more aware of your environment? Increasingly insecure about your own skill level? Focused on that one standout student who seemed to correctly answer every question?

For many children, entering school is a welcome experience. However, this interaction and socialization with peers also means that children increasingly start comparing themselves. Speech and language problems become noticeable, and children become much more self-conscious about how they’re perceived by others. Will they be teased or ostracized because of their stutter, or lisp, or mispronunciation of sounds and words? Will they become frustrated by their inability to “keep up” with their classmates? Will they struggle to verbalize their thoughts and create coherent sentences?

This fear of rejection can affect a child’s mental health and social well-being. The more time and energy is being spent focused on their self-image, the less is focused on literacy and academic skills. Additionally, their confidence and self-esteem can suffer, which affects their willingness to participate in class, their interpersonal relationships, and can lead to a cycle of self-doubt.

One of the most comprehensive studies done in this area sought to better understand whether children with receptive language delays were at increased risk for developing social, emotional, and behavioral problems as adults. The researchers used standardized tests to measure language skills for 7,000 children at age five. They followed up with these children nearly three decades later, when the children were 34 years old, and found that they were more likely to experience mental health problems versus those without developmental language delays.

Signs that a Speech-Language Disorder Could be Affecting Your Child’s Learning

Sometimes children that have trouble interpreting verbal information or following instructions are seen as less intelligent than their peers. This is not the case. In most instances, these children simply aren’t able to process information the same way as other children their age. All children develop at their own timeline, and there is a wide range of communication development across age groups and grades. Comparing a child’s speech and language abilities to their peers doesn’t necessarily mean they have a problem – but it can.

There are many signs that you may notice at home or hear from your child’s teacher or school administrator, that could signal they have a speech or language disorder. These include:

  • Not reading at the skill level expected for their grade
  • Learning or remembering the names of letters or new vocabulary words
  • Difficulty understanding what their teacher is saying
  • Trouble expressing their thoughts, ideas, and feelings through both verbal and written language
  • Difficulty with speech production at the sound, syllable, word, phrase, sentence, or conversational level
  • Not being able to interpret or correctly respond to social cues
  • Difficulty with problem solving, time management, and organization
  • Lack of attention and focus

For younger children, their speech and language may naturally improve over time. After all, it’s common for late talkers to suddenly find the gift of speech and catch up with other children their age. However, once children are older and enter school, there’s a higher chance that these issues will persist or be magnified over time without professional treatment. They run the risk of being held back in school, which can be demoralizing for children. Additionally, the root cause of behavioral issues can be because a child doesn’t have the skills or mechanisms to adequately express themselves. This may come off as laziness or defiance to their teachers, with any possible punishment dissuading future learning.

How a Speech-Language Pathologist can Help

Speech-language therapy services can help children with a wide range of communication issues. They work with children and their families directly, as well as teachers, counselors, and other providers, to develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to each child’s needs. This can help children reach their communication goals in order to have a successful and satisfying academic experience.

Speech therapy begins with a comprehensive evaluation of a child’s needs. They ask questions, perform tests, engage your child in activities, and learn more about your child’s medical history to diagnose speech and language issues.

Much like classroom learning, the skills that children practice in speech therapy must be incorporated at home and throughout your child’s daily life to see the most progress. That’s why it’s imperative that families have a strong working relationship with their speech-language pathologist, and remain involved and participatory in their care.

Many children can receive speech therapy in their schools, which is often provided in a group setting. However, for parents that desire more personalized, 1-on-1 instruction, or seek increased communication with their speech-language pathologist, many receive therapy at a private practice. Increasingly there has also been a growing trend towards online speech therapy, which allows families to receive the same high-quality care, but generally at a more affordable price point and from the comfort of their own home.

For more, see:

Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University and has a Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

What the Pandemic Taught Us

By: Casey O’Meara

Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) opened the 2020-2021 school year on September 8th with in-person instruction PreK-8, and every other day in-person instruction (hybrid) for grades 9-12.

“Pandemic teaching” has transformed education. It is clear that conditions for student-centered learning, in-person or remote, must prioritize social and emotional wellness, meaningful adult and peer connections, the right amount of challenge, and celebrations of success within relevant content. This is an ordered approach paramount during pandemic teaching and results in lasting change in our district, Slate Valley. Our approach to education now relies on:

  • Flexibility. The creation of learning through interdisciplinary connections in non-traditional learning spaces recognizing the possibility of instruction in new environments.
  • Empathy. Students without the benefit of support in ways they experienced prior to The Pandemic. Time and space are forever altered during in-person and remote teaching.
  • Experiences as moments for learning. Student reflection, blending prior knowledge with new learning before active experimentation regardless of setting.
  • Essential content and skills. Identification of prioritized high leverage concepts, skills, and in relevant content.

