Navigating the Pandemic and Beyond: Redesigning Schooling, Teaching, and Learning
Epidemics of infectious diseases are occurring more often, and spreading faster and further than ever in many different regions of the world. The background factors of this threat are biological, environmental and lifestyle changes, among others. A potentially fatal combination of newly discovered diseases, and the re-emergence of many long-established ones, demands urgent responses in all countries. Planning and preparation for epidemic prevention and control are essential. (World Health Organization, 2018)
This report begins with a panoramic view of the possibilities beyond this COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has been accompanied by many myths. One of them is that this pandemic is a once-in-a-century occurrence. This not only ignores previous experiences such as Ebola, SARS and swine flu; it is also oblivious to the evidence that the probability of pandemics will increase due to climate change, deforestation, greater proximity of exotic species to human populations, and quantity of international travel.
The risk that future pandemics will occur in our lifetime, perhaps even within a generation, is non-zero and non-trivial. The World Health Organization warned us to be prepared in health terms. We must also be prepared in educational terms.
Our report proposes a profound transformation to Scottish education, indeed to all educational systems, so that they can operate in a pandemic as effectively, or almost as effectively as in other circumstances. It also proposes a universally designed educational system that provides high quality education for all during a pandemic in ways that also improve and transform high quality education for all in other "normal" circumstances.
Universal design is a widely used principle in inclusive education. Originating in architecture, the idea of universal design is that buildings should not be constructed for normal users and then adapted for special populations like the visually impaired or the disabled. Rather, from the outset, a building should be designed so that it can be used and enjoyed by the maximum number and range of users. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fact that our educational systems are not universally designed. Whether they are centralised or decentralised, any disturbance of what is considered to be normal requires crisis-driven responses that are typically insufficient and that incur temporary and sometimes lasting harm as a result.
How can an educational system operate for all its learners as effectively during a pandemic, or other crisis, as it can under other circumstances? And how can responding to this challenge improve the accessibility and quality of learning and wellbeing for all young people under all circumstances? These are the issues we address in the rest of our report.
The closure of most schools within the Scottish education system from Friday 20th March was executed smoothly and without major challenges. However, during the ensuing five months, the reopening of schools within the context of relatively low levels of transmission, followed by rising levels of transmission of the second wave, the recent falling levels of transmission, and the race to supress a third wave through vaccination have all presented significant challenges. Alongside many other changes, this is provoking and should provoke a fundamental rethink and an associated reconceptualization of roles, responsibilities and relationships within a system so it will be fit for purpose in a post-COVID world.
Integration of Digital Technologies
When over 1.6 billion children were sent home from school, in over 190 countries, learning or absence of learning moved from school to home environments. In some cases, especially in less developed countries, this meant little or no access to learning at all. In many developed countries, including ones like Finland, Canada and Scotland, up to a third of children had to be provided with non-digital materials because they had no access to Wi-Fi and/or other devices. In remaining cases, with various degrees of success, systems designed, developed or adapted digital learning options either through online classes, links to materials and websites so families could teach their children, or some blend of online/offline, synchronous/asynchronous options.
The consequences are now well known. Some children benefitted – mostly those in more socio-economically advantaged families; those who had parents with time and availability to help; some of those with attention deficits who could now wiggle and move around when they wanted to; those who were shy and could interact more readily online than in-person; older students who could learn online independently; and students who were no longer being bullied in person by their peers. In most cases, though, there were significant problems with access to Wi-Fi or devices, especially among poorer families; lack of available programmes or platforms; malfunctioning or poor quality programmes; students and teachers with insufficiently developed digital skills; challenges of building relationships and connecting emotionally as well as cognitively online; difficulties for many students who were easily distracted in their learning style or did not have a home environment suitable for learning, and who therefore found it hard to operate as self-directed learners in the digital domain. There was also evidence that students with special education needs, English language learners, and/or students who were already struggling with their learning were negatively affected by remote learning.
