Transforming schools for a whole new world

In this opinion piece, Senior Research Fellow Dr Marian Mahat at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), considers what Australia’s education system needs to do to respond to the realities of a new post-pandemic world.

Young students learning in class

Similar to the supercharged industrial era of the early 1900s and the fourth industrial revolution characterised by the Internet of Things, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic experience signals a pivotal opportunity for the transformation of schools. Now, more than ever, our education system needs to be ready to support our students with the knowledge, understandings, skills and personal attributes that will equip them to survive and thrive in a world that we can no longer predict.

One key educational change in recent months saw online learning move from the fringe of teacher praxis to the core. For many teachers, this occurred overnight – heroically for most – with only a rudimentary introduction of technological skills and zero instruction in online pedagogical methods. Nations around the world have implemented this ‘band-aid strategy’ with varying success, grappling with multitude challenges including student (dis)engagement and equity issues with regards to digital access.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents school leaders with a pivotal opportunity to rethink the role of schools in the education of our students. The vision of learning that will prepare students to face the challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s world continues to be one that is deep, active, participatory and personalised. Knowledge, skills and understanding will need to be underpinned by values that include a commitment to social inclusion, responsible citizenship and respect for human rights. The cognitive, social, emotional and physical wellbeing of both teachers and students become paramount – an essential precondition for achievement, especially among our most vulnerable students.

The rapid pace and pressure to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis signals the urgent need to equip students not only with the basic skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, required to address new ways of learning but also with digital capabilities in increasingly complex learning environments. A hybrid learning model that enables schools to provide the right mix of all learning possibilities in blended online and offline environments can prepare students for a world where knowledge is not fixed, ensure the development of lifelong skills and enable them to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Re-conceiving the physical learning environment, to accommodate new ways of learning, is no longer optional but becomes a necessity in this challenging time.

New approaches and systems need to be developed to better manage teacher-student interaction, class discussions and group tasks. Personalised supports will be required to ensure both teachers and learners build digital readiness and capability. Character and values education becomes increasing important as we espouse ethical behaviour in online learning. Analytical and deeper exploration of big ideas need to be inculcated in students as bite-size information delivered via online pedagogy runs the risk of students losing the capacity to absorb complex argument and only skimming the surface. Increasingly, teachers and students will need to co-create and co-design learning – offering opportunities for students to influence the what, where and how of learning and helping them connect more closely to their own outcomes.

Australian schools will need to collectively articulate and align a set of student outcomes that are purpose-built to deliver the kind of adaptable approaches and understanding crucial to the new world, rather than just a hollow list of content standards. We must (co)design means of assessment which measure both surface and deep learning, as well as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication, as opposed to traditional remember-and-repeat methods. And we will need teachers who are not only knowledgeable of their subject and skilled in its teaching, but also skilful in fully leveraging human connection and digital transformation to bring about quality, tailored learning which is both efficient and effective.

Despite the unprecedented disruption it has brought, the COVID-19 pandemic offers a once-in-a-life-time opportunity towards a strategic transformation of schools. While we collectively work towards transforming education for the new world, reskilling and upskilling the workforce of the present becomes increasingly critical. Schools need to take an active role to support their teachers in expanding knowledge and capability in the face of rapid change; educators need to be mobilised by the career benefits of taking a proactive approach to their own ongoing learning; and governments need to create the enabling conditions, swiftly and creatively, to assist these efforts. No doubt, it will be ‘a whole new world’. Blink and we will lose the moment.

The University of Melbourne’s Leading Change in Learning Environments Microcredential series is geared towards preparing professionals to implement, and transition into, one of the key features of future-focused education – innovative learning environments. Learn more at Melbourne MicroCerts.

With special thanks to:

  • Dr Marian Mahat, Senior Research Fellow and Research Manager, Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), MSPACE @ The University of Melbourne

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