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Quick catch-up or recovery over time? A systems perspective on the pandemic, part 1

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 March 2021

Melanie Ehren.

While the pandemic has been disruptive to all learners, it has been more so for lower-income students. They have been particularly hard hit because of a lack of home support for online learning, limited access to good wifi or a laptop and a lack of quiet space to learn at home.

Initial studies indicate that students from deprived backgrounds have learned less compared to their more affluent peers, and their ‘lost learning’ amounts to the time schools were closed. A study by Engzell et al (2020) for example compared the result of school tests in the Netherlands before and after lockdown in spring 2020 with results from the previous three years, and found that losses are up to 55% larger among students from less-educated homes. The pandemic has brought the already existing inequalities into sharper focus and increased concern about the widening gap.

PIRO4D / Pixabay

Across the world, governments are announcing proposals to try and eliminate further unfair disparities and prevent a tipping point beyond which the gap is no longer recoverable. ‘Building back a better system’ is a term that is often used. But how can that best be done?

Systems thinking offers some valuable insights here. It allows us to understand education as a nested structure where learning takes place in a class, with a teacher, who is part of a school which operates in a wider context of a local community, school board and national policies and funding structures.

Each of these levels influence and shape one another and thereby change over time. Thinking about student learning and schooling from a systems perspective is important as it allows us to understand why we have such high inequalities, how these are created by decisions at other levels of the system and how we need both short and long-term interventions to improve learning outcomes. A holistic understanding of the essence of education systems enables us to comprehend how we got to the current high levels of inequality in the first place, and why these may spiral out of control if we don’t act now.

How did we get here?

´Success to the successful’ – one of the system archetypes described by Donna Meadows – is how we got the high inequality in the first place. The archetype refers to a self-fulfilling prophecy where the outcome of a situation is highly dependent on the initial conditions (or expectations) and whether they favour one party or the other. ‘If B had received more resources in the beginning, the roles would be reversed: B’s success would increase, and A would suffer’.

Success to the successful in education is where well-educated parents have the knowledge and means to choose the best schools for their child, provide them with the support to do well in school, and can pay for expensive tuition if needed. Their child would do better as a result, and their success thus leads to the success of the next generation of children.

This archetype also explains why the pandemic is increasing inequality: affluent and well-educated parents likely live in larger homes where their children have their own room to learn in with their own laptop, they can help their child in structuring the school day and accessing online teaching and perhaps even explain some of the content when the teacher is offline.

How do we build back better?

Systems’ change comes, according to Meadows (2008, p.108) ‘from stepping outside the limited information that can be seen from any single place in the system and getting an overview’. Stepping back allows us to understand that the current school closures are affecting the current generation of students in different ways and these require both short and long-term solutions.

Part 2 will look at how to build back a better system


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One Response to “Quick catch-up or recovery over time? A systems perspective on the pandemic, part 1”

  • 1
    Geraldine Hutchinson wrote on 11 March 2021:

    Interesting times ahead – I think moving forward will need more engagement across stakeholders within the system, especially parent/caregivers to both support learning in all its home/school forms – and their greater involvement in school accountability processes – plus listening to learners feedback/views.