As early as March 2020, the phrase ‘new normal’ was being used to describe the uncertain phase of the near future we were inching towards. It’s a phrase we’ve come to know as a vague blanket term that attempts to soothe fears and transition us from the ‘old way’ of doing things and into the world as we find it now – even if no one knows exactly what that ‘new’ world is quite going to look like yet. But what if you weren’t around during the old way of doing things? What if this ‘new normal’ is simply your ‘normal’? This is exactly what millions of young learners around the globe are experiencing right now.
One month into the pandemic, 1.2 billion children had been taken out of the classroom. While some were learning from home, many more had their education effectively put on ice. The OECD reported that up to 8% of French students fell off their teachers’ radar in the first two weeks of the national lockdown there, while in Los Angeles (the second-largest school district in the US) more than a tenth of high school students had had no contact with teaching staff after three weeks. By the time the new school year began in late summer 2020, just 40% of K-12 students in the US were being offered any degree of face-to-face learning.
For students already at school, this shift to remote or hybrid learning had a huge impact on their learning. In the US, recent data shows us that students in grades 1 to 6 are now on average 4 months behind in reading and 5 months behind in maths. It’s an effect that has been dubbed ‘unfinished learning’. For students already facing the challenges of an inequitable education system, things have been even tougher. Students from low-income households, Black and Hispanic students, have been left even further behind than some of their peers. But what about those young people who started their school lives right in the middle of the pandemic? What has been the impact for those students whose learning is ‘unfinished’ before it’s even begun?
A recent study on how prepared pre-school aged children in England were for the transition to school shows us just how significantly our youngest learners have been impacted. Over three quarters of the schools surveyed said that children starting school in 2020 needed more support than in previous years. Literacy skills, communication and language skills, and social and emotional development were highlighted as the areas that concerned teachers the most. Around 90% of those surveyed were ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about how children were coping with each of these areas. Other findings from the UK tell us that nearly half (46%) of all young people who started school in 2020 were not ‘school ready’. This is a huge portion of young people who are already behind, only increasing the pressure felt by teaching staff who were juggling with the new demands of at-home and hybrid learning – much of which continues today.
We know just how much the COVID-19 pandemic kicked up the rate at which technology was being adopted into the classroom. This trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, the global market for online education tools, software and platforms will be somewhere around $350 billion. Of course, the use of ‘ed tech’ as it’s known was a huge help in the middle of national lockdowns, but there is evidence that it could be a way to help support learners post-pandemic, too.
Some research has shown that learning online helps children learn faster, retaining up to 60% more material than through more traditional teaching methods. There are lots of reasons why this might be, not least because learning through apps and online tools allows children to work at their own pace. The ability to re-read exercises, re-do activities or skip through to areas that engage them most means that children can also learn faster with the help of ed tech tools. This statistic would certainly see some educators breathe a sigh of relief in the face of the huge ‘catch up’ operation many countries are now implementing.
That said, technology might not be the cure-all it is sometimes sold to be, particularly for the youngest students. While the independence offered by ed tech can be helpful, children in early years' education also require a structured environment that engages all the senses, not just a flattened, copy-and-paste digital classroom. Without proper teacher training and, crucially, greater equity across who has access to ed tech, not much will change.
Even if these structures are put in place to support digital learning, there is still a huge question mark over how to best foster good mental health and emotional wellbeing in the new normal. Concerns about their own education, social distancing measures and fear for their own health and their loved ones has increased feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation amongst young people. For the youngest students, their lack of social-emotional skills will make it even harder to process and deal with these stressors. Education must go beyond literacy and numeracy if the youngest learners are to have a fighting chance of healing from the events of the last couple of years.
This focus on social-emotional learning, which encompasses skills and habits including self-awareness, relationship building and self-management, is integral to young peoples’ development. Organisations such as the Education Endowment Fund in the UK and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in the US offer programmes and support to educators so that they can better support their young people.
While results may be difficult to measure overnight, adopting a social-emotional-focused approach can start today. It could be about creating time and space for young people to discuss their concerns or sharing thoughts on current events in a safe way. Social-emotional learning might look like flipping a task on its head, asking learners how they want to learn, rather than sticking to the tried and tested but tired methods. This child-centred approach doesn’t just help to shift things in the short term; CASEL found that the positive impact of an education system that prioritised social-emotional learning was still being felt over 18 years on. This approach might not be a quick fix, but it seems to be a long-lasting one.
It’s clear that we adults need to take a fresh look at how our education systems support young learners in the new normal. Speaking on the UN’s International Day of Education, Dr Anantha Duraiappah, Director at UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) made the case for ‘an education system designed for human flourishing’, not just meeting targets and playing catch-up.
“…any educational system in the future should align curricula, teaching practices and learning evaluations with a ‘whole brain’ notion of neural interconnectedness and combined cognitive, social and emotional learning” Dr Duraiappah says. Recognising the scale of this challenge, he is calling for governments and educational bodies to looks at the evidence of the impact of the pandemic and act accordingly. “Policy not grounded in science and evidence is likely to perpetuate existing insufficient education systems” he concludes. It is not enough to continue as normal. We must look to something new to support our young people as they start to engage – and, hopefully, flourish – in a post-pandemic world.