Threat Horizon for Schools

LeiLani Cauthen

There is still a lot of money from not one, not two, but three enormous stimulus bills putting schools awash with funding right now.

Word to the wise: spending on the old traditional schooling model is going to waste a lot of that money and contribute to the “funding cliff,” once there is one in three to five years. Oh, what a cliff it will be, too.

Here are the main reasons why administrators should be wary of doing the usual or passing out cash in bonuses only:


Time & Space Warped

The pandemic caused time and space to “warp,” and it is still warped. The usual school schedule had to mutate in myriad ways, and it continues to do so to the great frustration of administrations everywhere.

Let’s break down why this is. First, schools operated on a physicality that is under threat permanently now that the pandemic proved remote learning is possible. Not because all students want remote learning all the time, but because it should and can be possible to flexibly go from remote to physical presence at any time for any class and people know it. That’s been the way of many industries for decades.

The inflexibility of “you’re either here in-building or you’re one of those virtual school enrollments,” and the two things are separate rosters of students, is not what people want. What’s looming as a threat to schools is the fact that people want what they want when they want it, which may be some physical attendance and a lot of remote learning with any mix of the two. The reason that seems impossible is school administrators have not yet grasped advanced algorithmic systems that could determine time and space use. The schools that do figure this out are going to be far more competitive than the ones who stick to either all physical attendance or optional alternative virtual with no fluidity between the two.

Behind the scenes, the setting of pacing guides is so non-digital in construct -  even though it is in pdfs and spreadsheets, it might as well be on ancient stone tablets. It is this old-fashioned backroom building of what academic standard should be taught when which is then handed down edict-like annually to teachers from the high mount of a district. These pacing guides, again often disassociated from all other systems, are referenced by teachers who must then look to build lessons against them in whatever system they are using, while also looking at a third screen for what the on-campus or virtual time slots have been assigned.

In other words, there’s still a tremendous amount of manual-to-the-digital that schools are doing to manage what they teach, when and where, and it’s in a trickle-down construct that all lands on teachers.

A material difference to this is witnessed in what happened with physical retail versus the big online retailers in a few short years, which during the pandemic when accelerated. You can also witness it in

what happened to taxi companies once the technology of uberization came about. Both innovations altered time and space significantly – and that’s what schools now need to be worried about. Which begs the question, how do you harness the warping for schools through a reimagination of the organization?


New Learning Consumer Expectations

During the pandemic, consumer purchase of learning materials skyrocketed. We’re talking billions of dollars spent on Apps, various website subscriptions, eBooks and much more that parents or students willy-nilly found online to help them learn or to at least have some sort of learning continuance.

Unfortunately for schools, the products in the consumer market are exceedingly well-wrought, filled with complex automations, algorithms, and quality user interface and user experience that makes a teacher’s PDF pale in comparison.

Students are looking for high-quality digital experience and that’s a new threat of you-better-get-good-at-the-digital-expression of teaching materials like never before. Plodding navigation, hard to understand instructions, systems that require teachers to undertake enormous non-automated email-like distribution of resources and instructions, and then manage all the collection, question answering, grading individually each thing and also managing multiple systems to do it are doomed to failure. All administrators need to start thinking like consummate gamers who avatar-up and enter digital worlds with great visual navigation and levels of play that automatically would shunt learners to the correct learning experience. In other words, another threat is that learners have been exposed by the millions to great digital experiences and now expect schools to deliver similar experiences with learning while still intersecting with human oversight.


Must 100% Personalize

Most administrators who are former teachers think of personalization as something you do as time allows to maneuver within the confines of a speeding train of the whole group going down the tracks toward the next major test. It’s a catch-as-catch-can proposition to help every student and many times the really slow student is “triaged out” by weary teachers who need to at least try to get everyone else in the class through, so they are forced to ignore the slow student who just won’t make it.

