Carpe Diem: Evolving Education After COVID-19

Apr 30, 2020

How a Much-Needed Transformation to Teaching and Learning Can Emerge From the COVID-19 Crisis

Graduates today, more than ever, will need to navigate the economic shifts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic by independently resetting goals, adapting quickly, and applying what they’ve learned to solve new and novel problems. Skills such as these are commonly known as the “21st Century skills” and during these changing times, the ability to demonstrate these skills may make the difference between success and failure. In this unprecedented time, it’s up to us as educators to use these difficult circumstances to take the next step forward in developing these skills & to prepare for education after COVID-19.

Traditional K-12 schools are structured so that groups of students are taught to practice important learning targets together. The COVID-19 crisis has pulled the plug on this structure, requiring educators to shift how teaching and learning happens. As if that wasn’t enough, the pandemic spotlights a lack of readiness among most districts to facilitate 21st Century learning practices. Modern theories of learning, combined with what we’ve discovered through events of the past few months, should compel districts to prepare for a new instructional normal; one that addresses the 21st Century skills students will need to succeed.

Making the shift to support these learning approaches requires structural, social, and cultural change in our districts and schools. This shift requires innovative thinking, monetary commitment, and deliberate action. Additionally, district leaders must partner with the teachers’ union, local community stakeholders, and school board members, each having their own unique viewpoints and wide-ranging tolerances for change.

What type of instruction is needed to promote 21st Century skills

The Center has written extensively about instruction and assessment that promotes 21st Century skills. An overwhelming research base suggests that 21st Century skills are cultivated through:

  • Personalization: Solving authentic, personally meaningful and challenging problems.
  • Choice: Letting students determine how to demonstrate new knowledge and skills.
  • Collaboration: Opportunities to address difficult questions in community with others.
  • Scaffolded Support: Frequent feedback from the teacher, outside experts, and peers.
  • Agency: Opportunities to present and/or share work with others.
  • Reflection: Ongoing opportunities to reflect and self-evaluate on the learning process.
  • Application: Opportunities to apply new knowledge to address novel problems.

Common instructional approaches that promote 21st Century skills include problem-based learning, project-based learning, and personalized learning, among others. The tenets of socio-cultural theory underlie these learning approaches, with a central belief being that learners construct meaning through interactions with others and active engagement with the world. An individual’s environment and social interactions play a critical role in shaping the learning process and the development of 21st Century skills.

What Does This Mean for Districts, Schools and Educators?

Making the shift to 21st Century learning requires educators to adjust instruction, assessment, and professional development to support students’ learning. Many districts, for example, are seeking new resources to support online learning. Districts are rolling out professional development to support teachers’ use of online learning platforms. These have included web-based curriculum and assessment resources as well as instructional strategies to support standards-based learning at home.

We believe that this is the opportunity for district leaders and stakeholders to come together to begin a long-term thoughtful plan for preparing students to be flexible thinkers and problem solvers. Below we provide recommendations for educators to consider as they shift their instructional programs. Though these suggestions barely scratch the surface for providing actionable guidance to drive instructional change, our intent is that they will prompt questions and ideas from our district partners; allowing the Center to respond with targeted assessment support in the months ahead.

Recognize the Shift in Learning Orientation

Most educators do not operate from an explicit theory of learning, but many employ, at least implicitly, key aspects of sociocultural theory by fostering opportunities for students to interact with their peers and adults in order to advance their learning. This forced shift to semi-isolated learning has upended the peer and adult interactions common to educators’ and students’ regular experiences.

Educators need to figure out how to adapt their approach to learning to fit the current learning context and design instructional strategies to fit the new reality. That could mean finding ways to foster peer and adult interactions while recognizing the need to shift to more individualized (personalized) strategies.

Revise Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

The approach to learning should provide multiple opportunities for students to engage in challenging tasks that address 21st Century skills. In other words, students should be provided with grade-level opportunities to solve authentic, real-world problems in community with others, and to communicate how they would suggest solving the problem. These experiences require students to learn and apply content both independently and with peers. This type of learning can occur both in & out of the classroom using on-line collaborative platform technology.

As this instructional shift occurs, so too should assessment. Performance tasks and portfolios of students’ work, for example, are useful for assessing students’ application of 21st Century skills to new or novel situations. High-quality performance tasks in particular, require students to apply skills such as self-direction, collaboration, and complex communication. Additionally, students can be given choices about how they demonstrate proficiency in either performance tasks or portfolios, which promotes meaningful and authentic engagement.

These assessments also allow the teacher and peers to provide formative feedback to support the learning process. Fortunately, tools (e.g., Google Drive; web-based conferencing) and platforms (e.g., Moodle) – many of which are open source – are available to support digital portfolios and performance assessment, including performance tasks that require collaboration and teacher support. These tools should become part of a district’s assessment system that reflects the district’s theory of learning and instructional expectations.

Create and Sustain Cycles of Professional Development

Typically, professional development is conducted through large groups of teachers coming together to learn about different concepts and strategies. Teachers, now more than ever, need sustained support for shifting to instruction that provides students with deep content knowledge and opportunities to apply 21st Century skills. Using the necessary shifts in instruction, collaboration, and assessments, district leaders should identify instructional leaders who can develop modules for the necessary knowledge and skills teachers now need.

Professional learning should occur regularly to ensure that all teachers understand the expectations of this new learning structure. The online collaborative approach to professional development would mirror ways in which students are learning and interacting with content. This professional learning also aligns with Lave & Wenger’s (1991) concept of “legitimate peripheral participation” where apprentices learn to become masters through extended work with experts. This cycle of professional development differs from what currently happens in most districts where there are a handful of days provided for professional development. Engaging in this type of ongoing and sustained professional development requires commitment from all stakeholders.

Seizing the Opportunity

Alongside the new challenges that will result from the COVID-19 crisis, new opportunities will emerge. We see opportunities to ensure more equitable access to basic technologies and instructional tasks that engage learners and cultivate deeper learning. Shifting to a “new normal” could remove barriers and accelerate changes to more personalized instruction, assessment, and professional development that were once seen as impractical. Districts that make the shift successfully will produce graduates who are prepared to thrive in a rapidly changing world in which access to knowledge and information is ubiquitous.


Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

National Research Council (2011). Assessing 21st Century Skills: Summary of a workshop. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Shepard, L. A. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29, 7, 4-14.