There is no shortage of ideas on how to improve education systems, ideas which are generally applied as small-scale interventions implemented using trial and error. But according to the Brookings Institution, in order to make real, impactful change, education systems must “leapfrog” or make “rapid, nonlinear progress.”(1) COVID-19 has highlighted inequities in the delivery of education, including a lack of access to devices and the internet, issues which must be solved immediately. But the crisis has also allowed experts to see opportunities to reimagine education on a much larger scale. The year 2021 is the time to stop imagining what education can be and start the work of redesigning education systems for all students.
Where to Focus in Redesigning Education?
In 2011, the Center for Global Education at Asia Society created the Global Cities Education Network (GCEN), an international learning community that seeks to share promising practices and develop responses to systemic education problems, ultimately improving education for all. GCEN is unique due to its community of practice which allows participants to:
- learn while sharing strengths and challenges;
- interact with international experts and have experiences that challenge systems to reflect on problems in new ways, lending credibility to new ideas and practices; and
- receive support to implement, innovate, and identify, test, and refine solutions.
In 2021, the GCEN annual symposium will examine the theme of developing equitable future-ready education systems. Examining this theme through the lens of the COVID-19, the network identified four critical areas to address together:
- The Learning Ecosystem
Learning now takes place in multiple places with multiple people; it is no longer digital versus non-digital. Therefore, we must design the future of learning in hybrid or blended modalities and re-examine how technology is used as an effective tool for deeper learning.
- Assessment, Recognition, and Credentialing
As the learning ecosystem broadens, so too must the definition of assessment and how skills are recognized and credentialed.
- Social-Emotional Learning
In a COVID world, mental health and wellness are more important than ever. How are SEL and 21st century (or future-ready) skills being implemented across whole school systems – not just on a school-by-school basis?
- The Teaching Profession
Systems need a specialized, differentiated workforce of educators and therefore need to define what it means to be an educator in the current environment. For example, during the emergency COVID response, the systems that fared the best were those that empowered teachers as creative professionals.
The Hole in the Wall
These reform areas and Brookings’ idea of leapfrogging bring to mind the work of Dr. Sugata Mitra and his famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment. In 1999, Dr. Mitra placed a computer in a wall in a slum in India where people had never seen a computer or the internet.(2) Groups of children immediately started playing with the computers and before long, were not only surfing the internet in English, a language they didn’t speak but also had figured out how to download and play games on the computers. Dr. Mitra’s takeaways were that groups of heterogeneous youth with unsupervised access to computers in safe, public spaces can learn to use the internet by themselves. And more importantly, where there is interest and engagement, there is education.
Based on this experiment, Dr. Mitra has been creating Self Organized Learning Environments, essentially classrooms with computer screens that are visible to everyone in the room. The teacher asks a stimulating question designed to pique the interest of students, for example, “Can trees think?”. The idea is to create learning rather than teaching. No directions are given and no groups are assigned – the group dynamics are worked out by the students themselves. Students show improved reading comprehension, communication, self-confidence, and computing skills.
This model illustrates the education redesign themes above – students are learning content and future-ready skills in a unique setting with an educator who serves as a guide and mediator. Technology is utilized as a tool in the service of self-directed, deeper learning by the students. Dr. Mitra’s model of learning shifts assessments to focus on the ability to learn in order to solve problems, find accurate and current answers, and allow students to collaborate and utilize the internet while being assessed, which more accurately reflects the world our students will graduate into.
Global Competence Is a Critical Component in System Redesign
As systems move forward with redesigning education, a critical component should be teaching students to be globally competent. Global competence is defined as being able to live and work with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds and to see issues from multiple points of view. At Asia Society, we believe the best way to foster these skills is through interdisciplinary, project-based learning with a global focus, utilizing technology resources as tools. The Self Organized Learning Environments could be seen as one extreme of this, a model which in many ways resonates with what happened during the initial COVID-19 response – students let loose on the internet with little oversight. However, Dr. Mitra argues that the group work aspect, which is largely missing during the COVID-19 response, is critical as it provides fact-checking and promotes global competence and other critical future-ready skills. There is a way to avoid this obstacle, even in a purely online model. Many of the teachers Asia Society works with, have been facilitating global collaborative projects for years, harnessing synchronous and asynchronous platforms to allow for student teamwork, not just with their classmates but also as virtual teams of students working across borders together to solve global issues.
The Future is Blended and Global
First, we must work to solve the issues of equitable access to internet connectivity for students and teachers. But simultaneously, we can start redesigning systems that harness technology as a tool for learning while preparing teachers and families to embrace a model that combines in-person and digital learning. This redesigned future is blended and includes high-quality, problem-based learning that not only prepares students with future-ready skills, but illustrates that the world is interconnected and relies on collaboration across borders. A lesson clearly needed not only during COVID-19 but also for our shared, global future.