Over time, some of the technical glitches got sorted out. Students, parents and carers, and teachers started to improve their digital skills. Some methods of learning are interesting, novel and inspiring. Then eventually, but perhaps not permanently, almost everyone went back to school full-time. In truth, many and perhaps most people breathed a sigh of relief, but we need to be attentive to how we move forward in the current context and beyond. Now is the time for a permanent transformation informed by the following questions:
- What are the best ways to strengthen all students' learning and wellbeing with as well as without digital technology?
- What can we do about the deep digital divide that is amplifying existing inequities in education?
- How can we explore the unique innovative potential of digital technologies inside and outside schools while developing clear strategies to deal with the proven risks for students such as digital addiction and excess screen-time?
- What new opportunities do we now have for reshaping teaching, learning, and assessment to make schools more engaging and innovative for everyone?
Some countries were able to respond swiftly and nimbly to the pandemic because of their prior stance on technology access. PISA's highest performer outside Asia – Estonia - designated internet access to be a human right in 2001, and has all its curriculum available online as a matter of public provision. Uruguay instituted one laptop per child in 2007 and has a national innovation agency that provides curriculum and innovation materials online. It saw a massive uptake in use of its platform within days of moving to learning at home. South Korea already had near-universal access to Wi-Fi and devices before the pandemic hit and one teacher per school was designated to participate in a national network to develop online teaching and learning. Singapore also has a national platform, called the Student Learning Space (SLS). The important point is not just that a national platform exists in some form or other, but also that it is publicly and professionally accessible, has the capacity to be personalised by every teacher for every pupil, and is interactive rather than unidirectional in nature.
The pandemic has accelerated the impact of technology on learning and teaching. In Scotland, for example, the number of users and usage of Glow increased substantially since March, 2020. In the context of the pandemic, the immediate task has been to create digital resources as seen for example in the National e-learning programme, the work of e-Sgoil nationally, and the development of digital resources in the Regional Improvement Collaboratives. Building on this excellent work, there is now a need to exploit the potential contribution of interactive digital pedagogies for the various purposes of the curriculum. This will require creating an enhanced digital infrastructure that addresses structural and cultural inequities in access to technology within a supportive environment.
Here are some key guidelines for moving forward with system-wide universal design for learning under any and all conditions that incorporates a strong digital component.
1. The Primacy of Physical Schools.
Physical schools are inalienable because children's parents need to go to work. They are essential because they enable children and teenagers to gather together to be part of a community and develop senses of identity. Physical schools flatten out extreme inequalities by ensuring that time is not solely devoted to individual achievement but also to providing mutual support and common purpose in a diverse community. Physical schools are also places where certified professionals can know and respond to their diverse students as whole human beings with distinctive talents and needs. Digital learning must be part of the prime physical school environment, not a replacement for it, other than under exceptional circumstances. It is important to consider new possibilities for digitally enriched and enhanced teaching and learning, but Scottish education should not become over-exuberant about hybrid learning, learning without walls, learning becoming ubiquitous, and so on.
2. Universal Public Access and Provision.
Access to the internet, and to devices, should be a basic human right. Access to digital learning materials should be universal, public, inclusive, and free. It should be available on a national, interactive, curriculum platform developed with Scottish teachers and funded as well as managed by Scottish Government and Education Scotland. The ICEA commends Scotland for the rapid work on developing digital resources and recommends the further development of a national bank of public resources, where they are not already in place, to help schools with their Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) requirements and to further develop digitally supported pedagogy and learning.
3. Digital Competence.
Building on the refresh of CfE there should be intensified focus on digital competence. We consider digital competence to include accessing platforms, understanding interactive functions, managing and not being distracted by chat-based functions, appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour, assessment of the value, legitimacy and accuracy of online materials, capacity for self-assessment and self-monitoring, vigilance about the risks of digital addiction, ability to experience and interpret emotions online, and so on. Digital competence must be taught systematically and explicitly and learned deliberately from an early age. Digital competence and ability to teach online as well as in-person should be a mandatory part of teacher preparation, and something in which all existing teachers should become fully competent within 5 years. At no point, though, should online home-based learning be regarded as a way to replace or erode in-person learning in a physical school environment, unless exceptional circumstances intervene.
