5 sticky changes

When architect John Diffenderfer asked Anna Harrison what would be the ‘sticky’ changes in education after Covid, five clear answers emerged from a wide-ranging series of interviews.

Identifying long-term changes

In November of 2020, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible to deny that the traditional model of education in the United States of America needed to change. Closing schools to in-person learning had shone a bright spotlight on the pervasive systemic inequities within education, while at the same time seemed to be opening up new possibilities.

Sensing that long-term change was inevitable, John Diffenderfer, the President of Aedis Architects, asked me to consider this question:

“What are the five stickiest changes to education that will come about as a result of COVID-19?”


We set up a series of global interviews to ask this question of a diverse pool of teachers, students, administrators, designers, and educational service providers. Here’s what emerged.

1. Learn Anywhere Learn Anytime

The pandemic has demonstrated that learning can take place outside the four walls of the classroom and the interviewees were unanimous in their predictions that technology is here to stay. As elementary school garden sciences teacher Amy Jagodnik notes, “I don’t think that we’re ever going to go back. I think we’re always going to have this virtual option.” Innovative approaches to learning have emerged, such as neighborhood learning pods, outdoor learning, and online academies and have proven to be successful alternatives to traditional school. While schools have been shut down or in hybrid mode children, families, and educators have enjoyed flexibility and autonomy, creating the learning and teaching environments that work best for them. However, the benefits of choice were denied to many children and their families, due to unreliable or nonexistent internet access and inequitable distribution of the technology devices required to access learning.

Key Components of Learn Anywhere Learn Anytime:

  • Technology
  • Distance Learning
  • Choice
2. Personalized Learning

Progressive educators,  such as Steiner, Montessori, Vygotsky, and Dewey, have been advocating for various forms of personalized learner-led education for decades. When children and young adults recognize themselves in curriculum that is relevant to their lives and are supported in taking ownership of their learning, they become more engaged. In the words of Reef-Sunset Unified School District Superintendent Pat Sánchez “the ingredient that’s been missing is the voice of the student.” The dream of an equitable and socially just world starts with access to an equitable and socially just education for every child.

Components of Personalized Learning:

  • Student Led Learning
  • Educator as Co-Learner
  • Social Justice Lens
3. Quality of Life

For the privileged, with access to reliable internet and the option to work and learn from home, the pandemic has had a silver lining, an improved quality of life. Spending time in gardens, green spaces, and parks revealed the power of nature to relieve stress. For others, such as those in historically oppressed and underserved communities lacking nearby green space, there is no silver lining. The pandemic has exacerbated the harmful mental and physical health impacts of poverty and racism.

As Sharon Danks the founder of Green Schoolyards America observes, “there have always been inequities, there have always been mental health issues. But this pandemic has made both front and center.” Engaging diverse community stakeholders in the design of schools as centers of well-being will require a reimagining of the very purpose of a school campus. Bryan Gibson, the Global Communities Moderator for LearnLife believes that “for people to be well they need to have social interaction and community.”

Key Components of Quality of Life:

  • Community Well-being
  • Mental Health
  • Access to Nature
4. Stay Open School Design

In addition to educating our children, the pandemic has shown us that we rely on the custodial, nutritional, and socialization services that schools typically provide. When schools closed, the needs fulfilled by these services failed to be met for millions of children. Schools were shut down because their indoor environments were not flexible enough to accommodate physical distancing and lacked sufficient airflow and air filtering to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

Poor indoor environmental quality has long been known to negatively impact learning. Outside the four walls of the classroom physical distancing and airflow are available on many school campuses. Seasoned outdoor educators like John Fisher, the outreach director at LifeLab, immediately recognized the possibilities. Taking learning outside requires some basic infrastructure, information, and support. John notes, “we have environmental literacy specialists, outdoor educators, and others saying we can do this.”

Components of Stay Open School Design:

  • Community Schools
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Outdoor Learning
5. To Test or Not to Test

Historically underserved, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and marginalized populations have consistently underperformed on summative standardized tests. This is often referred to as the achievement gap. There is no doubt that these groups of children are at the most risk of delayed academic development as a result of pandemic related school closures. However, as a metric to understand learning there is general agreement that formative ongoing assessment is a more effective tool, allowing educators to adapt to meet an individual learner’s needs.

As Thom Markham remarks “learning loss is based upon retention of information, not actual learning.” The disruption of the education system created by COVID-19 is an opportunity to reimagine how learning is obtained, represented, and assessed. To achieve high levels of engagement, relevance, and rigor, and develop the kinds of interpersonal relationships necessary for deeper learning, requires investment in innovation. Middle school science and math teacher, Matthew Romiti, puts it this way, “we can’t keep doing things simply because that’s how it’s always been done.”

Components of To Test or Not To Test:

  • Measure What Matters
  • Relevance, Rigor, and Relationships
  • Funding Innovation

While admittedly these five stickiest changes are not entirely new, they are being looked at through a new lens. The lens of suffering through a year plus of COVID-19. The five stickiest changes are a glimpse at the potential new normal, for better or for worse. Thom Markham predicts that “in the end, four walls are not going to be able to contain young people, or their learning.” We agree.

Click for the PDF of the full report: https://www.aedisarchitects.com/five-stickiest-changes/

Anna Harrison, ASID LEED AP ALEP

Educational Facilities Planner at Aedis Architects




FEATURE IMAGE:  by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay 

Support images:  by Goumbik from Pixabay, Asinno from Pixabay, Дмитрий Макаров from Pixabay,                  

                              Gautam Arora on Unsplash, & Kuanish Reymbaev on Unsplash.