Looking at Resilience, Empathy and Equity as We All Navigate an Uncertain Future

Lessons on structural readiness from COVID-19

Topics: Education Equity, Future of Learning, Overcoming Challenges

In light of the current events surrounding COVID-19, people around the world are having to make decisions big and small about how to care for their families, their friends and themselves. The precautions taking place in schools is challenging the way we care for and educate our children, which is especially difficult amidst so many unknowns and with constantly evolving information.

We asked four of our KnowledgeWorks team members to think about current events in terms of our work forecasting the future of learning with a specific focus on resilience. Not surprisingly, our conversation touched on topics like support systems, education equity and empathy. I invite you to read through this organic discussion between Virgel Hammonds, our chief learning officer; Katie King, our director of strategic foresight engagement; Maria Romero, our senior manager of strategic foresight; and Jason Swanson, our director of strategic foresight.

Our 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning highlighted Platforms for Resilience as a driver of change. Jason wrote about this driver, which “recommended that institutions develop platforms for resilience, enabling responsive flexibility, collaboration and transparency to innovate and adapt in face of challenges.”

What kinds of partnerships, transparency and networks do you see at work that are supporting the resilience of school communities? Where do you see the need for increased resilience?

Katie King: Though it can be difficult to feel like no one knows what to do, I have valued the transparency I have seen from some education leaders who are openly wrestling with the questions about how to best protect and serve their learners and their communities. They are weighing public health concerns with the fact that their schools provide not only learning opportunities, but also safe haven, food and other supports for many children and that they enable their local economies to run. There is no perfect solution, and they are making very difficult choices, as is every individual and system leader right now. I value the ones who are willing to face and grapple with the uncertainty. I also think this moment is causing people to realize just how much schools do and how crucial they are to our social and economic infrastructure.

“This moment is causing people to realize just how much schools do and how crucial they are to our social and economic infrastructure.”

Katie King
KnowledgeWorks Director, Strategic Foresight Engagement

That said, these events have shown that our systems – education, health care, economic – are not designed to respond and flex in these ways. In our forecast on the futures of young children and their families, we pointed to the fact that people have had to self-organize solutions in response to a stretched social fabric. I think we are seeing that very clearly; individuals are doing a great deal and are responding in some amazing ways, and many of them are doing so with no safety net. The systems, however, are showing that they are able to function only in the best-case scenario, and even then so many people have not been served well by them.

Jason Swanson: I think the formation of networks, education clusters and ecosystems, all of which are built on a density of partnerships, are themselves a direct result for a desire to be more sustainable. As we grapple with the effects of COVID-19, such partnerships are indispensable for getting the word out about the virus and actions that should be taken, as well as providing resources for learners and their care givers as many physical places of learning are temporarily closed.

This moment in time has really caused us to realize what an important role schools and other learning institutions play in our lives – from custodial care to feeding people to simply having a fun place to go to see other learners. Without those institutions, issues of equity are being exacerbated. Conversely, as we take a collective pause, it might also be an opportunity to look at what we might we need to let go of that is not serving us well.

Virgel Hammonds: At KnowledgeWorks, we often speak to the power of a learning community. A school system evolves into a learning community when non-traditional partners in learning are included in the redesign. Processes and roles for new partners in learning are outlined and defined to provide additional learning opportunities for the community’s learners.

Much like the learning communities we serve, it has been inspiring to see how new partnerships are formed and how the redesign of current systems may serve our communities around the globe. From the new alignment of school systems to health care networks, as well as local and regional non-profits, new human-centered systems are forming to fill needs.

“New human-centered systems are forming to fill needs.”

Virgel Hammonds
KnowledgeWorks Chief Learning Officer

Maria Romero: In the midst of all the rapid changes around the development of COVID-19, it is reassuring to see individuals, families, communities and organizations thinking about other’s needs. Organizations and individuals at every level are offering what they have to help others: time, money, materials, business opportunities, etc. I know those efforts are not perfect but most of them are driven by genuine empathy and are a good place to start. In difficult times such as these, it becomes more obvious that our current systems are not serving us all. Thus, people’s resilience is put to the test and they are forced to respond creatively. As a result, informal networks of support are emerging around the world.

