Over the last 14 months, people have asked me, “What do you hope the silver lining of this tough year will be?” I hope educators and educational institutions use this year and the lessons learned to reimagine “school” and how we design and facilitate learning. Yet, I worry that won’t happen. I fear schools will revert to what is comfortable and what aligns with existing mental models instead of questioning the status quo, taking inventory of the lessons learned this year, and paving a new path forward.

Stagnation or Progress

Since the pandemic began, I’ve worked with thousands of school leaders and educators. Much of that time has been focused on how to teach in online or blended learning environments. That was important work necessary to meet the short-term demands of the pandemic. However, to make significant and sustainable long-term changes in education, our perceptions of what teaching and learning “look” like have to fundamentally shift to avoid stagnation and make progress.

The rapid proliferation of technology combined with the closure of schools due to COVID were powerful change agents that placed enormous pressure on educational systems this year. Some educational systems made significant progress or changes to adapt to the demands of the moment, while others stagnated and floundered.

Many factors contribute to stagnation. Some schools struggled to embrace the flexibility and affordances of online learning and instead attempted to replicate the traditional school day online. Others did not have the infrastructure, devices, or professional learning necessary to navigate this sudden shift online. Yet, I believe the most powerful force at work maintaining the status quo is our mental models about teaching, learning, and school. I fear these mental models will cause many leaders, teachers, parents, and school systems to embrace a return to pre-pandemic norms without questioning what has been gained in this year that is worth retaining.

The Power of Mental Models

Mental models are deeply held assumptions, ideas, and images we have about how the world works. Caroll and Olsen (1988) defined mental models as rich and elaborate structures that reflect our understanding of what a system contains, how it works, and why it functions the way that it does. These mental models are often unconscious and are formed as a result of our life experiences. They have a powerful impact on the way we view the world and how we act in it.

Most educators, myself included, entered this profession guided by mental models about the educational system formed by our experiences as students. Teacher training programs likely reinforced those mental models.

When I began teaching, I believed the following to be true.

  • The teacher is the expert.
  • Learning happens in classrooms.
  • Students move from class to class on a set schedule.
  • Classes are composed of students who are the same age.
  • All students in a class should complete the same assignments.

These statements on the surface may seem innocuous, but they serve to create stagnation in the face of change agents. For example, if teachers see their role in a classroom as “expert,” they design teacher-centered lessons where they spend significant time at the front of the room–physical or virtual–talking and transferring information. As a result, students spend much of their time quietly listening and receiving information.

Mental models make it hard, even scary, for educators and educational systems to rethink rigid schedules, seat time requirements, pacing guides, and traditional approaches to instruction. I believe these are aspects of education we have the opportunity to re-evaluate and reimagine in the wake of COVID. We do not have to return to school exactly as it was before the pandemic. Instead, we must ask, “How can we take the best aspects of teaching and learning from the last year and incorporate them into our future work with students?”

Unearthing Our Mental Models

The first step in changing a mental model is to unearth and understand it. Failure to identify and name the mental models driving our actions and decisions will undermine any effort to make long-term change in a system. The process of uncovering existing mental models requires that leaders and educators take time to consider the images, assumptions, and stories they have about what it means to be a teacher and a student as well as what learning looks like and where it takes place.

When you hear the words “teacher” or “student,” what images come to mind? What is that person doing? What are their primary roles and responsibilities? How do they interact with other members of the learning community? The answers to these questions are likely reflections of our past experiences in school systems.

Once we have unearthed our mental models and consciously understand what drives our thinking and decision-making about teaching and learning, we need to think about what we want teaching and learning to look like in a post-pandemic world.

As a blended learning advocate, I encourage educators to design and facilitate learning experiences that:

  • Place students, not teachers, at the center of learning.
  • Prioritize student agency and invite students to make key decisions.
  • Encourage communication and collaboration among students.
  • Remove barriers and meet individual students where they are at.
  • Leverage technology strategically to transfer more control over the time, place, pace, and path of the learning experience to the students.

