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 “Shore Up the Foundations for Future-Proof Education,” by Paul W. Bennett.
Two recurring public pronouncements still ring out from the early days of the pandemic: “We’re all in this together,” and “Can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” Simply put, there is no way we should revert to the old normal. More people than ever now know what some already knew before COVID-19. There are deeply embedded obstacles in the way for far too many to participate equitably in what society has to offer. All in this together should be an aspiration, not a false claim of where we’ve been and where we are now. Getting back to normal? Really? When it comes to education, the curtain has been pulled back to clearly reveal that chronic challenges for too many students mean that a vastly new normal is necessary.
The purpose of education
Any discussion about the future of education should begin with the end game, a conversation about its ultimate purpose(s). Any input that I offer is informed by my view that education should ensure that the future is healthier, safer, more just, and prosperous for the many rather than the elite few. We need to start with imagining that better future. How about this superb example:1
“Imagine it’s 2041 and a group of publicly educated 20-year-olds from across Ontario have been asked how they feel about the years they spent in school. The conversation is animated and positive. They say school made them feel like they belonged. It nurtured their compassion for themselves and others. It helped them grow from their mistakes. It welcomed their contributions. And it prepared them for a world of constant change. They say these things regardless of the school they attended, the colour of their skin, their sexual identity, the faith they practice, their physical or intellectual abilities, the teachers they had or the home they grew up in. Though they came from different places, their shared experience of education was one of caring, inclusion and excellence.”
When it comes to most of the complex issues of the day – climate change, health and well-being, racism, our democratic processes, and public communications that seem to divide rather than bring about consensus – education is always noted as the force for improvement. Former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray Sinclair, regarding the devastating and recurring consequences of residential schools, noted that “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.” Let’s make sure it does!
At this point, we need widespread, diverse, and transparent conversations regarding the future of education. As suggested, people and organizations should start with their view of the end game. What follows is informed by mine.
What needs attention?
Given my overarching aspiration for education as the driver for that better future, what should receive priority attention?
- Education must become a truly effective force against racism in all of its forms, and other issues informed by ignorance, including sexism and LGBTQ2+ bias.
- We must ensure our preschool through post-secondary education continuum becomes a platform for mental health and well-being for both students and educators.
- We need to develop a creative problem-solving approach that supports the development of our students into future change-making leaders. A project-based approach in which learners learn to work with others to go deep on the key complex issues facing their futures, applying discipline knowledge as necessary and appropriate.
- There is an obvious need to develop high quality distance/remote learning capabilities for all students and all teachers and professors. Effective and innovative remote learning technology should be considered a universal right and provided for free.
- We need to develop new and more effective collaborative relationships between parents and educators in order to properly support the students they “share.” While there are wonderful examples of truly effective partnerships between teachers and parents, there is a good deal of room for improvement built on reciprocal respect for what each knows about their learners.
- In the digital age, in which we are bombarded with information, we need to ensure education becomes more effective in ensuring that learners of all ages have the evaluative skills to determine fact from fiction so they are sophisticated information consumers.
- There are also structural changes to educational systems that could make a difference to learning success. In Canada, we still hold on to long summer vacations, a throwback to an agrarian economy when kids were needed on the farm. We need to explore a more seamless continuous learning approach. As well, we need to do a total rethink about how we evaluate student progress. We also need to ensure that learners throughout their journeys get credit for what they already know and what they can already do. Outdoor learning needs major consideration, and Indigenous leaders have much to teach us about land-based learning.
- We need to forcefully deal with pandemic learning loss. A collaborative approach that involves educators and other key stakeholders and experts needs to inform the development of systems to support students whose skill and knowledge acquisition is lagging behind. Governments will need to step up and provide the resources required.
- In order to ensure effective implementation of the recommendations I have noted above, major changes to both pre-service and in-service training for educators will be necessary. As well, never before has there been a greater need for more effective leadership selection and development for those with formal authority from preschool through post-secondary education.
A big problem with government policymaking, including processes that have an impact on education, is that the lens for change is microscopic rather than telescopic. Put differently, policymaking too often suffers from what I call hardening of the categories. We will not be able to reach the promises of a new normal in education unless we ensure that critical issues such as income distribution and wage policies, sick leave, affordable housing, child care, and parental leave are part of a holistic and integrative approach by governments. We need governments to think and act horizontally when it comes to policy development and program development. Regarding child care, for example, many have advocated for decades that high-quality, developmentally enriching, non-profit and universal child care should be seen, developed, and implemented as an extension of our education systems.
The pandemic, by necessity, has loosened the constitutionally driven ownership of educational responsibilities by the provinces and territories with short-term cash infusions by the federal government to assist their local “partners” with COVID-related school health and safety issues. Unfortunately, Canada continues its lonely global existence as a country without a federal department of education. Naturally, education needs to serve local cultural and environmental differences, but shouldn’t it mean the same to be a student in Melville, Sask., St. John’s, Nfld., or Toronto? How is it possible that we do not have federal leadership when it comes to the most important nation-building lever for our better future? It’s time for a Canadian Royal Commission on Learning!
It is an understatement to acknowledge that educators, and all those who support them, are treasured essential servant leaders who can take us to that better place for the many. Leadership matters. And to all those who have responsibilities in and around our education systems, I will let Alfred Lord Tennyson have the last word:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Immediate Action Priorities
- Establish task force(s) with all key stakeholders and key experts to ensure an effective multi-pronged approach to learning loss suffered by students as a result of pre-pandemic and pandemic challenges.
- Kickstart collaborative process to develop an effective preschool through post-secondary education platform for the mental health and well-being of students and educators.
- Put in place a thorough and transparent plan to ensure education is a force for anti-racism, eradicating gender and identity discrimination in all forms, and ensuring that the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions education Calls to Action are fully implemented.
- Begin developing high-quality remote learning systems that provide effective educational experience for all students.
Leading from the Inside Out
Hard-earned lessons from education, government and… baseball
By Charles Pascal
Onyx Publishing, December 2020
Photo: Adobe Stock