“Think ahead 10 or 15 years and ask yourself, what proportion of the activity called ‘learning’ will be located in the institution called ‘school’?”

That question was posed in 2011 by Richard Elmore, an esteemed Harvard professor of education, about a decade before the answer to that question would be, “none.” Elmore wasn’t entirely prescient. He foresaw a technological revolution, not a global pandemic. But he might not have been surprised that one brought on the other.

Cabrillo Unified School District Superintendent Sean McPhetridge mentioned Elmore, his doctoral thesis adviser, toward the end of a town hall called last week to help us better understand where we are on the road to full school reopening. McPhetridge brought up Elmore, who died earlier this month, to make the point that school may never again be exactly as it was.

McPhetridge is very clear that he does not consider a disrupted educational environment to be a silver lining in this awful time. But he notes that his workforce has now embraced technology as never before. Public school teachers who had been locked in a classroom experience that in many ways hadn’t changed much in generations are now able to connect with students across multiple digital platforms. They can troubleshoot technological problems. They have found new educational resources. They are necessarily more nimble. In short, they can prepare students for the 21st century in real-world ways that may have eluded them before.

And the potential extends beyond the classroom, as Elmore noted. McPhetridge foresees a day when students — whether “gifted,” “at-promise” or somewhere in between — can benefit from afterschool enrichment provided over the internet. Students in need of remedial help will have a portal. A promising young novelist can dissect John Steinbeck in college-level exercises. College counseling, mental health resources and telehealth could all be delivered to families that need them through the local school district.

While this is not a novel idea, we all know that change comes more quickly when there is no choice.

Jacob Martinez, winner of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award in 2020, wrote recently in EdSource that, “The disruption created by this pandemic presents an opportunity to imagine a different future for our kids, their families and their communities. In California, we can create a future where we give every student a fair chance to succeed in life, with equal participation in the school system and access to resources.” Martinez, who manages a digital-first workforce development center in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, suggests using the power of online tools to design curricula for students who simply cannot relate to 20th century reading, writing and arithmetic.

So, why not? The lecture won’t be going away. No one is suggesting students work from home forever. But we can use this disruption as an unprecedented chance to rethink what we mean by school.

Elmore was known for many complex contributions to the established learning about learning. But one simple exercise he foisted on educators was one he called, “I used to think … and now I think.”

When this is all over, that would be a very interesting exercise for teachers within Cabrillo and across the globe.

— Clay Lambert

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