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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

Schooling in the “Fifth Season”

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For this year’s kindergarten students, this may not be the only global pandemic that they face in their lifetimes. It probably won’t be the last time their schooling is interrupted, either. It is terribly sad and unfortunately important to consider that the 2020–2021 school shutdowns may prove to be an important preparation for an uncertain future.
Humans are re-engineering the geochemistry of the planet to be inhospitable to our current civilization. As average temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more common, there will be more fires, more floods, more freezes, more novel disease events, and accompanying migration, civil unrest, and conflict (­Reidmiller et al., 2018). The California fires of the past year were the most severe of the last century, but they may prove to be the mildest of the next century. These events will likely force schools to interrupt campus operations more frequently in the decades ahead than in years gone by.
In The Fifth Season, the Afro-futurist and speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin (2015) describes a world upended by massive climactic events that end typical seasonal cycles—introducing a fifth season of climatic emergency—and require a reorganization of society. As our planet Earth rapidly accelerates climatic change, educators and citizens need to imagine how we can create more flexible, resilient institutions that serve young people during a tumultuous and challenging period. All communities will be affected differently, but in the spirit of starting to plan for an uncertain future, here are four possible principles for schooling during Earth’s possible fifth season.

1. Universal broadband and technology access

Schools in the future will likely close more often, more unpredictably, and for longer periods of time. In the West, fires may make commuting unsafe for days or weeks at a time and may destroy school structures. In historically warm regions, severe freezes like those Texas experienced in 2021 may shut school operations, and in floodplains and along the coasts, new severe flooding may imperil schools.
Because of the pandemic, an entire generation of educators and students now know how to rapidly pivot teaching operations into online formats. The process and pedagogy are still imperfect, but they improved substantially from March 2020 through the end of the 2020–2021 academic year, and online learning can now offer continuity of community and instruction during disruptive periods.
The signature weakness of current online learning models is that millions of young people cannot access them because their homes, apartments, and shelters lack adequate internet access or because they lack access to computing devices. To prepare for future disruptions in the post-pandemic period, we need to revise the social contract to ensure that communities provide all young people and their families with functioning computing devices and sufficient access to the internet—not just in emergencies, but ­year-round.

The pandemic revealed many wrongs and imbalances in our society, but none as starkly and profoundly as the immoral and embarrassing dependency on schools to meet the basic needs of children in an emergency.

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Justin Reich

Connecting young people and their families to the internet should not be the job of schools. In the 20th century, when we decided as a society that every rural home needed electric lights, we did not ask school superintendents to start hoisting electric poles or wiring homes. Instead, we launched a massive federal electrification effort. In the 21st century, we must treat broadband as a utility rather than a luxury good and develop similar national efforts aimed at universal broadband. Local school leaders can’t roll out fiber optic cable to urban housing complexes or remote rural homes. But they can explain clearly to voters and policymakers how vital these connections are for the future of learning. A combination of state and federal agencies must expand home technology access so schools can focus on learning.

2. Pedagogies that are robust to interruption

In the spring of 2020, schools were differently prepared for emergency school closures. Prior to the pandemic, education technology could be considered one reasonable investment for improving schools, but by no means was it definitively the most effective investment for improving student experience and learning. All school investments come with opportunity costs, and putting resources behind high-quality curriculum materials, or career and technical opportunities, or intensive tutoring, etc., could all be considered reasonable alternatives to investing in technology. That said, schools that had invested in technology were, in many cases, far better prepared for emergency remote learning than schools who had to acquire their first learning management system contract in April of 2020.
So smart technology spending is undoubtedly important. But it will also have to work in concert with more innovative instructional frameworks. In the future, as school communities consider different pedagogical investments and approaches, they will have to put greater weight on those that are robust to interruption, approaches that work reasonably well (or comparatively well) if schools need to switch between in-person, hybrid, or fully remote modes of learning.
One pedagogical approach that may prove particularly useful in a more interrupted, uncertain future is competency-based pedagogy, sometimes called mastery learning. Competency-based learning covers a diverse family of approaches, but the main idea is to have schools and educators try to carefully define learning goals and then help students make individualized progress toward those learning goals. In traditional systems, schools often treat time as fixed (in daily 47-minute periods and standardized marking periods) and learning as variable, with some students meeting expectations during the allotted time for a topic and some students falling short. In competency-based systems, by contrast, the goal is to make learning fixed and time variable, so that all students meet or exceed the defined learning objectives, although they may take different amounts of time to be successful. Competency-based approaches put less emphasis on keeping students progressing along the curriculum in lockstep and more on cycles of learning, evaluation, feedback, and remediation or acceleration.
For schools that had zero experience with ­competency-based learning or mastery grading, the pandemic was a terrible time to introduce completely new ideas to educators. It’s hard to replace your grading scheme while you are spooling up new online operations. But schools with some familiarity with these approaches were able to draw on them to help students differentially affected by the pandemic to flexibly adjust to new schedules, new routines, and new expectations.

