Society and communities
Education after Covid-19
Difficult though it is, we have to see the Covid-19 pandemic both as something to be tackled in the short-term and as a vital opportunity to rethink much of what we do in the face of the far greater environmental crisis.
The challenges ahead are far too great to be left to experts or politicians to decide our way forward. Rather, what is needed is inclusive, critical and creative public deliberation. Education must both be a key arena for this deliberation and an important resource that supports it.
What follows is intended to be a provocation to discussion, not a manifesto for action. I will raise three questions that, I believe, need to be at the heart of public deliberation about education. I will then give some of my responses to each in the hope of starting a discussion.
What can we let go of from education as it was done in 2019?
Some things that seemed impossible to do without have had to go for the moment in the face of lockdown. Perhaps, this gives us the opportunity to think beyond these as set in stone.
Many educationalists have long bemoaned the ways in which examinations distort the whole educational process, reinforcing advantage and generating stress. They highlight the amount of education that is directed at teaching or learning for the test rather than learning more deeply or broadly. This can reach ridiculous extremes, as in Mauritius, where middle class parents take their children out of school months before national exams, as they believe that private tuition is more effective for passing than is participation in classroom learning. Many Northern systems have been forced to abandon or adapt end-of-year exams this year, so can we reopen and widen debates about what actually works in assessment?
What about some of the content we are wedded to? Much is designed for a past world, not a future one. Do we need all of our current school subjects or all of their content? Moving learning online in the past month has led to a massive reduction in staff standing in front of whole groups and talking at length. How much lecturing do we need to go back to? Our education institutions are largely products of waves of industrialisation and nation-building. Do we need to retain these institutional forms far into the current century and a different development moment?
What could or should we do differently in 2021?
Realistically, much of the effort of the rest of this year will be caught up with questions of maintaining learning under lockdown, the return to face-to-face learning and the financial crisis facing many learning providers. However, as soon as we can, we need to think more deeply about what comes next.
Depending on our collective, democratic answers to some of the questions above, we may find ourselves with new opportunities for designing different types of learning and assessment, and with space to include new content. What should these be?
This needs a wider debate on educational purpose. For my part, I’d want to stress education for criticality and solidarity more - and think about what education we need for mental, societal and environmental resilience. I’d wish to emphasise an educational approach that focused more on the community in which learners are based whilst remaining international in outlook. I’d want us to consider what education is necessary for public deliberation about what matters for human and planetary flourishing. Others, however, will have other priorities. These need to be debated.
In all the current media attention to schools and universities, we must not forget adult and community education. The University of Nottingham has been a key player in calls to rebuild our national commitment to this area, reflecting our institutional history of emerging from adult education and being the host of the world’s first chair in adult education. This tradition is continuing today with the learning in lockdown series.
What needs to be resisted now and as we move beyond the crisis?
Like many crises before this one, there is a real danger that some of the powerful will take advantage of the situation to further their own personal and sectional interests. What do we need to be most wary of?
For some, this will be an opportunity to further privatise and marketise education given the weakness of much of public provision in the face of the crisis. This is already apparent in some settings, and includes some of the calls for further use of education technology.
There is a danger too in reinforcing thinking that education is solely an economic investment. We have seen already in this country a vociferous group argue that we need to get children back to school as early as possible for the sake of the economy.
Finally, there is a risk of the abandoning moves towards education for environmental justice. Remember that many of those commentators behind the urgent return to school calls are the same people who, just before lockdown, were using the coming pandemic to argue for an end to the school climate strikes movement.
These are just some of the risks and opportunities facing education after COVID-19. Above all else, what we need are genuine debates about what educational futures we do and don’t want.
Professor Simon McGrath is UNESCO Chair in International Education and Development, University of Nottingham