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Corona invites us to reinvent schooling

Dirk Van Damme

Over the past two hundred years, the school we know today has been created. We have not known a different model of schooling in our lifetime. Some qualify the current model of schooling as ‘industrial’. Indeed, it was born during the industrial age and has incorporated many features of the industrial organization, such as mass production, standardization, routines and bureaucracy. In past decades, observers of the educational system started to wonder whether the industrial model of schooling still is adapted to a ‘post-industrial’ economy and society.

And then came COVID, the first real crisis for modern schooling in the industrial world. Schools have been closed for shorter or longer periods of time and had to turn to home schooling and distance education. What happened to schools and children, became one of the hottest topics in the public debate. A firm consensus is now established that by all means schools should reopen and remain open, even if health conditions worsen again. Education ministers around the globe see it as their mission to keep schools open. Parents, who discovered that home learning and distance education are extremely demanding, are also asking for open schools. Education researchers started to measure learning loss as a result of school closures and ask for open schools in order to prevent further losses. And children were happy when they finally could return to school.

The widely supported case for open schools is powerful and convincing. Yet, it obstructs a clear view of what’s at stake. Even when not closed, disruptions of normal school life in COVID times are frequent and significant. The normal teaching and learning processes are severely disturbed when teachers fall sick or students stay in quarantine at home. Learning losses are not only caused by school closures, but also by ongoing disruptions of normal teaching and learning arrangements. Could it be that the fact that the ‘industrial school’ is so heavily dominated by routines and bureaucracy, that a disruption of the usual practice is causing so much harm?

More fundamentally, should we really try by all means to restore the old model of schooling when we know it has so many deficiencies? Even in normal times, schools are failing so many students, who leave school prematurely and without qualifications. In order to cope with failure, standards are eroding and grade inflation is becoming endemic. For many young people the mold of the school is too oppressive, resulting in fatigue and demotivation. More and more teaching time is lost to classroom management, to silence the classroom and many small forms of disruption. Due to the ‘one size fits all’ approach in policy and practice, large parts of the schooling infrastructure, especially technical and vocational education, are badly treated. The highly gifted also find it increasingly difficult to find their place in a school system that is geared to the average student. In many countries, the quality of learning outcomes is declining rapidly, while the cost per student is increasing. Too many young people leaving school are functionally illiterate. Quality differences between schools are huge, even when students acquire similar qualifications. School curricula fail to keep pace with technological change and new skill demands. For sure, the industrial school cannot present an excellent track record.

It would be a mistake if we would see the general desire for open schools as support for a conservative revival of the school we remember from the old days. Instead, we need to use the COVID crisis in schooling as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink schooling. There are so many promising developments today in schools which show the way forward. In fact, many schools and teachers around the globe are busy reinventing schooling. They deserve our respect by learning from their experiences.

First, let’s get rid of routines and bureaucracy and choose for autonomy and flexibility. In the economy and on the work floor, routines are abandoned, because they are very easy to automate. Routine skills are becoming obsolete. Yet, we still ask schools and teachers to obey to routines, even if these are dysfunctional in times of crisis. The best performing schools during the pandemic are those schools that take their fate in their own hands rather than following instructions imposed on them. We should aspire to decrease bureaucracy and radically choose for school autonomy and the professional autonomy of teachers.  We should abandon the ‘one size fits all’ doctrine which permeates teaching and learning and opt for flexibility, customization and personalization. Tailoring teaching and learning to the needs of every student will yield much better results, especially for the most vulnerable learners. The pandemic has shown that by all means trying to rescue the industrial model, targeted to the average learner, results in learning loss for all.

Second, technology is key. In the past, many wrong choices have been made when trying to impose digital technologies on education. When schools closed, they had an extremely hard time in switching to distance education. Yet, we now see in many countries that schools are going through a steep learning curve in using digital technologies. Flexibility and personalization necessitate the redesign of the teaching and learning process with the help of digital technologies. As a consequence of the pandemic, schools are now experimenting with digital platforms and digital learning resources in hybrid teaching and learning environments. Smart combinations of in-person teaching and distance learning, tailored to the needs and abilities of individual students, yield very promising results.

Third, the pandemic urges us to rethink the relationship between schools and their environment. Schools had to rely on the home environment for ensuring the continuity of learning. Parents acquired an active role in the learning process. One of the lessons drawn in many countries is that schools need to rethink their relationship with families and the home environment. Schools are nodes in a complex ecology of learning stretching to families, the community and places of non-formal and informal learning. Sure, not all students face favorable conditions to learn at home and benefit from school-based instruction. But there are also students who are wasting time at school. Again, flexible arrangements are key.

Fourth, and probably most fundamentally, we need to rethink and revalue the role of teachers. The industrial model constantly reduces teachers to executors of tasks designed elsewhere. Many countries face huge challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers and have neglected to reform the teaching career in order to make it an attractive and rewarding profession. In successful schools during the pandemic, teachers have taken up their responsibility and have transformed their role to one of designers and engineers of teaching and learning. It is time to shift trust and responsibility to professional teachers. Yes, we need to open schools, but “keep the schools open at all costs” is a deceptive mantra. It is far from certain that the pandemic is a brief interruption, that further disruptions to schooling will not occur and that we can be confident that the old days will return. Restoring the old, industrial school is a daydream of nostalgic romantics, guaranteed to end in failure. It is much more rewarding to learn from the experiences during the pandemic and to reinvent the school. Many schools and teachers around the world are showing us the way forward.

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