Rena's Ruminations

Back to “Normal”?

October 29, 2021

As The Lawrence prepares to reopen our indoor space to the public for the first time in 20 months, and as back-to-school in-person is in full swing with hopes for “getting back to normal,” I am reflecting on what has changed and what has stayed the same since we closed our doors in March 2020. 

The autumn colors and falling leaves, the fresh paint on our walls, the new signs inside and outside our building, and both the new and the renewed experiences in our special space are all striking reminders that change is in the air. And yet, as I think about the challenges ahead of us—not just for The Lawrence, but also for the education field as a whole—I can’t help but think how much further we have to go. 

The pandemic has disrupted daily life and heightened many existing societal issues, as well as caused massive shifts across education systems, organizations, and infrastructures. In the maelstrom of the pandemic-triggered national learning crisis, youth from marginalized and minoritized communities have been disproportionately left further and further behind in the pandemic educational landscape, thereby exacerbating existing inequities. The achievement gap that educators, policymakers, and leaders have been struggling to close for years is becoming an achievement gulf—right in front of our eyes! And our sensibilities about the power dynamics that shape how we define achievement and the tools we used to measure the “gap” have shifted as we reckon deeply with the realization that racism, sexism, and many other “-isms” are hardwired into our institutions and societal systems. 

At the same time, this disruption gives us an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the educational landscape. For many years, advocates for educational reform have been trying (to no avail) to manufacture a system-wide disruption as fundamental as the one we have been experiencing. While the pandemic fueled an exercise in replacing schooling as we have long known it with distance- and online-learning, it has also offered many opportunities to explore potentially transformational possibilities, such as fundamentally different roles for students, teachers, and leaders; independent study arrangements that give youth more agency in their learning; interruptions of accountability and testing systems used to sort students by their knowledge achievements and then to advance them; benefits of learning experiences that happen outdoors and in out-of-school settings; and invigorating new alliances and partnerships focused on youths’ well-being.

Where are those possibilities now? While many parents, principals, and policymakers have called for a quick return to pre-pandemic “normal,” and while most schools are struggling to make this happen as I write, this should not be the focus of our “reopening” and “back-to-school” efforts.

We should not squander the transformation potential of this complex crisis! We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform an educational system that has been failing youth, families, communities, and even entire societies for decades.

We should not return to what “normal” looked like pre-pandemic, because that had been systematically disadvantaging, minoritizing, and marginalizing so many. We must meet this moment with brave and bold innovation. This is our chance to shape a “new normal” in learning opportunities and education systems; to transform what learning and education look like (both in and out of school); and to reinvent our educational organizations and systems. We have a unique chance to center our design efforts in ways that prioritize learning, creativity, critical thinking, and socio-emotional well-being over content coverage, crowd control, and “seat time.” We can redefine student “achievement” and can actually re-envision what “success” looks like. We can dismantle (and simply refuse to reinstate) some of the structures that have institutionalized racism. As educators, leaders, learning designers, innovators, and disruptors, we must allow the disruptions of the past 18 months to inspire and catalyze us to work toward a paradigm shift in education that shapes a “new normal” and fosters a more just, sustainable, and equitable world. 

So, how will we at The Lawrence Hall of Science rise to this challenge? What will our new normal look like? How will we catalyze and support our colleagues and partners across the field to join us in taking brave, bold, powerful steps to shape a new normal? I and my entire staff at The Lawrence have planned for many exciting things in the months to come—from focusing on global issues and a commitment to social justice across all our work, to building on our continued and deepened work within communities and with partners, to preparing community-curated exhibits, and so much more! If you are in the area, please come visit us at the Hall high in the beautiful Berkeley hills. And, wherever you are, check back to this blog and our website to learn more about how our work unfolds, and please share your ideas about what you want your “new normal” to look like. We can’t wait to engage with you!

Rena Dorph

Written by Rena Dorph

The Lawrence Hall of Science