Using the Crisis to Reimagine Educational Systems and Practices

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

The Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman once wrote:

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

We are unquestionably in the midst of multiple global crises at the moment. The global COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has changed education in the short term at least, and is acting as fuel for the imagination for longer term thinking about ways in which education systems and practices could be different. Amid all the fear and unknowns, however, new channels of innovation and creativity are also accelerating at unprecedented levels due to the situation. Around the world, school systems have been forced to completely rethink traditional learning models in a way that was previously unimaginable and rapidly build, test, and pilot new structures to accommodate a completely different and uncertain reality. When the dust settles, COVID-19 may present itself as a microcosm of what’s to come and what future school systems and future learners are up against.

In the essays in this section, five of the contributors to the ‘Education Reimagined’ Day of the April 2020 WISE-Salzburg Global Seminar virtual convening, share their thoughts on how education systems can and need to change. As we get closer to the start of the new school year in September in many parts of the world we are seeing a dramatic increase in the level of discussion about education in mainstream media. Opinion pieces abound about the purpose of schooling, about where learning should happen, how that learning is delivered, who contributes to it, and fundamentally what societies value most about their education systems.

Before the pandemic we knew lots of things in education weren’t right and that school failed too many learners around the world. The changes that the pandemic has already wrought in education have created a new political impetus for education reform. A window of opportunity exists at the moment to improve education globally.

Convergent Crises

The pandemic is not the only crisis the world is facing at the moment. In his piece Louka Parry makes the link with the climate crisis and wildfires in Australia. David Ng also talks about environmental considerations having a significant impact on future outcomes as Singapore “needs to balance its urbanization need for resources with sustainable practices.”

Thomas Hatch makes the compelling point that w “the pandemic has highlighted the critical challenges that many children face, but those challenges existed long before.” In many parts of the world responses to COVID-19 are creating new partnerships across health, education, and employers—but these need to be sustained. Joysy John also talks about inequality in her essay, pointing out that (as of May 2020 in the UK) “Children from better-off families are spending 30% more time on home learning than those from poorer families.”  Urvashi Sahni, writing about India “where only 36% of the population has access to the internet and only 12.5% of students have access to smartphones” warns us of the risk of the digital divide accentuating inequalities already present in the system.  This is a universal risk. 

The five authors are writing from Australia, India, Singapore, the UK, and the USA, from inside and outside of government, from academic and activist perspectives, and from positions of institutional leadership. Despite this diversity of perspectives there are certain consistent themes or topics that emerge across their essays. If education is to be successfully reimagined then smart money could be placed on curriculum reduction, increased attention to social and emotional learning and greater community involvement in education being prominent parts of the post-pandemic education landscape. 

Social and Emotional Learning

SEL skills and behaviors are key human capabilities that allow individuals to manage their emotions, work with others, and achieve their goals.  They are the skills and behaviors that underpin issues like well-being, compassion, equity, justice, self- regulation, tolerance, and creativity (to name but a few).  SEL came up repeatedly during the April conference and features prominently in all of the essays.  

Urvashi Sahni wrote about the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership.  She makes a powerful observation that countries with “highly democratic leaders” (e.g. New Zealand, Germany, and Iceland) have generally coped better during the pandemic.  All of these countries, she points out, have leaders that have been highly consultative, empathetic, and humble—interestingly, they are also all women, “highlighting a need for more female leaders and female perspectives in leadership.”

Sahni and several of the other authors talk about the importance of SEL in the curriculum. As Parry puts it “we must centralize the well-being of students and teachers in both policy and practice, seixog on the power of impact, evidence—informed social and emotional learning.” Thomas Hatch makes the compelling point that curricula around the world are already overcrowded—every subject could be cut in half to ensure all learners can achieve critical academic goals and to create time and space for the acquisition and development of social and emotional skills.

Joysy John writes about the extrinsic motivational factors that can help students to persist in their learning—both during the pandemic and throughout life. She focuses on student choice, agency, and autonomy

SEL is not a new topic but it is central to an awful lot of thinking about what we actually need to value most in education as we move through and beyond the pandemic.


All of the authors talk about the need to rethink assessment, how we need to “measure what we value rather than value what we measure” (Parry). What we assess and measure gets to the very heart of the purpose of education, the “goal of education is not just to know, but to live” (Sahni).  

In this context David Ng makes a strong case for a deeper understanding of school contexts and non-academic outcomes—including economic, social, and environmental aspects.  Urvashi Sahni includes some fantastic examples of ways in which students at Study Hall Education Foundation have been supporting each other and collaborating.

Technology and Where Learning Happens

School closures have forced learning to take place in many different contexts. Several of the authors link this to increasing community involvement in education and the increasing realization that learning can happen in a much wider variety of settings than just school. 

The pandemic is unquestionably creating remarkable opportunities for developing our understanding of effective deployment of technology in education, or as John puts it the pandemic has created “the world’s largest online learning experiment.” 

Even before the pandemic many countries were entering or were already in a period of profound change. Writing from Singapore, David Ng talks about the fundamental shifts in how people live, work, and learn. Technology was already having a profound effect on the local economy “where organizations compete on intangible assets such as intellectual property, data, and user networks.”

David Ng’s essay focuses on different approaches for measuring future-ready outcomes. As we move into a more uncertain future then these kinds of models that help us think about the kind of education we will need to meet our future economic, social, and environmental concerns will become more and more valuable. John also writes persuasively about the importance of investment in teachers’ skills—long a characteristic of some of the strongest school systems, but something which is going to be essential as teachers adapt to new ways of supporting learning.

“Nothing Will Change, Unless We Change It.”

As Thomas Hatch puts it “nothing will change, unless we change it.” The pandemic has created an opportunity to rethink or reimagine what happens in schools. It is our responsibility to take that opportunity in order to create schools that are more equitable and that address the full range of children’s developmental needs. The essays in this section offer some fascinating insights as to how this potential can be realized.