How Can Schools Become More Nimble?

The COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning, masking, and social distancing are just the most obvious examples of the radical challenges experienced by schools in the last two years. Schools have responded to each and every concern in a variety of ways during this virus-inducing emergency, but the effectiveness of their response has been uneven due to the absence of a clear strategy for change. The question before us is what should we be doing next?

Lessons Learned

What have we learned in response to this medical crisis? Some of the lessons learned have been documented in previous posts, but this post is about the process of responding to crisis. For example, a lesson learned about masks is that they prevent the spread of the disease. However, the process of implementing mask wearing was very uneven and school rules about masks have been challenged by parents who felt the school’s authority to do so was overstepping personal freedoms.

Schools also learned to separate children by plexiglass, move desks further away from each other, and eventually how to mandate vaccines. The process again has been hampered by parent push-back, money to make or build more space for children, and the school’s inability to become more nimble than the process of change that schools are comfortable with.

All Easy Fixes

The structure of schools is designed to withstand easy fixes. Although schools look much like they did when parents of our children were getting educated, many changes have occured to curriculum, assessment, grouping, and the projects our children experience. But the basic structure of eight classes per day, fifty minutes per class, one teacher and 20 children remains the same. In fact, the nimbleness of schools is restricted to all of the fixes that are easy, small, and fit within existing or traditional structures of schools.

These types of easy fixes are often called first-order changes and are the easiest to accomplish when changing schools. The harder fixes, called second-order changes, are the changes to basic structures of school such as classroom design, performance assessments, integration of subjects, community collaboration, and multi-disciplinary learning.


What we should be doing next is creating a nation-wide K-12 school strategy for becoming more nimble. This strategy would deploy integration thinking to better identify problems, solve theoretical and logistical barriers to change, and implement forward looking solutions to improving schools. Integration can be defined in a variety of ways and costs nothing to build as the parts already exist, as for example: Integration of different school experts, integration of different subjects in student learning, and integration of multi-layered accountability structures as in teams of teachers, principals and district heads.

For example, integration of people and resources could be used to better solve safety issues for schools. Schools could choose to build a more robust remote learning integrated team to design and implement a process that responds to students who need to stay home during the pandemic, teachers who have to stay home, and tutors that could be available to help students and staff who have to stay home. The city of Dracut, MA prepared four years ago for snow days by building an instant-on remote learning process. Although designed for snow days, it was nimbly transformed into their COVID-19 response.

Nimble Integration of Teams and Resources Already in Place

Schools can become more nimble by integrating different resources already in place to solve problems and create more nimble strategies for success. Instead of new policies that take time to construct during the crisis, planning for the crisis and developing multi-disciplinary teams who deploy integration strategies better prepares schools for any contingency. The trick is to be ahead of the problems, and be ready to act.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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