Finding Opportunity in Crisis

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Former Congressman, White House Chief of Staff, and Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel is quoted as saying, “Never waste a good crisis.” A common observation among savvy leaders whether in business, politics, community organizing, or other collective endeavors is that with crisis almost always comes opportunity. In fact, the greater the crisis, the greater often is the opportunity.

Out of the great depression came the development of some of our most treasured national parks, appreciated public spaces, and beautiful public buildings, constructed by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps and other programs that provided work for people who could not find employment in the private sector. We can also trace many of our treasured social programs to the depression and other times of social and financial crisis when we needed to think differently about the activities, processes, and institutions we had previously taken for granted.

Yet, crises do not guarantee invention or innovation. Crises offer choices. We can try to make old ways of reacting, approaching, and engaging in work and life fit the new reality and muddle through, hoping for a return to normalcy later. Or, we can take a new look and ask ourselves what we can learn and how we might think and approach the issues and challenges in new, fresh ways that respond to the new reality. In many ways, crises give us permission to try new things, to think differently, and behave in new ways. With imagination and innovation come opportunities that might have been previously ignored, frowned upon, or rejected.

The current hiatus in traditional schooling is a perfect example of a crisis that invites learning and innovation. The absence of the traditional spring testing regimen creates time and opportunity to focus on learning without the usual distractions. New and different distractions have replaced them. Having students at remote locations makes many of the common routines and assumptions about how we approach the task of teaching unworkable. The list could go on.

Still, thinking and acting in new ways is not easy. This type of shift does not necessarily come naturally. It requires focus and reflection. It invites imagination without losing sight of what is most important. For example, if we want our students to become skilled, flexible, independent learners, now is a great time to design activities and present opportunities for students to be introduced to, practice, and develop such competencies. While these aspects of learning are not likely to be found on the standardized tests students would have taken this spring, they are crucial competencies for future life and work success. If developed now, these skills also can offer significant advantages to students when they return to a more structured learning environment.

A good place to start this work is by asking ourselves a series of focus questions. Here are a few to consider:

  • What is most important for my students to learn during this time? What activities and experiences can I design to nurture this learning?
  • What new insights do I have about my students and their learning from this new setting that I can build upon and encourage?
  • How can my students and I assess the new learning my students acquire during this time? How might my students become active partners in this process?
  • What was a significant barrier to the learning of my students in the traditional setting that has now been removed? How can I leverage this shift to support my students?
  • What can I learn during this time to shift my thinking and practice in ways that create new learning opportunities for my students and enhance my professional skillset?
  • What am I noticing and learning during this time that I want to be sure to take with me when the time comes to return to a more structured learning setting?
  • What have I brought with me to this new setting that is getting in the way or holding me back? What do I need to change or let go of in order to move forward?

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