The Elephant in the Room

Special Focus : Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership July 06, 2020

Throughout the past months we have participated in many round table discussions and webinars with our colleagues from around the world, comparing and reflecting on our countries’ different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of education. At Fondazione per la Scuola della Compagnia di San Paolo, we also recently had the honor of convening one such online event, featuring some of the most influential thinkers in the educational world today. Among our speakers there was overwhelming consensus around the idea that the current crisis could be seen as an opportunity for us to radically re-imagine educational paradigms and build a better future on the other side of the pandemic. 

The juxtaposition of these two concepts, crisis and opportunity, can lead to some unease: it does not feel right to rejoice in the generative potential of crisis, when we are still in the midst of the destruction it is causing. In our field, this is particularly and most sadly true if we consider the long-lasting harm which school closures are causing on the least privileged children. We do not yet have a clear picture of the extent and scale of this damage, but we know for certain that remote learning is disproportionately affecting the members of our educational community who were already unfairly treated by our systems to begin with: socio-economically disadvantaged children and children with special educational needs and disabilities.

At Fondazione per la Scuola della Compagnia di San Paolo we are well aware that our educational system has tragically been failing the children who need it the most since before the COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, school closures have made these issues even worse, more visible, and, consequently, more discussed in the media. In a small way, we could call this good news. Open and public discussion of the inequality ingrained in our current system is the first step towards imagining a fairer one. It is sad that this couldn’t have occurred earlier.

Another step in the right direction has been the heroic response of teachers, headteachers, students, and parents to the abrupt transition to remote learning made necessary by school closures (schools in Italy closed since early March). With the support of the government and of third sector organizations such as ours, schools rapidly implemented an unprecedented country-wide rollout of digital technologies for remote teaching and learning. 

Starting March 4th, the first day that schools closed, we organized and delivered more than 40 webinars, hosted by teachers, for teachers (with an average attendance of +1200 teachers per webinar). These webinars featured lesson plans which we gathered from teachers on a daily basis, as well as tutorials on the most common and easiest to solve barriers to entry to broadcasting technologies and online classroom management. They represented a platform for teachers to support each other and to share effective practice from the very start of the emergency, before a more structured institutional response was possible.

Over less than 4 months, we produced 61 hours of live professional development content which reached more than 50,600 participants. All of this content is now available on an online repository with a dedicated search engine, to allow teachers to rapidly find the answers to their training needs.

The webinars were also a way for us to continuously communicate with schools and to monitor their progress in the transition to remote learning, as well as to identify trends across our school system, looking for signals to amplify as the situation developed. Our daily dialogue with schools let us identify a series of virtuous mechanisms, which we will strive to keep in place after the crisis is over:

  • Schools acted as developmental organizations: teachers relied on each other for assistance and for the discovery and adoption of new pedagogical approaches, which could work in a remote learning setting. Also, collaboration grew tighter between teachers and headteachers.

  • A surge in digital competence in the entire educational ecosystem: as EdTech adoption transformed from a want to a need overnight, all actors of the educational ecosystem have had to adapt and increase their digital competency. This added digital competency will unlock a whole new toolkit of pedagogical practices for the post-COVID world.

  • A focus on what matters the most: school closures and remote learning have spurred public debate and renewed awareness of the importance of all those aspects of the educational experience, which are especially hard to replicate remotely: the pastoral function of schools, schools as communities, learning by doing, and learning with peers.

This last point is especially important. There is a new thirst for discussion and debate in the educational field, with room for ambitious news visions and paradigms, which give importance to the things that matter most. The crisis has revealed structural failings of our educational system, which were always there to begin with: educational inequality, obsolete pedagogy, and insufficient collaboration between different actors in the ecosystem.

This crisis is an opportunity because it has made these issues more visible and made them subject to public debate and discussion. Now, we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room, nor can we hope that incremental or reparatory actions will make it go away. To have an educational system which works for everyone, we need a new educational system. Now is the time to imagine it together.