Constructing New Mental Models For a New Age in Education

Many leaders and educators acknowledge the value of student centered-learning, student agency, social learning, differentiated and personalized learning, and learner control over elements of their experience, like pace. However, these beliefs about learning may stand in stark contrast to the mental models people have constructed based on their expeirences in school 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

To make long-term change, we have to construct new mental models that support and reinforce these new approaches to teaching and learning. Two people can observe a scene, like students chatting in a classroom, and draw totally different conclusions about what is happening based on their mental models.

If leaders and teachers value communication and collaboration among students, the mental image that comes to mind when we think of a classroom will include chatter, noise, movement, and flexible seating arrangements. We cannot say we value social learning and become anxious or concerned if we enter a classroom where students are talking and making noise. Our mental models communicate that a scene playing out in a classroom is either positive or negative.

It took me a long time to reconstruct my image of what a productive classroom looked like, from a quiet space where students sat in rows and worked alone to a buzzing hive of conversation, collaboration, and movement. I had to spend time in classrooms where students engaged with one another to learn to appreciate that creativity and learning can happen in these vibrant student-centered environments.

I believe a backward design can help construct new mental models. What do leaders and teachers want to work toward? What do you value as a school community? Once a clear vision has been established, describe what teaching and learning will look like in this future state. If leaders and teachers identify student agency as a value or pillar of learning, what will that look like in action? What would you expect to see in classrooms?

Leaders must also engage stakeholders in conversations about what worked during this tough year. Which instructional models were most effective? What learning activities successfully engaged learners? Which technology tools were most useful? The answers to these questions can help schools identify aspects of online or hybrid learning they want to retain.

Similarly, teachers should collect feedback from students about their experience. What worked well for them this year? What was challenging or frustrating? What aspects of online or hybrid learning would they encourage teachers or schools to keep?

Although this year has presented educators with myriad challenges, there has also been exponential growth. I hope schools take time to understand what worked well, what didn’t, and how existing mental models among staff members will either function to support or impede innovative change moving forward. Instead of wishing to return to pre-pandemic school, how can we take the lessons learned this year and pave a new path forward?

Leaders looking to support teachers with self-paced online learning opportunities this summer can request a quote for my Getting Started with Blended and Online Learning and my Advancing with Blended and Online Learning Courses!

34 Responses

  1. I am in complete agreement with your summation. Nothing changes if nothing changes! It’s time for public education to change. I’ve been in the education field for 40 years, teaching at almost every grade level. I would much rather my teaching be student centered and based on student interests. Education relies too heavily on the standards, common core and the no child left behind theory. What the powers that be have done, is take most creativity out of education, starting with the arts and music and putting way too much pressure on students and staff alike on the importance of standardized testing. I really want to visit Finland and look at their school models and the way they do things. We could learn a lesson from them I’m sure. We need to allow our children (very young) to play. Kindergarten is a watered down version of 1st and recently 2nd grades. We are having to incorporate “SEL” programs because teachers are relying so heavily on computerized “programs” and technology. There is a place for it, but not all consuming. There is so much time in any given day, and not enough time to discuss, share ideas, collaborate, enjoy! Thank you for your work. I had the honor of taking one of your book studies on “blended learning” Thank you again.

    • You’re welcome, Tracey! I’m thrilled you could engage in a book study with one of my blended learning texts. As much as I see potential in harnessing technology to shift students to the center of learning, I agree with you that play, self-care and mindfulness, and tactile, experiential, and outdoor learning are critical. I really do feel like there needs to be more balance in our approach to educating children. I would also LOVE to travel to Finland and observe their approach. I’ve read a lot of research and articles, but it would be fascinating to “see” what they are doing in Finland in person.

      Take care.

  2. Podemos mantener los cambios hechos en el sector educativo haciendo un inventario de los éxitos, buenas prácticas y retos superados y vividos a través del 2020 y 2021 con los nuevos cambios. Es importante tener en cuenta a toda la comunidad en la elaboración de este inventario: docentes, estudiantes, familias, directivos y colaboradores en general. No podemos volver a lo que éramos. Hemos ganado mucho logrando una educación que fomenta el liderazgo, la autonomía, la autogestión, trabajo colaborativo, comunicación más asertiva e incluyente, espíritu investigador, entre otros.

