How Would You Reimagine School?

September 11, 2020

In two months, the world of education underwent a shift faster than it had in the past 200 years. Seemingly overnight, nine out of every 10 students in the world were sent home to begin learning remotely, as a way of preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

We put out an ask to those doing the work to reform education: How might we adapt to remote learning, while also using this moment to radically reimagine what we need our education systems to be? In three weeks, we received nearly 450 responses. 

Simone Stoltzoff, IDEO

A panel of high school students reviewed promising submissions, and top ideas will receive support to bring them to life. But in the meantime, we were too inspired not to share some of the early ideas.

1. Equity Will No Longer Be an Afterthought

“When learning from home, not all students have equal time or space to focus on their classwork.” — Kristen Myers, Communication Designer, Chicago, IL

When students are less visible, it’s easier for them to simply disappear. If a student’s house doesn’t have reliable internet, it doesn’t matter how much they show up ready to learn — the barrier to success is structural. Schools must proactively make decisions that serve students proportional to their needs.

We were inspired by the country of Panama, which crowdsourced lessons from its best public school teachers and broadcasted them on national TV. For the last five minutes of each lesson, a special education instructor explains adaptive techniques for families whose kids have special needs. In the future, being radically inclusive will be the norm, not the exception.

2. The “Classroom” Will Be Everywhere

“Arts centers, museums, libraries, forest schools, universities, they could be used to accommodate small cluster groups (same children and teacher at all times) to help spread the school population across venues in communities.” — Nia Richards, Learning Experience Designer, Wales, UK

Returning to a physical campus in the fall is a daunting challenge. But hidden within the challenge to adapt to this new normal hides a larger truth: A school’s biggest constraint is its own walls.

What if we saw this not as a space constraint but a space opportunity? When you expand the boundaries of the classroom, there’s almost limitless untapped potential. From garden classrooms to virtual classrooms that connect students from around the world, expanding our perspective on where learning can happen broadens how and what we teach.

3. Students Will Manage Their own Schedules

“The schedule… It’s archaic. It’s inflexible. It no longer works in today’s society.” — Kevin Varano, High School Teacher, Lancaster, PA

For the past few months, we’ve all been living in a time warp. The markers of time seem arbitrary. But the same was true for students before the pandemic — the school day, school year, and division of subjects are all constructs. The fact that the school day ends at 3 pm and has a three-month summer holiday may work for families who can afford childcare and camp, but not for those who cannot. The rigidity of school schedules is a structural barrier to equity.

During this crisis, students have been managing their own time while balancing school with hobbies, work, and family care. It will be hard to pull that flexibility back. It’s time for schools to adopt flexible schedules that better meet the needs of students.

4. Schools Will Support Families 

“Parents (such as myself) became involuntary teaching assistants overnight when schools closed. We had no preparation, no experience and, frankly, no clue as it came to teaching.” — Erik Mooij, Parent, Utrecht, Netherlands

If we have learned anything from the past few months, it’s just how hard teaching can be. Families are developing an intimate understanding of all that goes into helping their children learn — and schools are developing an intimate understanding of how ill-equipped they are to help families serve their children. In the future, schools will rethink how they can better support families.

5. There Will Be New Measures of Success

“Using standardized tests to evaluate schools exacerbates inequity and distorts educational purpose.” — Hi Howard, Nonprofit Executive Director, Denver

For years, test results have been the metric that matters for teachers, students, and schools. We’ve relied on proxies for what students know—courses completed, grade level, and test scores — rather than giving students an opportunity to show what they know. Moving forward, we’re encouraged by competency-based approaches to assessment that reward a broad definition of growth.

Ensuring that student- and family-centered solutions stick will require following the lead of those doing the work. Educators, families, and students have ideas for how to reimagine the future of learning. Let’s listen to their voices.


Simone Stolzoff is a Senior Communication Designer at IDEO San Francisco, where he focuses on the future of work and workforce development. Learn more about OpenIDEO’s Reimagine Learning Challenge on openideo.comInnoLead regularly publishes Thought Leadership pieces written by our Strategic Partner firms.

This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.