Filling the chasm: education after the pandemic

The experience of lockdown learning provides an opportunity to reclaim education from ‘teaching to the test’, argues Shirley Lawes.

The closing of schools to the majority of pupils during the periods of lockdown and the adoption of online learning have presented huge challenges to teachers who have had little or no experience of this teaching medium. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the cancellation of external examinations both last and probably this coming year too, has called into question the raison d’être of education. The effects of Covid disruption have exposed the weaknesses and fragility of our education system. The fear engendered by the Covid-19 virus throughout society, is such that young people’s futures are seen by some as being irreparably damaged and in peril. Our education system has indeed been challenged to a similar extent as our health service and despite the valiant efforts of teachers and health workers alike, the institutions of state education and health have been found wanting.

In education, there is a tendency to want to get back to ‘the way things were’, but the clock can never be turned back and before we panic ourselves into setting up ‘cramming’ sessions to ‘cover’ the curriculum, perhaps now is a unique opportunity to take stock, examine ourselves as education professionals and ask some fundamental questions about the future we want for education and how we might set about achieving it.

I am not a Primary specialist, so I hesitate to comment on this sector, but it does seem that there has been an increasing tendency to ‘cover’ ever-expanding curriculum content in order to ‘tick the boxes’. In the meantime, the expert teaching required to develop young learners’ foundational conceptual understanding of subject knowledge is given scant attention.

The culture of Secondary Schools has changed considerably over the last twenty years or so towards a more ‘business’ orientated organisation and ethos. The work of the teacher has been closely prescribed as part of an attempt to establish more consistency in the overall quality of education. The drive to ‘raise standards’ has arguably resulted in a progressive narrowing down of the secondary curriculum, particularly at Key Stage 4, in order to focus on exam preparation. The charge of ‘teaching to the test’ is a criticism often heard of teachers anxious to ensure learners are well-prepared for their exams, but in the process, the educational rather than credential value of school subjects has been lost. As many schools have prioritised examination success over curriculum and pedagogic experimentation, subject curricula seem set in stone or changed at the whim of political and social fashion. Neither option addresses the important epistemological and ethical questions associated with the curriculum, and more broadly, teaching, that have been ignored for too long.

Teachers often feel that they have little freedom to explore their subject discipline with learners. Secondary school teachers no longer teach a body of subject knowledge that is deemed worthwhile for its own sake, but ‘cover’ curriculum content that is, even at KS3, aimed narrowly at fulfilling examination requirements. ‘Teaching to the test’ is not just a critical slogan, it is now the accepted norm in many, perhaps most state schools. However much individual teachers might eschew the narrow focus on selecting and teaching subject knowledge to pass exams, very few have the confidence or professional knowledge to step outside the current educational straitjacket.

Teachers who have been trained as technicists struggle when they are suddenly required to exercise professional autonomy and, dare I say it, ‘pedagogical imagination’ as we have seen when we consider how challenging it has been to grapple with the demands of online learning. We should seize the current situation as an opportunity in all subject areas to climb through the barbed wire and to reconsider fundamentally what, in practice, it is important to teach and why. The absence of exams is not a disaster; it offers a temporary opportunity for a new beginning. It took a pandemic for scientists to develop a vaccine in record time, but they did it. Are educators up for their own particular challenge?

How, at this critical juncture, might we begin to re-evaluate and possibly revise our vision of education? The last ten months’ experience of virtual school closure could be a break from the past that calls into question many aspects of teaching, learning and curriculum content. Besides many problems, this novel experience has thrown up opportunities to reflect upon and re-think the ‘normal’; to re-evaluate objectively what, how and why we teach what we teach and to think beyond prescribed content and examination specifications. The on-line teaching experience has been a stark contrast to classroom teaching in relation to the knowledge content of our subject curriculum as well as the way we teach. But do teachers really just want this nightmare to be over and to return asap to the way things were?

Let’s take a step back, and ask some essential questions about education, like what should be taught in schools? Why should it be taught? To whom should it be taught? What does it mean to be an educated person? How might we move away from the immediate, instrumental concerns of outcomes and exam results and begin to take more of a ‘long view’ of education? Examination success is undoubtedly important but the curriculum should provide an enriched experience of subjects that seeks to inspire young people and enliven their curiosity to understand the world through knowledge. How schools are reconstituted after the pandemic is a vitally important discussion to be had now so that rather than scurrying around trying to make-do and mend, we can create a new vision and plan for a future education system that will more than compensate for the losses caused by Covid.

Shirley Lawes is a member of the AoI Education Forum Committee. She is a PhD research supervisor at UCL Institute of Education, a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher educator and is a Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.