    • Absolutely. It is important to acknowledge and celebrate the successes while also reflecting upon improvement opportunities.

  3. This article reflects the conversation we are having right now as we look to next year. What do we keep and what needs to be thrown out. We have learned so much. Do you have an effective survey to use with students to get good feedback on this year?

    • Hi Cheri,

      Most teachers I’ve worked with are collecting student feedback via Google or Microsoft Forms. School administrators are sometimes using those simple forms or more advanced survey tools, like SurveyMonkey.


  4. Hi Caitlin:

    I spend a lot of time reflecting on how this past year can teach us about what we want to pull forward with us, and what we want to leave behind. As educators, we know that stagnation is an inevitable side effect of teaching the same subject matter, the same way for too long. Many of do not change our approach due to our belief in the adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, or in more academic terms, we default to the efficiency argument that was has “worked” before with even moderate success is tried and true. Your post points out that the most inspiring teachers do not buy into those cycles of stagnation, and I find your post really insightful. It is the best summary of the reassessment we all should be doing that I have read! Thank you, and I look forward to reading your future posts! Gigi Williamson, 1st year student in Pepperdine’s GSEP ELAP Doctoral Program

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Gigi! I just finished my doctoral journey at Pepperdine last summer 😊 I hope you have a wonderful experience with the program.


  5. This is beautifully expressed and right on. There is an incredible amount students have learned this year outside the classroom. And we all have learned as educators as well. Thank you.

  6. As always, you articulate something I have been thinking about all year! Thank you for being so on target and so timely!

  7. This gave me some things to think about and some ideas about how I could change my lessons. This may help me get those who are not participating to participate. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this! Your posts are always so timely, reflective, & intelligent. Your ideas are spot on for moving education forward!

  9. Yes!! All things yes! I am incredibly inspired by your work and this post is everything I’m feeling and noticing in my school right now. It will take time to gather these reflections and make purposeful work of them, but my goodness, time well spent. Thank you for writing this, Catlin!

    • Thank you, Vicki! I’m thrilled this post resonated with you, given what you see in your school. I hope it sparks conversations, so schools take a moment to consider what has been learned this year and make informed decisions about what they want to create next year!

      Take care.

  10. I generally find that, theoretically, I agree with this. The traditional model of school doesn’t have to be what we move forward with. But I struggle with how this looks in reality. I struggle with how to create a student-centered classroom that prioritizes student agency when we have prescribed standards and standardized tests.

    • That’s a fair point, Erin. I am not a fan of standardized tests either. I worry that standardized exams place bombastic pressure on teachers and schools that can stifle innovative change in education. However, I view standards as a guide and don’t see them as a hurdle to student-centered learning that prioritizes student agency. I believe universally designed learning that leverages blended learning models can make this reality possible.


  11. Catlin, Your ideas are the same I have been feeling. I shudder every time I hear that they just want to go back to normal. I don’t want to go back. I want to move forward and take with us some of the very valuable lessons we learned while remote teaching. I want the concern for student social and emotional well-being to be front and center of our mission and educators and families working together to make school a better, more positive place for our students.

  12. The final question says it all. We simply cannot return to the way education used to be. Changing mental models is difficult work for all stakeholders; it will require patience, flexibility, and thoughtful reflection. Good leaders will embrace this time as a positive impetus for change.
    Loved every word of this!!!

  13. Thanks for your post. I also feel one way as a parent and differently as an educator. I do need my elementary-aged child to have supervision during the day so that I can work. I think blended learning can be great but the shift would not just have to be in the structures of school buildings but in figuring out how we would do childcare and what could change to make it more flexible to meet parent and child needs.

