2021 Reflections: Looking Back and Harnessing Powerful Possibilities - Digital Promise

2021 Reflections: Looking Back and Harnessing Powerful Possibilities

December 22, 2021 | By

In the report “Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID,” Justin Reich and Jal Mehta consider that one of education’s biggest challenges in the years ahead will be to harness “the experience and urgency for change” and apply that energy to the sustained improvement of schools. In other words, how do we take the energy and creativity that we found in moments of crisis and maintain that momentum in humane and sustainable ways?

Unpacking their conversations with teachers, families, students, schools and district leaders, Reich and Mehta underlined the importance of engaging in reflection to look back on the pandemic year, celebrate resilience, grieve what has been lost, and imagine how the lessons learned from a tumultuous year can inform more equitable, resilient school systems.

As we approach the end of 2021, we at Digital Promise also wanted to reflect on the year that was.

Even with changes and challenges, Digital Promise persisted as a force for education transformation, anchored by our mission to achieve greater outcomes for all learners—especially historically and systemically excluded student populations and adult learners—and strengthened by the wide range of partners and networks of practitioners who share a common vision for education.

This year, we celebrated our 10-year anniversary—a milestone that speaks to a decade of improving educational outcomes through powerful and innovative learning experiences ​​grounded in learning sciences research. As we look to the future, we take inspiration from the innovation and resiliency demonstrated by students, educators, and communities, and move forward with North Star goals as our guide.

Below, Digital Promise staff share reflections, lessons, and learnings from 2021 and offer hopes for education in the new year.

How 2021 has changed the way we view our role in education

The last two years have had an indelible impression on me. While we’ve known about the challenges of equity and outcomes in U.S. education, the pandemic shone a giant spotlight on it all. So 2021 has only reinforced for me that we need to have a long view in education outcomes, we need more comprehensive approaches to the challenges, and we need to think harder about ways to leapfrog inequities.
Jean-Claude Brizard, President and CEO of Digital Promise

Education is the wrong word for the field we are in. The education system in its current state is responsible for emotional support/treatment, nutrition services, social development, parental education, and serving as an educational beacon. All of these systems were strained more than I’ve ever seen them in 2021. Our role has shifted to listening and acknowledging this reality and making the adjustments needed to support people in schools.
Matt Spears, Associate Director of Learning Communities, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools

What has inspired us over the past year

​​Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, is the person who has most inspired me this year. Her work to create a sense of belonging in her school—not only for her students, but their families—illustrates the power of making sure that each learner and their family and caregivers have a place in school. Her description of students who are learning English as “linguistically gifted” opens the doors for students and their families to celebrate their language and their culture. Juliana’s platform is joy and justice; she brings both to her work and inspires the rest of us to catch up! Fortunately for us, the research agrees, and she moves the research from the journal article to school and society.
Barbara Pape, Senior Director, Learner Variability Project

I have been inspired by teachers’, leaders’, and students’ resilience and creativity. One of the great silver linings of COVID has been an increased focus on existing inequities and students’ social-emotional learning needs, and the critical importance of addressing both. I have seen districts get very creative in finding ways to make technology accessible to students and in supporting families with a broad range of basic needs to help them stay afloat. Education is heart work as much as or more than it is head work.
Jenny Bradbury, Director of Solutions Strategy and Growth, Center for Inclusive Innovation

How we can preserve the sense of possibility that has emerged during the pandemic

Don’t be ahistorical, which is a huge problem in education innovation—revisit 2020-2021 in 2022 and give people the dedicated time to remember and reflect together.
Quinn Burke, Director of Computational Thinking Research

The relationship between edtech and learning is now deeply and permanently interwoven. Learners and educators can now leverage tools to meet their needs in endless ways, as long as we can clearly communicate those needs to those developing edtech. Through Product Certifications, our relationships with districts can continue to surface and amplify the voices of those using and purchasing edtech to inform and drive the field to accomplish what may seem unimaginable to us today.
Sierra Noakes, Marketplace Project Director, Pathways & Credentials

There is no “going back to normal”—nor should we want to. Normal wasn’t really working all that well. Many of the crises that the events of 2020 created or laid bare have compounded in 2021 to become even more acute. The lingering and ongoing challenges we face remind us that the answer is not in “waiting for normal to return” but in “creating a new normal together.” The urgency of our students’ needs requires us to think outside the box. To reconsider the boundaries of school. To center learning more clearly around their voice and needs. To build community in new ways.
Cricket Alioto Fuller, Director, R&D Projects & Strategy, Center for Inclusive Innovation

What the education sector should prioritize in 2022

2021 really showed us the potential that technology and school-to-home connection could play in a student’s education. Hopefully, we can continue to carry forward the potential of technology that was tapped into these past years. I also think we saw parents, caregivers, and families involved in a student’s education in a way many have not experienced in the past, and hopefully in 2022, we can find ways to continue to bridge and fortify the school-to-home connection.
Christine Chiu, Senior Project Manager, Learner Variability Project

​​Engaging families in what the future of education can look like. We still see families concerned about the pitfalls of technology, especially social media. We should continue to partner with them to understand their concerns, educate them on the power of these technologies, and partner in creating a bridge that leads to opening doors for all students.
Camden Hanzlick-Burton, Senior Manager of Professional Learning, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools

The education sector should prioritize exploration. Teachers should be supported in deviating from what has been done in the past to customize their instruction for their context. To do that, the education sector will need to streamline or sideline the tasks that don’t prioritize powerful learning.
Laura Darnall, Associate Director of Professional Learning, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools – Southeast

Lessons we’re bringing with us into 2022

Encourage people to accept institutional support and to care for themselves. Make “taking care of them” the ultimate priority. Our people are the first, most important resource that matters.
Shawn McCusker, Director of Professional Learning, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools

2021 has largely been a lesson in adaptability and wading into the unknown. One lesson I’ve learned from the past year is that it is never too late to learn and try something new. In 2022, It is my intention to lead with curiosity and “try things on” before saying something does or doesn’t work for me.
Kacey Baker, Chief People & Equity Officer

Alas, robots did not take over schools and machines haven’t replaced teachers. I say that in jest but I want to emphasize that replacement was never the goal. How technology and innovation can better support teachers and students was/is the goal. As Digital Promise works toward its North Star goals, we are focusing on how we can prepare students for lifelong success. Empowering students, valuing educators, and listening to communities are vital to improving learning. Researching with a variety of partners and advocating for Inclusive Innovation is how we center the human experience.
Carly Chillmon, Senior Research Communications Manager

What makes us most hopeful about education in 2022

It makes me hopeful to see districts embrace research-based approaches, such as structured literacy, which will support more students in being strong readers and keep them engaged in school in the long-term. It is fundamental to equity to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn.
Medha Tare, Director of Research, Learner Variability Project

While the last few years have increased awareness about many challenges that have existed in education for a long time, they have also revealed the ingenuity, passion, and optimism of so many educators, students, and families. I am hopeful that the creativity, passion, and determination that filled so many classroom spaces is carried over into the next year. There is such an amazing opportunity to challenge and grow educational spaces in so many ways with the lessons we have learned these last few years. More than anything, I hope that educators, students, and families feel empowered to create more positive changes.
Rita Fennelly-Atkinson, Associate Director of Professional Learning Content, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools

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