Overcoming education challenges: The coronavirus crisis turns us all into learners

Graphic with quote from Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands: "In crisis, it is acceptable to have more questions than answers. In crisis, there's no room for 'not-invented-here'. In crisis, we should all be learners."

By H.R.H. Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands

UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development

COVID-19 is a global crisis with huge consequences for people as well as systems around the world. This new reality is overwhelming. Numbing. Crippling. But every cloud has a silver lining. When all is in disarray, no one needs to feel they have all the answers, because clearly no one does. In crisis, it is acceptable to have more questions than answers. In crisis, there’s no room for ‘not-invented-here’. In crisis, we should all be learners.

Sadly, COVID-19 has forced millions of people around the world into survival mode. But we also know that in looking for ways to adapt to the new COVID-19 reality, we need to get into questioning mode. The new reality amplifies and uncovers the urgency of implementing ambitions voiced through the Sustainable Development Goals and at national level, also on education. So let’s not forget that the call for structural educational reforms predates COVID-19. How many conferences have we attended to discuss the role of digital technology in complementing teachers and materials? How many reports indicate that learning is not just about grades but also about well-being? And how many pleas have been made by students themselves about what they truly need for learning to be meaningful for their development, now and for their future? Now is the time to carry through the changes that were already staring us in the face before COVID-19 was in our midst.

With this in mind, I was delighted to moderate a dialogue recently as part of the digital OECD seminar to capture lessons learnt from COVID-19 for education: Future of Education and Skills 2030 – Overcoming challenges in curriculum delivery during school closures and transitions back to school.

Who is the expert, who is the learner?

What made the dialogue invaluable was the combination of voices gathered. Students, teachers, policy makers and educational experts shared insights and ideas as equals. As I’ve advocated for over 10 years, students themselves are the educational experts; those shaping educational goals should learn to translate needs into programmes, not just the other way around. We should listen to them. Talk to them. Look them in the eyes and take them seriously. Not just the eloquent ones, but equally the silent and shy ones.

If there’s one quote from the OECD dialogue that stuck with me, it is the one uttered by a teacher: ‘We don’t like this situation. This is not our world.’ Real progress starts with admitting to being confused, so this level of openness is priceless. This sentiment uncovers a deeper fear for the unknown: the online learning world that reshuffles the roles of the learner and the teacher. It demands different skills from teachers in terms of energy, ways to connect with students and approach to transmitting knowledge. It lays bare that learning is much more than a transmission of knowledge. That learning is about an experience.

This is the time to reach out to young people and find out what to do – and not do – to make their learning a life-changing experience, not a mechanical transaction.

In between the lines, this quote uncovers a reluctance to ask for help, let alone do so from those best equipped to give advice on how to deal with this online world: students themselves. This is the time to reach out to young people and find out what to do – and not do – to make their learning a life-changing experience, not a mechanical transaction.

The principle of reciprocity

When all is new, there’s a huge opportunity for students and teachers to find out together what each one needs. I call it the principle of reciprocity. We tell young people to be curious, ask questions, be inquisitive. Adults in questioning mode set a great example for students. A questioning teacher is more of a role model than a teacher only showing how much he or she knows. What’s more, learning together shares the burden of responsibility. Which always, in any situation, makes a task lighter and easier.

Now is the time for teachers and students to put into practice this ‘new learning world’. To share what they need and not need from the other. To learn to read needs in between the lines. To show real interest in the other. When do they need support, and when freedom? What makes them feel seen and heard? ‘Sometimes it takes days for teachers to connect with me on line,’ a student said. ‘This feels like sitting with my hand raised in class for days.’ This statement is an opening to understand what she would truly need to be motivated in a her learning proces. While teachers and students may need different things at different moments in the learning process, they both have (new) needs. It is time to embrace the new reality and apply the principle of reciprocity. It will open up opportunities and address restrictions. By learners and teachers co-creating learning processes together, this new reality of offline and online learning will become our world!

Transition back to school

Another insight from the OECD dialogue was that how you solve a problem depends on how you define it. What does the transition back to school mean? And who defines the problem? Policy makers? The traditional educational experts? Headmasters? Teachers? Do students and teachers just go back to the school buildings, but in a sub-optimal, socially distanced situation? Is it really the plan to go back to business as usual but with restrictions, knowing school systems around the world need a push for the better?

This crisis should be our final wake-up call on educational reform and the need for reciprocity between teachers and students. Young people today are not the same as when we (I’m 54..) were young.  COVID-19 should be the final push we needed to put into practice what we actually already knew about changes in our educational systems. If we don’t act now, when will we? Are we brave enough to take the giant leap forward? Brave enough to rethink some very basic definitions: What is school? What is school for? Filling buildings and classrooms with students, following the curriculum and aiming for good grades? Or is it for fulfilling the dream that all children have the opportunity and space to develop the knowledge, mindset and skills in a way that suits their needs, so they can become active, happy and successful citizens?

This crisis should be our final wake-up call on educational reform and the need for reciprocity between teachers and students.

Embracing a new reality

Children and young adults have become even more aware of the world around them. Their motivation and engagement are even more important, now that their learning process partially takes place outside of the traditional school building. The students in the OECD dialogue confirmed what young people have been saying for years: take me seriously. We can only shape education through dialogue between teachers and students. Invisible glitches become visible and learning becomes positive.

‘See students as whole persons, they are more than just their grades,’ a student said. How? By re-evaluating the role of the teacher, by establishing a relationship based on trust between the teacher and student, by focusing on relevant topics from real life issues instead of the traditional curriculum-based core competencies and by building the bridge between students and the world outside of the school building.

In these last few weeks, many initiatives have arisen to examine what the ‘post-COVID-19’ world should look like. I’m struck by the large number of them that are – finally – eager to hear students’ opinions and ideas, in The Netherlands and across the world. Wonderful, but why only now? Let’s make sure that we mark the current time as the moment that made us realise we are all learners.

Learning is about discovery, asking questions and openness towards new things. That’s what we ask from our students. Let’s all go back to that. The rest will follow.

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