Where learning is kept rigidly grade, class and whole-group structured, this will always happen. It is built that way, a systemic inequity if I ever saw one. Only fully personalized paths, where pace doesn’t matter, matters in this age of technology and cultural desire for personalization. So, what if a student is behind by at least three grades in math yet is way ahead in language or something else? Algorithmic systems could curtail other subjects and focus all time by that student and the acute attention of teachers into math for catching-up that student briefly. Yet only if systems are built for individual personal pace with teachers rescinding the leading-a-class in the traditional way in favor of flanking an advanced personalized system to actually teach with precision. It is this reimagination towards what personalization really means that is part of the threat horizon for schools because small alternative schooling options do this routinely. Many times, the smallest schools do this with not even a whole lot of automation, just pre-set lesson sequences laid out with all resources which students move through. There’s few “lectures,” but plenty of multi-age projects, there’s community and camaraderie, but every student is on his or her own journey.


Can’t Get Staffing

Administrators nationwide have been retiring in droves, and teachers as well. Getting tech staff is nigh to impossible. Schools thinking with a model that requires humans at every juncture are headed for failure.

The best thing leaders can be doing right now is refining to perfection the human intersection. What exactly is teaching? Where are humans most needed in what could otherwise be an automated resource distribution with a whole lot of digital analysis done on student response as well?

As a leader, if your schooling model is still primarily grade, class and whole group, you may be under significant threat from lack of staffing. Your mind has probably already gone to how you’re going to double-up classes and how much more you could pay teachers to take on more hours a day. However, those would most certainly be recipes for burn-out.


It’s better to let your mind wander to these ideas

· Matrixing in outside professionals and using para-professionals for certain functions of learning that aren’t necessarily your state’s definition of “teaching.” This frees up teacher time while harnessing less expensive or free local or global resources.

· Reorganizing into Houses, large home-rooms and eliminated classrooms except as meeting space when needed. Affiliation to a House could be also remote.

· Going to fully viable and end-to-end curriculum pathways laid out so students can disaggregate into independent pace, then flank that with roving teachers watching dashboards and punctuating learning with occasional traditional classroom meet-ups, more exciting projects, etc.

· Redefine teaching by harnessing as much outside resource, fully digital curriculum and whole glorious repositories of pre-created lessons as you possibly can to free up teacher time to do less create-distribute and more “what is little Johnny doing with fractions that’s so wonky…intervention meeting needed.”

· Matrixing in teachers from afar, or using part-timers, whatever it takes. Plot in those para-professionals for the physically present students to make sure no one is misbehaving while Mr. Cavendish gives a lesson on the solar system from three states away, or Denmark, whatever.

· Discover discovery learning as a significant portion of the curriculum, which is essentially the Socratic question method and then the student is unleashed to discover a thesis and proof themselves or with their group. The whole internet or your walled garden of voluminous resources is theirs to use.


Narrative Must Shift

Schools and even most of the EdTech industry have major investment in the old ways, the traditional be on-campus and learn models. The voices in defense of this are truthfully right in thinking humans do have a need of other humans in many instances to learn, but it would be wrong to say all the time. If that were true, then why was homework ever given? How could a student possibly learn away from the teacher? So, in fact, students do learn things all the time without a teacher. Some even learn better and are happiest independently working away even from other students.

The non-malleability of teacher-plus-class in most people’s minds is part of the new threat horizon for schools because it is only partly true for part of the population. Far too many people have tasted the freedom of the Internet and consumer professional grade learning to remain complacent.

The issue is that the narrative must shift to a much more precision definition of schooling and the exact work of teaching within the new reality of instant knowledge resources, amazing digital curriculum and on-demand video. What is it now? Could human teaching be isolated with far more precision and exactitude? How cool would it be for teachers to be used for their exceptional skill in sleuthing down the missing awareness or knowledge and fixing it for students? Those are always the ah-ha moments teachers relish the most anyway.

Sticking with the bureaucratic diminutions of learning out to the teachers is so Industrial Age thinking, almost a shameful dereliction of duties in today’s super logistical age of leadership. Consolidation, master planning, harnessing algorithmic inference and digitally systematizing all the way down to a precision services intersection to use human teachers for their extraordinary humanity is the way forward.

That is the task of school leaders today – shifting the narrative to fit the realities on the threat horizon while adapting feverishly their entire models to stay relevant.

About the author

LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing and market leadership in the high tech, education and government industries.


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