On Tuesday the government here in The Netherlands announced that primary schools will re-open on 11 May and secondary schools on 1 June. Although somewhat anticipated, it’s triggered a lot of discussion about how schools will re-open in a safe way that respects the physical distancing rules still in place.
What’s obvious to all is that schools cannot re-open and carry on like they did before. It won’t be possible for everyone to be in school at the same time and that means our schedules, classes and routines cannot simply be re-activated. And realistically, we won’t be able to re-activate them for a long time as disruption is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Is this a massive headache? Yes. Is there a simple answer? No. But it is a (dreadful) opportunity for us to re-think the way schools work and perhaps emerge from the crisis in better shape than when we entered.
We know that a lot of things schools currently do don’t make pedagogical or even basic sense. For me, the biggest is that schools are usually built upon the idea of groups of people doing the same pre-planned thing at the same time. Students are batched by age and expected to learn through fixed a timetable of classes often set for them often years in advance.
And this jars with our understanding of learning as a very personal, individual process. As Sir Ken Robinson argues, we have systems based on a paradigm of standardization when what we need are systems based on the individuality of those they serve: the students and their unique bundles of interests, talents and needs.
So why do we still do what we do? My experience of trying to influence that paradigm is that it is so strong because the assumptions it’s built upon pervade everything: the schedule, the curriculum, the mindsets of teachers, parents and students. Everything. So if you want to change the paradigm from standardization to anything else, you need nothing short of a revolution in all areas!
Covid-19 isn’t a revolution or something that anyone wants. But it is forcing us to go back to the drawing board and re-think everything we do. And that is an opportunity to do things better.
The good news is that we’re not starting with a blank page. There are plenty of “alternative” models to education and even more smaller scale initiatives that might be useful starting points.
For example, a number of schools in the #Future of Education Now network run a “9th day” timetable. This is where on regular days through the year – the 9th day believe it or not – the timetable is collapsed. Instead of regular classes, students sign-up for extra-support sessions, enrichment classes offered by teachers, students or other members of the community, or activities that take longer than an ordinary class would allow. Similarly, teachers can sign-up students who they feel need some extra support.
This initiative could be combined with existing systems of online learning to provide more effective personalized learning both during the Covid-19 crisis and after. Online task setting and classes remain, but students have a designated day(s) when they are in school with some of their peers – at safe distances! – accessing the sessions and support they need, rather than attending the classes their pre-set schedule tells them they need to attend. It provides flexibility as staff and students can self-isolate when they need to without disrupting provision. More importantly, it’s scalable, perhaps starting with one day and increasing as and when possible.
As I previously said, there are no simple answers. 9th day models won’t work for a lot of schools. Maybe when the details are looked at it won’t work for any! But the point is that there are options out there for schools to try and make Covid-19 a trigger for systematic improvement, not just a crisis to managed. That’s a point made by many others too; are we going to look back at this as a “temporary blip or a permanent flip”?
I’d go further to say that it is our obligation to try and make a permanent flip. If healthcare workers are walking into buildings full of the virus and people working in the food industry turn up to work each day to make sure we can all eat, the least we can do is try to think about long-term, systematic improvement and ensure their children return to schools better able to meet their needs.
So I’d be interested to hear what opportunities you see to improve schools during this crisis? And, more importantly, how do we bring them about?