Key Takeaway

Some approaches to curriculum may prove especially well-suited to an uncertain future with more frequent interruptions, and competency-based learning is a good candidate to be one of them.

There is little evidence to suggest that in typical, pre-pandemic times, schools that used competency-based approaches had student experiences or outcomes that were substantially better than comparison schools (Pane et al., 2017). There are lots of ways to be a good school. But some approaches may prove especially well-suited to an uncertain future with more frequent interruptions, and competency-based learning is a good candidate to be one of them. There are certainly other candidates—place-based education, outdoor learning, community-based education—and as schools plan professional development in the years ahead, they should consider how their improvements in teaching and learning will fare in uncertain times.

3. Teach fewer topics in greater depth

When classes are designed as survey courses that address many topics with relatively little depth, interruptions of even a few days mean that students can miss entire topics. By contrast, when courses and curriculum are designed so that students go into fewer topics in greater depth, teachers have more flexibility in addressing or accommodating interruptions. Students who have some orientation to a topic can pursue independent investigations more effectively. It can be easier to have students continue to prepare for a wide range of assignments, from tests to projects, when they miss pieces of a whole rather than entire curriculum segments.
As it turns out, many of the best schools and systems already pursue this approach of deeper focus anyway. In In Search of Deeper Learning, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine (2019) investigate very different kinds of schools, from project-based learning schools to International Baccalaureate programs to “no excuses” charter schools, and find that for all of their differences, many great schools design curricula that address fewer topics with greater depth. In this case, an approach that may be beneficial in all kinds of societal circumstances might prove particularly beneficial during periods of greater interruption and disruption.

4. Social welfare for children and families

Educators across the country made heroic efforts this past year to ensure that as many students as possible were fed and had access to safe housing, learning technology, laundry facilities, health care, mental health resources, and other social supports. While their efforts were admirable, in a better world they would not have been so nearly alone in providing a social safety net for young children and their families. The pandemic revealed many wrongs and imbalances in our society, but none as starkly and profoundly as the immoral and embarrassing dependency on schools to meet the basic needs of children in an emergency.
A variety of federal, state, and municipal agencies should expand their care of young people and families so that schools can focus on the one area of their specialization, teaching and learning. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone offers one model for what comprehensive supports for young people and their families might look like, starting from maternal health and early parental education programs and continuing to nutrition and health care resources throughout a child’s life. Another model is The Education Redesign Lab, led by Paul Reville at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which has promoted the idea of “Children’s Cabinets,” where leaders of different municipal departments—from parks to health to budget and finance—­regularly come together to consider how their work can better support children and families.
To be prepared for extreme times, we need comprehensive and robust social welfare for children and their families in normal times. That work, by definition, is beyond the scope of schools alone. But school leaders can spark dialogue and build connections across charities, religious institutions, and government agencies to expand supports for youth.

Preparing for Uncertainty

These four principles for schooling in the fifth season—universal technology access, resilient pedagogies, deeper curriculum, and stronger social welfare—may not be the exact four right ones or the only ones we will need. But they are a start. In a world characterized by environmental instability, a climate emergency, and more frequent and severe interruptions, school leaders in the years ahead will have to think more about what kinds of changes need to be made to the institution of schooling so it can continue to offer a safe haven to young people in uncertain times. What must be done to nurture a generation of citizens in period of uncertainty and complexity so they have a chance, ­ultimately, to correct our planetary imbalances and make a more just, safe, and stable world?

Reflect & Discuss

How was your school or district caught off guard by the pandemic-era interruptions to learning?

How can you better prepare for future interruptions?

How can you be a better advocate for students who may be most affected by
interrupted schooling? Think about any practices, policies, or strategies that you
or your school started during the pandemic. Which of these would be helpful to keep


Jemisin, N. K. (2015). The fifth season. New York: Little, Brown.

Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2019). In search of deeper learning: The quest to remake the American high school. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., Hamilton, L. S., & Pane, J. D. (2017). Informing progress: Insights on personalized learning implementation and effects. Santa Monica, CA: RAND ­Corporation.

Reidmiller, D. R., Avery, C. W., Easterling, D. R., Kunkel, K. E., Lewis, K. L. M., Maycock, T. K., et al. (Eds.). (2018). Impacts, risks, and adaptation in the United States: Fourth national climate assessment, volume II. ­Washington, D.C.: U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Justin Reich is a learning scientist interested in learning at scale, practice-based teacher education, and the future of learning in a networked world. He is the Mitsui Career Development Professor of Digital Media at MIT, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education (Harvard University Press, 2020), and host of the TeachLab Podcast.

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