Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
After some seven months of covid-19, big questions about education and schooling—what is healthy, what is effective, what is ideal, and of course what is “normal”—are making the rounds. The questions are not new, but the dramatic change in global conditions and a massively different experience of schooling for several months have forced a different kind of engagement with assumptions, theories, and most of all practices, especially in relation to the core issues of the mode and content of learning. So, what progress has been prompted by the pandemic? Are any of the lockdown-induced adjustments here to stay? Are there any old ways that won’t survive the virus?
Undoubtedly the single biggest change in conditions underlying these questions was school closure, which, according to UNESCO, at its peak affected over 1 billion learners worldwide. Since the sweeping full closures of last March, April, and May, partial re-openings, hybrid models, and “the hammer and the dance” approach have continued to characterize the educational experience of students across the globe. The removal of the physical classroom from educational systems has given rise to a flurry of discussion.
The initial scramble seems to have been to fill up hours, but as students privileged enough to access remote learning settled into their seats in front of screens, the experience of long periods of synchronous online time turned out to be exhausting for many children and adults. Educators have been reminded that real learning requires energy, focus and engagement, whether online or in person. Researchers and practitioners have concluded that shorter sessions of 15-30 minutes are most effective (think of Khan Academy videos) and that it is important to incorporate varied learning modalities within sessions, as well as more generally.
“In an ideal world,” comments Andreas Kluth in a recent column based on a brainstorm with Sal Khan, “we would use the internet to learn and drill basic concepts and facts, then use Zoom meetings and what little time we still have in person to do creative and social projects, to debate and deepen, to argue and question.” One lasting effect of the pandemic could be “blending more online learning with less but deeper offline instruction,” nudging “education from teaching to mentoring and coaching, from collective to individualized learning, and from fixed to flexible timetables,” suggests Kluth.
In the same vein, the report Schooling Disrupted, Schooling Rethought: How the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education from the Global Education Innovation Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the OECD notes that “beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, there are evident benefits to students in expanding their learning time and learning opportunities beyond the walls of the school through distance learning… Access to online learning and to independent learning using technology can facilitate the acquisition of essential 21st-century competencies such as collaboration, communication, independent research, and higher order cognitive skills.”
The report also highlights curriculum adjustments to the pandemic. In some cases, schools (and countries) have focused on student progression and exam preparation, emphasizing literacy and numeracy; others have pivoted to student wellbeing and fostering social and emotional as well as cognitive competencies. As in the case of modalities, the underlying concerns that have prompted curriculum change in response to the pandemic arguably also apply to post-pandemic, back-to-school planning. Schools don’t have to return to curricula that amount to “an accumulation of content that makes deep, critical, and creative thinking difficult because there is so much to ‘get through’,” comments Conrad Hughes in an article for the World Economic Forum. Rather, he says, the wise path at this juncture is to concentrate on “student wellness, while doing whatever can be done to ensure that learning is happening not just through test scores and output but by being more closely connected to the psychological and emotional realities of learners.”
More widely, educators must not forget the rapidly changing social and economic global context into which education is inextricably woven. In particular, changes in the world of work have been accelerated by the pandemic, providing further impetus for longer-term curriculum reform. The “learn-to-work” model is swiftly being replaced by a path of “work-learn-work-learn-work-learn,” says Heather McGowan, co-author of “The Adaptation Advantage.”
The implication is that, in addition to a strong base in literacy and numeracy, motivation for lifelong learning is fundamental. “The most critical role for K-12 educators, therefore,” writes Thomas Friedman, “will be to equip young people with the curiosity and passion to be lifelong learners who feel ownership over their education.” In the emerging economy, there is value not just in being a “problem solver’’ but a “problem-finder’’—someone with multi-disciplinary areas of interest and knowledge who can spot needs and wants ahead of demand. The kind of flexibility educators and learners have had to exercise during the pandemic could prove to be a launchpad for curriculum design based on the future, rather than the past.
So, where does that leave us? The mood today is that some things should be gone for good, such as the assumption that school is the only/best place to learn, the attitude that online learning is inferior, and the habit of the long lecture format of classroom teaching. On the other hand, shorter sessions, varied modalities, curricula that are adaptive, and the role of the teacher as mentor and coach—these could well be things that are here to stay, if educators have the courage and support to sustain them.