What lessons can we learn from teaching during the pandemic to reduce educational inequality?

Academics are investigating which of the technologies that have been utilised in education have been successful and why.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created chaos in many education systems across the world, deepening the problems faced by disadvantaged children and young people. There are signs, however, that the creativity and innovation displayed by teachers in connecting with their students during this challenging time hold out hope for a better educational future.

“Long before stockpiling became endemic under the pandemic, the privileged in society have been stockpiling educational advantage.” Whilst this assessment might be slightly unfair to the comfortably well-off, there is no doubt that the pandemic has had a significant impact on education - exacerbating inequalities among children and young people across the world.  

As it swept around the globe, COVID-19 has created a ‘double jeopardy’. Students who were already behind found themselves further disadvantaged by the ‘loss of learning’ while school buildings were closed. This unfortunate situation generated fevered debate about how children might catch up – whether through summer schools, extensions to the school day or other measures.

Led by experts at the University of Birmingham, the Diversifying Inclusion and Growth: Inspiring Technologies for Accessible Learning in the time of Coronavirus (DIGITAL) study compared the situation in the UK, United States, Australia, Italy, Chile and Malaysia, uncovering evidence of the pandemic’s negative impact on children and young people, parents and teachers.

As countries turned to online learning to counter the closure of schools, students from disadvantaged families faced further challenges through difficulties in accessing technology. Pupils in the UK, in particular, faced notable barriers to learning. The Government’s initial response was to close all schools, but allow children of key workers and ‘vulnerable’ pupils to continue to attend school. Faced with the task of identifying vulnerable children from a wide range of possible candidates and concerned that schools would be stretched beyond capacity, school leaders restricted admission to students facing a safeguarding risk. 

Julie Allan, Professor of Equity and Inclusion, comments: “Diane Reay’s comment about ‘stockpiling education’ neatly encapsulates the situation. The pandemic’s effects combined with government decision-making have disproportionately affected ethnic minority populations and socio-economically disadvantaged groups. We should not forget, however, that this has been going on for a long time and has been made worse by the pandemic.”

However, the researchers examining the education landscape also found examples of teachers battling to remove barriers to learning – drawing on their reserves of creativity, flexibility and resilience to come up with novel practices that connected with students interests.

For example, some teachers took advantage of good weather and spent time with children outside. This ‘deterritorialisation’ allowed pupils to play and explore, but teachers also engaged with children learning at home by putting together packs of plastic envelopes with paper based activities, crayons, colouring pens and pencils so that they could use their fine motor control.

Free school resources outside a houseA community minded teacher offers free books and resources outside their house during the UK lockdown. Image credit: Alamy.

‘Creative subtraction’ saw the removal of formal examinations on a nation-wide basis, but was accompanied by a refusal to carry out in-class assessment of children on their return to school. This allowed teachers to tune into children’s education hopes and fears, prioritising resources and approaches accordingly – working hard to make the school a comfortable, safe and convivial space for the children’s return. The pandemic also created opportunities to create new communities and connections, such as using Twitter to connect a class of children with parents and teachers, enabling them to share their experiences during lockdown.

In Malaysia, parents became co-teachers as educationalists strove to break down barriers, whilst Sphero balls (a round plastic ball, which can be controlled with an app) proved useful for teachers introducing children to coding.

The DIGITAL project will create a resource for teachers, based on research data that provides guidance on developing digital and non-digital strategies that are different - and better - ways of educating children and young people.

“Certainly in the UK, the Government effort was to make online learning resemble the classroom experience as closely as possible, but this did not serve children with Special Education Needs (SEN) equally” comments Professor Allan. “Children who were deemed vulnerable went back to school, whereas autistic children tended to do better learning from home. There is a swathe of children from disadvantaged households who have been badly hit by the technology deficit and home culture – they have fared the worst.

“But the pandemic gave us the opportunity to do things differently. Teachers have found new creative ways to be inclusive and engage with children. We must not lose that – we need to anchor these innovations within the education system, capturing the good practices that blossomed from teachers’ innovation and creativity.”

This is where Professor Allan’s new project comes in. Following on from DIGITAL, the Education Renewal, tEchnologies and Solidarity for Education fuTures (RESET) project responds to the need for a post-pandemic ‘reset’ of education, capturing teaching innovations that successfully offset ‘loss of learning’ and creating a new global paradigm.

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Funded by the YTL Foundation, RESET will examine pre-pandemic and pandemic-induced barriers to inclusion, examining teaching methods and the ways in which children guide their educators to delivering teaching that is fully inclusive. By identifying the barriers to an equitable education system, the project aims to map how it can be ‘reset’.

Professor Allan and her team aim to do this by canvasing the views of those with a stake in the education system across the same set of countries as DIGITAL – teachers, parents, policymakers and, most of all, children’s. Based on the principles established in DIGITAL, they will record successful systemic changes introduced in response to the pandemic, examining why these measures worked. These will be wrapped in a framework comprising interviews using art materials with children and young people, together with focus groups with parents, teachers, governors, children and young people. Creative public workshops, using Open Space technology and padlets, will add to the richness of data gathered.

“We have consistently found across our six countries in DIGITAL that replicating schooling at home is leading to more exclusion, but teachers’ concerted efforts to find creative solutions to the problems caused by the pandemic have given children and young people good educational experiences,” explains Professor Allan.

“Our real desire is not to go back to the old ways. The question is whether we can learn from how we’ve coped during the pandemic to do better in the future. To paraphrase Gloria Ladson Billings, the old ‘normal’ was especially awful for disadvantaged, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and SEN children. We now need a hard reset of the education system, just as you would give an ailing computer. Our new RESET project gives us the opportunity to do just that.”

Top banner image credit: Feliphe Schiarolli.

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