Has the pandemic redefined what school means?

The pandemic has taught us that walls and halls do not a school make, says Mickey Revenaugh, vice president, business development for Pearson Global Online Learning

Can’t wait to get ‘back to normal’? Thoughtful educators say: Not so fast.

It’s human nature to crave a return to the once familiar after the year we have all had. But for educators across the UK and around the world – including those in the independent school sector – the disruptions of the pandemic have provided an opportunity to do some rethinking about the very meaning of school.

Here are some of the ways school may be forever altered.

School is not a place

According to UNESCO, 9 out of 10 children around the globe spent at least some of 2020 outside of a school building – and yet education continued in some form or fashion. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that walls and halls do not a school make.

As iconic as their campuses might be, leading independent schools in particular discovered over the past year that their essence is more than brick and mortar. Rather, a school is a network of relationships – between students and teachers, students and peers, and students and themselves as learners – guided by a culture and a vision.

Online is here to stay

Even as face-to-face learning returns, studies show that more than 80% of families think online learning should play a role in their school’s future – and as many as 20% believe that full-time online learning suits their child better than the conventional kind.

New fully online schools are cropping up around the globe, many with a focus on serving students in the UK as well as around the world, whilst many traditional independent schools are putting in place long-term online capabilities to accommodate parent demand.

Home truths

While independent schools worked hard during the pandemic to provide “school at home”, families who found themselves actually enjoying the break from buildings and bells discovered that homeschooling is something very different.

Home education advocates extol the benefits of creating a learning programme to fit your child’s interests and preferences rather than simply replicating a standard timetable and curriculum. The long-term trend of growth in home education in the UK was accelerated by the pandemic and is expected to continue apace.

Teaching to our highest value

Digitising learning materials, creating quizzes and interactives, keeping track of student assignments, performing enthusiastically on camera – it’s no wonder teachers are exhausted after the last year!

Those who were fortunate enough to have a robust online curriculum to rely on quickly discovered that the data flowing out of students’ engagement with such content allowed for tailoring of real-time instruction to address misconceptions and accelerate areas of mastery.

These teachers have now had a taste of the kind of instructional super-power that education visionaries imagine for the profession, and they are unlikely to go back.

Learning for an unknown future

It’s become almost a cliché to say that the pandemic sped up changes that were already underway in work, entertainment, communication and more. That’s doubly true for education.

It’s not just that many of the necessary innovations of the past year – from use of learning technology to new ways of involving parents – are likely to endure for independent schools once Covid-19 becomes a memory. The reality is that the world we’re preparing our students for has been fundamentally altered, and so our idea of school will need to keep evolving as well.

While the prospect of more change – or rather, a constant future state of change – may seem overwhelming as we slog into a second year of upheaval, take heart. Schools are at their most brilliant when they’re adapting to new realities. If there is any silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that the innovative power of independent education has never been more vital.

Mickey Revenaugh recently led the launch of Pearson Online Academy UK Global – an online private school delivering Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs and A-levels for 14–18 year olds.

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