Teaching socially distanced (wearing masks, with constant handwashing and use of sanitizer) is an undertaking that requires everyone to keep learning. We designed in-person learning for long-lasting changes—for example, learning in outdoor classrooms, use of interdisciplinary units designed around essential topics and skills—much of which will remain when life goes back to “normal.”

Our educators responded to the following survey questions between October 31st and November 4th:

  • What have your students taught you?
  • Can you think of a moment when your students inspired you? If so, please describe the “moment.”

Educators know teaching is more than dates, correct answers, and sentence fragments; COVID-19 deepened this understanding. The following are teacher responses to the question, “What have your students taught you?”

  • I have learned that relationships are the key to teaching and learning. My students have taught me that one of the most important things I can do is connect with them and learn who they really are. They have taught me about determination and perseverance, and that in the face of this pandemic that I need them as much as they need me!
  • My students have strengthened my conviction that compassion and empathy are what makes my classroom work. Of course, I try incredibly hard to be fair. But, making each student feel welcome, valued, and talented is my ultimate goal.
  • My students have taught me to be more flexible in the moment, to not sweat the small stuff and to enjoy everyday!
  • I think one of the best things that I’ve learned is to be resilient. As an adult, I tend to struggle with getting over things a little more than they do. My students tend to say okay the world is as it is, and the next day they are like, woo hoo, new day! I like that they can do that.
  • There’s so much more than academics. We are told this over and over again by administrators, but it doesn’t seem real until a child shares first hand what home is like during these challenging times.

A variety of student-centered instructional practices, socially distanced and integrated with technology, have transformed education in Slate Valley. The following are educator responses to the question, “Can you think of a moment when your students inspired you? If so, please describe the “moment.”

  • While I struggled to adapt, my students didn’t skip a beat! Some of them have faced overwhelming adversity, but they still persevered. Their willingness to learn, despite less than ideal circumstances, inspire me to power through the hard times.
  • They inspire me and remind me that I don’t have to give up former teaching practices because of COVID-19. On Thursday last week, I had them mimic a “detective”/murder mystery challenge to force them to work together but also connect to Christopher’s “detective” voice in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. ALL students worked together and told me they had fun and wanted to do it again.
  • I’m inspired every day with how seamlessly they have adapted to our new normal. Their favorite way to say good morning is for me to pick a popsicle stick with a student name on it and describe their masks. It’s so easy but they love it! They love looking at each other’s masks and we talk about all the different kinds there are.
  • A Kindergarten student was using her Chromebook for the first time, and she earned 5 stars for something she had completed. She got very excited, looked up at me, and yelled across the room, “I’m learning!”. I knew then that things were going to be alright.

As students see their teachers invested in them as individuals, and students see their teachers as not just teachers, a transformation occurs and education moves beyond academics.

  • In the worst of circumstances, students are more reliant than ever on the consistent routines of school and the moral contract promised by public education—that if you show up, you will gain knowledge and wisdom to help you be successful in the world.
  • I was very skeptical that any of us were going to be able to focus on learning with everything going on. But here they are. Every day. Answering my questions, sharing their opinions—despite the world in chaos around them.
  • They seem so happy to be at school and have told me they love being together in our classroom. They tell me they are so thankful we can go to school everyday.

One takeaway from the pandemic is a renewed commitment to learning as flexible, facilitated with empathy, individualized, and personalized. It is critical that we continue to partner with students and families in a manner never experienced prior to March of 2020. We must keep the focus of education on student-centered learning.

For more, see:

Casey O’Meara is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for Slate Valley Unified Union School District in Southwestern, Vermont where he works to individualize learning through students’ and teachers’ interests and abilities, to serve their needs and help them grow.

Stay in-the-know with all things innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. 

What’s the EdTech Vaccine? 10 Design Principles

Pandemic education made clear the need for learning platforms that reliably support rich in-person and remote learning experiences. It accelerated the shift from teacher as an individual practitioner to learning facilitator as a member of a school as a service team.

