Navigator Blog

Recovery and Renewal: The Future of Education Systems

June 22, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis and the pursuit of social justice are impacting all relationships, institutions, and systems fundamental to our society. Clearly, we must respond quickly and effectively with compassion and empathy to pressing and often unpredictable, immediate needs. Now is also the time to center around new ways of relating, learning, working, and living. 

This moment in time demands that communities and their education systems respond to not only what is urgent now, but also to the redesign of the education system—a renewed system that stands ready and resilient to meet the unique needs of today’s 21st century learners.

21st century, deeper learning can be defined as the purposeful integration of rigorous academic content with experiences that intentionally cultivate skills (such as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving) and mindsets (such as empathy, resilience, and hope) essential for students to be lifelong learners and contributors. Deeper learning experiences are designed to empower students through agency, voice, and choice. These experiences are also designed to cultivate transferable skills; that is, the ability to apply learning to new and novel situations—and we are certainly living in extraordinary times. We must amplify and accelerate 21st century learning, now!  

“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”  -Victor Hugo

Since the onset of this global pandemic, Battelle for Kids has engaged with hundreds of education leaders across a diverse array of innovative, 21st century school systems in our national network, EdLeader21. Two things are abundantly clear:  First, whether we realize it or not, a redesign now strategy started in March 2020 with remote learning as an initial crisis response—and it will continue in the months ahead as every school system strives to adjust to a new normal. Second, a shared purpose is the immune system of any school system. Fortunately, there are many communities and school systems with a shared purpose, as they work together to take ownership for fulfilling the power and promise of 21st century learning, no matter the circumstances.  

As we shift our attention to the reopening of our schools, education leaders are considering many implications. The health and well-being of every child and staff member remain at the highest level of importance. Also, of critical importance is the need to capture the lessons learned from our response to this time of crisis so that we may clearly identify…

  • Antiquated structures and parts of the former education system we choose to leave behind because they no longer meet the needs of our 21st century learners; and  
  • Innovative practices—surfaced as a result of the rapid redesign of the education system— we choose to take with us as we reopen our schools.  

As we consider how best to reimagine, renew, and reopen our schools, we must consider the entire education system—and the impact of each interdependent part of the system. As school systems and communities aspire to emerge with a relevant, responsive education system, systems thinking is essential to produce enduring and equitable outcomes for every student. 

“… vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.” -Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

To assist school systems in considering how these times will impact the future of education in the 21st century, we’ve captured fundamental questions to guide discussions and assess the system’s readiness to respond to the unique needs of today’s learners. Most importantly, acting on these questions in preparation for reopening will strengthen the system’s relevance and resilience for students.   

As you engage around these questions, we invite you to be curious, inclusive, and courageous. We hope these conversations leave you inspired and optimistic for what can be accomplished together, resulting in a better tomorrow for every student, everywhere!

Visionary Leadership: Establish a unifying and enduring vision, often referred to as a Portrait of a Graduate, for the community’s shared aspirations for all students—a vision that is locally developed, but globally positioned.

Every individual deserves to live in a society that is caring and just, where dignity, respect, and love prevail for all. The district’s vision must be anchored with unrelenting leadership and assurances for equitable practices and outcomes by cultivating collective ownership of the stated 21st century vision for learning for every student.  

1. How do we capture and continue the learning and ingenuity that have surfaced during this time? 

2. How can we meaningfully engage the larger educational ecosystem—educators, students, elected officials, community members, families— to proactively shape a renewed education system, responsive to the complex, changing world and the unique needs of today’s 21st century learner?  

3. Times of crisis require a concentrated focus on the vision to ensure the system does not revert to a familiar 20th century model of education. How are we ensuring that leaders at every level remain focused on the vision as they deal with the pressures of the day to day? 

4. Does our existing strategic plan—and our plan for reopening schools—include the right moves that result in the development of a coherent system, where all aspects of the organization are aligned to actualize our vision? 

5. How do we ensure that our system’s vision becomes a reality for every student, without exception? 

Thriving Ecosystem:  Purposefully foster a high functioning, interdependent system, inclusive of the broader community and aligned to the district vision that leverages assets and supports to ensure equity in deeper 21st century learning experiences for all.

1. As a result of this time of significant unrest and change, what shifts are we seeing in community perspectives about the purpose, nature, and value of education? 

2. How do we strengthen home, school, and community relations and communications as we adapt new learning experiences for a variety of contexts, structures, and environments?  

3. In response to student needs, have we developed an internal and communitywide asset inventory to mobilize every resource available across the broader community? 

4. As the context has shifted, do we have an articulated plan to differentiate resources and supports, resulting in equitable practices, resources, and outcomes for every school and every student? 

