Applying lessons from pandemic prepared schools


Mar 22, 2022

Key points:

  • NGLC recently released insights on schools that were prepared to respond to the pandemic.
  • A shared vision for 21st-century student success enabled these schools to effectively utilize “leadership tools” to rally and empower school stakeholders to solve emergent challenges.
  • A mission-driven, agile culture that prioritized relationships was also a common feature of prepared schools. 
  • Prepared schools also had strong and flexible systems, a pattern that resonates with research on using “heavyweight teams” to tackle new challenges.

The last two years have been tough for K–12 schools and educators, but these challenging times have not been without their bright spots—and there’s much to learn from them. 

In 2021 Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) set out to seek answers to the question: “What can we learn from public schools and districts whose learning models and cultures made them genuinely prepared for the challenges of COVID?” In partnership with nine organizations (including the Christensen Institute), NGLC explored this question through a project called What Made Them So Prepared? The project’s team conducted surveys and interviews of 70 participating schools and districts that seemed to have weathered the pandemic well. 

As I reviewed the Prepared Project’s recently-released findings, I was struck by how the critical factors that seemed to help schools weather the tumult of the last two years resonate with the Institute’s innovation theory. Some of the key theories we use in our work not only provide a confirming rationale for the Prepared Project’s takeaways, but also offer insights into how other schools and districts can replicate the factors that made a difference for the Prepared Project’s featured schools.

Factor 1: Forward-leaning orientation

One of the major hurdles for any leader in times of change and uncertainty is figuring out how to convince everyone who needs to cooperate to coordinate their efforts and pull in the same direction. Although leaders can use a variety of tools to try to motivate stakeholder action—tools like vision-setting, training, performance metrics, and negotiation—the Tools of Cooperation theory illuminates that most of these tools of governance don’t work most of the time. As a result, leaders often waste their credibility, energy, and resources when implementing change. 

According to the Prepared Project report, schools that were prepared for COVID had a “forward-leaning orientation” characterized by two key dimensions: 1) “Organizing school/district life around a 21st-century vision of student success: resilient, innovative, collaborative, self-initiating, problem-solving lifelong learners;” and 2) “Tuning both the learning model and the adult/professional environment to that vision of success by enabling and distributing agency.” 

This description of the forward-leaning orientation of prepared schools aligns with what the Tools of Cooperation theory describe as “leadership tools.” When exercising leadership tools, leaders work to communicate and reinforce a vision that rallies people around their goals. At the same time, they are not overly prescriptive on the means for achieving shared goals because the effective tactics are not yet well understood. Instead, they empower the people they lead to figure out the best means based on their circumstances. 

Viewing this forward-leaning orientation through the Tools of Cooperation theory surfaces an important caution for school leaders who want to apply this Prepared Project insight. Leadership tools only work when the people in the organization have shared goals and purpose. When people don’t buy into a shared vision, leadership tools are typically met with indifference or disdain and don’t motivate stakeholder behavior—aside from inducing a collective rolling of eyes. The Prepared Project report notes that the schools studied for the project spent years before the pandemic developing their shared visions of 21st century success. That groundwork is an essential precursor to having a forward-leaning orientation in a time of crisis.

Factor 2: Healthy culture

Culture is often a fuzzy topic. It’s one of those things that people tend to talk about in oblique terms; they suggest that an organization’s culture is just in the air of the place. “You know culture when you feel it,” one might say. 

According to organizational culture expert and emeritus MIT professor Edgar Schein, “Culture is a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.” 

Culture develops gradually over time as people in an organization work together to solve problems and get things done. In each instance of a problem or task arising, the people responsible made a decision about what to do and how to do it. If their solution worked at least adequately, they are likely to resort to it again the next time a similar challenge arises. If it proved unsuccessful—the students rebelled, the teachers resisted, or the principal reprimanded, for example—those responsible for the solution will likely look for a different solution the next time. As this process of trial and error repeats itself, the people responsible refine their learning about what matters to the organization—the priorities of the organization—and how to execute them—the processes. They learn which behaviors the organization rewards and which it punishes. 

