Saturday, January 15, 2022

Waiting for the storm to pass is not a solution - dealing with uncertainty

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

We used to believe that we could plan for a relatively predictable future, a clear linear pathway for our medium and even long-term strategies. Today however the future is wildly unpredictable and just about anything can happen, as the pandemic has clearly shown. We continue to plan for the day when the pandemic disappears and we can get back to normal, but how realistic is this, especially given the increasingly serious effects of the climate crisis and the growth of political instability around the world? This pandemic could continue for years, returning in new variants and, if that is not enough, climate and political instability will lead to further crises. The only way forward is to plan for dealing with constant uncertainty. We cannot put changes on hold until the pandemic dies down. 

This theme turned up in two articles I read this week. The first is by Debbie McVitty in the journal Wonkhe, Making peace with uncertainty in 2022. Many people in education leadership are trying to revert to normality and restore order in the disorder of the last two years. Universities look to the government to lead the way back to normality and unpredictability but what if that state never returns? One positive side to the present crisis is that it has forced us to rethink processes and practices that we have always taken for granted.

When things are uncertain, it becomes necessary to ask more searching questions about the various things that might happen – and in doing so gain an insight into the way things work and how they might work differently or better – like the many teaching and learning innovations that arose from the uncertain environment of online and hybrid learning. Uncertainty also means learning to deal with unexpected consequences – like student over-recruitment – a nice problem to have certainly, but also one that requires serious creative thinking to ensure students get what they’ve been offered in an acceptable way.

In fact there is a great danger in pretending that we can manage and control the future, ... the illusion of certainty may be more dangerous than confronting the reality of ambiguity. When the virus died down last year many universities joyfully reverted to the old order as soon as possible. For example, experiments with online examination were put aside as we reopened the examination halls again. We need to continue developing alternative methods rather than putting them back on the shelf because we simply don't know when we will have to handle the next crisis.

One area that needs to be developed is that of risk analysis and contingency planning and it's time to employ people to lead this work. This is highlighted in an article by Javeria Salman in The Hechinger ReportHow to plan for a future of education where disruption is the norm, describing the work of one such person, Andrew Smith, chief administrative and strategic planning officer for the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina. He gets management to develop plans for a variety of scenarios so that the organisation develops a certain crisis resilience. 

The leaders asked: What is the worst that could happen? What is the risk to schools, teachers and students? Then they asked whether the district was prepared to handle each scenario. Smith said they considered questions like: “What happens if kids never come back? Or if staff aren’t allowed in the buildings?” They even asked seniors for ideas in planning for socially distant graduation ceremonies.

We have been able to test many alternative solutions for teaching and learning over the last two years and we need to continue with this rather than waiting for the storm to pass.

Schools can’t keep waiting for an end to the pandemic for problems to go away, the solution “has to be now, not later,” Smith said. “Because every time you keep waiting for the end … how many hours kids are waiting for you?”

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