Schools after COVID can leverage creative constraints to design more effective learning experiences for teachers and students

Creative Constraints and Preparing for School After COVID

When David Bowie struggled with writer’s block, he took a novel approach. Instead of trying to push through, he added more challenges. Could his approach help educators as we prepare for school after COVID?

Bowie’s creative constraints came in the form of a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Developed by producers Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, the cards also inspired artists such as The Talking Heads, Coldplay, and countless others to embrace creative challenges.

The cards offer cryptic limitations, such as “Only One Element of Each Kind,” and “Work at a Different Speed.” Working within these constraints helped the artists explore new avenues and break out of old habits of thought.

As we plan for school after COVID, educators will face many new challenges. But we’ll also have a new perspective on school’s oldest challenges. 

Can thinking of these challenges as creative constraints help us make the most of school after COVID?

(NOTE: This article focuses specifically on the educational issues that schools will face in the coming academic year. For health and safety guidance related to reopening schools, please refer to the CDC Guidelines.)

Designing School After COVID

When students eventually return to brick-and-mortar schools, there will be significant hurdles to overcome. There will be skill gaps and learning loss. Inequities will have been magnified. And remote learning may become a regular part of the school experience. We will also face challenges we haven’t yet considered.

To best serve our students after COVID, schools will need to rely on a ‘design thinking’ approach. According to  The Interaction Design Foundation, design thinking is “an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies.”

Returning to school after COVID means addressing the challenges created by the pandemic. But it also means taking advantage of this opportunity to reflect on what we were doing previously. Governor Cuomo famously (and controversially) announced that New York will leverage the COVID crisis to “revolutionize education.”

I believe these three questions can guide us in addressing challenges and leveraging opportunities created by the pandemic:

  • How can we make up for the learning time lost to the pandemic?
  • Can we motivate and assess our students without grading them?
  • How can technology save time and create new models of learning?

These guiding questions can help us create plans for a smooth transition back to normal, or help us adjust to the new normal of school after COVID.

1. How Should Schools Address Lost Learning Time?

Many educators are writing off the last few months as lost learning time.

Whether because students didn’t show up for online learning, or because online learning was less effective, most of us agree that students will have gaps in their learning.

This leaves educators with two unfavorable options. They can start where we left off, and ‘reteach’ everything that was missed this spring. This would leave our current cohort of students three months behind for the remainder of their education.

The other option is to skip what they missed, and start them in the fall as if nothing happened. This gets them back on schedule, but we’ll just have to hope that they didn’t miss anything too important.

A better option requires that we plan our year more efficiently and we rethink how we measure an academic year.

Rock Solid Curriculum Plans

Good curriculum plans are beneficial even in normal times. But when addressing lost learning time, they are absolutely critical. 

Effective yearly and cross-grade level planning make learning more effective. When we can connect each learning objective to the big picture, student engagement and conceptual understanding improve. Good yearly and unit plans also save teachers time when planning individual lessons.

But even more importantly, good planning allows us to make the most of limited instructional time. To make up for lost learning time, schools will need to eliminate repetitive content and design units that combine complementary standards.

Most out-of-the-box curriculum plans are designed to “fill up a year,” rather than to cover the most content in the least amount of time. But skipping lessons and units can leave students with gaps in foundational understanding. Many schools are working with a curriculum specialist to design curriculum maps and pacing guides that address learning loss.

Rethinking the “Academic Year”

The most progressive schools are taking another step and rethinking what is meant by an academic year.

The idea of the academic year assumes that it takes 180 days of school to “cover” that year’s content. But this assumption is largely unfounded.

The truth is that students can master multiple years of academic content in a single year. Why, then, do we often feel rushed to cover the curriculum.

There are many reasons why we struggle with coverage, including student motivation, efficient planning, among others. But the main reason is that traditional schools do not enable students to progress through content at their own pace.

When we teach the same lesson to a class of 25 students, some will already know what we are teaching. Some will be hopelessly lost. And even the students in the middle may feel that we are moving too fast or too slow.

By implementing personalized learning,  our students can begin work at the level that is right for them. If a 7th grade student reads on a 3rd grade level, that is where he starts. When done right, as little as 30 minutes a week on an online platform can help students advance 2-3 grade levels in an academic year.

2. Can We Motivate and Assess Our Students Without Grades?

Another common concern is how schools should grade students during online learning.

The concern is no surprise. Grades serve as the currency of school. While we like to think of grading as a tool to help students understand their progress, few grading systems do this well.

In teacher forums over the past few months, I keep coming across variations on the same question. “How can we expect students to do work if we can’t grade them?”

On a practical level, I understand completely. But at the same time, it makes me feel that we’ve given up on our students.

Have we just accepted that students have no intrinsic desire to learn? If so, why are they unmotivated? And what can we do about it?

Motivation vs Incentives

Some educators believe that grades are essential for motivating students to learn. But extrinsic motivators, like grades, can produce troublesome side effects.

Extrinsic motivation means doing something for an outside reward, regardless of whether or not we want to do the thing. The problem with extrinsic motivators is that they become less effective over time. Worse, over the long term, incentives tend to reduce intrinsic motivation.

True motivation — intrinsic motivation — comes from within. This type of motivation comes from enjoying what we are doing, believing our work is important, or a simple desire to be challenged.

Before we ever enter a school, most of us are motivated by a love of learning. A love of learning is part of what makes us human. But after years of being graded, we become reliant on grades for motivation.

Engagement strategies focus on rebuilding intrinsic motivation. These strategies include student goal-setting and reflection. Engagement also come from designing lessons students will enjoy and highlighting the real-world relevance of academic learning.

