Acting on lessons from COVID to bring about deeper change in education

Young girl sitting at desk in classroom wearing face mask

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

We often say that the road of educational reform is littered with good ideas poorly implemented. Why is it so hard to drive our education systems forward?

One reason is that the laws, regulations, structures and institutions on which educational reformers tend to focus are just the tip of the iceberg. The much larger part lying beneath the surface concerns the interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of those involved. But this tends to evade the radar screen of public policy and that is when unexpected collisions occur. So educational reformers are rarely successful unless they build a shared understanding and collective ownership of change. System capacity, as well as accountability measures that encourage improvement and innovation rather than compliance and continuation, also matter.

Coming together with a shared purpose

By shifting mindsets and uniting stakeholders in a moment of collective emergency action, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has provided education systems with a taste of the kind of responsiveness and resilience required to help all learners thrive in any situation. Over the last months, we may have seen less reform but certainly more change. But will these actions have tangible and long-lasting effects on students, governments and societies, once vaccines are in place? Will COVID-19 be the catalyst for greater and deeper change in education beyond the pandemic?

COVID-19 has changed how we think about education

The pandemic has accelerated our thinking on issues for which there has historically been much resistance to change. In education, it has clarified the potential of new technologies, not to conserve nor replace existing practices, but to transform them. It has reinforced the notion that learning is not a transactional experience but a relational and social experience, and that assessment must guide student and system improvement rather than just act as a gate keeper. These changing mindsets are the silver linings of a difficult year; a year in which we begin to chart our route to a brighter “new normal”.

COVID has reinforced the notion that learning is not a transactional experience but a relational and social experience, and that assessment must guide student and system improvement rather than just act as a gate keeper

Are these new mindsets already cultivating new actions? The OECD’s Education Policy Outlook surveyed policy initiatives around teaching and learning during COVID-19. By September 2020, although primary and secondary school students in more than half of participating countries had returned to on-site learning, post-secondary education students continued with remote learning to a much larger extent.

Graphic showing preferred modes of education delivery during COVID

Fast-forward to the end of the year and the landscape keeps evolving. Following new waves of infections, several OECD systems have re-introduced constraints, often prioritising in-person learning for the youngest, with hybrid solutions for older students. Efforts to ensure all students can access online education continue, as do initiatives to raise educators’ capacity to teach remotely, and to strengthen digital and regulatory infrastructure for distance education in the future.

Changing priorities around how to strengthen learning

Hybrid modes of delivery are there to stay. Further action is required to stimulate deeper change, moving them from being an emergency response to a crisis to being at the heart of a reimagined system.

To what extent are education systems already working to shift educational practices in this way? Analysis of the system-level guidelines in 43 education systems from primary to post-secondary education, reveals some key areas of policy response. These include building capacity for change across education systems and ensuring that all students learn (by promoting their well-being, targeting supports and resources, and mobilising formative assessment).

Graphic showing system-level guidelines for education delivery during COVID

Some challenges also emerge, however. Although efforts to shift pedagogical practices at school level are common, it is less clear how governments are supporting change in vocational and higher education beyond practical or logistical elements. Policy makers must also consider how to reconcile efforts to shift practices with protecting the well-being of educators, on whom new delivery modes place considerable extra demands. Finally, while governments appear committed to equity today, target groups tend to face multi-dimensional disadvantages that will require sustained efforts well beyond the immediate crisis recovery.

The latest report from the OECD’s Education Policy Outlook (Lessons from COVID-19: A policy maker’s handbook) offers advice on policy efforts to address these challenges. It outlines actionable policy pointers to help drive change in the areas of flexible learning, educator skills, and student equity. These draw on concrete examples of COVID-19 policy responses from primary to tertiary education, as well as insights from impactful pre-crisis policies. The handbook will support policy makers to maintain the momentum of change by building on new mindsets brought about by the pandemic.

Despite the physical distance we’ve experienced this year, 2020 has united societies behind a shared understanding of how education can be better. Now let’s keep moving along the road to deeper and sustainable change.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Halfpoint