4. Self-Directed Learning.
Effective digital technology use depends a lot on young people's capacity to be responsible, self-directed, and self-regulating learners. Like digital competence, the focus on self-directed learning should be intensified and should not be presumed or simply hoped for. It must be explicitly taught and developed from an early age. This includes self-motivation, time management, ability to screen out distractions, capacity for self-assessment, knowing when and how to seek assistance, self-regulation, and related skills.
5. Risk Management.
An important feature of all organisations undertaking innovation is identifying, mitigating and eliminating risks to the innovation, the organisation, and those whom the organisation serves. Digital technologies and their implementation incur considerable risks as well as benefits. These include the impact of excess screen time on young learners, the development of digital addictions, tendencies to encourage short-term tasks and reading habits over longer-term ones, adolescent anxieties arising from online identities and interactions, cyberbullying, discerning misinformation online, displacement of other activities such as outdoor play by digital pursuits, and disruptive processes of technological innovation that can incur learning losses of a year or more among young people who have been affected by them. Responsible innovation with technology must therefore devote time, resources and attention to transparent and reliable risk-management. Reviews of digital risks and opportunities should be regularly incorporated into school and local authority improvement plans, and school inspection frameworks.
6. Disciplined Innovation.
Valuable and effective digital technology use should be inquiry-driven, evidence-informed and impact-assessed. Patterns of technology use should be introduced with careful assessment of possibilities, risks, unique value, and relative impact compared to other modalities of learning.
Expansion of Learning Outdoors
After learning at home, students have returned to school under conditions involving mitigations including sanitation protocols and physical distancing. Physical distancing requirements have raised questions about the impact on children's emotional development, mental health, teacher-pupil relations, and the nature of the school as a community. One response in many countries has been to increase students' time outdoors where risks of transmission are significantly reduced. Being outdoors with others has benefits for wellbeing. Learning outdoors is also something in which Nordic countries, with a similar climate to Scotland, have a long tradition, and that can and should be expanded in all cases, not just during a pandemic.
The capacity to teach one's subject or curriculum in an outdoor environment should become part of all teachers' training and certification. Outdoor learning options should be included in online curriculum guides for potential activities across the curriculum. School designs should be modified and enhanced to encompass greater possibilities for outdoor learning. These developments would be compatible with Scotland's existing commitments to and strengths in outdoor and adventure learning and in physical and creative play for young children.
The benign paradox is that a universally designed Scottish educational system will be both more digital and more natural. It will also be a more sustainable education system.
Reform of Assessments and Examinations
One of the greatest challenges to education systems during the pandemic has been administering the high school examination system. In Scotland, and elsewhere the examinations that certify young people for higher education and other destinations after school have been causes of great anxiety and disruption for students, families, schools and universities. A major portion of high school certification has assumed the form of a one-time sit-down high school examination. After the temporary accommodations made in 2020 that took the form of replacing exam results with teacher estimations of achievement, we believe the government is right to cancel the National 5, Higher and Advanced High exam diet.
The problems surrounding national examinations arising from the pandemic have exposed underlying issues with established practice. There is a need for a greater role for internal assessment in determining qualifications that better match the knowledge and skills demanded by wider social and economic change. The capacity to apply learning creatively in unfamiliar contexts is increasingly the kind of high-value skill demanded by the workplace of the future. Traditional examinations are not capable of making such assessments on their own. Building from the learning stimulated by the pandemic, a new balance between internal and external forms of assessment is needed. The ICEA commends Scotland for developing teachers' assessment capacities and use of teacher moderation, which are essential professional skills and practices for future assessments.
High school examinations are essentially an out-of-date 19th and 20th century technology operating in a 21st century environment of teaching and learning. Digital technology is transforming our capacities for self-assessment, peer-assessment, shared assessment and continuous assessment. Assessment and examinations can now be more continuous, rather than episodic. They can provide capacities for continuous self-assessment and self-directed progression in learning. They can enable transparent sharing of assessments with pupils, parents and professional colleagues that will lead to timely teacher assistance and intervention. Algorithms can be useful in digital self-assessment processes, though their current capacity to provide valid feedback of complex writing and reasoning skills is sometimes over-claimed. Few of us would want to invest our all in creative writing exercises that had only an algorithm for an audience, for example. Therefore, teachers' professional judgement, use of formative assessments, and teacher moderation are also key aspects of assessment systems.
