Thoughts from the Frontline of COVID-19’s Education Crisis

Special Focus : Reimagining Education for a Better Future
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership August 13, 2020

Rarely in human history does an event help expose the inadequacies of our systems all at once. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed failings across the board. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, COVID-19 is ‘‘exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: The lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat.” And in education, as my colleague Julia Kirby summarized in Part I of this E-book, COVID-19 has shown that ‘‘inequality permeates our systems. Students in economically and socially disadvantaged communities were far less likely to have access to quality remote learning programs during the crisis than students in more advantaged communities.” 

The pandemic has shone a light on various problems in our education systems but has also presented an opportunity for ideas on how to address these challenges under the build back better mantra. After the pandemic’s jolt to the education system, all kinds of thoughts about how education will change were heard, everything from the hopeful—more support for teachers; to the expected—digital and distance learning is the new normal; to the extreme—are schools as we know it over? Regardless, this unique moment seems to have led to a reevaluation of what education really means and what we equip our learners with now so they can persevere in this uncertain world. 

The following section provides a synthesis of essays from experts and program leaders from the field of education. These are based on presentations delivered on Day two of the Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined event on April 16, 2020. The essays give the thoughts of individuals based in Hong Kong, India, the UK, and the USA. Each writer agrees that COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity to self-reflect and take action to improve education in their respective areas. The key themes that can be drawn from these pieces are: student agency; social and emotional learning competencies in the early years; and, leadership in times of crisis.  

Enhancing Student Agency 

Two of the thought pieces looked at the importance of greater student agency in our reimagined education. Aaron Eden, the CEO of Applied Tinkering, believes the crisis has reinforced his view that, ‘‘robotic search-engine-like-humans are not the ones who will have jobs and choice in their lives.’’ The ever-growing complexities of our world require human traits, such as creativity, empathy, agency, and curiosity, as opposed to what he calls ‘‘algorithmic thinking, regurgitation, and blind deference to authority.’’ For Margot Foster, Director of Professional Practice, COVID-19 might have just provided the shock to our daily behavioral patterns, habits, and routines to ‘’see our students anew, to know them as learners for the first time.’’ Like Aaron, Margot ponders on how to change schooling from what is essentially a ‘’transactional, unspoken contract between teacher and students, of transmission and receipt of information.”

If we are to change the old dynamic of coercion-based, non-consensual education, then according to Aaron, we need to shift away from ‘‘authoritarian, assembly-line education,’’ and instead focus on creating ‘‘anomalous spaces’’ that are accessible to any students that want to enter them. This transition from an ‘‘Other-Directed education to Self-Directed education,’’ doesn’t mean parents and teachers are out of the picture, but rather it means moving away from the assumption that we as adults decide what is important and force kids to do it. It means going from ‘‘a position of equity and co-creation instead of command-and-control.’’ The idea is that through these spaces you can build a community of learning based on a different value system, one that embraces an ethic of engagement and allows students to engage with people who want to be there.  The ‘’anomalous spaces’’ can take the form of a standalone school, an academy in a district or a school-within-a-school or a three-week intensive experience. For Mr. Eden, in order for these spaces to become available, they would need to be mandated at a policy level. 

In her work in South Australia, Margot Foster was involved in a research project from 2010 to 2013—involving 484 teachers—to see how deeply held the unconscious contract was between teachers and students. Their findings discovered that increased student agency in learning as ‘’a key driver for, and outcome of the pedagogical change needed to improve statewide academic achievement.’’ This is well understood, however the project showed a culture of ‘‘relationship-rescue,’’ in which teachers worked hard and designed great lesson plans, but with little cognitive demand. Teachers were ‘rescuing’ their learners from hard thinking. The pilot showed that to shift from a transactional approach to a student-centered pedagogy that grants learners their agency, teachers need to see their students in a different light, as Margot puts it, “as constructors of meaning, as bringers of ideas, and knowledge.’’ 

Margot and Aaron’s ideas are thought provoking, they raise serious questions about some of our outdated education systems and whether they largely ignore the real needs of its students. Has the system been more concerned with teaching methods than with students’ minds? Or more enthusiastic about the tools than about the quality of learning? Have teachers unknowingly taken their students down the easy path to avoid hardship, at the cost of their mental preparation for the difficulties ahead? 

The ‘Core Purpose’ of Education 

Many have called for a reappraisal of our education system, believing now is the time to change it from an assembly-line to the labor market, to one that endows its learners with life values. For Leslee Udwin, Founder of Think Equal, now is the time to ‘‘recalibrate our values’’ and ‘‘misguided priorities,’’ an example being society’s notion of success being measured by the accumulation of material wealth. Therefore, in her words, we need to urgently, ‘’reform the education system, which must inevitably be the prime motor of this humanism and of sustainable development and human progress’’.  

