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Pandemic pedagogy (Part 2)

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2021 - 12:00am

It should not, I think, be controversial to say that both of the following statements are true: first, that many students, teachers and parents have done a heroic job in persevering through the past few months of pandemic education; and second, that if we use pre-pandemic standards, the past few months of pandemic education have left much to be desired.

There is simply no way that one could reasonably expect even the most tech-savvy schools to have been able to cover, for the 2020-21 school year, the same amount of material they have in the past. In the United States, nationally representative surveys of over 1,000 teachers across the United States found that 56 percent of teachers nationwide covered half of the material they teach in a typical year, at most, and that it was projected that students would have lost up to 37 percent of a typical school year in reading, and as much as 63 percent of a typical year in math. It’s hard to imagine a nation which would not see such a drop, to varying degrees.

Schools and their teachers have had to make hard choices about what is essential, what can be cut or made more concise and what needs to be added, in order to fit our present circumstances. But while we are naturally concerned first and foremost with surviving the present, we cannot neglect keeping one eye to the future. I think it’s fair to ask ourselves if the way we used to do things is the proper standard, or even the right direction. We’ve already been forced to re-engineer many of our school systems in light of the pandemic, and when children are allowed to return to face-to-face classes, we will have to make changes once again. It would be foolish not to use that opportunity to make improvements.

There have long been issues with mainstream formal education. There can be too much of a focus on “teaching to the test,” so to speak (even without as heavy an emphasis on standardized tests here), as opposed to focusing on a well-rounded education that would allow students to learn the soft skills that are essential to success. The Brooking Institution recommends a reimagining of educational systems “that stop prioritizing the imparting of narrowly construed information that can be tested in narrowly construed tests” and instead focus on what they call the 6Cs: Collaboration, Communication, Content (not just math and science, but the arts and the ability to focus), Critical Thinking, Creative Innovation and Confidence.

Many educators have had to streamline their lesson plans to fit reduced hours, and this need not cease when students return to schools – the time saved can be used instead to shore up these soft skills, or to provide the needed flexibility to make education more responsive to the needs of the individual, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that does no one any favors. What is important is not to force a focus on high-stakes examinations, or adding more hours to classes (there’s evidence that later start times benefit kids), but to develop the foundational skills that will form the foundation for an attitude that is pro-learning. There is no time like the present to rethink our curriculums, and perhaps make the transition to fewer topics at a higher quality.

In attempting to make education more flexible and responsive to the individual, the experience we now have with blended and remote learning can come into play. While traditional face-to-face learning provides many advantages, this does not mean that remote or blended learning should go away once this pandemic is over. It has shown that it is a viable alternative for some, and a good supplement for many. It can facilitate what’s been called the “flipped classroom” which allows for a more individualized learning experience. So even if face-to-face classes have begun again, creating the telecommunicating infrastructure that will allow more of our people affordable, fast and stable access to the internet must still be a national priority. Of course, for some children – like those with special needs – face-to-face may prove better, and a more flexible educational system will be better able to redirect resources appropriately.

The passage of laws such as Republic Act 11510, or the Alternative Learning System Act, is a move towards the direction of better learning. The law aims to provide flexible educational opportunities outside the formal school system and better access to education for those who may not have easy access to traditional schooling, such as those in remote areas, or those in conflict-affected communities. We need these kinds of laws if we are to create a more responsive educational system that takes the needs of each student into account.

But all the laws in the world won’t achieve anything if we don’t ensure that the human elements in education are properly supported. There is much to be done to support teachers. This goes beyond the timely release of their promised reimbursements and communications allowances and into a re-evaluation of the level of compensation that should be considered adequate, considering their importance in the education of our system. If education during the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how indispensable a good teacher is to education, and it’s high past time we give the profession the support it deserves. The success of students is, after all, intimately connected with the well-being of their teachers.

But more than the compensation of the teachers, the number of teachers should also be increased. The teacher-to-student ratio should be improved so that students are given the attention that they need to learn more effectively and at the same time the teachers would not be spread too thinly. Regulation of the class size would be able to reduce the teaching time of teachers to six hours, as provided in the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers.

Even when it becomes possible to return to how things used to be, we must not settle for the old status quo, but create a better one. To do this we must listen to those on the educational front-lines, to students and teachers. This is our obligation to our children, and to the future they hope for.

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