The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences around the world. Education was not spared and quite a few of its domino pieces got knocked over in the aftermath. How does education move forward? Do they straighten the pieces where they fell assuming that life will return to normal soon? Or should they pick up all the pieces and put them in a new pattern recognizing that we are at the dawn of a new normal?
Any crisis leads to initial knee-jerk reactions to save as much of the old as possible. Eventually, reflection sets in on what has happened. As Winston Churchill put it : ” Never let a crisis go to waste!”. This is education’s moment to rise to the occasion, reflect and learn. Learning (and actions based on that learning) will shore up its credibility. Education instills values of learning in others. If it is unable or unwilling to learn now and recognize what is required of it going forward, its credibility will be severely tarnished.
For education, the pandemic is a pivotal moment and an opportunity to secure its sustainability. As I write in my book, “Rough Diamonds”, the pandemic offers education an opportunity to reinvent itself. Reflection will point to a need to take a break from the past and explore new paradigms that will benefit future generations (and, indeed, us all). The past is not coming back so why try to hold on to it? Education is a lead sector and should very much be inspired and driven by the future. With the pandemic, that future is right at our doorstep now. Crises do accelerate history.
What has the pandemic and education’s reaction to it taught us? First, it has revealed the fragility of the educational system that we have created and become accustomed to. The jury is still out on the consequences of the forced move to online teaching but initial signs are clear that students’ learning has suffered. Education was ill-prepared for such a shock and had no backup plan in place to secure student learning. The pandemic caught education off guard. This is important to recognize as we are likely to witness other fragility events going forward. If viruses worry you, just reflect on what shocks climate change could bring.
Second, the reactions of educational institutions to the pandemic tell us a lot about how these institutions think about education and their role in it. As often is the case, knee-jerk reactions reveal prevailing mindsets. Although sad from a students’ learning perspective, it is amusing to see how educational institutions are desperately grasping to hold on to shreds of the past. What seems to occupy them is their past and not the future of the students under their care. This exemplifies a move away from core responsibilities. Formal education has become a machine focused on efficient delivery and not on effective learning. The latter has been outsourced to the students.
Third, the move from the classroom to the “glassroom” reveals a lack of understanding of the role that technology could play in effective learning. Technology is used to shore up the old delivery model and not as a tool to fundamentally reengineer pedagogy to secure effective learning. As the great physicist Richard Feynman put it many years ago :” To not understand technology is to not understand your time.” What are we (let alone, the students) to make of an educational system that does not know its time and that is tasked to equip future generations for the future they are likely to encounter?
The whole situation points to a critical and urgent need to fundamentally rethink what education does, how it does it, and why. The last thing education should be thinking about now is the pandemic. It should think of the inadequacies the pandemic has revealed in an system that has failed too many students for far too long.
We are at a pivotal edumoment and we have every responsibility to rise to the occasion. We need to pick up all the domino pieces and put them in a new pattern that will benefit students’ learning and prepare them for the future, their future. The emerging reality requires that pattern to enable and support lifelong learning (and, indeed, unlearning and relearning). Disruption, innovation, environmental shocks, etc. will make lots of concepts we have become wedded ro increasingly fragile. Our children and grandchildren will need the ability and capability to continuously hone their competencies to perfection. For them, learning will be a never-ending journey and not be a rite of passage or, worse, a ticket to privilege.