In addition to numeracy, literacy and testing, education should provide children a foundation in life skills or social and emotional learning (SEL). Why not? After all, the consensus is clear that education is more than just a pathway to the labor market. As Leslee puts it, education has a vital role to ‘‘nurture children to live fulfilled, healthy, happy, dignified, and respectful lives.’’ For her, however, there is a missing subject that should be in the ‘core purpose’ of education, which is to teach children the values of tolerance, non-violence, and valuing one another on the basis of equality and inclusion. Education ministries and policymakers are grasping the importance of psycho-social and emotional skills and competencies. Yet from the list of SEL skills, they tend to favor creativity, communication, and problem-solving and often leave out other competencies such as gender equality, emotional literacy, empathy, and peaceful conflict resolution. 

In order for SEL to have positive outcomes later in life, according to Leslee, it has to start at the early years, before the age of six. This leads to her critical point about the mismatch between our ‘’under-valued, under-paid, and under-trained’’ early years teachers and the expectations that they will provide a holistic quality education. Correcting this mismatch will take too long according to her, therefore we need to be realistic and teach SEL prescriptively. In its work, the Think Equal Programme has curated some 90 lesson plans and written 22 narrative picture books and training sessions on how to use their resources. The easy lesson plans come with step by step instructions for teachers to follow, so no need for experts in SEL. 

In a nutshell, we have a duty of care to our young people, they have the right to a foundation for positive outcomes in life. Think Equal and other life skills programming seek to make SEL a mandated part of early years education. Moving forward in the post-COVID-19 world, Leslee’s case makes a lot of sense, in a world with already so many inequities and social divisions, teaching our children about equality and empathy as young as 3-6 years, sounds like a good place to start.  

Leadership in Times of Crisis  

The pandemic has exposed a crisis of leadership at such a crucial time. This was made evident by the indecisiveness of some national governments at the start of the pandemic, their failure to take concrete actions—informed by the scientific and medical experts—early on fueled uncertainty and collective fear. Global leadership has also been lacking. Rather than countries coming together, each country took their own path. What about in education? COVID-19 has hit school leaders hard and tested them emotionally, cognitively, and practically.  School leaders had to mobilize quickly in response to the closure of schools. In the midst of this ‘chaos’, Allan Walker and Darren Bryant from the University of Hong Kong, say the crisis has, ‘‘challenged established leadership norms, even those bred during previous disruptions.’’ Given the lack of precedence, ‘‘leaders have few roadmaps to guide their actions—there are few go-to answers as things change almost day-to-day.’’ 

In times of crisis, the most effective leaders are not those with all the answers, but those who can confront uncertainty through sets of conflicting tensions. According to Walker and Bryant, a tension is ‘‘a situation which has no clear resolution or answers but presents multiple often contradictory pathways, which tear them in different directions.’’ Those who are able to manage the tensions intentionally but flexibly, are able to lead their communities through the crisis. Some of the common tensions facing school leaders, according to Walker and Bryant include: managing normality while managing disruption; promoting innovation while seeking consistency; caring for people while maintaining standards; and, caring for self while caring for others. 

Adding on to these lessons, in her book Forged in Crisis, business historian Nancy Koehn, discusses that real leaders are those that acknowledge people’s fears, then encourage resolve; they give people a role and purpose; tend to energy and emotion (yours and theirs); and they emphasize experimentation and learning. This last point ties nicely with some of Walker and Bryant’s points, according to Koehn, experimenting and learning means strong leaders ‘‘get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos’’ and don’t follow a ‘crisis playbook’. Instead, they commit to navigating their followers ‘through the turbulence, adjusting, improving and re-directing as the situation changes and new information emerges’.  

‘Don’t Waste A Crisis’

As we shift through these uncertain times, one is reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said that, ‘‘only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.’’ The COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of universal healthcare; the need for the state to step in to support the economy, and it has brought our attention to the essential workers we take for granted—the healthcare staff, the emergency services, the grocers, the cleaners, and more. But we also cannot take for granted the education workers. As governments prioritize stabilizing economies and buttressing healthcare systems, we cannot afford to let education be put on the backburner. Already children have lost precious time. At present some 1.725 billion learners are affected by COVID-19. 

The pandemic has disrupted everything, while much of this disruption leaves us in uncertainty for the foreseeable future, it has already led to new channels of innovation and creativity that has accelerated at unprecedented rates. School systems have been challenged to rethink the traditional methods of learning and to pilot new structures to accommodate the new reality. So, we must ask ourselves what we can learn from this to improve our system in the future? 

Our authors and their respective ideas and experiences leave us food for thought. In the education reimagined let us trust our learners and grant greater student agency to enable students to learn and fail on their own—they will be better for it. Let us inform the next generations in their early years about the values of equality, empathy, social and emotional learning competencies, so they can grow up in a more caring and fair society. Finally, let us remember that in times of crisis, real leadership (be this in terms of school, faculty, or higher education leaders) is not about having all the answers but confronting uncertainty head on but flexibly, while guided by a set of values.