Quick catch-up or recovery over time? a systems perspective on the pandemic, part 2
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 March 2021
Education is going through a massive transformation globally with teachers gaining new digital skills, online teaching materials being developed and parents getting much more immersed in their children’s education. These transformations are, however, not benefitting all students equally, as discussed in Part 1 of this blog, with those from deprived backgrounds losing out on learning when schools were closed.
Across the world, policy-makers are thinking about how to build back better systems; in England, Sir Kevan Collins was recently appointed as the Education Recovery Commissioner, with the responsibility of overseeing a programme of catch-up but also proposing a strategy for long-term recovery.
Here are my three take-away messages for where to prioritize short-term catch up of learning loss, and how we can build back a better system in the mid to long-term.
Short-term catching up
In the short term we need to focus on students who are about to complete a school phase and transition to the next one – particularly the group of students who are exiting our education system, and will have little opportunity to repair their lost learning in formal education.
Take away message 1. Catch-up programmes to repair learning loss should be prioritized for students who are transitioning between schools, phases or exiting our education system.
Catch-up programmes are less urgent for students who just entered a new schooling phase, as they will have many years to learn. However, starting a new school with teachers and peers you do not yet know requires relationship-building, which is difficult in an online environment. Given the school closures and disruption of the past year, these students need specific (social) activities to develop the type of networks and trust that is conducive to their learning and development.
Take away message 2. Invest in relationship-building between students and teachers for those who have started a new school phase.
Finally, there is a large group of students who will have missed out on learning when at home or who have been affected in other ways. These impacts will vary by school, teacher and subject: IT literacy, availability of high quality online content, and staff capacity will not be of the same standard everywhere. Repairing this will need a targeted schools-led approach in the short term. This should be underpinned by evidence of what works (e.g. the EEF teaching toolkit) and a set of heuristics to support schools in their decision-making, given that the best interventions (high dosage individual tutoring by a student’s own teacher) is often not feasible in a time of teacher shortages.
Take away message 3: A schools-led approach to catch-up is needed, supported by evidence and a decision-making heuristic.
Recovery for the long-term
Sustainable long-term improvement requires more thinking and understanding of how our education systems fail to provide equal opportunities for everyone. It’s worth reflecting on how the lessons from the pandemic may act as leverage points for future positive change. These could inform the type of national recovery plans which are currently being developed across the world.
Systems thinking can help us develop better recovery plans for education, re-examining how we organise teaching and learning and the outcomes we seek. As Meadow reflects, a system’s goals, standards, information flows, incentive structures, and the mental models that people have of it are the things that actually change systems and create a new equilibrium. This means:
Changing the standards for how we measure performance and how we define the ‘goal’ of the system
Goals and performance standards need to be about providing equal opportunities for everyone to do well academically and emotionally, recognizing that learning takes place in school, as well as in the home environment and both need to be conducive to learning. Currently, most systems measure student and school performance in terms of academic outcomes on standardised tests or teacher assessments and define quality by what the teacher is doing in the classroom and how the school is organised. We need a broader understanding of outcomes and what we mean by quality education. Some of the measures we have tend to be biased against students from deprived backgrounds, incentivising schools to prioritize students who are close to a pass mark and to select students from affluent backgrounds.
Changing the information flow
Rather than looking at school quality through inspection and standardised testing, we need a more holistic approach which allows us to understand what disadvantaged students struggle with, how their academic and socio-emotional development is (or is not) progressing and what can be done to improve this, both in school, as in partnership with parents and service providers. The skills teachers developed for online teaching, parents and students’ savviness in using IT for learning, as well as their increased access to hardware (e.g. by providing all students with laptops) offer excellent opportunities to extend high quality teaching and learning to everyone. IT and online learning needs to be incorporated in how we define and measure performance for it to sustain and extend the capacity of our system. Information flows need to permeate the system: from schools to school boards, local authorities and government so that all participants can put an effective response in place.
Changing incentive structures
Schools and teachers should be rewarded for offering these types of learning and outcomes. Moreover, they should be incentivised to work towards them in the first place. Teaching in deprived areas needs to be attractive, with incentives that include more than pay levels. A recent RAND study shows how workplace conditions are at least as important.
Systems thinking encourages putting policies in place that level the playing field, removing some of the advantage of the strongest players or increasing the advantage of the weakest – policies that devise rewards for success that do not bias the next round of competition. Good examples we have seen in the past year include ensuring all students have a laptop to access online teaching, bringing high quality tutoring to remote areas, and allocating COVID emergency funding to schools according to the level of socio-economic disadvantage of their student population.
Paradigms and mental models
System change often also requires a different paradigm or way of thinking about what we believe is important or how we do things. The pandemic has already caused us to rethink education in quite substantial ways; we can build on these new mental models:
- Disadvantaged students are now at the top of the priority list. They need to stay there!
- With the roll-out of the national tutoring programme, responsibility for tutoring is shifting from (affluent) parents to the school and the nation. Thinking about the right of all students to high quality tutoring, outside of the formal system, will help us reimagine roles and how they may improve learning outcomes beyond the school gate.
- Our mental model of education should also encompass the value in mixing conventional and online methods to achieve the optimal ‘blended learning’ mix. It should recognise how learning is a joint effort, not just a teacher in front of a classroom. As we develop a better understanding of the most effective mixes, we can scale them up through existing remote learning platforms to a higher portion of users. And we should be training teachers in using them effectively.
As we are planning for the future and how to catch-up and recover learning, we need to think about our systems and how to leverage some of the changes we are currently making.