When students do not participate in online learning, it’s either because they are unable or unwilling to do so. Students may be unable to participate due to lack of technology or other challenges in their home environment. Students who are unwilling to participate have failed to see the benefits of their education.

In either case, grades don’t actually solve these problems. They may compel some students to participate in school. But if students are genuinely motivate, they will get more out of in-person and online education. 

Assessment and Grading in School After COVID

The challenges of grading students for online learning goes beyond compelling them to work. Without grades, it can be hard for us to assess our students.

The terms ‘grading’ and ‘assessment’ are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings. Assessing means to take stock, to understand. In education, it refers to our understanding of student strengths and needs.

Grading is the act of rating and sorting students with letters or numbers. In theory, our assess of student understanding informs our grades. The grades communicate to students what they know or don’t know.

In reality, grades do a poor job of communicating what students actually understand. If a new student comes to my class, reviewing her transcript won’t help me teach to her unique needs.

There are a range of complex reasons why grades are poor assessments. But the main reason is that grades are the currency of school. Because they have value, we can’t dispassionately calculate grades for accuracy. Grades will affect students’ promotion, admission, and even influence rewards and punishments from parents.

Knowing this, students don’t see grades as a tool for reflection. They focus on getting the highest grade they can. That may mean negotiating for higher grades, or even cheating to increase their scores. 

This dynamic influences teachers as well. No one wants to assign their students a poor grade. Teachers fear harming our relationship with students, pushback from parents, or being perceived as ineffective.

Shifting focus from grading to assessment solves two problems. First, we can better match our instruction to the needs of our students. And when students can honestly reflect on their learning, this increased ownership builds intrinsic motivation.

2. What Role Will Technology Play in School After COVID?

The sudden transition to online learning is forcing schools to embrace educational technology. Schools that already used technology on a regular basis have had a distinct advantage.

Before the pandemic, the Miami-Dade School District had already developed a remote learning plan. The plan was meant to address hurricane-related school closures, but it proved helpful in responding to COVID. It provided students with the necessary technology and helped educators transition (somewhat) smoothly to online learning.

While few schools could hit the ground running like Miami, there are wide variations in schools’ abilities to respond. Educators who regularly used technology in the classroom adjusted much more easily to remote learning.

Perhaps the greatest silver lining of the pandemic is how it has required all educators to explore the benefits of technology. Technology will play an important role in school after COVID, for both in-person and remote instruction. 

Technology itself doesn’t solve problems. But strategic use of technology can promote both efficiency and innovation.

Classroom Technology and Efficiency

In schools, no resource is more precious than time. It seems there is never enough class time, prep time, or time in the year to cover all the standards.

Yet many educators spend hours every week on tasks that could be automated. Grading multiple choice quizzes by hand, running off photocopies, answering the same questions again and again.

By using technology strategically, teachers can save precious hours every week. Self-grading assignments not only save teacher time. They provide immediate feedback, which is proven to improve learning.

Tools like Kami and Google Classroom can streamline the entire process of creating, distributing, and collecting assignments. They can also help organize announcements and discussions. Using tools like these can save significant time with nuts and bolts of managing a classroom.

Innovative Learning Models

But the benefits of technology extend beyond mere time savings. As described by the SAMR model, technology also allows us to teach in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.

One example is personalized and adaptive learning. When I began teaching, differentiation was a nice idea but something that didn’t always seem practical. Sure, I did what I could to meet students’ individual needs. But I didn’t always have time to assess and teach skills from prior grade levels. 

Adaptive platforms do this work automatically. Using one saved time and allowed me to act as a facilitator of learning, rather than an ‘information provider.’ This shift is critical to creating a student-centered classroom.

Technology can also support problem-based and project-based learning. Rather than “delivering” content through lecture, we can assign students a topic of study. They find what they need to know with online resources. Finally, they demonstrate their understanding by creating artifacts (videos, essays, infographics) or presentations. 

I’ve recently been helping one school’s math department use a project-based approach to adapt to the pandemic. They are planning for two days of live instruction per week this coming fall. Rather than worry that teachers won’t be able to ‘cover the material,’ they will assign a standard each week. 

Students will go to to review the standard. The teachers will share collaborative documents with questions like, “What foundational skills are required to master this standard?” or “How will you know if you’ve mastered it.” The students then use Google Slides to present their answers the following week.

This approach promotes conceptual understanding, builds student ownership, and increases engagement. Class time is used for collaboration and demonstrating understanding, rather than presenting information.

Are You Ready for School After COVID?

It’s clear that school after COVID will be different from anything we’ve experienced. And I don’t mean to suggest that these changes won’t be difficult.

The adjustment will be incredibly challenging. But this is exactly why we need to plan carefully and think outside the box. It can be helpful to vent, from time-to-time. But every minute spent worrying over things we can’t change is a minute not spent solving the problem.

To prepare for the future of education, educators should reflect on each of the questions above. Ask yourself what these questions mean for you and for your students. List the benefits of face-to-face instruction, as well as the benefits of online instruction.

The reality is that the best way approach to online instruction is to adhere to educational best practices. Empower and engage students. Match instruction to student needs. Focus on concepts over content. These habits make for highly effective instruction, whether we are teaching in-person or online.

For help applying these principles to your subject area, grade level, and student population, consider working with an instructional coach.

Or start by completing the Reflective Teaching GuideThis resource includes self-assessments, goal-setting sheets, and other resources to help any educator take ownership of their professional learning. This invaluable resource for classroom teachers, instructional coaches, and school leaders is now available as a free download.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff