Geoff Johnson: Pandemic a chance to rethink education

The COVID-19 restrictions in B.C., which seem to have restricted the spread of the pandemic, have also created a kind of “time out of time” for educators and students.

So when we return to “real time,” what will have changed?

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Probably and most importantly, during this “time out of time” will we have reminded ourselves about what is and what isn’t important?

What will “normal” look like post-pandemic?

To gain some insight into what has happened in the few short months since our previous “normals,” consider this: An expert group from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children is advising the Ontario government to let children play together again when school resumes in the fall.

We thought we already knew that kids had always learned all sorts of things through playing together, but it has taken a crisis like the pandemic to have pediatric experts reassure us that it is a good thing for children to play together — as if that is new post-pandemic knowledge.

And how about kids learning together in the 20th-century institution called “school” — again, something we just took for granted.

The viral spread of COVID-19 has resulted in schools being shut all across the world. Globally, more than 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom.

Online learning? The jury is still out about the efficacy of that as an alternative.

It is even possible, according to some educational theorists, that post-pandemic learners will become accustomed to “learning anywhere, any time” a concept made possible by the age of digital education.

That’s an irony given that lifelong learning has always been an endpoint goal of formal education.

But with only about 60 per cent of the world’s population online, that “learning anywhere” goal will not be achieved any time soon.

The point is that this temporary shutdown of traditional means of educating the upcoming generation might be the time to consider alternatives we’ve not really considered before, but will now as we move on to the next phase of public education.

Even that “next phase” notion is a scary undefined step for educators who are traditionally conservative about change: “Why fix what is working?” I’ve been told in the past, and “you can’t experiment with kids.”

That’s an honest and conscientious response, because we typically find ourselves wanting anxiously to return to the security of what we knew.

Could it be that with the pandemic-driven necessity to try new delivery systems (as many small and large businesses have done in order to survive) there is no going back, and this is where the opportunity for the development of public education lies.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman says it takes effort and energy to think about our thinking. He suggests that as we attempt to make more coherent sense of the “new” world, we also create flawed explanations of the past and believe that we understand the future to a greater degree than we actually do.

When schools reopen, the students who return to classrooms will be kids who were born in the 21st century, and they will bring new skills with them.

They already understand that they have unlimited access to information, and are able to use digital technologies on a daily basis.

Teachers at all levels of public education will be learning about applications of new teaching and learning technologies.

While public-health officials are desperately prioritizing plans for how and when to reopen everything else we never thought would close, educators now also have the time to reorganize their own thinking about how to deliver education including validating what kids already know.

In the meantime, Pasi Sahlberg, the author and scholar who played a lead role in the widely admired reform of education in Finland, offers some “don’ts” for when schools reopen.

“Don’t,” suggests Sahlberg, “think that kids only learn when they are taught.”

“Don’t worry about kids’ losses on school tests,” he suggests, pointing out that annual standardized tests were cancelled this year in the United States, England, Australia and in many other countries.

“Don’t expect kids to be ready to continue where they left off,” he says, meaning that progress through a curriculum might become more lateral than vertical.

Lastly, and most importantly, says Sahlberg: “Don’t expect there will be a ‘new normal’ any time soon,” adding that “schooling will not change without bold and brave shifts in mindsets as to how that change happens.”

Change, he suggests, will not come from from policy-driven reforms, but from the visionary leadership of principals, teachers and, most significantly, the passionate engagement of students as change-makers.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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