In “Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” we highlighted skills such as “social awareness: empathy and perspective taking,” “individual awareness: emotional regulation,” “thriving amid ambiguity and uncertainty,” “taking initiative and self-advocating,” among others.

Where do you see these skills at work in this current moment and what do these events show you that we need to do more of in the future?

Katie King: I do feel heartened by the ways in which people are supporting one another, particularly providing aid to people whose health or circumstances are most fragile. On the other hand, I do not believe our culture or our education system has prepared us very well to face and process the emotions that come with crises like this. We don’t make a lot of space for children to feel, make sense of or even embrace their uncomfortable feelings, and I think we see that in how some people are responding to their own fear and uncertainty right now.

Jason Swanson: At the moment I think we are all operating in and trying to thrive amongst great ambiguity and uncertainty. I have seen people displaying all of those key readiness traits in one way or the other, particularly in the thoughtfulness and empathetic approaches to cancelling and postponing events, sometimes at great financial loss, so that people remain safe.

Virgel Hammonds: It is amazing to see how this global crisis has brought our world together. As a globe, we have exemplified what it means to be empathetic while socially aware. The same can be said about the rage that has come through this pandemic; however, I believe communities are coming together in incredible ways. We see people and organizations supporting the growth of children and their families. Despite the distance between humanity, humans continue to make meaningful connections with one another while solving the world’s problems.

Maria Romero: These skills are critical to overcome the situation we are living. Not only the crisis but also the aftermath. We need to prepare more; we need more foresight. This is not a situation that could have been avoided if we would have done something in January. We needed to be proactive about it three years before. In January we were already late.

“I have seen people displaying all of those key readiness traits in one way or the other.”

Jason Swanson
KnowledgeWorks Director of Strategic Foresight

Knowing that we have a long way to go and many more lessons to learn, what are these events making you think about right now?

Katie King: We are seeing people make some sacrifices on behalf of others, and I wonder if this is an opportunity to shift our mindsets to lead us toward greater levels of educational equity and justice. Parents, communities and leaders often say they want equity, but we often behave in ways that perpetuate inequity and protect privilege. The system and the incentives are set up to promote that behavior. But if those of us with privilege were willing to sacrifice something, whether comfort, certainty, status or even something material, I believe that we all would gain a great deal more in well-being and could make way for more equitable outcomes. As a result of the event, a new foundation could form for new types of approaches to learning and to community building.

Jason Swanson: This has made me think about privilege. The virus lays bare a lot of the social and economic inequalities in our society. We need to think about how to maintain high quality learning in the face of disruption, which is something we explored in Navigating the Future of Learning. There is a need for education to develop some level of capacity with futures thinking about deep disruptions in terms of trends and other patterns of change, but to also future events like the one we’re experiencing now and what implications they might pose.

Virgel Hammonds: I wonder how the empathy and human-centeredness our world is displaying today may have an impact on our behaviors, systemic designs and outcomes in the future. May this pandemic help our world feel the systemic inequities that thrive in our current structures? May this global crisis inspire new, more inclusive structures that ensure the vibrancy of our communities? I believe so, I hope so; our children and families are counting on it.

“We need to prepare more; we need more foresight.”

Maria Romero
KnowledgeWorks Senior Manager in Strategic Foresight

Maria Romero: What I think about this situation changes rapidly. Some of the issues that I am grappling with now (at the moment I am writing this) are: the interdependence of our systems, the ripple effects of a pandemic and how widespread its effects have been and will be and the waves of policy measures needed to support not only the “average” or the “majority” but everyone. Amongst so many other things.

As Katie, Maria, Jason and Virgel point out, the power of networks and community are invaluable assets right now, both in and outside of education. How have you seen resilience in action or challenged? Has this changed your institution’s permanent structure? Join our conversation on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.