Education 2020: Crisis-driven change

Written by Sterling Content
December 11, 2020


Written by Sterling Content
December 11, 2020

In light of the dramatic impact of the global pandemic on education, the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan; the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and Talk Education Tokyo co-hosted a webinar on November 24 discussing crisis-driven change in the sector in 2020.

Opening the session, contributing moderator Kirsten O’Connor, founder and director of Quest Tokyo, pointed out that the simultaneous suspension of in-school education around the world this year has been “unprecedented.” Schools, colleges and universities have adapted by offering lessons online while school buildings have been closed, prompting educators to re-tool and ask parents and students for greater collaboration to achieve effective learning. And, as educational institutions have reopened, educators and students have had to re-adapt to in-person learning.

With such unique changes to teaching and learning in only a year, O’Connor asked the three panellists to share their experiences in their respective countries and to consider what lessons they have learned about how to better meet the needs of 21st century learners.


Remote lessons

For Sue Aspinall, executive headteacher at the British School in The Netherlands, providing online lessons to a student body of 3–11-year-olds and supporting their return to in-person classes has been “a very interesting journey.”

After upskilling to teach effectively online, teachers worked closely with parents, giving guidance on how they could help their children learn remotely. Teachers also had to explain the limitations of online learning; for example, that a screen could not keep the attention of very young children or non-independent learners.

“We gave parents insights into how their child learns and how they can help with that,” she said, adding that teachers worked with parents as co-educators. “If you can personalise teaching … for example by understanding a child’s motivations … you can galvanise learning for that student.”

Parents have “never spent so much time with their children,” said Ziver Olmez, a Turkey-based educator and development economist. He noted that parents have come to really understand their children due to stay-at-home orders this year, which has enabled many of them to be more inclusive in their children’s learning.

Yuko Itatsu, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Tokyo, shared that COVID-19 has inspired an unprecedented level of interest in pedagogy among even the highest ranks of the university. Everyone has been keen to discover how best to continue teaching under the rapidly changing circumstances.

Despite responding “remarkably well” to online instruction, students—particularly those in their first year—have found it difficult to get to know each other and become part of the community in the way they might have done had they met each other in person. Itatsu has also seen how difficult it has been for educators and students to “engage in a deeper level of conversation” or have discussions, noting that “the physical space is also crucial in learning.”

Children and young people, said panellists, have also had to grasp how to self-regulate to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic this year. Aspinall noted that she and her colleagues have talked about “schedules, the importance of exercise and getting outdoors, bedtimes” and so on.


School-based learning

As her school reopened, Aspinall found she had “crystalised what is really important” in the student curriculum. In addition to being well rounded in literacy, numeracy and science, children need time in school for outdoor space, social interaction and play, she said. Face-to-face interaction is needed to provide children with a sense of belonging and to aid their communication with peers and teachers.

Itatsu agreed that some aspects of learning in-person cannot be replaced by online classes, even for university students. “Learning happens everywhere on a university campus, for example in an interaction with a peer while walking from one class to another or while having lunch in the canteen,” she said. Moreover, making a community happens largely through face-to-face interactions.

The school building itself, said Olmez, has been exposed this year as “not as usable as it could be” because it has been “built for in-person contact.”

With conversations on curricula now exploring “an agile approach to teaching and learning, including greater emphasis on managing one’s time, gathering information through notetaking, and writing,” educators should consider how schools can be best used, he said. He suggested experts in disciplines like design, architecture and psychology are consulted when building a school.


Reshaping curricula 

The panellists noted that the shift from in-person to remote learning has developed a sense of independence in most children and young people. They have been asked to find out things on their own and report back or discuss, which has helped them grow.

Olmez called for this kind of activity to continue as it “nudges a child to be more mature at an earlier age.” Curricula, he added, should focus on “writing, independent learning and treating children—especially post-primary children—as adults that are getting ready for the world.”

Reflecting on her experiences this year, Aspinall said children aged 7–11 could benefit from more in-person time dedicated to discussion, as their “independence, flexibility and savviness with tech” makes them able to absorb information on their own. Many students at her school reported enjoying the “one-on-one learning” and “extra time to do writing” they had had while learning remotely.

O’Connor noted that the study skills most requested this year at her education services business, Quest Tokyo, have been academic writing, independent learning, note taking and using time effectively. “It shows that we have a lot of things that we can strip away to focus on the most important parts of each section of education, she said.

The panellists agreed that change in curricula has long lagged change in technology and culture, but that adaptations to education this year present an opportunity to shake up the status quo, in primary, secondary and tertiary education.

“The purpose of university needs to be examined. A university’s role is to ensure students are prepared for society,” said Itatsu, adding that some of the life skills that students gain at university come from extra-curricular activities rather than classes. These include community engagement as well as “how to tackle real-life issues and think of solutions where the answers don’t exist.”

Such skills, said the panellists, are crucial for children and young people to thrive as life-long learners in the 21st century.