By Michelle Belisle
Aug 10 2020 (IPS)
School as we all know it hasn’t changed that much in over a century. However, in the face of new threats to health and wellbeing, the future of those familiar structures that bring teachers and students together is starting to be questioned.
Large numbers of people in crowded spaces for long periods – it all runs contrary to what the experts advise to keep us safe from contagious diseases like COVID-19. Class size is no longer an academic debate over quality of instruction versus budgetary restrictions, but rather a life and death discussion of the transmission of pathogens.
Lockdowns closed schools for some 1.5 billion children globally. About half of these are located in developing countries where many had to take up jobs. As a result, Save the Children estimates that around 10 million may never return to school and warns that unparalleled budget cuts would see pre-existing inequality explode between rich and poor and between boys and girls.
But while COVID is the immediate challenge, it is also shining a spotlight on some of the larger issues surrounding the resilience of traditional education systems and practices.
Sending children home has highlighted the huge technology gaps between and within countries. Online teaching does not work if you have no quiet place to study, no computer or electricity. Some 500 million children already had no access to the resources and technology required to support distance learning. For these children, the education restrictions COVID has created are a permanent part of their learning experience.
While there are certainly initiatives in place attempting to close the technology gap, not enough attention is being given to what a more effective education system could look like. Would recreating the classroom in a virtual environment simply reproduce the same issues, gaps and challenges that marginalise the same groups but in a different way? What about the “soft skills” and the life lessons learned at school that aren’t so easily transitioned to worksheets and Zoom technology?
Recently released findings of the 2018 Pacific Island Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA), a huge collaborative exercise across 15 countries and more than 900 schools, showed improved literacy and numeracy skills of primary school students. But learning resource availability ranged widely. A third of students attended schools where only the teacher had a textbook (25 per cent) or there were no textbooks at all (8 per cent).
Measurement and data from such surveys have a big role to play in understanding how change impacts students. Now more than ever it is critical to have timely education data to help understand what is happening in our systems and how to respond to the new needs. We have to get past the idea of education data as a “report card”, judging students, parents, teachers and schools, and instead embrace it as diagnostic information holding the key to unlocking success into the future.
How can education systems strike a balance between using technology to reach students and keep classrooms safe while ensuring that all students are able to fully participate and benefit from the education experience?
Experts have made claims about how technology will change the way learning happens, but interestingly, radio, television, computers and now a plethora of smart technologies and connectivity platforms have really not made a great deal of difference to how school looks or what the processes are.
What has changed is our understanding of how students learn – what motivates them to keep learning and what turns them away from formal education. We have seen over time that students are more motivated and learn more readily when they are engaged and interested and what they are learning has meaning and relevance.
We know that students, like virtually all people, respond better to positive feedback and support than to threats, degradation and punishment. We know that children learn by observation from a very young age and that they value what the adults around them value, particularly those adults whose opinions matter to them and whose support and acknowledgement they strive for.
The quest for free, accessible and high quality education for all children is highly unlikely to line up perfectly with what governments can resource in terms of numbers of teachers, their materials and training.
It is possible though to provide the support and encouragement that children need one on one. A key element is the degree to which the significant adults in a child’s life take an interest in and pay attention to their education.
Our PILNA 2018 results showed that literacy and numeracy scores were higher for those children whose caregivers (parents or other significant adults) asked what they were doing in school and what they were reading, compared with the children of caregivers who paid little or no attention.
Regardless of their own level of education, adults can support the motivation of Pacific Island children to learn and grow academically.
Taking an interest in what children are learning is a first step but if we really want to support children, particularly when regular access to classrooms and teachers is not guaranteed, adults need to take a lead in developing the inquiring minds of young people.
But what are we actually doing to support this and are we asking the impossible of caregivers?
PILNA showed that students across all 15 participating countries struggled with critical thinking and problem solving. These are difficult concepts to teach, but the first step is to support the mindset that allows children to think critically.
Asking questions about the world around them is normal for very young children but over time we train them to keep their thoughts to themselves, that even asking questions is potentially disrespectful or will lead to appearing stupid. Questions met with frustration or ridicule teach children to remain silent. That is the first step to extinguishing the will to learn and one often taken in a mistaken perception that an authoritarian approach to demanding that students complete rote tasks is equivalent to supporting learning.
COVID-19 will not be the last crisis we face, but its global impact can be an opportunity to rethink our approach so that we are better able to adapt, both to future crisis situations and also to the evolving realities of society and technology.
It’s time to think beyond building a better classroom and instead use our experience and knowledge to create a better system — one that provides all students with high quality learning opportunities that lead to success in an unknown future.
Dr Michelle Belisle is the Director, Education Quality and Assessment Programme at The Pacific Community (SPC).