Growth Through Adversity

In November of 2017, I wrote the following, “Winners in the 21st-century economy will also need to be able to adapt, anticipate people’s needs, and think in creative ways.  Schools will best prepare students for the challenges of the 21st Century by building their capacity to deal with change in positive ways.  Students need to understand how they can actively look ahead to leverage innovation to their advantage instead of waiting to respond as innovations make previously valued skill sets obsolete.  Dr. Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design, writes: “It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space–our lives today.”

At the time, I could not have imagined the extent of change educators, students, and families would be forced to tackle as we manage the impact of a global pandemic – definitely an uncertain, ambiguous, and complex space.  Within a few months’ time, the COVID pandemic forced schools nation-wide to move from traditional classroom-based instruction to exclusively distance learning.  In very short order, students, and teachers have learned to utilize a wide variety of technology tools and tricks to continue accessing and delivering education from home.  This transition to distance learning has not been without challenges. Parents, students, and educators grapple with various unique issues due to distance learning, from rising rates of depression and anxiety to the loss of student learning. Some estimate the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics.

But the larger picture has to include more than a narrow focus on academic progress.  We must step-up opportunities to accelerate student learning, but it is also essential to recognize how much students and educators have learned outside of the basic academic curriculum.

Many families are reading books with their kids, playing board games together, learning to cook meals or bake bread together at home, and children and their parents are communicating with each other more than ever.  Many students have taken the opportunity to get a part-time job and learn valuable work skills. Technology has been leveraged in ways that may forever change the way we interact, from online virtual tutors to personalized schooling, to food delivery services, to social get-togethers over video conferencing. 

Like the children who grew up during the Great Depression and world wars, children today see first-hand how people can cooperate and care for one another amidst a time of crisis. Children are learning valuable life lessons, like what it really takes to adapt to change, when they each need space, and when they need community.  As much as we would like to avoid it, the truth is, adversity plays a powerful role in our children’s growth.  Overcoming adversity creates confidence, draws out our strengths, and propels us to connect with others to build networks of support.  The challenges of this pandemic embraced as an opportunity for life learning can actually build greater resilience in our children.

Mental Health Educator, Donna Volpitta, writes, “Today, resilience has a much broader meaning. For researchers and professionals working with kids, it’s not just about ‘bouncing back.’ It’s about ‘bouncing forward.’ Resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.”

As schools around the globe return to on-campus, in-person learning, schools will need to do everything they can to address academic learning loss due to the pandemic.  But we also need to recognize and build upon the positive learning opportunities that can be taken from this pandemic.  The pandemic has stretched educators and students, and families in unprecedented ways over this past year, but it has also enriched us in areas only adversity can.  We need to guide students through the process of learning from these present challenges.  We need to come together as never before, focusing our efforts on “bouncing forward” stronger and better than we were before.

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