Lessons for our educational systems post COVID-19

Prof Izhar Oplatka writes about the lessons educators, and educational systems, should take away from the current crisis and how current observations can benefit students' future learning.

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Since the 1990s, many educational systems worldwide have been inundated by neoliberal ideas such as marketisation, league tables, testing, accountability, standardisation, and student achievement. Educators and educational leaders have been told that the most important thing for economic growth in their country is to increase student achievement in global tests and to prepare their students for many forms of comparative examinations on the national level. For example, a report by the South Asia Human Development Sector from 2012 suggested different ways to increase the quality of education in the Maldives, focusing much attention to learning outcomes in English language and mathematics, programs of teacher development, and quality assurance.  In some countries, though, a decrease in student achievement in national tests brought about public resentment and even concern for the future of the country, as if testing is the only way to measure the schooling process. 

Suddenly, a micro-virus has stopped the life routine in most of the countries on the earth. For the first time in the developed world, students have stayed at home for a year or more and their schools remained closed, at least in the physical terms. The many lockdowns we have all experienced during the last year and a half disconnected the children from their social environment in the school and in the classroom. More specifically, regardless of their age, students have found themselves outside of the classroom, a place in which teachers and students interact not only cognitively but mainly emotionally, as teaching and learning are basically emotional practices. Besides, value-based education, an important component in any schooling process, has been marginalised in many places during the pandemic, because it cannot be based on frontal teaching only; after all, students have to internalise the values that their society believes in and this cannot be done by rote. Rather, extra-curricular activities such as ceremonies, rites and symbols transfer the dominant social values during the schooling process, and this could not be done via zoom. Each reader can remember his or her time in school and, especially those moments of positive emotions in the classroom and the small events that are rooted deeply in our mind, even many years afterwards. 

And, there was another thing when we all have been closed in our homes. The teachers could not cover all the learning contents required for the final or global tests. Zoom could not replace the teacher who stands and moves across the classroom, the students who sit next to each other, and the subtle elements that add up to the teaching-learning processes. Suddenly, student achievement has not been of major concern in many educational systems but rather the welfare and well-being of the students who no longer are connected to their schools, but day after day become more individualistic and remote from the school's environment. Thus, global tests have been cancelled and postponed to the following years, and exams have been replaced many times by home assignments. Suddenly, education has had a chance to focus on other aspects of the learning process rather than on exams and league tables. 

Reports from all over the world indicated that productive e-learning, via zoom, lasts between 15 to 30 minutes, simply because students cannot concentrate beyond that time and teachers get tired very quickly in this process of teaching. This made it impossible to follow familiar and accepted teaching methods and pushed many educational leaders and teachers to rely on practical tasks during the zoom class, such as exercise, individual reading, dialogue, and 'room' within the zoom class for further discussion among students.
Prof Izhar Oplatka, The School of Education, Tel Aviv University

Likewise, teaching had to become more flexible; this includes, for example, recording the class to let students re-watch lessons at the most convenient time, changing the learning content to enable talking about the trauma caused to many students, or encouraging inter-school collaboration via the zoom to allow students to interact with students in other schools/towns/countries. 

So, what do education policy-makers, educational leaders, and teachers need to do when schools are reopened and kids/adolescents enter the classrooms again, like in the 'old' days? First and foremost, we have to bear in mind that students all over the world have experienced many negative emotions during their isolation at home — such as the fear of the pandemic, loneliness, fear of failure, etc. Thus, teachers should focus now on emotion management and regulation. They will have to be more empathic to the student's academic difficulties and emotional needs, and in some sense, prioritise compassion. After all, many students have to re-adapt to schools and formal teaching and it is not an easy task. Particularly, teachers should be very supportive and sensitive to students who are about to be face their final tests in the 12th grade. The schools' closure for such a long time is bound to have had an effect on them.

When I read the national curriculum framework in the Maldives, I noticed that it includes many key competencies such as relating to people, thinking critically and creatively, practicing Islam, using technology and media as well as many traditional contents like math, English language, history, Islam and spirituality, Social Sciences, and so on. While these skills and contents are no doubt important, I suspect it is not the time now to cover all the contents and develop all the skills indicated in this policy draft.
Prof Izhar Oplatka, The School of Education, Tel Aviv University

The lost year of the Corona will not come back and schools cannot fill every gap in content caused by the closures. Any attempt to do so will be a waste of time. Besides, who says that the content is sacred? Who says students must study everything in order for them attain 'normal' cognitive and emotional behaviour? No one. After all, students are likely to study less than one percent of the knowledge available in libraries during their time in school. Instead, schools should focus on reading and writing in the first grads to prevent future gaps in learning and on the highest grades in the high school to facilitate the learning process of the students who are about to go to the college/university in the next years. They should also pay much attention to disadvantaged students and low achievers to obviate student dropout. This cannot be done through attempts to 'cover the content' and fill academic gaps empathically. 

In recent years, UNICEF has helped to establish Teacher Resource Centres throughout the atolls of the Maldives. Whereas the centres have offered some of the latest in high-tech teaching tools, it is a time to train teachers to prepare for the next crisis which is, unfortunately, around the corner, given the dire consequences of the global warming. Teachers should sharpen the e-teaching skills as well as their capacity to manage their emotions effectively, particularly in times of crisis. 

As I discuss in my recent book, Reforming education in developing countries: From neoliberalism to communitarianism (2019), the local community plays a key role in the educational systems in the developing world. The COVID-19 crisis taught us how important school-community relations are, particularly in a time of crisis. When community leaders and educational leaders cooperate, they are more likely to suggest effective strategies to face the crisis in the school level, because their ideas are more accepted by the community members and grounded deeply in its cultural and social structures.

Guest writer Izhar Oplatka is a professor of Educational Administration and Leadership at The School of Education, Tel Aviv University, Israel. He is the author of 'Reforming education in developing countries: From neoliberalism to communitarianism' (London: Routledge).

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