Two months into school closures, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the challenges brought on by COVID-19 are far from over. Schools and districts may continue to face uncertain circumstances over the next months or even years as the world fights the virus. And even after the pandemic is over, our school systems will inevitably face future turmoil ranging from short-term challenges (weather events) to more enduring ones (climate displacement, economic recession).

While crisis management plays an important role in these circumstances, rolling out an emergency response (like a Pass/Fail policy for the spring) is different from working towards something a number of leaders are already calling for: resilience. The Digital Learning Collaborative is exploring a Resilient Schools Network. Beth Rabbitt of The Learning Accelerator recently commented that part of reentering the 2020-21 school year will involve shifting priorities to resiliency, but that “this stage is perhaps the most challenging, as we don’t have great examples of what these systems look like (yet).”

There is some precedence for describing resilience in schools, especially among the international community focused on education during emergencies. But a quick scan of existing literature reveals that the word “resilience” may have a range of subtly different meanings: 

  • Is resilience about identifying and mitigating risks on the front end in order to be more prepared to respond to crises? This report from UNICEF suggests so.
  • Is resilience about being able to bounce back quickly after a crisis? This piece draws on the term’s original usage in material science and structural engineering to suggest this.
  • Or is resilience about designing adaptable systems that can persist through a variety of changed circumstances? This white paper from USAID argues so.

The answer is perhaps “all of the above,” but the last characterization raises a compelling question: what can school districts do to increase their abilities to adapt their operations and advance student learning in times of discontinuity?

Building resilience is an innovation challenge

At the Christensen Institute, our mission is to drive better access and outcomes in education by equipping leaders with innovation strategies informed by a powerful set of theories. Building resilience is, at its core, an innovation challenge—and many of the strategies and approaches we’ve studied over the years play a role in that.

Drawing from our own research as well as conversations with our networks, here are some of the hypotheses that rose to the top when I asked my colleagues for their perspectives on what school systems can prioritize to build resilience in the face of shifting circumstances: 

1. Deliberately map students’ web of relationships, and integrate supports around the most vulnerable students.

It verges on cliché to say that young people need relationships to thrive, but the impacts of crises can crumble an array of social scaffolds that help students get by and get ahead. To preserve and build students’ relationships with peers, mentors, coaches, and other caring adults—particularly for those who need it most—my colleagues Julia Freeland Fisher and Mahnaz Charania argue that education systems must deliberately design with relationships in mind. As Julia writes, taking that to heart means “looking at the entire ecology in which students operate [to] reveal [and optimize] the web of actual connections—formal and informal—in students’ lives.” 

With this visibility into the relationships that shape students’ lives, schools can design more responsive integrated student support models. “Unlike many intervention models that deliver services and resources on fixed schedules to predetermined subgroups of students, a model that harnesses networks can shift when students’ (and their families’) circumstances shift,” she argues.

Read Julia’s thoughts on how schools can prioritize social connections here.

2. Use technology to connect young people with real-world work and new networks.

Expanding on the imperative to prioritize relationships, Julia’s work also highlights the power of connections to harness opportunities within the world of work. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the normal ways young people gain work experience and career exposure: through summer jobs, internships, and work-based learning. But some programs have gotten creative with online alternatives, even before the crisis. “A number of online tools and programs can mitigate safety concerns while still providing the assets young people stand to gain with summer work—income, academic credits, and access to professional networks,” Julia notes.

Read her perspective on online alternatives to summer work here, and explore our market map of “edtech that connects” here.

3. Award credit based on mastery, not seat time.

In competency- and mastery-based systems, inputs like seat time become less important than individual learning outcomes. One of the biggest challenges facing schools this fall is to determine where students are in their learning, and whether or not they should advance to the next grade level. However, as my colleague, Michael Horn, put it, “If we start moving to a mastery-based system—in which students make progress as they demonstrate mastery—then we can avoid the tradeoffs inherent in this dilemma.”

You can read Michael’s thoughts on mastery-based systems in K–12 here

4. Invest in disruptive online and blended learning models. 

This spring’s experiment in remote learning has brought issues of technology back to the forefront of conversations about both instruction and equity. But online instruction shouldn’t seek to just replicate what would otherwise be happening in brick-and-mortar classrooms. My colleague Thomas Arnett says, “Online schools have spent years honing their expertise at working with the limitations of purely virtual interaction. Conventional schools would be wise not to reinvent the remote learning wheel.” In addition, schools exploring models for blended learning that are disruptive relative to conventional instruction—rather than hybrid models that improve on aspects of conventional instruction—may see greater affordances in terms of flexibility, customization, and student ownership of learning.

Read Tom’s recommendations about learning from virtual schools here, and revisit our research on blended learning here.

5. Reframe students as resources, not just costs. 

When resources like staff capacity and funding run short, it can make high-quality student-centered learning seem like a longshot. But some schools and programs are seeing a glimmer of opportunity to invite students—usually seen only as the beneficiaries of resources—to pitch in with valuable contributions once their basic needs are met. In seeing student agency as not just a goal but a resource to rely on, these models may be able to deliver learning experiences and outcomes that can otherwise seem out of reach. 

Read about some of the student-powered programs and school models I’m tracking here.

6. Build muscle for flexible collaboration and discovery-driven planning. 

Our school systems are accustomed to conventional planning: for example, teachers often confirm a scope and sequence for the entire semester, and many schools submit annual accountability plans to the district. But conventional planning relies upon knowledge built from past experience. In circumstances where knowledge is scarce and conventional approaches to planning just won’t work, a different approach to planning can help schools be systematic about planning when assumptions are all they have to work with.

Read about discovery-driven planning and how to do it here

7. _____________________________

Our research has led us to the previous six hypotheses about elements of innovative design that help schools both deliver on their core mission to educate students, and adapt more easily in the face of crisis. But these are certainly not the only answers. 

What are the designed elements of resilience that you are observing in schools and districts?


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite