Dylan Mohan | Education in times of crisis
It should be obvious at this point that online schooling was a failed experiment, a trial-by-fire that many students could not withstand. Education in general has been on a major downward spiral for a while now.
Last April, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that more than one billion students’ education had been adversely affected by COVID-19. What exactly went wrong? Was there anything that could have prevented this? What lessons can be learned about the ways children learn and how best to teach them?
It is often assumed that teenagers hate being told what to do and that we thrive on being contrarian, but that isn’t quite true. This is also a very reductive way to think about a whole group of people. Teenagers rebel for a number of reasons, but deep down, we all crave external structure. This has been documented by numerous psychologists. We may outwardly moan and roll our eyes but we do enjoy, to some degree, having clear instructions and boundaries – they give us purpose.
Online school is the antithesis of structure; students are left to their own devices and can even walk away from the computer whenever they like. There is little motivation to pay attention, and even those who are motivated, listening to someone talking through a screen is very different from actually being inside a classroom. I know many students who have reported sleeping through the day and missing their classes; spending most of their time in a general malaise of confusion, not remembering which assignments are due or what class to attend. Many have been forced to teach themselves because of the ineffectiveness of learning behind a screen all day. It’s taken a toll on our mental health, sleep schedules and overall happiness. Those with the ability to change things seem to be too attached to the idea of normalcy to do anything about it.
There has been a lot of talk about ‘the new normal’ during the pandemic. It’s generally agreed that the new normal should be as close to the old normal as possible, as no one wants to sacrifice too much. However, this preoccupation with keeping things unchanged is misguided. Academic institutions the world over have made drastic changes over the past year, from waiving external exams to forgoing traditional grades altogether. Here in the Caribbean, we have refused to adapt and the adverse results of that decision are plain to see.
Last September, countless students across the region gathered to protest disappointing results on their 2020 Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations and Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate examinations. This forced the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) to conduct a thorough review of all exam papers. Compare that fiasco with the situation in Britain, where GCSEs were cancelled and students received predicted grades based on how well their teachers thought they would do. This, arguably, was the more sensible solution. Aside from the fact that it reduced the risk of COVID-19 spreading, a teacher’s holistic evaluation of one’s ability as a student is much more useful than a number representing how well they performed on an examination during a pandemic.
Since COVID-19, many households globally are facing the worst financial instability of their lives. People are losing their loved ones, and the constant dread of “What if I catch it? What if someone I care about catches it?” is hanging over all our heads like the sword of Damocles. Do we really need to add exam grades on top of all these worries? In a system that prioritises students’ grades over whether they’ve actually learned anything, while tying test scores so closely to one’s value as a person, continuing to allow students to struggle with online learning is nothing short of abject cruelty.
While these new methods of teaching are clearly less effective than traditional methods, the fault does not lie with the teachers or principals. They, too, have been forced to adapt to an unforeseen situation and have been doing the best they can with limited resources and nearly impossible goals. I believe the fault lies with those higher in the chain of authority, such as the Ministry of Education and the CXC, who are so caught up in their goal of maintaining normalcy that they forgot to account for the fact that students are humans, too, and the current system is not working.
Dylan Mohan is a sixth-form student. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org