5. Are we contributing to a network, alongside other innovative school system leaders, to accelerate our learning about innovative practices and strategies activated across the country in response to these unprecedented times? 

21st Century Learning Design: Purposefully integrate rigorous academic content with experiences that intentionally cultivate skills, mindsets, and literacies essential for all students to be lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century.

Education is the critical foundation for cultivating, promoting, and accelerating equity and inclusivity in society. Leaders have the responsibility to advance deeper, 21st century learning, equipping each student to thrive in this ever changing, complex world.

1. In the spring of 2020, educators had to abruptly pivot to become innovative, remote learning designers. What shifts in student and teacher roles and relationships were observed that resulted in deeper learning outcomes—and what insights should serve to influence learning design and supports into the future?

2. Now more than ever, time between students and teachers may be limited; thus, traditional approaches to “content coverage” will likely exacerbate achievement gaps in learning. Do district curriculum documents provide clarity to educators by appropriately narrowing learning priorities to relevant, deeper, 21st century academic content, skills, and mindsets?  

3. Are both in-person and remote learning experiences designed to empower students as they demonstrate deeper learning through opportunities to apply learning in new and novel situations, while also building learner agency through voice and choice? 

4. As a result of the dramatic shift in learning opportunities and modalities, have we identified the unique learning needs of each student, and developed response strategies across the system, with emphasis on students whose learning must be accelerated?  

5. As technology has become a primary tool for accessing learning, how are we intentionally utilizing technology to design, deliver, and enhance deeper learning experiences, rather than simply automating traditional models of learning?

Caring, Responsive Culture: Nurtures a responsive and inclusive culture that values diverse perspectives and cultivates engagement of all within an emotionally and physically safe learning environment.

This pandemic has given rise to, and even exacerbated, persistent inequities in our school systems and society at large. Further, heightened unrest due to social injustice across the country demands an urgent response to these inequities. 

1. What are our commitments and plans to address inequities, so that all students experience deeper learning that empowers them to thrive and lead in this complex, ever-changing world?  

2. How are we surfacing and eradicating discriminatory beliefs, biases, practices, and policies that cause inequities to exist and persist? 

3. How do we foster student, educator, and community well-being, belonging, empathy, and resilience in a time of significant, sustained uncertainty? 

4. What new and innovative strategies are we using to elicit and elevate diverse voices and perspectives to both inform our response and to shape the future direction of the school system and the community?  

5. As we have accelerated new approaches to learning, how do we best communicate and inspire educators and students to be courageous learners as we promote innovation and develop trusting relationships throughout all levels of the system and broader community?

Empowered Workforce: In service of students, elevates all staff with human capital systems that attract, grow, and retain diverse, innovative, and highly engaged talent.

1. How are we intentionally fostering a culturally responsive, caring school system and workplace where each person is valued and respected? 

2. What do our employees need to be safe, healthy, and successful, and how do we create these supportive conditions both in the workplace and in remote environments? 

3. How do we best equip our educators through ongoing, high-quality professional learning as they purposefully design and implement 21st century learning, both in-person and through remote experiences?  

4. In this new and evolving context, how are we engaging in innovative human capital practices that attract and retain a diverse workforce, elevate the voice of every employee, and build collective efficacy? 

5. As leaders, have we engaged our educators to collectively identify and define the competencies—often referred to as a Portrait of an Educator—and commensurate supports needed by educators to actualize our 21st vision for every student?

Impact and Stewardship: Leverages evidence to elevate confidence in and attest to impact of the system in preparing graduates as lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century.

1. As we navigate turbulent economic times, are we engaging in a comprehensive, structured process to evaluate and revisit priorities to address pressing demands, while maintaining our focus on the vision of 21st century learning for every student?  

2. How are we prioritizing the allocation of fiscal resources and supports to respond aggressively to gaps in deeper learning experiences and outcomes? 

3. How do we use the disruption in learning, assessment and accountability systems to redefine our definition of success for students and schools, as well as shape new, more relevant systems of state and local accountability? 

4. How will we capture and share evidence of our impact and overall success that is both adaptive to today’s new challenges and aligned to our district’s 21st century vision?  

5. What evidence will we collect and share that attests to equitable, deeper learning outcomes for every student?

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” – Arundhati Roy

Battelle for Kids is engaging with innovative school system leaders across the country to capture their responses to these questions—and their strategic actions. We look forward to sharing their stories in future publications.  

If you would like to share your responses and contribute to this national discourse, please visit our website at We would love to hear how your school system has responded in these times as a resilient, 21st century education system, prepared to meet the unique needs of today’s learners.  

You can download the Conversation and Action Guide, here.