Plotting a Post-Pandemic Course for Public Education
COVID-19 shook up our ingrained ways of “doing education” and has pushed educators, students, and parents to their limits. It opened up new possibilities and revealed deep inequities. Now it’s time to get “back on track.” But which track? We asked two prominent Canadian educational thinkers to share their vision, both immediate and longer-term, for education in the post-pandemic. Read also “With Education’s Better Future in Mind,” by Charles E. Pascal.
The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic turned the K–12 education world upside down and then unleashed a succession of school disruptions. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking in August 2020, predicted that the effects of the pandemic were destined to become a “generational catastrophe” in education (UNESCO, 2020). Since then, the full extent of the learning slide affecting all students, and particularly the most disadvantaged, became more visible. Much like earlier studies generated in the Netherlands, the U.K., and the U.S., the first wave of Canadian research reports and surveys testify to the combined academic and psycho-social impacts on children and families (Bennett, 2021).
Seeing the impact of school disruptions first-hand in her home, Nancy Small, a Vancouver mother of two increasingly tuned-out school-age children, cut to the heart of the matter: “Our kids are falling behind.” While the educational damage varies along regional, economic, and racial lines, there has been – until recently— little evidence of a coherent or coordinated plan to close the gaping “learning gap” and get today’s students back on track (Alphonso, 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic shocks have exposed the fragility of the modern, centralized, top-down bureaucratic education state, identified and analyzed in my book, The State of the System. The massive disruption has also revealed the limitations of system-bound school change theories, conceived as hybrid “pedagogical and political projects,”(Fullan, 2009, 2021), ill-equipped to address the immediate crisis in K–12 education.
Education visionaries, school change theorists, and their academic allies were quick to offer up familiar ideas dipped in COVID-19 and accompanied by a beguiling “build back better” narrative (Chapman & Bell, 2020). The post-pandemic future, in their imagined world, will be a clash of two mutually-exclusive visions: social equality and student well-being versus austerity and academic standards – good versus bad. This is, as you will begin to see, a false dichotomy and a misreading of our current educational predicament.
A far better point of departure is provided in the World Bank’s report, COVID-19 Pandemic Shocks to Education (World Bank, 2020), surveying the collateral damage affecting school systems around the world. The immediate impacts were easier to spot, such as the economic and social costs, greater inequalities in access, and school-level health and safety concerns. Less so is the longer-term impact of “learning loss” and its worst-case mutation, “learning poverty,” marked by the inability to read and understand a simple text by ten years of age.
Shoring up the foundations has become a matter of urgent necessity. If we are facing a “generational catastrophe,” it’s time to reframe the challenges facing K–12 education. Teaching children how to read and to be functional in mathematics are now fundamental to social justice in pandemic times. Well-intentioned trauma-informed educational interventions, such as relaxing grading standards, suspending provincial tests, or reverting to pass-fail summative assessments, run the risk of perpetuating the cycle of diminished expectations, falling unevenly on learning-challenged or marginalized students.
Critical thinking remains the holy grail of K–12 education, but it’s hard to envision without a grounding in domain-specific knowledge. Equipping students with the content knowledge to think critically about a full range of important issues (Willingham, 2019) does not exemplify an “academic obsession” but rather a commitment to seeking deeper understanding. Nor are student well-being and academic success necessarily in conflict. At their best, and in the vast majority of today’s classroom, they are rather mutually reinforcing.
Educators looking for a more effective catch-up strategy would be well advised to challenge the prevailing narrative for two vitally-important reasons: 1) the mistaken assumption that an academic focus and student well-being are somehow incompatible; and 2) the gross underestimation of the realities of the “COVID slide” and learning loss compromising the future success of today’s pandemic generation of students (Engzell et al., 2020).
Confronting the magnitude of the crisis and solving the puzzle of what to do next can be daunting, so it is better to focus on a few more immediate, practical strategies. Establishing a clear and consistent focus on closing the learning gap does yield a few quick and proven learning recovery strategies. Most of the initial recovery strategies originated in the U.S., driven largely by independent research institutes such as the North West Education Association, Brookings Institution, and McKinsey & Company (Bennett, 2021). Countries with more experience coping with periodic disruptions are faring better and most of the lessons are coming from their school systems (Alphonso, 2021), most notably the Netherlands and Central European nations.
Academically-focused, supportive school environments and strong teacher-student relationships speed recovery from learning loss. Three strategies that have proven more effective (McKinsey & Company, 2021) are:
- High-dosage one-on-one or small group tutoring tied directly to helping students master subject content in math and reading.
- Extended learning time “catch-up” academies, offered over weekends or during student holiday breaks, offered by highly trained teachers, including “double dose” math instruction.
- Positive school culture attuned to early student warning signs, paired with consistent support and routines that help students to recover both academically and emotionally from disrupted periods of learning.
