Never waste a good crisis | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 14, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:24 AM, November 14, 2020

Never waste a good crisis

This is our opportunity to re-haul the education system

One more circular. One more extension. The opening of the educational institutions is further delayed; this time up to December 19. The school doors were closed in March 2020, and they are likely to remain so till the end of this calendar year. All stakeholders have been forced to readjust to this new normal. While teachers and academic administrators tried to pivot to some form of remote learning, parents and families began to realise how linked their daily schedules were with those of their wards in schools. For many, there was no room to manoeuvre. With the widening of the digital divide, many students were "virtually" denied from accessing education during this pandemic.

Then again if Winston Churchill is right, who once quipped, "never waste a good crisis", we should not let go of this pandemic without benefitting from it. After all, it has presented us with an opportunity to completely re-haul our education system and emerge stronger than before. Just imagine how, following a series of cyclone disasters, Bangladesh created cyclone shelters-cum-day-schools thinking that communities would go to schools during the time of an emergency. But this pandemic has reversed the process; the school has been emptied out during this health emergency, and education has to be sent home—where the community resides.

The virus has given us a nudge towards the direction of change. Taking our cue from the micro-organism, we can actually think of an educational model that can make the community a part of this learning process. There is an emerging model of pedagogy known as local learning ecosystem. It uses evolutionary biology as its conceptual foundation. In an ecosystem, a community of interdependent organisms function in tandem with the natural environment. Borrowing the same idea, many countries across the world are redesigning their public schools to create a schooling system that gets its energy from multiple sources within the community—the schools are powered through their connectivity with the families, health providers, community institutions, local businesses, out of school programmes and employers.

The necessity for involving the community was prompted not only by this pandemic but also due to the prevalent "learning crisis". Even before the pandemic, the World Bank and other agencies recognised that most of the developing countries were successful in getting almost all primary-aged children into schools; however, the students were not learning even the basic literacy and numeracy skills required for education. The crisis was further deepened by the disproportionate use of technology. As technology begins to change the way we work, skills gaps between low- and middle-income countries opened up, stunting the economic growth.

Why are we not surprised that many high paying jobs in Bangladesh are given to overseas workers from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea, whereas 46 percent of our university graduates remain unemployed? The employers will shout in unison that our local graduates do not have the edge to compete in the global scene. But to get results at the tertiary level, we must fix the primary and secondary systems. Students at an early stage must master their communication and critical thinking skills.

The traditional system with its poor infrastructure and ill-paid, ill-trained teachers fail to provide our students with the right aptitude to survive, let alone excel, in the tertiary level. Maybe the post pandemic pedagogy can emerge stronger by taking advantage of this crisis and adopting a new teaching and learning model altogether.

The purpose of this type of educational model is not to force students to remember and understand but to analyse and create. It crowds in a diverse range of people and places them in aid of professional teachers to help support learning in schools. It recognises the importance of technology and innovation as the mainstay for future education. The community inputs ensure that students learn common values and knowledge with the social benefit of making the community cohesive.

The local learning ecosystem is being adopted in countries from India to Nicaragua. This model is keenly aware of the accessibility issue. It knows that one in 10 of the poorest children in the world's largest economy had little or no access to technology for learning. In response, the strategy adopted by this model involves creative uses of text messages, phone calls and offline e-learning, for instance.

According to a report by Brookings Institution, we are experiencing a critical juncture in history from where we are all set to leapfrog into the future. It suggests five areas in which we can bring systemic changes—put public schools at the centre of education systems, leveraging their essential role in equalising opportunity across dimensions within society; a laser focus on the instructional core, which is the heart of the teaching and learning process; harness education technology to power up schools long term in a way that meets the teaching and learning needs of students and educators (otherwise, technology risks becoming a costly distraction); forge stronger, more trusting relationships between parents and teachers; and an iterative approach that embraces the principles of improvement science required to evaluate, course correct, document and scale new approaches that can help power up schools over time.

These ideas may sound radical, but I have faith in the dynamic leadership of our education minister and her deputy who can leverage this crisis and create a leapfrog pathway.

So how radical do we have to be to not waste this good crisis? Let me circumvent the answer with an anecdote. I remember a couple of years back, a math question set for the fifth-graders in China's Shunqing district made quite some noise. The Chinese students were asked to solve this problem: "If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats on board, how old is the ship's captain?" Newspapers worldwide picked it up to question the merits of the Chinese education. But if you look at the recent rankings of Chinese universities, you will be forced to admit that there is something that they are doing it right.

The correct answer to this math problem is that "there is not enough information". Yet when this problem was given to students in traditional schools, they tried to add or subtract the numbers to come to an answer: 36 or 16. That's what they are programmed to do. The purpose of the question, however, was to challenge the very idea, not to solve it. We need to do the same!


Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at Dhaka University (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.

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