Redefining the Classroom | Daily News

Redefining the Classroom

A seminar for educators looks at post-Covid challenges to education:

COVID-19 has resulted in a record number of students being forced to stay away from schools and universities. According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in mid-April 2020, over 190 countries had implemented nationwide closures, affecting more than 90 percent of the world’s student population.

Students in Sri Lanka like their fellow students all over the globe are now required to attend online lectures on their smartphone or laptop whether they like it or not. The lack of face-to-face interaction has affected all students throughout the country and for rural students’ unavailability of Wi-Fi has further aggravated the problem.

The Daily News recently attended ‘Back to School, Redefining Classrooms’, an event held by Chokolaate Magazine in partnership with The International Schools of Sri Lanka (TISSL) in order to raise awareness on how best to cope with the problems posed by online learning and how to counteract it, as the pandemic has redefined education globally.

TISSL Chairperson Kumari Hapugalla Perera spoke about redefining the heart and soul of modern education. She pointed out that strong leadership in this time of crisis is of paramount importance. She said the leader’s role in maintaining stability is key to overcoming the difficulties that we face in this day and age. The leader’s ability to motivate and inspire is crucial.

“TISSL is indeed grateful to Chokolaate for volunteering to come on board and organize this event. There is no doubt that all teachers and heads of schools will approve of this event as we all seem to be groping in the dark during these unprecedented times in Sri Lanka. TISSL has always been interested in sharing and demonstrating best practice when it comes to education. We believe in fostering close relationships with other schools in the island,” said Perera.

She added that long before the pandemic, there was a discourse on the need for a meaningful change in education. The pandemic is of course a force that took us all by surprise because it was unexpected. Teachers and students have had to deviate from the tradition of learning and suddenly have been thrown in at the deep end.

Embracing change overnight

“Teachers and students had to embrace change overnight. They have all had to learn new skills. Now we have to embark on a journey into the future shaped by countless uncertainties. This conference raises many questions – How will our students learn? What do they need socially and emotionally? How will our teachers teach? Today we know that change is driven by technology. There are new tools to connect students across the world. Today we know that information on just about anything is at our fingertips. The teacher’s role now is to guide the students. We need human beings who are confident and efficient. A human being who can be a catalyst for positive change. What better place than the classroom to begin this process? Today we need to redefine the heart and soul of modern education,” said Perera.

Perera departed with one final statement to all the heads of schools – “In crisis where major change is inevitable and uncertain, we have to listen to teachers, students and families. What are they experiencing? What do they need? Schools and educators must explore these questions together with those most impacted by the decisions they make. This pandemic has highlighted inequalities in our society that have been ignored for long. We do not have a crystal ball to predict the future but we can urgently discuss the questions that will help us prepare for the changes ahead,” explained Perera.

British Council Director Education and English Education Systems Louise Cowcher said that we are indeed facing challenging times and there is a very real possibility that the world will not be the same again.

“Education has changed. Society has changed. And the world of work has changed. So what can we do about it? Our fundamental view at the British Council is that all young people benefit from learning opportunities provided by a fit for purpose relevant education system. This will allow them to fulfill their potential, achieve their aspirations and contribute to Sri Lanka’s economic and social development. It is something that I truly believe in. It is about an individual and how he or she can contribute to society. The problem is sometimes young people may have a different view concerning their education. In 2018, we carried out research and it became clear to us when speaking to young people aged between 18 to 35 that among their concerns access to jobs was Number 2. Education was Number 7. These were school leavers and university students. They have gone through the education system and their perception was that the education system did not prepare them for the world of work,” said Cowcher.

She pointed out that changes were happening anyway. The pandemic did not tell us things we did not know already. But the pandemic has highlighted the need for reform. These are issues we have known about for a long time. It is nothing new. Cowcher praised the representatives of Sri Lankan educational institutes for keeping their institutes going. She praised them for providing quality education to their Sri Lankan students while running households and families.

“Teaching online was something new but your teachers did it. But it is not just about the technology, it is much more fundamental. What about the learning outcomes? What about the learning outcomes for young people at the end of a certain time period? What do we want our young people to be able to do going forwards after their education? Everyone knows that there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept). The question is – is it relevant? Is it appropriate? Each of us instinctively feels that we want learner-centered outcomes. The learner should be at the heart of the process. Teaching and learning are two entirely different things. At best a teacher can facilitate learning, but the student learns. So learning has to be at the heart of the process. It is about international standards. International benchmarking. We need young Sri Lankan students to be as good as anyone else anywhere in the world. This is because we live in a global environment. So we need to think about what happens to our young people. Much of it has to do with career guidance,” explained Cowcher.

She added that you just can’t replace face to face teaching. “Technology is great. However, it is a tool and we exploit it. It should not exploit us.” Her colleagues at the British Council have told her that they have had to teach parents on how to help their children learn about online classes. “So there is that question – how do you learn these days?”

