From turmoil to triumph: How education can emerge stronger from the pandemic

Identifying learning gaps, educating with empathy, and future-proofing recovery plans will create resilient educational systems.
Richard Carranza

Electricity always flows through schools as students return to campus—something that energizes even the most tenured educators. Communities come together again, raucous rallies foster school spirit, and educators get another chance to make lasting impacts on learners.

But even as many schools are returning to in-person learning, it’s clear that this year is unlike any other once again. Although unpredictability has been a hallmark of the past two school years, we do know two things now: Students have fallen behind academically and are shouldering a heavy emotional burden. Since March of 2020, we’ve seen a pandemic-related erosion of outcomes, schools experienced higher levels of absenteeism, and the pandemic levied a mental tax on our communities.

Clearly, this is not what we want for education systems or learners, but these obstacles can actually serve as a path from short-term turmoil to long-term triumph. Schools should rethink what it means to effectively educate future students while deeply considering their emotional well-being too. Luckily, educators can combine technology with time-tested theories to build a roadmap to recover missed learning, help students excel, and educate with empathy beyond this year.

Finding the gap

Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives has guided the development of curriculum, assessment, and teaching strategies for generations of educators. It classifies different levels of thinking, from the simple to complex, in a hierarchy that illustrates the progression of how students comprehend concepts. But to develop learning plans and help students scale the Taxonomy, educators first must know exactly where students stand—if they can remember, understand, and apply concepts after a period of disrupted learning.

Some advocate using universal screeners to accomplish this. But standard screeners are nothing but thermometers—ones that educators don’t need right now because we know almost everyone is running hot. Instead, schools must find out where individual students stand and have personalized plans to cool them down. To do so, many schools are turning to adaptive assessments to understand each student’s challenges and effectively address them.

Adaptive assessments provide schools with immediate data on student knowledge levels and accurately identify learning gaps. When questions are answered, the assessment automatically adjusts in real time to find the next best question for the learner to solve, further honing in on their skill levels. After it pinpoints levels, educators better understand students’ strengths and weaknesses, and can make smarter instructional decisions in the classroom. The most effective assessments can be administered at any point throughout the year, create individualized plans with targeted steps and supporting resources, and guide students upwards through Bloom’s Taxonomy.

The pandemic accelerated the shift toward educational technology and is helping schools better differentiate instruction to aid learning recovery. But while educational technology is instrumental in aiding schools, it’s not the only thing educators must focus on to ensure children thrive.

Educating with empathy

When I was the superintendent of Houston Independent School District our community was rocked by Hurricane Harvey. After it passed, I met a young student who was so shaken by the experience that she became visibly frightened by thunderstorms. It was heartbreaking but reinforced my belief that the emotional needs of children should never be an educator’s afterthought.

We are living through a different crisis now, but its effects on students still run deep. Despite these challenges, the education system has a remarkable opportunity to ensure students’ emotional health is heavily considered in learning recovery plans.

According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people are motivated by basic needs that drive them toward their goals. When a person begins to satisfy one need, they can better focus on another in the hierarchy to grow. Completing unfinished learning will require self-control, perseverance, and a positive self-image from children. While educators can’t be full-time teachers, psychologists and parents, they can meet students’ basic socio-emotional needs by creating secure environments, fostering relationships, and increasing their self-esteem.

Learning recovery plans should create growth-mindset environments that help students believe they can emerge stronger after major life disruptions. By positioning setbacks as opportunities for growth, educators can practice resilience in classrooms during day-to-day instruction.

Recovery plans should not underestimate the psychological impact that returning to in-person environments may have on students. Many learners have lost loved ones to the pandemic and the thought of walking into an enclosed building may bring back bad memories. If possible, schools should provide on campus counseling for emotional support or offer students options to attend school in an environment where they feel safe to learn.

Finally, educators need to communicate effectively with families. By understanding how students are feeling outside of the classroom, teachers can work with parents to provide resources to students that make big differences in their emotional health.

Future-proofing planning

With the rise of COVID variants and increasing positivity rates among students, educators aren’t guaranteed a smooth transition back to school. But disaster strikes in many forms, so districts need recovery plans for the long term that cover various disruptions to learning. To create a future-proof plan, educators need to prioritize students’ socio-emotional well being. As educators address those needs and build self-esteem, students will be more focused in school. Teachers should harness this revamped focus, learn where students stand, and personalize instruction with technology to meet specific needs.

As we look toward the future, technology will move even more sharply to the center of many education systems. Administrators that combine time-tested principles and educational technology will be better positioned to stem learning loss, develop the emotional health of students, and make learning loss a thing of the past.

Richard Carranza is Chief of Strategy and Global Development at IXL Learning where he helps identify how the company can make an even greater worldwide impact. Carranza previously served as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and as the superintendent of Houston Independent School District and San Francisco Unified School District. Richard began his career as a high school social studies teacher and principal in Tucson, Arizona.

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