Many important innovations have occurred in times of crisis. Natural disasters, pandemics or wars have all triggered and or accelerated huge change. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic led to a wave of public health efforts, a huge focus in epidemiology and the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO). The second world war saw an amazing amount of innovation including radar, code breaking, nuclear fission and women participating strongly in the workplace. During times of stability the impetus for change is clearly lower. In times of crisis we can observe huge change can happen extraordinarily rapidly.
All around the world the teaching profession and its administrators are searching for solutions that allow teaching in a world where Covid19 is an ever-present threat. In most cases the attention is on social distance which brings intractable problems of classroom and class size. Remote teaching is also seen as problematic because not all pupils have adequate network access to support modern technology-based teaching. What we are not hearing is how dealing with the Covid19 situation might represent an opportunity to address some of the really important issues that the education profession will need to address over the coming decades. If we are searching for solutions on how to return to the status quo, it’s likely to involve very difficult and very expensive solutions. So why not start from a different place and consider how should we be educating young people for tomorrow’s world?
In tomorrow’s world individuals will need to be prepared to take responsibility for lifelong learning. And as life expectancy increases facts are less important than high levels of adaptability supporting excellence in thinking, researching and communicating skills. Also, sooner than we think, machines will undertake up to 80% of today’s jobs. The routine and or knowledge intensive activities that can be automated. But machines will never take over our human capabilities so we should be educating young people in essentially human skills such as systems analysis, data analysis, statistical analysis, policy development, governance practices, education, as well as all the humanities and arts that will never be automated. Further we should be educating young people to work individually and in teams, to collaborate on problem solving and solution delivery.
We actually have a model for this form of education in the essential principles of the Montessori Method, which teaches child centered education with children of different ages working independently and collaboratively on projects with teachers, that encourage these behaviors and work with all of the children on an individual as well as collective or team basis. This model does not require set class sizes. Rather it is ideal for numerous bubbles or teams of differing sizes. This model can leverage multiple teachers with different skills that are needed across the bubbles.
But let’s go further and consider why we organize classes around subjects. If we use a project-based approach to learning, then each project and team might need several teachers involved at different times. Consider a project where five children are working on developing their own environmental model – this might involve teaching support for english, science, economics, maths, geography, business and conceivably history (for comparisons). Of course, we know there are concerns about needing lots of additional teachers if class sizes are smaller; but if teaching is more consultative this makes it easier – simply allowing children to take the lead in requesting support. And of course, the support could easily be remote. The remote support could also facilitate the involvement of retired teachers on a voluntary basis. And why wouldn’t we also consider involving subject matter experts who volunteer their support. This would be an amazing way of giving young people insight into the real world.
Similarly, we could consider organizing projects in which teams collaborate with children from other countries, developing language skills. So using the example of the personal environmental model, to develop country comparisons. We could also envisage that a school might set up pairing arrangements with a similar school in a developing country, allowing children to become familiar with a whole range of situations. And if project work becomes the norm, why not encourage more work experience from an earlier age to allow children to undertake a whole range of activity with guidance and support from teachers and other subject matter experts.
We hear that there are real limitations on broadband availability, particularly in rural areas that would prevent this form of remote/onsite model. In business as a matter of good practice, we solve and optimize the mainstream processes and work on exceptions which generally are multivarious and require diverse solutions. And are also hopefully transient. In many geographies it’s likely over 80% of students would be able to participate remotely. Maybe with assistance with technology equipment. The other 20% might need to travel to a hub or friendly neighbour, but over time then exceptions would diminish as broadband coverage is extended.
The Covid19 threat may be with us for a considerable period. If we look on this as a problem, we will solve it some way that will always be incredibly expensive yet suboptimal. We might expect that the teaching profession and unions will be hugely protective of their current practices. But change is coming and starting down a new path is perhaps easier in a time of crisis. If we manage the current crisis as an opportunity, we will put ourselves on a path to addressing core issues that need to be solved. And in the process, we will recognize children are at the heart of our future and we will have shown them we trust them to take responsibility as citizens of the future.