There may still be components of sit-down examinations, but if these are based on a wide menu of changing, problem-based questions, these can be taken and retaken like driving tests, as needed, throughout the year, rather than in in a one-time, high-stress, win/lose moment. At least one state in the US is transferring its budget from standardised testing to formative assessment. California has also now abandoned standard achievement tests as a basis for university selection.
High school examinations have long been seen as poor predictors of future university success. While the selection function of examinations remains important, there is also a need to create approaches that address problems of validity and equity in current arrangements. Hitherto, standards have been defined fairly narrowly in terms of quantitative metrics generating an over-emphasis on those things that can be measured most reliably. This year's examination issues have highlighted the danger of the legitimate needs of reliable metrics overriding the breadth of learning that is increasingly central to success for individuals, societies and economies. Reliability and validity both matter. We now also have an opportunity to learn how the somewhat relaxed entry requirements into university in 2020 will affect future university performance among students who may not have been accepted previously. The ICEA recommends that Scotland reviews and considers these matters for future examination designs and use.
Review of Curriculum
Scotland was one of a small number of countries that introduced a radically different approach to curriculum development in the early years of this century. A lot of the innovative thinking that led to CfE is now reflected in curriculum approaches internationally and has echoes in the OECD's 2030 Project. However, in the fast-changing environment of the 2020s, and especially as we look to a post-pandemic era, it is now time for CfE to be re-evaluated. In the new era ahead of us, Scotland should consider introducing an agreed cycle of curriculum reform that creates necessary flexibility, balances national imperatives with local needs and circumstances, and encourages the kind of broad engagement in thinking that characterised the original national debate that led to CfE. This cyclical review should also address and be informed by the post-pandemic factors identified by this report – positive yet prudent use of digital technologies and platforms, expanded engagement with learning outdoors; more self-directed learning and collaborative inquiry; still more collaborative professionalism and distributed leadership; stronger connections to local community organisations and agenda, including universities; and networked learning systems of horizontal challenge and support across as well as within sectors.
Engagement of Students, Families, and Communities
Students, families, and communities occupy a central place in students' development in the areas of health, wellbeing and academic attainment. In its previous report, the ICEA recognised and commended the Scottish government for implementing policies and practices that moved the system forward in its shared goals of equity and excellence. It noted:
Within the Scottish Government's policy aspirations is a clear focus on health, wellbeing and employability. These aspects are important in supporting children and young people to develop fully in school and in their post-school destinations, including ensuring each person has a wide range of employment choices, irrespective of background, and the personal capability to self-manage and to be resilient within a rapidly changing world.
Students, their families and communities are experiencing challenges brought about by COVID-19 in ways that impact their wellbeing, health, and academic progress. Across the world, not just in Scotland, many young people are feeling socially isolated from their peers and experiencing deteriorating mental health - although they also demonstrate resilience and agency by remaining connected through digital and online communication practices such as cell phones and social media. Families already experiencing poverty are now even more concerned about their income streams and job security. Communities that have long been experiencing vulnerability and deprivation are bearing the stigmas of being most affected and infected by COVID-19. As waves of COVID-19 continue, increasing anxiety about the impact for individuals and communities grows.
In these times, the ICEA counsels Scottish education to continue to support students, families, and communities using the guiding principles of CfE. Now more than ever, students, families and communities need to be viewed not just in relation to where they struggle and what they lack, but also from an appreciative perspective of who they are, what they know, and what they are able to contribute.