Top-down educational leadership has run its course and system-bound solutions will not work. The pandemic shutdown and continuing disruptions exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control (Bennett, 2020). We came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives. School shutdowns, delayed starts, shifting schedules, and unclear teacher expectations left students and teachers on their own to work out radically different home learning terms of engagement.
Building back the shaken and damaged system will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K–12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities. Challenging the technocratic ethos and language of “learnification” (Biesta, 2019) will be liberating for teachers and reduce the language barrier separating educators from parents. “Learners” will, once again, be students, “learning environments” will be classrooms, and “facilitating learning” recognized as the practice of teaching. Systemic reform will involve undertaking two fundamental structural changes: 1) the restoration of teaching-centred classrooms, and 2) the transition to community-focused, family-centric schools (Bennett, 2020).
Looking ahead: Seize the day
Futuristic visions of technology-driven whole-system reform have always evoked skepticism among regular classroom teachers. Sitting around their kitchen tables helping their children with pandemic home learning has opened the eyes of thousands of parents to the everyday realities of technology-driven “21st century learning” and laid bare student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy. That may well explain why Big Ed Tech, exemplified by Google, Microsoft, and Pearson International, is finally attracting more critical scrutiny (Reich, 2020).
Imagining a better educational future may be inspirational, but what students, teachers, and families really need is “future proof” learning (Kirschner & Stoyanov, 2018). That term, coined by leading cognitive science expert Paul A. Kirschner, provides a viable and much-needed alternative to pursuing holistic, ill-defined “21st century skills” or embracing competency-based student graduation standards. The best way forward in pandemic times is deceptively simple: set aside the “21st century skills” panaceas in favour of “the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continue to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing world.”
Future-proof education is soundly based upon the science of learning and evidence-based research rather than sociological change theories. Redesigning schools and professionalizing teachers in 21st century learning strategies look attractive, but they are unlikely to make much difference and may produce heavier teaching workloads without really addressing our current educational crisis.
Cognitive learning specialists provide us with a far more reliable guide to how learning happens and the critical importance of working memory in the whole process. What Kirschner proposes is a three-stage approach:
- Lay the building blocks (i.e. concrete cognitive knowledge and skills).
- Develop higher-order thinking and working skills.
- Tackle Bigger Problems that require metacognitive competencies and skills.
The COVID-19 shocks to education will continue to reverberate in Canada’s K–12 schools in the near future. It’s a rescue mission and one that needs to begin by shoring up the foundations and putting the pandemic generation back on the path to sound education in purposeful schools, and better prepared to lead meaningful, productive lives.
Immediate Action Priorities
- Assess the impact of pandemic school disruptions, particularly the extent of the COVID- 19 slide falling unevenly on disadvantaged students. Start by assessing the collateral damage in terms of academic learning loss and psycho-social impacts.
- Adopt and implement effective and proven Learning Recovery Strategies, closing the learning gap and putting students back on track. Provide a clear academic focus with learning supports for struggling students.
- Embrace “future-proof education” rather than the pursuit of generic and ill-defined “21st century skills” and focus on the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to enable students to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing, unpredictable world.
The State of the System
A reality check on Canada’s schools
By Paul W. Bennett
MQUP, September 2020
Photo: Adobe Stock
Alphonso, C. (2021, Feb. 16). The COVID-19 grading curve: Schools rethink expectations for students who have lost time. The Globe and Mail.
Bennett, P. W. (2021, Feb. 1). How will the education system help students to recover from
learning loss? IRPP Policy Options.
Biesta, G. (2019). Should Teaching be (Re)discovered? Studies in Philosophy and Education, 38,549–553.
Chapman, C., & Bell, I. (2020). Building back better education systems: Equity and COVID-19, Journal of Educational Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 227–236.
Engzell, P., Frey, A. & Verhagen, M. (2020, Aug. 28). Pre-analysis plan for: Learning inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://osf.io/download/5f995b4687b7df03233b06fe/
Fullan, M. (2021). The right drivers for whole system success. Centre for Strategic Education.
Hargreaves, A. (2020). Austerity and inequality; or prosperity for all? Educational policy directions beyond the pandemic. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 20, 3–10.
Kirschner, P. A. & Stoyanov, S. (2018). Educating youth for nonexistent/not yet existing professions. Education Policy, 34(3).
Reich, J. (2020). Failure to disrupt: Why technology alone can’t transform education. Harvard University Press.
Willingham, D. T. (2020). How to teach critical thinking. NSW Department of Education.
World Bank. (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic: Shocks to education and policy responses. World Bank.
UNESCO. (2020, August 5). UN Secretary-General warns of education catastrophe, pointing to UNESCO estimate of 24 million learners at risk of dropping out. Press release No 2020–73.