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A Creative Solution for Schools in a Post-Pandemic Environment (PART 2 of 3)

Updated: May 18, 2020

[This article is the second of a three-part series. Part 2 dives deeper into the impact of a self-directed philosophy on compliance, expectations, and mastery in a traditional school model.]

On April 15, 2020, Maggie Angst published this article titled Coronavirus: When California school campuses open in the fall, students might find a soberingly different experience. Her article looks at how states are prompting districts to plan for radical changes. In her article, she quotes Gov. Newsom who suggests schools "stagger" student attendance in order to organize classrooms and public spaces differently within the existing physical environment.

Schools will see major restructuring which will need to address three levels of compliance:

  • Health and Safety Regulations

  • Social Expectations

  • Academic Mastery

The physical and mental health and safety of students and staff will be the primary focus. The next level will involve adjusting social expectations between schools and their surrounding communities. At the core will be a shift toward a self-directed learning philosophy to refocus what needs to become most important for public education - student ownership of academic mastery.


Health and Safety Regulations

This first point takes a wide view toward schools reopening amidst a pandemic.

Public, charter, and private schools across states have various federal and state regulations for human health and safety which must be considered non-negotiable at these higher levels of compliance. Individual families across communities might disagree with how a school is addressing this potentially still-existent pandemic of a communicable respiratory disease with no available vaccine. Unfortunately, schools will be on the receiving end of much political pressure and unrest.

Most imperative is how schools will address a mental health treatment gap in schools which has long existed.

Political conflicts regarding issues of security over liberty will likely be due to how schools restructure the use of physical spaces, redesign procedures for attendance and drop-off and pick-up routines, as well as student scheduling to meet social distance guidelines. It will be a collectivist perspective which schools will need to communicate with regards to increasing security measures in order to protect those most vulnerable to this spreading virus. Since these increased measures are likely to remain until states have contained the virus or a vaccine becomes widely available, it is paramount that a school's messaging is philosophically consistent with the practices being put in place.

Perhaps most imperative is how schools will address the mental health treatment gap in schools. Districts will need to address community concerns regarding student mental health amidst this pandemic. Many schools will be wise to also focus on family stress as well. States will be working to recover economically from stay-at-home measures that saved large numbers of lives and relieved strain on medical facilities. Districts across the country have long been working with community centers and programs to create “safehavens” for students. Now more than ever school restructuring and funding redistribution will need to increase the quantity and quality of mental health and safety services for its communities.

Now more than ever school restructuring and funding redistribution will need to increase the quantity and quality of mental health and safety services for its communities.

This focus on physical and mental health will result in higher academic achievement but, particularly during this pandemic, it will require redistribution of resources and a refocus of school and community services toward the physical and mental health of students and staff. States with social and emotional learning (SEL) standards will likely see a sudden increase in programs adapting to such standards. Schools can locate their state's progress in SEL standards on the CASEL website. Schools will want to focus professional development on SEL competencies.

These changes will require more individualized focus on specific community needs and major changes to social expectations toward schools in communities across states.

[May 15 2020, Edit: The CDC released guidelines for schools reopening in Fall to ensure health and safety measures are in place. Learn more here --> and view their one-page summary here --> ]

Social Expectations

A school's community might have expectations for students regarding things as simple as attendance and punctuality, tasks and deadlines, or projects and presentations. These kinds of social expectations can shape a perspective toward what school is and make it hard to discuss what it ought to be, particularly during a health crisis.

It will be important for school leaders to recognize how changes to their school structure will impact such societal perceptions of what school is - and what school ought to be.

Points and grades encompass much of the social expectations needing to change. In fact, I speak to this issue in Episode 5 Gaming the System on The Exploring the Core Podcast. The episode highlighted a specific deficiency in the traditional perspective toward efficiency in education. I refer to this as a compliance-based learning model and speak more to this point in a past blog post, but there is one example I believe best highlights the issue - homework.

There are plenty of arguments for and against homework in a traditional school setting, but the fact is that the traditional school setting is being directly challenged. The current school-at-home situation has redefined what it means for students to learn. When all work is "home work", the line is blurred between what students must do for credit and what students should do for mastery.

This has quickly become a hot topic for discussion: without points, why bother learning? Our social expectations for what school is and what school ought to be will see major changes as the districts restructure physical school spaces and consider hybrid models of traditional and school-at-home distance learning. In order for these changes to work, a specific shift in social expectations must be a focus of conversation between schools and its community.

A self-directed learning philosophy shifts that balance for ownership of learning by redefining the idea of mastery learning.

Schools would be wise to rephrase questions such as what must students do to earn a good grade? by asking, how can students show that they are learning? Placing the emphasis for student learning on the students does not mean students are teaching themselves. It means students are held responsible for communicating how they are learning as much as they are being held responsible for what they are learning.

Refocus social expectations toward metacognition and collaborative practices for learning. Shift assessment and reporting practices to reflect how students are learning how to learn as much as they are reflecting what they are learning. This can help traditional models evolve with these changing times. This shift to a self-directed learning philosophy is the missing link between compliance-based and mastery-based school structures.

In fact, universities and corporations have long been researching and investing in developing metacognitive and collaborative environments. A self-directed learning philosophy can help K-12 schools create a pipeline to those professions seeking these skill sets by shifting the balance of student ownership towards learning and redefining the idea of mastery learning. Instead of focusing on the demonstration of mastery, re-focus on the process by which students learn to achieve academic mastery.

Academic Mastery

Traditionally, entering a classroom and having the day planned for students was a means for efficient oversight of student learning in increasingly large class sizes. For example, teachers typically have detailed learning targets planned for every hour of the day, differentiating to some degree based on student evidence of learning, but always on a specific schedule of student tasks. This has required a specific kind of compliance - an academic compliance. Students learned according to a schedule which they themselves were not responsible for planning or executing. This model placed students in a passive position of receiving scheduled learning to meet demands for an efficient system of instruction.

Students learned according to a schedule which they themselves were not responsible for planning or executing.

Today, that model is being challenged. The current school-at-home situation has brought to light how many students do not have the means or the motivation to learn outside of that traditional model. Teachers that choose to adapt a self-directed learning philosophy can help coach students and families in metacognitive and collaborative learning practices. Students can be coached, similar to how they learn to walk or talk, to take ownership of their learning.

Shifting to a self-directed learning model might be the creative solution schools are seeking for flexible and inclusive learning environments.

Consider which elements of the traditional model will be most greatly affected by this shift and how schools seeking flexible and inclusive learning environments might benefit. The following six elements highlight how the traditional instructional model can shift to a self-directed philosophy of learning in schools.

Elements for a hybrid process for self-directed learning in schools.

1. Student decides on topic. Allowing students to decide what, when, and how they want to learn is a difficult idea for many adults. Building an ownership and love for the process for learning requires student choice. The process for learning must be the focus in order for metacognitive guidance and coaching to be effective. Using a standards-based framework, insights into how skills and concepts develop can provide the kind of roadmap to access a students' inherent curiosity. Like most roadmaps, they help people know where they are, where they want to go, and be coached in monitoring the distance traveled - across traditional grade levels.

2. Student brainstorms topic. Many adults find brainstorming challenging. Part of this is a fear of suggesting a wrong or inappropriate idea, particularly in a group setting. Coaching students on how to brainstorm, even if starting with a given idea, can guide students toward other potential brainstorming opportunities and develop in students a perspective that empowers their desire to seek out new learning. Many students in school today will initially be somewhat confused by this task because it does not immediately produce a point, grade, or other extrinsic reward. Seeing the value and purpose of brainstorming will require patience as students find ways to brainstorm which are meaningful to what and how they want to learn.

3. Student organizes tasks related to topic. It has become increasingly popular for professionals to hire organizational managers to help organize homes and office spaces. What those professionals offer is insight into a specific set of preferences each person has for organizing their own things. The same is true for organization of thoughts and ideas. Students exercising their capacity to brainstorm connects directly to this element of organization. As students learn how to organize their tasks as well as their thoughts, their focus and their brainstorming become less overwhelming and increasingly more productive.

4. Student tracks progress of tasks related to topic. Eventually, all new learning gets frustrating and we need to take a break from it. It's important students have strategies for monitoring not only how far they've come in any new learning, but also become proficient in communicating the strategies they've used. This way, when return to a skill or concept, it is clear what path they had attempted before they took a break. As students brainstorm and organize tasks, their academic goals will take shape. It will become valuable to know how far they've come in meeting those goals in different ways and have opportunities to communicate with peers and ask meaningful questions about their progress.

5. Student reflects on learning based on tasks related to topic. It may be glaringly apparent that at no point in this self-directed learning model do the words assigning and assessing appear. As skills and concepts continue to develop over time, students will see opportunities for reflecting on their progress. This is where metacognitive practices, the understanding of one's own thought processes, can benefit students most. Students coached in sharing their learning with peers, or any trusted person, and the thoughts they have about the progress they've been making becomes a huge benefit to students as they progress academically, socially, as well as emotionally.

6. Student celebrates product as a result of the learning based on tasks related to topic. Eventually, a student will have figured out some aspect of a skill or concept with which they might have previously been struggling. Regardless of the particular learning, celebrating the product the student has created to represent that new learning will not only serve as a boost to their self-confidence, but also provide an opportunity for new brainstorming to take place. That joy of celebrating new learning, when part of a process for learning in which students becomes increasingly competent, is no longer seen as a means to that learning's end but a process for which their initial brainstorm can be expanded. In fact, this process might begin to seem familiar for those science teachers who utilize the "5 E" model in their classrooms.


It will be the responsibility of a school's leadership to decide if this philosophical shift toward a self-directed philosophy is worth challenging the necessary social expectations toward school amidst current planning for increased health and safety compliance measures.

I write in Part 1 about the need to reconsider what we know about motivation and will go into more detail in Part 3 about adapting a school's culture and climate in ways that utilize social-emotional competencies which support this self-directed learning approach.

The Exploring the Core Model for Self-Directed Learning

For schools interested in an instructional model for self-directed learning in a school setting, the following image will be detailed in Part 3 of this series - subscribe for updates!

The Exploring the Core Model for Self-Directed Learning

This first part looks at Self-Directed Learning, its benefits, and one major consideration for adopting and adapting as a guiding philosophy for post-pandemic school reform.

Part 3 will be available soon. Subscribe for updates

This third part looks at the impact of a self-directed learning philosophy on elements of a school's culture.

May 2020 Greg Mullen Exploring the Core LLC #ExploringTheCore Other Published Media by this Author: The Exploring the Core Podcast (Season 1, 8 Episodes)

Streaming on Spotify and iTunes Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social Emotional Learning by Greg Mullen (Corwin Press, 2019)

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