According to the Prepared Project report, “participants pointed to two dimensions of culture in particular: 1) Priority on strong relationships; and 2) Mission-driven spirit and habit of agility and adaptation.” Schools with cultures that prioritized strong relationships did things like increase their emphasis on their student advisory program, prioritize social and emotional support, and take care of staff with drive-through meals and supplies to set up home offices. Mission-driven, agile, and adaptive school cultures confronted problems with “inventiveness and agency over passivity and compliance,” and established that educators should “embrace that they don’t have to know everything and are learning alongside their young people.”

It’s not hard to see the difference that a strong culture makes. But building a strong culture can often seem elusive. So how do you build a strong culture? In their book, Blended, Michael Horn and Heather Staker use Schein’s work to provide a set of rules educators can follow to deliberately build culture. 

  1. Define a problem or task that recurs again and again.
  2. Appoint a group to solve the problem.
  3. If they fail, ask them to try again with a different process.
  4. If they succeed, ask the same group to repeat the process every time the problem recurs.
  5. Write down and promote your culture.
  6. Live in a way that is consistent with the culture.

Factor 3: Strong and flexible systems

The Prepared Project report emphasizes that “​​Willingness to be agile, prioritizing relationships and culture, and a forward-leaning learning orientation and vision of student success may have all played important roles in their response to COVID, but without well-designed, high-functioning, flexible, and broadly understood systems in place, effectiveness of response would have been significantly undercut.” 

For example, in St. Vrain Valley Schools, “Staff were frequently reallocated to take on different roles as new roles suddenly became necessary.” The schools also became the community food bank overnight due to necessities created by the pandemic. Additionally, “A long-term commitment and robust IT infrastructure and support capacity, such as learning tech coaches available to every school and classroom, along with widespread tech familiarity among staff and students, especially in grades 6-12, made switching to remote and hybrid learning relatively seamless.”

Unfortunately, that kind of flexibility isn’t easy. All organizations, schools included, have a tendency to evolve in ways that reduce their flexibility. An organization’s structures—it’s departments, teams, reporting structures, and hierarchies—embody learned processes. In all cases, the processes an organization learns, develops, and repeats help employees perform commonly recurring tasks reliably and efficiently without needing intensive support and supervision from their managers. In other words, common practices, policies and bureaucratic structures exist to reduce the amount of time and energy required to do recurring tasks. That efficiency is important in organizations such as schools where time and resources are typically scarce. But these processes and structures become problematic when they are tasked with handling problems other than those they were designed to solve. 

How can an organization overcome the inherent rigities in its areas of expertise? The answer can be found in a concept called “heavyweight teams” developed by Steven Wheelwright and Kim Clark as part of their theory of team organization. According to the theory, when people and systems need to be reorganized to interact in new ways, they can’t succeed by relying on established rules, policies, and routines. People need to interact with one another in new ways that can’t be anticipated or specified in advance. 

To address these challenges, organizations must create heavyweight teams. This type of team enables its members to transcend the boundaries of their functional organizations and interact in different ways. Members bring their functional expertise with them as they join the heavyweight team, but their mindset must never be to represent the interests of their departments during the team’s deliberations. Rather, they think of themselves as having collective responsibility to figure out a better way to knit things together to meet the overall project’s goals. 

It’s important to note that heavyweight teams should be temporary teams that only exist for the time it takes them to figure out how to design new solutions for new challenges. They shouldn’t be permanent fixtures in an organization. Heavyweight teams require a lot of time and energy to coordinate, which makes them inefficient once workable solutions have been codified. Nonetheless, they are essential for determining solutions to problems an organization hasn’t tackled before.

To learn more about the Prepared Project’s insights, check out the project’s website. To learn more about the theories that correspond with the project’s insights, check out Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.