The addition of video conferencing to the edtech stack was a mostly great additional capability in 2020. But it encouraged many schools to attempt a bad video version of traditional school at a distance (often a well-intentioned effort to comply with outdated policies).

The pandemic clarified the opportunity for new engaging sequences of learning experiences supported by new learning platforms with interoperability agreements to allow learner records to pass from place to place braiding together individual, team, cohort, and community experiences in a dynamic way that facilitates individual progress.

Getting this co-construction of tools and experiences right is more complicated than designing an mRNA vaccine but it could similarly improve the life trajectories of billions.

There are 10 design shifts that represent an opportunity in learner experience and supporting learning tools.

From registration to invitation. What if instead of a tedious enrollment process, there was an invitation to learning, one as welcoming an Apple store or as intuitive as the progressive enrollment on Amazon where recent views on one device are built into recommendations on another? What if expressed interests, strengths, and values guided surfaced learning opportunities?

From subjects to skill sprints. What if instead of enrolling in math and English courses, learners entered into personalized workshop environments (physical and/or virtual) that facilitated skill sprints enabling focused practice supported by experience recommendations and automated feedback systems punctuated by periodic demonstrations of mastery?

From course enrollment to dynamic projects. What if, instead of enrolling in year-long content courses, learners engaged in a series of community-connected projects (some individual, some team, many co-constructed) that developed and demonstrated leadership and problem-solving skills? What if these projects were informed by exposure to community needs and #GlobalGoals?

From testing to embedded measurement. What if, instead of stopping for periodic testing, assessment was built into skill sprints and projects? What if measurement largely occurred in the background and surfaced as useful real-time feedback and during periodic reflection?

From inclusion to portable accommodations. What if, instead of just being included, learners had portable accommodations that showed up in each learning instance they experienced (e.g., learning preferences, reading assistance, communication aids)?

From intervention to integrated support. What if, instead of responding to crisis, platforms helped monitor well-being and equipped learning advisors with early warning systems and supported integrated school and community support?

From grades to credentials. What if instead of idiosyncratic grades (a combination of feedback, attendance, and extra credit games) learners periodically received portable digital learning credentials that reflected demonstrated mastery? What if portable credentials unlocked enabling anywhere anytime learning?

From course lists to portfolios. What if, instead of a transcript as a list of classes passed, learners had credentials that certified learning and linked to curated portfolios that reflected their best work?

From proprietary to portable. What if, instead of information trapped in a dozen edtech apps, comprehensive records combined data extracts into a synthesized view  (e.g., persistence measured across 10 tasks on four apps across a week)?

From common to personal and local. What if, instead of a standardized set of advice and experiences, platforms and advisors were equipped to recommend next steps and postsecondary plans based on personal and local opportunities (e.g., an MLK day event, a local internship, an emerging high wage job cluster)?

Toward a Whole Learner Tech Stack

We have a stack of tools designed for the schools we had not the schools we need. Most tools support age cohorts in content-focused courses organized around small tasks and resulting in letter grades. This obsolete 130-year-old model often results in low engagement and collaboration, low integration and application, low differentiation and depth of knowledge, and low optionality and portability. It leaves learners unprepared to address ambiguity and complexity and unable to describe what they know and can do.

Why are we stuck? In short, there’s weak expressed demand for something different and better as a result of a tangle of federal, state, and local policy entwined with employment agreements and higher ed entrance requirements. Edtech business models are based on closed systems and proprietary data. Add teaching traditions (and licensure and preparation) and idealized parental memories and you’ve got a nasty knot.

The problem is no longer a lack of access to venture funding, but much of $12 billion of global venture funding for digital learning tools last year (up from $500 million in 2010) went to test prep and tutoring.

There are, around the edges, 10 examples of activities aggregating demand for new and better tools. We could use more :

Integrated tools that support the personalized, project- and competency-based learning with portable learning records are more likely to develop with less

  • Federal policies that require standardized testing rather than robust formative assessment;
  • State polities that require courses and grades rather than demonstrated competencies;
  • College entrance requirements that rely on courses and grade point averages;
  • Edtech business models that rely on owning item-level data;

Like a pandemic vaccine, the opportunity to invent powerful new learning sequences supported by new tools will take smart public-private partnerships and substantial investment. It will take longer than a year but, like a vaccine, it could change life trajectories for more than a billion people. Watch for our full summary of 20 invention opportunities next month.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.