Maria Castelluccio: After coronavirus, this is how schools must adapt to their students' needs

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With schools across the country now closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are becoming engaged with their children’s education in new ways they may never had to do before. Teachers are having to reformulate their lesson plans for virtual learning. School administrators are striving to operate their institutions effectively and efficiently without being on-site – while ensuring that their students, teachers, staff and parents remain committed to their daily tasks.

And we are all left wondering: Will school ever be the same?

The answer, some say, is a definitive "NO." And that’s about the best thing that could happen to schools in ages. Indeed, we in the education world should view this new normal as a much-needed major course correction, an opportunity to finally move into the 21st century.

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The fact is that schools should always be adapting to the needs of the time and those that they serve. Sure, we’ve seen the advent of charter schools and magnet schools, and more recently for-profit independent schools. And yes, curricula have evolved, influenced by research, assessment and labor force needs, among other factors, so there is now a significant focus on STEM (and STEAM to include the arts). We’ve even incorporated social-emotional intelligence, personalized learning and nutrition into the equation.

Still, in the nearly 200 years since Horace Mann spearheaded the development of what we now know as the American education system, the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same – the teacher-driven, student-regurgitation of the information model. Kids getting work, completing it and giving it back to teachers is as antiquated as the horse-and-buggy and the Victrola.

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Virtual learning, done right, should force us to turn away from this ancient pedagogy. Indeed, simply taking the exact lessons regularly taught in the classroom and putting them online will not work, nor should it. In the current age of fast-paced modern technology and social media, students – not to mention teachers – do not focus their attention easily.

Consider that adult brains are being stimulated all day long by the content we are exposed to continuously from our smartphones, social media, earbuds, email and more. Children are similarly stimulated, while they are also learning how to organize and process information; it is totally unrealistic to expect them to focus on singular subjects back-to-back-to-back for any great length of time while online.

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The question then should not be, how do we now adapt the traditional curriculum to accommodate students raised by technology? Rather, it must simply be how do we accommodate students raised by technology? The answer is to transform the traditional curriculum by zeroing in on the key learning skills in demand both by colleges and universities and the 21st-century workforce.

A recent report by Hanover Research analyzing an array of studies focused on how to improve 21st-century skills, found unanimous agreement on four critical areas for development: collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination, critical thinking, and problem-solving. All of which are perfectly in sync with the most sought after skills identified by employers, according to the landmark 2018 Future of Work report produced by the World Economic Forum.

At Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, for example, our commitment to nurturing these skills in our students is reflected in how we have structured our virtual learning initiatives. Just as we do in the physical classroom setting, we focus on inquiry-based learning that stresses conceptual understanding, effective teamwork and collaboration. These things foster creativity and inquisitive research. We are bringing the critical thinking we foster in class online through reading and writing workshops, group discourse about this global pandemic and other current events, and reflection that builds new perspectives.

We must transform the traditional curriculum by zeroing in on the key learning skills in demand both by colleges and universities and the 21st-century workforce.

Our pre-K students have about 90 minutes of online instruction daily, consisting of 15-20 minute sessions for morning and closing meetings and movement, read aloud, music, art and world language, which rotate concurrently throughout the week. The other time slots are for independent play, reading and other activities offline with the caregiver or guardian.

Grades 1-5 have about two-two-and-a-half hours online instruction daily, including online sessions 15-30 minutes long for reading, writing and math, as well as rotating specials such as science, world language, music, art and physical education. Offline, elementary students have 30-minute sessions for independent reading, writing and math. Students in grades 6-12 have four online classes of 40 minutes each and every day. Following each online session, students have 30-minute independent and collaborative work sessions offline.

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Ours is but one example and it is based on the International Baccalaureate (IB), an academically challenging, balanced and progressively-structured course of education that addresses the intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being of students and prepares them for university life and beyond. There are now more than 1,700 public, private and charter schools offering the IB in the U.S., and students who graduate with this degree are 21.5 percent more likely to be admitted to the most selective universities in the country. So we know it works.

But whether schools adopt the IB, or devise their own strategies, let’s use the next weeks and possibly months of this new age of virtual schooling at home to upend traditional education and truly create the schools of the future we’ve been talking about for years.