The Secretary General of the United Nations has forewarned that the global health pandemic could be a "generational catastrophe" for students. While addressing the challenges and many issues arising from COVID-19 for students, it is imperative to do everything possible to prevent such a generational catastrophe and instead to support student voice, agency and development. Scotland must be cautious about labeling an entire generation of students as "Generation COVID" or Generation C, in the way that some analysts have been doing. Such a label exaggerates the challenge and obscures the agency, resilience, and capacities of young people, their families and communities to support and sustain one another during these difficult times. The ICEA advises Scottish education to continuously inquire about the resources that schools, teachers, learners, families, and communities need and about the strengths they can lend to learning in and beyond this period.
The ICEA recommends that, during and after this pandemic, Scottish education revisits and revives core CFE principles such as confident learners and positive contributors to society (along with support for high quality wellbeing) that are even more important now. How can CfE principles related to wellbeing and confident learners be translated into educational practice? And how do educational practices in school invite the knowledge and resources of families and communities in educating learners while increasing family and community capacities to support young people in increasing their resilience, well being and positive choices?
In Act Your Age!, Nancy Lesko provides a sociological account of the paradoxical positions and labels that society ascribes to its young people. On the one hand, youth are viewed as dangers to social safety and progress, incapable of making positive choices for themselves and the social good, and in need of constant surveillance and control by adult authorities. On the other hand, these same young people are looked to as the future of society, and great hope and investments are poured into their social development and educational attainment to protect and advance societies. Underserved and marginalised youth such as those experiencing poverty are often regarded as the greatest threats to society and the least likely to advance its progress. As such these young people, their families, and communities, remain under-resourced; and their knowledge, skills, and contributions are largely ignored.
The ICEA counsels Scottish education to stay the course with its positive views of all young people, irrespective of their backgrounds, and of their abilities to be capable, confident, positive contributors, who are resilient and future-oriented. The ICEA advises Scottish education to combat deficit framings of youth such as those connected to claims about Generation C, which only exacerbate anxiety, fear, and distrust in and among learners, teachers, families and communities. An asset-based focus on youth, families, and communities is needed now more than ever in Scottish education and society. Furthermore, during the global crisis and emergency responses, including in remote learning and schooling, there has been considerable discussion of what needs to be done for students. Moving forward, students' own voices, experiences, perspectives, and advice must be central to the future of schooling and learning in all its forms.
Parents or carers and family members need also to continue to be regularly engaged in communication with their child's school and educators. During the experience of remote learning and in times of online or hybrid learning, family members have literally seen their child's teaching and learning experiences in new and direct ways. The majority of parents are not trained educators and should not be expected to be. However, the links between home and school are crucial. Parents, carers' and/or other adults caring for children and young people need assistance in understanding current practices in education and navigating the way forward in partnership with schools and educators to support all students to succeed.
The ICEA proposes a bold new approach to developing cultures of innovation and learning within and across neighbourhoods. The vision is to build on the lessons from place-based initiatives like Children's Neighbourhoods Scotland to reimagine the relationships between different phases of education and the communities that they serve.
The pandemic and the development of economic and social initiatives such as City Deals and innovation districts also provide exciting opportunities for universities to express their civic commitment and to become anchor organisations for a learning network. These initiatives can connect universities with their local communities to create cultures that promote innovation and learning for all.
One way to achieve this is by forming Research Practice Partnerships that stimulate new ways of working for education and other services within the local area, especially in high poverty contexts, to promote inclusive growth, wellbeing, widened access, and enhanced educational outcomes for all those within the community. These partnerships would:
- Take an holistic, place-based perspective;
- Have a commitment to cradle to career and life-long education;
- Be a multi-agency hub;
- Be a site for all through (early years to post-secondary education) education;
- Be a hub for world leading curriculum and pedagogical research, development, experimentation and innovation in urban education; and
- Be a centre of excellence for teacher preparation and professional learning.
In summary, navigating through the current COVID-19 pandemic and beyond involves reconsidering the design of schooling, teaching and learning, including attention to: integration of digital technologies; expansion of learning outdoors; reform of assessments and examinations; review of curriculum; and engagement of students, families, and communities. In order to do so, further development of leadership, partnership and collaboration throughout the education system, and with other relevant sectors and partners, is required. We turn now to our advice concerning leadership and the education profession.