Skip to content

This is the first piece in a five-part series of perspectives from RTI International on competency-based education amid COVID-19. Follow along with the rest of the series here.


Educators know better than anyone what works for students when it comes to learning — a safe and supportive environment; caring teachers who believe in their students and hold all students to high expectations; and rigorous, relevant, and authentic work. While we know what works for students, during the unprecedented challenge of a worldwide pandemic, we should also consider what works in learning for educators.

After all, what educators learn during this pandemic may lead to long-lasting innovation across the state, the nation, and the world as educators embrace the charge to educate all students with passion and commitment despite trying circumstances. 

Virtual learning experiences for educators abound; from Education Week Online Summits to the Friday Institute’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for Educators to North Carolina Department of Public Instruction webinars, there is no shortage of opportunity.

But how can we as educators best learn during this time of isolation when we may often be frustrated by the limitations of technology, exhausted by balancing work and life in the same space and often at the same time, and discouraged by the loss of contact with many of our students and our school communities?

In this time and place, theories, which help us make sense of the world, can help us navigate these questions and more, providing a roadmap for how we might intentionally use this time to our benefit.

Transformative learning

According to Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory, learning begins with an experience that leads to what is called a disorienting dilemma (aka, cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort that comes from realizing your current understanding of the world does not fit with current evidence). The unexpected, unplanned, and sudden shift to online learning caused by COVID-19 has certainly been an experience that has led to cognitive dissonance as our assumptions about education have been challenged and stark inequities in our system have been exacerbated.

We have learned that even given our best intentions and despite the herculean efforts of educators, we are not able to reach every child to provide the supportive learning environments and tasks that they need, and this inequity must change.

Maximize your learning: Embrace COVID-19 and the resulting challenges for education as a transformative event that will lead to innovation and a brand new world for educators and students. Use journaling, visioning, and other self-care techniques to shift your focus to the learning opportunity the pandemic presents. This shift can increase your sense of control and even alleviate some of the trauma and grief you may be experiencing.

Experiential learning

According to David Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, an experience is the beginning of new understanding. In his four-cycle model, a learner’s experience followed by active reflection on the experience, abstract conceptualization (that is, drawing conclusions, identifying insights, advancing hypotheses), and active experimentation leads to learning.

To learn from the disorienting dilemmas caused by COVID-19, educators can reflect on what they have noticed during this time — about their students’ learning, about their own teaching, about engagement and resilience — theorize about what works for their students and what doesn’t, and actively experiment to try new ways to engage and teach students.

Maximize your learning: As you learn, remember that application is an important component of learning; learning cannot end when the learning event is over. Commit to taking something from a MOOC, webinar, or Twitter chat to try in your “classroom.” Take a leap and try something new — be innovative. After each innovative experience, set aside time for reflection, develop hypotheses based on what you notice, and actively carry out additional and intentional experimentation. In this way, each experiment begins a new cycle of learning.

Self-determination theory

While transformative learning theory and experiential learning theory both tell us how we learn, self-determination theory explains the necessary context in which we are most motivated to learn. According to this theory, motivation for learning occurs when three basic human needs are met. These needs are relatedness, autonomy, and competence. In other words, when we feel a sense of connection to other learners, when we have a sense of control over what we learn, and when we feel we are competent in our ability to learn, we are most motivated to do what it takes to succeed in learning.

Maximize your learning: To increase motivation for learning during COVID-19, learn about a particularly relevant topic of your choice like competency-based education, techniques for engaging online learners, or project-based learning — all of which may build your toolbox for teaching during a pandemic. Just as many students are more effective learning with their peers, so too will you learn more effectively if you can engage in dialogue with someone else, so find a colleague with whom to learn. Use Zoom, FaceTime, WebEx, Google Hangouts, or — if you have virtual meeting fatigue — the old-fashioned cell phone or even email to connect with fellow learners and to engage in virtual coaching.

Over the past two months, educators have learned that we have a lot to learn. The good news is that as educators, learning is one of our core values. Rooting ourselves in our love of learning, embracing challenges as they arise, and learning lessons that we can apply to a new day in education can help us build the resilience we need to meet this challenge head on.


If you have any questions about this article, feel free to reach out to Catherine Hart at chart@rti.org.

Catherine Hart

Catherine Hart is an Education Consultant and instructional coach. She taught high school English for 13 years and has been an instructional coach for 5 years. Hart’s master’s work focused on the development of teacher leaders, and she works to empower teachers in their classrooms and their schools so that they, in turn, will work to empower their students.