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Expert Blog: How COVID-19 has transformed education, overnight

Dr Chris Rolph, Director of Nottingham Institute of Education, shares his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the UK education system

Empty classroom

Twenty years ago I was part of a national group that sought to envisage what education would look like by 2020. As the calendar ticked over into January this year I reflected back on those ideas, and concluded that actually the education world has changed much less in two decades than we might have hoped or expected.

But suddenly, the mutation of a single molecule round the other side of the world has transformed education at every level, almost overnight. Universities, schools and even early years providers are urgently redesigning their teaching and learning to allow for students of all ages to work at home. While this raises huge pragmatic issues, it also challenges some of our cultural and academic assumptions about what education can and should look like. There may be longer term policy implications if we are able to reflect properly on the lessons to be learned from the educational world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The nature of that response has varied across the educational sector. University campuses have become deserted as teaching and assessment is moved online. During the lockdown period school buildings have become “safe places” for the children of key workers, with requirements to teach the national curriculum suspended, although work is being set for children to do at home. In contrast, many early years providers are not only open to children of key workers, but have to maintain the standards outlined in the Early Years Foundation Stage, which the Government has confirmed still applies in full.

The first significant change that we have seen then, is that the place-based nature of learning has been challenged. It is too early to measure the success of online, distance or remote learning, but necessity has certainly been the mother of invention and spawned a new range of online resources. While some companies are looking to capitalise on the need for these, others have taken a more altruistic approach and are offering their resources at no cost. And the effort that educators have put into this work over the last few weeks should not be underestimated: usually rewriting teaching and learning materials is a task that takes months and follows detailed planning.

For younger children, the movement of learning into the home puts a new responsibility on their parents, who are unexpectedly trying to learn some teaching skills, many juggling their own work from home scenario at the same time. So the virus-imposed experiment isn’t really a genuine test of mass teaching and learning online, though it will certainly give us some insights. If even a part of it is successful then there could be questions to ask of the 25-in-a-box teaching models that we’re used to.

But how will we know if it’s successful? Different providers are approaching this in different ways, with some developing online tests and assessments (and addressing problems around knowing the work was actually done by the right person), while others are abandoning tests and relying on the work done to date.

This latter option is the one chosen by the Government for students who should have faced GCSEs and A levels: first they were told that there would be no exams this summer, and now they’ve received a letter from Ofqual to say that teachers’ predictions will form the basis for grades awarded this summer. Teachers have argued for many years that they know how well their students are performing, from the many classwork and homework tasks that they have done. Michael Gove, as Education Secretary for four years to 2014, enshrined a lack of trust in teachers’ judgements into legislation when he took coursework out of all exams, and removed modular exams, relying entirely on the end of course assessment. This summer we see teachers being trusted once again, albeit by necessity. Perhaps the current crisis might prompt a rethink of the wisdom of a single, all or nothing, terminal examination, and look for a rebalance of trust with the teaching profession.

More fundamentally than where people study and how they are assessed, we might turn to the question of precisely what education is. What is education for? What is important in education? And how then should it be organised? There is evidence that as well as setting basic subject-based work for learners at home, the best schools are also considering broader aspects of education and thinking about how children build relationships, how they relate to the natural world, and how they spend their time in a meaningful way. Parents and teachers are being encouraged to find ways of learning that are not screen-based.

This provides a welcome challenge to the false dichotomy between a knowledge rich curriculum and what is often termed progressive education. The skill of the teacher lies in determining how best to sequence learning in order to build understanding and knowledge, but at the same time organising this within an environment that nurtures the acquisition of skills and the development of healthy attitudes and relationships. This is why the best teachers have always drawn on a variety of tools, from experiments to repetitive skills development, through debate and discussion, to didactic teaching from the front. This last technique is the one that is easiest to replicate online, but it is clearly not sufficient for education in its broadest sense, nor does it necessarily meet the needs of all learners. Moving learning out of our classrooms is forcing us to think about what is important in learning; as Andy Hargreaves puts it, “this is a time when our values come alive”.

Perhaps it will take a worldwide pandemic to broaden our focus beyond eight qualifications at age sixteen. Maybe enforced isolation will help us to create a new normal in which learners don’t have to cram into a box for six hours a day. There’s even a chance that we’ll engage in a new national debate about the meaning and purpose of education. At times like this, we have to be optimistic.

Find out more about Dr Chris Rolph's research.

Check here for the latest coronavirus advice and updates from NTU.

Expert Blog: How COVID-19 has transformed education, overnight

Published on 7 April 2020
  • Category: Research; Nottingham Institute of Education; School of Social Sciences

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