Lizabeth smiled as our class sang “Happy Birthday” on her screen and beamed as she held up the new lamp she had received. After she told her parents about our class analysis of the solar system, they gave her a moon-shaped lamp for her birthday. I watched Lizabeth show off her gift and celebrate with friends, and smiled at this normal, happy girl.
Yet the past year for Lizabeth was anything but normal. She had moved to multiple cities across the country, staying with family and friends as her parents struggled to find stable housing and employment. In any other year, this would have forced Lizabeth to change schools with each move. But remote learning enabled Lizabeth to remain connected with her class. Relationships with her friends and teachers supported her through uncertainty, and remaining in the same school allowed teachers to provide consistent instruction and targeted interventions when she struggled. In this instance, teachers and the school system adapted to meet her needs.
The challenges Lizabeth and her teachers overcame were extreme, but millions of students would benefit from the flexibility that helped her succeed. Until the pandemic forced us to rethink learning, the structure of school went unchanged for decades. Educators certainly refined their craft, incorporating new tools and knowledge about how students learn, but if Rip Van Winkle fell asleep during math class in 1919 and woke up a hundred years later, he would have no trouble recognizing the rigid structures and routines of the school day.
This lack of change is one reason why pandemic-related disruptions were so challenging for students, families, and educators. Yet these disruptions also sparked growth and innovation that helped educators adapt and now offer a path forward to an education system that is more flexible and responsive to student needs.
In our recently published report The Flexible Future, I — and other Policy Fellows with Teach Plus Illinois — offer recommendations for districts based on a nationwide innovation contest and a series of design thinking workshops for teachers. Both the contest and workshops were designed to solicit a wide range of ideas, but educators surfaced the same solution again and again: make learning more flexible and accessible and restructure the school day to better meet student needs.
Learning was available to Lizabeth at any time and in any place, and a flex period every day meant she could seek additional support from teachers or join peers in group learning. This enabled Lizabeth to stay connected to teachers and friends who cared about her and provided stability in the midst of a crisis. Just two years ago, this would have been impossible.
Unfortunately, Lizabeth is just one of many students who would be poorly served by a return to “normal.” Health conditions, anxiety, bullying, and unsafe environments keep many students from attending school regularly. Others miss school to help support their families by working or caring for younger siblings. Some schools lack the resources to provide advanced or elective coursework, so students can only access these remotely.
Most students certainly learn best in-person among their peers. But the traditional eight-hour school day, rigidly divided by bells, has long failed to serve all students. Rethinking the structure of the school day means offering more choice. Students might choose evening or asynchronous courses or take remote coursework not available in person. More flexible schedules would allow students to seek extra help or pursue personal passions and allow teachers much-needed time to collaborate to better meet student needs.
Flexible learning isn’t a theoretical concept. We all learned to deliver flexible learning last year, and while we know the solutions developed under pressure were not ideal, we also know that it can be done. Leveraging our learnings to develop better and more permanent flexible learning structures will bring our school system into the 21st century and create a more responsive education for Lizabeth and many students like her.