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A radical rethink: What Covid-19 teaches us about the future of school education

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An expert in international education, Andrew Watson is co-director of Sustainability Education (SusEd.org) with Richard Calland, who is a Fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town.

If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught millions of global professionals, it is how to engage remotely. Profound educational questions are raised. How important is it to be in the same physical space as other students or teachers? Do schools need buildings? Are long summer holidays justified when there is no harvest for child labour to bring in?

In the wake of death, Covid-19 has wrought a pandemic of pain, suffering and introspection. Within our various states of suspended animation around the world, it has also introduced a level of uncertainty that many people have never or rarely encountered before.

Individually and collectively, we have been forced into an intellectual, economic and social exile, compelling us to ask: what possible good can come of this traumatic experience?

Despite the profound sense of uncertainty, there is one certainty that stands out: the way in which we educate the young must change, for two reasons. First, if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes that got us to this point of crisis, in which leadership has failed to correct the unsustainable path that humanity had taken, we have to develop future leaders with a very different mindset and value system.

Second, we need to prepare our future leaders for an even more difficult and dangerous world that, as the coronavirus shows, will face challenges of unprecedented scale, complexity and urgency.

In the short term, it is essential that schools create health, fiscal, and educational plans for the 2020-21 academic year now to offset the many and varied likely negative effects of Covid-19. But those school leaders who are willing to show strategic foresight, will be looking beyond the immediate crisis to try and decipher the longer-term implications for school education. If they do, they will have to confront the biggest and toughest question: are their schools fit for future purpose?

Our underlying rebuttable proposition is this: education is part of the problem – today’s leadership, who all went to school, have got us into this mess – but also part of the solution; radical reform of the way in which tomorrow’s leaders are educated can help prepare today’s pupils for the challenge they will face.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a systemic failure. Those who are willing and able to join the dots between the ecological, economic and political causes will recognise it as such. Clearly, therefore, it requires a system-level analysis and a system-level response.

As a key part of the broader ecosystem, the education sector needs to reflect hard, and fast, on its priorities: on what the experience of teaching and learning provides for young people. It needs to reconsider why schools exist. Just as private enterprise has been increasingly forcefully asked to articulate its societal purpose, so schools need to define why they exist in terms of what they “deliver” to a particular vision of society.

This is the why question. But school leaders will also have to think deeply about what they teach – curricula based on linear learning, in which subjects such as mathematics or history or geography are largely still taught in bubbles largely unconnected from one another, does not reflect the interdependent, interdisciplinary complexity of the modern world.

By analogy, we recently encountered the senior partner of a major law firm who told us that he was not looking for universities to deliver “good lawyers” but “legally trained professionals who understand and crave complexity”. He amplified his point: his clients don’t come to him with one-dimensional legal problems, but with complex, multidisciplinary problems, one or some of which may be legal in nature.

Further down the educational food chain, so to speak, schools must now respond to this imperative. They, after all, are the supply chain for tertiary education.

Clearly, different pedagogies will need to be developed and employed to cope with a new curriculum – the how question.

Lastly, the school education sector will need to contemplate an even more uncomfortable question: where? If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught millions of professionals across the globe, it is how to engage remotely using modern technology.

Profound questions are raised as a result. How important is it to be in the same physical space as other learners or teachers? Do the advantages and opportunities of a digitally connected form of learning not outweigh the advantages of being in the same physical space with all of the constraints – and vulnerabilities – entailed?

Schools thinking “outside the box” might very well come to realise that the whole concept of housing a school in “buildings” as manufacturing hosts its work in factories, is no longer necessary. Rather, infrastructure can be rethought as a community hub for multi-purpose use, while work that requires specialist space, such as a chemistry lab, can be rented by the hour, much as a company might rent a meeting space in any given city.

Now is probably not the time to be investing in new buildings.

So, education ecosystems are now and forever, digital. We need to respond directly to this reality. Teaching and learning will become a combination of online and face-to-face engagement, with a focus as much on approaches to teaching and learning such as creativity, thinking and research skills, where innovation becomes a habit, to exploring national and international neighbourhoods where customs, culture, and history are an interactive theatre of life, and technologies invent the future, examine the past, and make sense out of today.

Clearly, schools will have to adapt or atrophy. They will certainly have to develop new agility and nimbleness.  

Other forms of structural reform may also be necessary. Is it also not time for the school year and the school day to be reimagined, unless that is, we are going to return to the fields and recommit to working the harvest (actually not a bad idea?). The absurdity of “summer holidays” exists because of an outdated observance to the harvest and the need to release young people to the labour force.

How about an academic year of 40 weeks, split into five projects of eight weeks each, all of which are theme-based and inquiry-driven, populated by a community of learners, which might incorporate local, regional and global members, representative of the diversity and inequality of the world, as we seek to change the balance?

During Sustainability Education’s inaugural European summit last May at the Berlin Brandenburg International School, renowned climate scientist Professor Johann Rockström talked of sustainability being “at a renaissance moment”. With the Covid-19 crisis engulfing the world, it appears we all are. So is education.

Now is the time to reimagine, reconsider, rethink, and reboot how a vision of the future can be nurtured by an experience of education. If, as GK Chesterton suggested, education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another, then what kind of soul do we wish to nurture, cherish and inherit? DM

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