  14. I agree with Erin’s comment- theory is one thing, practice is another. With that said, I agree with (most) of what you suggest… education does need to change (good teachers everywhere recognize this). If we don’t adopt what might have been successful, then this past year will have been for naught. I also agree that a student-centric model is the model that allows for a genuine, authentic learning experience. While teachers can incorporate some of the methods we’ve been using via distance learning to enrich the student experience, I think we need a top-down reevaultion of the system as a whole… Why is the schedule the driving force behind how we spend our time? Why do students spend thousands of hours on math (algebra, specifically) when we know that the majority of them will not use it on a daily basis? How do we create a learning environment in which students thrive, not just “get by”? I have seen great change over the past 20 years in the district where I teach, but sometimes I think we’re still behind the curve… while we’ve made some very postive gains, I think there are structural issues that need attention. Thank you for your contributions to the field and to the discussion, Dr. Tucker.

  15. I absolutely agree with your post! I am currently going to school to become an elementary teacher. I just ran across your blog online and have been finding it very helpful. Thanks for the great information!

  16. Catlin, totally would love to hear how you unearthed the mental models for teachers?

    I’m from Indonesia and we’ve been experiencing teacher-centered-led based education for more than 32 years (politically legitimized) and the reform age since the year 1998 still face a uphill to gave this type of training among teachers. Listening to your sharing about how you invoke teachers on their own mental models will surely be a great inspiration.

    Thank you for your attention and response, Catlin.

  17. We were all challenged to make a paradigm shift during this pandemic. Our life patterns and traditions shifted in unimaginable rituals and routines. Mainly the wearing of mask and confining ourselves to our homes, and not going out to our places of entertainment, grocery stores, doctor visits etc. We must remember the mental disparities COVID-19 placed on ALL: students, parents, teachers, administrators, healthcare professionals, business owners, workers, and the community. Many of us lost loved ones. Our lives have been turned (upside down) in ways that most of us never imagined . The journey of the healing process will be particular to each individual. Let us try to understand each other’s pain and make decisions which help with the healing as we move forward into the new norm until some balance returns, if and when it does.

  18. Hi Caitlin,
    This was right on point, I know that there are many of us who have gained a higher respect for the virtual teacher. I think after this year, teachers and students alike have learned to appreciate virtual learning and have also come to appreciate physical learning that much more. I have had good and bad with both, and could tell right away which students benefit more from the physical teaching. The mental aspect is going to play a large role for next year. Thank you so much for this information.

    Cherize Andino

    • You’re welcome, Cherize. I’m enjoyed reading your reflection and agree there has been a lot learned this year about teaching and learning online. I hope the positive aspects of learning online are retained, but I agree it will probably depend on our mental models and the strength of leadership.


  19. Thank you Catlin, for being a champion for dynamic ideas in education! I’ve learned a lot during this last year and a half. While I struggled with the increasingly blurred lines between home and work, the isolation, and the difficulties with engaging all of my students, I can’t deny all I’ve gained this year. Taking your course and others, as well as exploring new teaching ideas on my own, has allowed me to replenish my teaching toolbox with great new strategies and ideas that I will carry with me into the new school year. My hope is that I’m not alone in this. I believe that like me, many teachers may be a bit burnt out right now, but will not forget all they’ve learned this year. Please help us keep the momentum that was created this year by continuing to offer quality professional development courses and encourage our districts to pay for our training so we don’t end up back in our classrooms stuck for ideas, and falling back on old “easy” habits.

    • Thank you for the kind comment, Heather! I’m thrilled my website and courses have been helpful in navigating this challenging year. I also hope the growth from this year is maintained as we move into the new school year! My hope is that the pandemic will be a catalyst for positive change in education! That’s definitely what I am pushing for 🙂

      Take care.

  20. I had been out of public school tea ching for 12 1/2 years. During that time, things changed so much and I was left wondering, does everyone know about these things but me?
    I have had a difficult time trying to find my way back in these last 8 years now and I still have difficulties. Everything seems so haphazard. Took a workshop an rigor and it seems like something that might work. They put things in an organised fashion-which is what I need, something that I can organise and works. We’ll see.

  21. I could not agree with you more Dr Tucker. Teaching should always move forward, no matter if this change came from such situation as a pandemic. Students need to be more iinvolved in making decisions about the way the want to learn, what they want to learn and to what extent. Teachers need to let go the power and start passing this power on the students. I just got hired to district 15, Palatine and I hope to apply Blended Learning ESL in 7 and 8 graders. Hope this works well

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