Aligning education with job demand

“The world of work is changing. The British Council has carried out a lot of research during the last few years. And what becomes clear is that what employers are looking for is not always what education providers think they are. It is less of technical skills and it is more of those 21st century skills or employability skills. Issues around problem solving, collaborative working, creativity and innovation – these are the things employers are looking for. So we do our best to leave the curriculum to the world of work. As education providers, it also helps if we understand the labour market. What are the opportunities? The tourism sector globally has just crashed. So are there alternatives? If you have learner-centered outcomes you tend to select a particular pedagogy and that type of pedagogy should emphasize those core skills of collaborative working and problem solving. So one of the things employers say they are looking for should be in your pedagogy or your curriculum. So let’s make sure that they are there,” Cowcher said.“This generation has a much better grasp of technology and that is something employers look for. Now we need to get young people back to face-to-face learning. You simply cannot replace face-to-face teaching. Why is it so important? Because it is part of the socialization process.”

“Through coming together they learn vital social skills. Education is so much part of the socialization process. We know this. It is how they learn the rules of social engagement. This is part of the transition to adulthood. The whole school culture supports this. Also I need to touch on ‘equity of access’ (for years, equity of access in education has referred to the ability of all students to receive an education from qualified teachers in buildings that are safe and conducive to learning in a district with sufficient resources that are reasonably equal among other schools in the same state). If you take the British Council’s original aims, it starts out with all young people. It does not matter who they are or where they are, they all have’equity of access’. The problem with digital only is that it is not equitable. It is not fair and impartial. So there is this challenge of equity.”

She added that education professionals are absolutely instrumental. The roles they play can make a difference and create change. Our Sri Lankan institutes have not compromised on standards and have kept the learning process going on. In her words, it is a magnificent achievement. She further stated that education professionals can start changing things fundamentally.

“You need to link your curriculum to the world of work. For young people, career guidance is very important. It needs to be mandatory, professionalized and internationally benchmarked. Not everyone is going to be a nuclear physicist or be a part of NASA. So you need to help young people make informed choices. Given your positions of leadership and authority you can encourage your institutions to adopt a ‘learning to learn’ approach. It will make a difference. We need to help them make informed choices about where they want to go in life. As Principals you set the tone for your whole school culture. As leaders you provide leadership. You focus on professionalization. That is the culture you as leaders can create. The education sector is an employment sector like any other. It is about you as education professionals following positive practices in the workplace. Professional delivery of education services will benefit the learners and teach them about the world of work. You are also role models and you can demonstrate these principles of equity and fairness. Ultimately every young person can take advantage of these opportunities which will ensure a bright future for them,” added Cowcher.

She believes that education will see a shift and the pandemic will accelerate the process. All young people benefiting from learning opportunities will allow themselves to be part of global economic and social development.

‘Redefining ourselves’

Al Iman Academy Head and Co-Founder Rukshana Hassen said that by redefining our classrooms we inevitably have to redefine ourselves. That is the way forward.

“This applies to every individual regardless of their age group. I wish to raise a question. Have we all imagined education as a tool to enlighten the mind and eliminate doubt? We are today’s policymakers and today’s leaders and we have power. So I would say, yes, indeed we can make a change. When we speak of ‘Back to School, Redefining Classrooms’, we are not doing something that is new, it has already been there, but it is just now that it is being highlighted. If we have learnt anything during this pandemic it is that one size fits all does not work for education,” said Hassen.

Hassen pointed out the importance of what she calls SDL – Self Directed Learning. It is the ability for students to take charge of their lives at their own pace and at their own level.

“During the pandemic, students had a huge amount of control over their education. They had the power of making whatever choices they wanted to make. They could even make the choice not to learn at all. These choices were entirely theirs. Now in this post pandemic period, we as educators and policymakers need to adapt to these new norms. This cannot happen overnight. There is a long process. Here, as educators we need to collaborate with each other,” stated Hassen.

She stressed that we must embrace personalized learning. Here the students will take ownership for what they want to do, how they want to do it. and at a pace of their choice. “Ownership. Self- Direction. The students must love what they are learning,” she said.

“The end result should be the emergence of happy and independent students. They will be self-motivated students with answers of their own. They will be resourceful and creative. Individuals of great originality. This is an amazing process. The students will be able to shine in what they really like to do. This individuality of theirs will give them such freedom and will really empower them,” explained Hassen.

She went onto explain that during adversity it is important that we remain positive and persevere. We need to believe in that positive energy. So as we move forwards we need to redefine our classrooms and learning environments. And to do this we need to find that self-direction and energy and we must radiate this energy to our educators and students. Hassen concluded by saying that we must hold on to hope and look within ourselves and find the light within.