Michael Horn headshot
Michael Horn (Credit: Kristin Chalmers / Courtesy Michael Horn)

For someone who has made constructive disruption the hallmark of his career, it’s no wonder that Lexington author, Michael Horn, sees some upside to COVID-19’s effects on the country’s school systems. 

The cover of Horn’s latest book

“I mean, look, there’s obviously been a lot of devastation that came from [the pandemic],” he said in a recent interview. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat that.” But Horn believes that serious disruption of the sort that came about when schools were suddenly shuttered and school communities turned upside down, also created opportunity. 

He writes about some of those possibilities in his latest book, From Reopen to Reinvent (Re)creating School for Every Child. Unlike some of his earlier works which are more academic in nature, Reopen is a blueprint for administrators, teachers and parents, offering practical steps toward a new way of instruction that measures results in terms of mastery and not the more traditional time-on-task. It is filled with examples of schools and communities where such an approach has worked well.

Horn points to research showing that when schools were forced to close due to COVID, 42% of teachers simply transferred their curriculum and teaching methods to a virtual platform. “Most schools battened down the hatches and just sought to keep things running without asking more fundamental questions around what the teaching and learning experiences should look like,” he explains, it is a well-researched response known as ‘threat rigidity.’

Reopen invites school communities to consider a different tack and to use the upheaval of the pandemic as an opportunity to step back and consider new approaches. “What’s key when trying to reframe a threat as an opportunity is to create a new organization that has enough freedom to rethink a parent organization’s resources, processes and priorities,” Horn suggests.

Whatever the size and composition of the group, he encourages educators and others to start with their desired endpoint, answering the question ‘what are we really trying to achieve here?’ Horn stressed. “There should be a real conversation,” he says, “on the purpose of school.”

Horn and his co-host of the Future U podcast, Jeff Selingo, with Freeman Hrabowski III, President Emeritus of University of Maryland, Baltimore County (Credit: Jay Premack / Courtesy Michael Horn)

Assuming that performance is important, Horn believes that people do their best work when their hearts are as engaged as their minds. “The joys in life are the twists and turns, and taking the opportunities you never saw the coming,” he observes. He thinks that schools should encourage similar self-exploration—“with guardrails” he adds, with a knowing chuckle. “The kid can’t just do underwater basket weaving all day.”

Horn’s experience working with schools around the world has also taught him that rethinking our standard approach to teaching and instruction is probably especially challenging in a community like Lexington, which already enjoys a reputation for producing high achievers. “Our research on innovation [shows] the highest, the most successful places are the last places to change,” Horn notes. He has seen that that resistance often comes with some unintended costs. “I think parents and kids—and I know the educators—are seeing the mental health challenges.” 

Horn emphasizes that parents should be part of the process, as well, whatever the scope of the innovation. “This is something I feel like I got wrong in the book, in retrospect, or not right enough I should say. To me, there should be a real conversation with parents at the table [to discuss] what do you want your kids to be able to know and do?” He pauses before adding, “I think we discount [parents] too much … They can be a really productive force, and I think it’s been a mistake … to dismiss that parent voice or that parent partnership.”

Among the fundamental shifts that Horn believes are required to optimize learning for all students is a curriculum “that the child can drive through…with a full scope and sequence in place,” enabling them to move at their own pace. “The good news, particularly with digital tools, is that’s a lot easier to put in place than it was,” he adds.

The second shift “is in the teacher’s role … to be really meeting each student where they are. [That might mean] pulling a couple of them together, giving them information on the next thing that they’re ready to learn, and then letting them go learn it while [the teacher] turns their attention to the next group [or individual student.] The teacher can be spending more and more of his or her time with that child who’s really struggling and needs the most—not just to get them back on the same trajectory, but frankly to accelerate that trajectory,” Horn says.

Practicing what he preaches, Horn and his wife enrolled their children in the Lexington Montessori School precisely because that kind of personalization was really important to the family. They also valued the school’s emphasis on mastery and social emotional growth.

Michael Horn, his wife, Tracy Kim Horn, and their daughters (Credit: Tracy Kim Horn / Courtesy Michael Horn)

Horn would love to see Lexington schools experiment with some more non-traditional approaches. He fondly recalls his work with high school administrators on a blended learning model. “I thought it was a pretty neat [alternative] for when teachers were absent,” he remembers. Ever the optimist, he also imagines the potential for even more. “What would it look like,” he wonders, “just to create a few pockets where you could start to do things differently and maybe have a softer place that is a little less focused on academics for its own sake and a little bit more open to the social and emotional and mental health of the kids?” 

Horn is adamant that he is not asking parents to forfeit academic achievement, which has long been at the top of the schools’ priority list, but perhaps to refocus the conversation to include self-directed learning. “Lower the stakes,” he suggests. “Allow passion and personal interest to thrive.” His own research shows that true mastery can follow.

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