All around the globe, school closures have affected more than 1.5 billion primary and secondary school learners, including more than 700 000 in South Africa. As some of the grades have not gone to school as yet, the question on the minds of many parents is not only whether the lives of their children are at risk by the Corona-Virus pandemic, but also whether their children will lose academic ground as a result of the lock-down.
The concern is understandable but the worry is misplaced. A larger concern should be whether schools are rising to their potential and making the most of the pandemic to teach important lessons.
Judging by the plans put forward by the Department of Basic Education across the country, schools are trying to carry on as usual. They are adhering to state-mandated curriculum goals, teaching to the achievement tests aimed at measuring those goals and focusing on maintaining retention and above average pass rates.
Although all of that may be important, now is not the time to go by the rule books. Now is the time to break the rules, deep-dive our learners into what will likely be the most important event of their lifetimes, and come up with creative ideas for helping them observe and explore the dramatic changes in the culture – and in their own lives – resulting from a virus that has reached every continent in the world.
So, the critical question is, what lessons should teachers be teaching?
As educational thought leaders have pointed out, learners learn best when the learning is connected to their lived experience. Today, the lived experience of learners in the Suburbs revolves around extreme dislocation – single parents laid off from work, the cupboard getting empty when the money runs short, and the landlord threatening eviction when the rent is not paid on time.
Instead of adhering to the standard curriculum, teachers across all provinces need to invent new lessons that meet the learners where they are. Creative teachers are already doing this. But most ordinary teachers will need encouragement and direction from the Department of Education to gear their lessons toward what is actually happening in the world right now.
Some subjects such as History are very relevant to the current crisis. The 1918 influenza pandemic in the United States, for instance, holds powerful lessons that apply to today’s pandemic.
Other subjects, like maths, require a little more creativity. Teachers can use maths for modelling the numbers of the sick and the dead, which learners encounter every time they turn on the TV. They can teach about percentages, exponential growth vs. linear growth, ratios and so on.
In English, learners might be asked to keep a journal of their own experiences during the pandemic, sharing their stories with one another. Or, they might be given writing prompts and asked to use their creativity to respond. An example: write an essay about how your pet (or someone else’s pet) is benefiting from the pandemic.
But beyond academic learning, the pandemic also offers an opportunity for us to teach some of life’s important lessons. We need to teach our learners how to sit with those sitting alone. Teach them why it might be important to help carry the neighbor’s groceries. No matter what they see on TV or on their social media feeds, teach them how important it is to look for the good in every person.
Teach them that, no matter how much we are all individuals, we are all connected by our common humanity and our exposure to a virus that doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor, whether you are black or white, whether you live in Zimbabwe or Mozambique.
This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity. It must not be squandered in the interest of the educational bureaucracy.
Now it’s your turn. Do you think it’s time to break the rule book? Let me know in the comments below.