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Schools Should Embrace the Hybrid Work Model

Flexible learning modalities increase both learning and student well-being.

Key points

  • Flexible learning is growing in popularity, for many of the same reasons as workplace flexibility.
  • Schools trade in knowledge, information, and intelligence, which can be offered in virtual formats.
  • Students and teachers benefit when they are in autonomy-supportive environments.

In my last post, I discussed how being under stressful situations can cause distorted thinking and ill-advised decision-making. While we’re desperately eager to escape from the pandemic, some folks want to return to “normal” pre-pandemic habits and routines. But many others (myself included) argue for a mindful approach, so that we may preserve many of the gains we’ve made over the past 2 years. Such gains include the increase in workplace flexibility (including fully or hybrid remote work) and prioritizing mental health.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Headway on Unsplash

In this post, I’d like to persuade you that we should think about schools as essentially similar to workplaces in most ways. Students and teachers would benefit greatly from utilizing a hybrid or virtual model that is becoming more commonplace in other industries. As the fall semester has started for most schools this past month, this topic is fresh on our minds. Many organizations are learning that allowing employees to have increased autonomy in when, where, and how much they work, benefits employee well-being in addition to productivity and profitability. The 9-5 Monday-Friday office job model is becoming a thing of the past. Based on the same principles, compulsory classroom attendance should become a thing of the past as well.

Flexible learning approaches are growing in popularity

A solid majority of surveyed college students say that they want to continue taking fully online courses, even as in-person teaching is resuming for many schools this fall. Under a hybrid approach, students and faculty would no longer be required to be physically present inside classrooms according to a weekly schedule. Rather, in-person meetings could be arranged ad-hoc and only when necessary, such as for presentations, exams, conferences, colloquia, etc.

But wait, you ask, aren’t students desperately eager to resume in-person classroom learning? Not necessarily. While students do crave in-person interactions (like all of us do), those needs can be fulfilled through other in-person campus activities, such as clubs and organizations, socializing, dorm life, and more. The pandemic put on display our need for physical contact and connectedness, but this type of social need cannot be fulfilled in school classrooms, which are known to produce heightened distress. Prior studies have shown that students are happiest on Fridays and Saturdays, and least happy on Mondays. Students’ depression, psychiatric breakdowns, and suicide attempts also peak when school is in session, and decrease during summer vacation. The classroom environment does not fulfill our need for social connection. Rather, it deprives students of the ingredients they need for basic wellness. In the words of psychologist Peter Gray (my emphasis added), “Our system of constant testing and evaluation in school—which becomes increasingly intense with every passing year—is a system that very clearly substitutes extrinsic rewards and goals for intrinsic ones. It is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.”

Online learning works well

Putting aside students' psychological health, they still need to learn. Does online or hybrid education really work? Aren’t students experiencing a “learning loss” when they’re not in classrooms? Again, the answer is not necessarily. There’s good evidence that the amount students learn online is pretty much the same as in-person classrooms, with study after study showing “no significant difference” between face-to-face and virtual class formats. Some experts say we should use COVID as an opportunity to fundamentally re-think how we do schooling. Others are skeptical, expressing a belief in a magical je ne se quoi that happens when teachers and students are in the same physical space together. I think this is largely a superstitious, quasi-metaphysical way of thinking. There is no solid evidence that people need to be physically present in order to learn new knowledge or skills.

Online schooling functions well for many of the same reasons that remote work functions well, because it offers greater autonomy and flexibility. Self-determination theory has yielded a huge body of research that suggests that people function optimally when their basic psychological needs are being met. This includes feeling a sense of independence at work, rather than being under constant regulation or micromanagement. Studies consistently show that when companies support their workers’ autonomy by reducing external controls and promoting mental health, performance increases in a variety of ways, including engagement, creativity, and commitment. By contrast, when companies demand that everyone must be in the office during specific hours to ensure that they are following orders, this can undermine morale and enthusiasm. Workers perform well in the office only when they desire to be in the office, not when they’re forced to be there.

There is strong evidence that students and teachers similarly benefit from autonomy-supportive policies in education. Students effectively learn to read, write, calculate, and think critically when they perceive those skills and knowledge as consistent with their own goals. Students master their academic work when they feel in control, and when they are motivated by their genuine interests and curiosities. Not only does their learning improve, but democratic values and viewpoint diversity improve as well. When schools are built around students’ intrinsic goals, students also learn to exercise self-government and uphold egalitarian norms. Mainstream compulsory schooling does the opposite—it extinguishes creativity and promotes dogmatic, rigid thinking, in addition to making students and faculty feel coerced.

There are good alternatives to mainstream education

I encourage readers to consider how alternative education works, including democratic schools, self-directed learning, and homeschooling, much of which is well articulated by social scientists such as Peter Gray, Nikhil Goyal, Susan Blum, Alfie Kohn, and more. They all advocate for fundamental changes to our education system, such that schools are built to serve students, not the other way around. This means doing away with a standardized curriculum, along with mandatory assignments, exams, and grades. Instead, students are invited to create their own educational experiences. When schools cater to students’ basic human needs, this is where true cognitive growth and development can occur.

Obviously, flexible learning approaches will not work for all students. Very young children (e.g., preschoolers) require constant adult supervision and guidance. Some neurodivergent students (e.g., those on the autism spectrum) may also benefit from specialized learning environments, although some of those programs also utilize online learning. In addition, the hybrid model relies on universal access to and fluency with technology, among other socio-economic factors that are not currently afforded equally to all individuals and institutions. This can be rectified with proper funding and resource allocation.

As we continue to see workplace cultures evolving and organizations adopting new and better industry models, I strongly urge us to consider that those models would also serve students, teachers, and school staff well. Academic environments are not fundamentally different from other types of organizations that trade in knowledge, thinking, and intelligence. In work and in learning, the variables that contribute to human flourishing are robust and consistent. People thrive when their basic psychological needs are met, including needs for autonomy, competence, and belonging. Let’s prioritize those human factors as we work to design a better world.


Reeve, J., & Cheon, S. H. (2021). Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice. Educational Psychologist, 56(1), 54-77.

Liu, W. C., Wang, J. C. K., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2016). Building autonomous learners: Perspectives from research and practice using self-determination theory.

Slemp, G. R., Lee, M. A., & Mossman, L. H. (2021). Interventions to support autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs in organizations: A systematic review with recommendations for research and practice. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 94(2), 427-457.

Noetel, M., Griffith, S., Delaney, O., Sanders, T., Parker, P., del Pozo Cruz, B., & Lonsdale, C. (2021). Video improves learning in higher education: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 91(2), 204-236.

Hansen, B. & Lang, M. (2011). Back to school blues: Seasonality of youth suicide and the academic calendar. Economics of Education Review, 30, 850-851.

Lueck, C., et al (2015). Do emergency pediatric psychiatric visits for danger to self or others correspond to times of school attendance? American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 33, 682-684.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Hunter, J. (2003). Happiness in Everyday Life: The Uses of Experience Sampling. Journal of Happiness Studies 4, 185–199.

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