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Education, skills and pedagogy matter in the COVID-19 crisis

24 March 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the various policy responses have a huge impact on our societies, on people and on our professional and private ways of living. Education is particularly affected, with school closures implemented in many countries and a serious disruption of teaching and learning activities, despite so many laudable efforts to sustain learning opportunities through distance learning and online delivery modes. End of year examinations risk to be cancelled or postponed, impacting on the educational trajectories of children and young people. Especially children in vulnerable situations will suffer, and this will have long-lasting scars on their future educational and professional pathways. What is happening today will widen the gap in learning opportunities and outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged children further more. At this moment, return to the familiar daily routine of schooling, with all its consequences for families and communities, seems to be very far away.

But education and skills also matter in many other, more fundamental ways. The success and efficacy of policy responses, such as social (or physical) distancing, limiting mobility, isolation and quarantine, depend on each individual’s personal adaptation and behavioural change. But whether people suddenly will change their behaviour is in itself the product of policy design and implementation. Effective behavioural change depends on the quality and quantity of information provided and the level of coercion, but also on personal factors, such as the perception of risk and the sense of responsibility. And here is where education and skills come into play, as one factor among many others in influencing behaviour and the efficacy of policies implemented.

Changing one’s own behaviour requires understanding of the meaningfulness and necessity of the measures imposed. In a cultural context where coercion and punishment are less desirable to force people to change their behaviour, understanding the reasons why becomes all the more important. Unfortunately, the prevalence of non-compliance and disobedience we are witnessing in a number of countries, seems to suggest that significant numbers of people lack the cognitive skills, the interpersonal skills and the ethical values to understand what is needed and to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

For understanding what is happening with the pandemic and to make sense of the data that are abundantly present in our media, a set of cognitive core skills needs to be available. Various foundation skills come into play. People have to be able to decode the written information and to have sufficient levels of reading comprehension to really get the message. Evidence presented in the media include a lot of quantitative data and statistics, which require quite advanced numeracy skills to decipher. Epidemics like the COVID-19 outbreak follow an exponential growth curve. Charts with numbers of cases of infected people, hospitalized sick and casualties are published daily using log-scales of which at best most people only have a vague memory. Statistics is well-known to be a shabbily treated subject in many countries’ math curricula, while exponential functions might be preserved for only very selective tracks with advanced math classes.

How many people will easily grasp that if one infected person infects three others per day (a low estimate), after 5 days 243 persons are infected by that single individual? But it is exactly this kind of mathematical knowledge and understanding that is needed to adopt a very strict social distancing behaviour. Exponentials require a different mathematical understanding than linearity which is much more prevalent in our daily numeracy tasks. One does not need to go into the detail of PISA and PIAAC data to know that many people, school-age kids as well as adults and elderly people, lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to make sense of the information provided to them and to use those skills to change behaviour.

However, behavioural change is not only function of cognitive skills. It also requires a lot of interpersonal, social and emotional skills as well as well-developed ethical standards. People need to care for others, not only the ones in their immediate environment, but also people living far away, people one has never met. Interpersonal empathy needs to extent to abstract entities, such as the unknown 243rd person that one might contaminate. High levels of resilience, perseverance and responsibility are equally needed, as well as understanding that one need to do things for the greater good of many human beings. We still don’t know a lot about the prevalence and levels of interpersonal skills and ethical standards in the population, but we can be sure that also these skills will have a distribution with many people at the lower levels. And we can be confident that economic, social and cultural background will have an impact on these distributions.

It is too early to check, but the hypothesis seems to be plausible that countries, communities and social groups with relatively higher levels of cognitive and non-cognitive skills and, hence, higher levels of behavioural change are more resilient against the spreading of the virus than the ones where such average levels are lower. When looking at the COVID-19 statistics, one is struck by the fact that some countries do much better than others. The speed and the resolution of measures taken, the rigour of their implementation, but also the social acceptance and execution among the population are relevant variables. And, especially for the latter one, the cognitive and non-cognitive skills in the population play a role.

Finally, bringing about behavioural change is an exercise in pedagogy. Changing behaviour at population level requires a good understanding of social psychology and pedagogy. Unfortunately, there are no indications that experts in psychology and pedagogy have been sitting at the decision-making tables, next to virologists and epidemiologists. Some countries relied on very simplistic and often completely wrong notions of pedagogy, when deciding for example that measures have to be announced and enforced by very small steps, out of fear that people would not accept a sudden and very drastic change in their daily routines. Not all governments had the elementary pedagogy to patiently and painstakingly explain the necessity of the social distancing measures from the very beginning. Some of these errors in the pedagogy of the policy measures have led to confusion and impacted negatively on the level of compliance of people.

Once the crisis will be over, its lessons for curricula, formal and informal learning environments and mass communication will have to be drawn. The ability to confront future systemic crises like the COVID-19 one and our societies’ resilience against global risks will ultimately depend on how well our nations will invest in high-quality education and skills for the future with which effective behavioural change can be brought about.

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