This is the text of an article I wrote for the Peruvian daily newspaper, El Comercio.
If you would rather read it in Spanish the published version is here.
Never, more than now, are we called upon to examine the role of schools in the lives of young people, their parents and society in general. It is when an institution is under stress that we need to examine what it is for, what it does well and what, if anything, makes it indispensable. Schools have been under tremendous stress since the state of emergency began and their doors were closed way back in March. So, what has this perspective led us to understand differently or better?
Those of us who work in education have always known that schools provide multiple functions in the community. The complete change in the way we function has led us to ask two questions. What can we, as a school, do without physically going into school? And, What is so important that we need to find a way of doing it, however badly? Following on from these answers are two supplementary questions. What is the role of the teacher in all this? And How can schools use all this experience to be better in the future when some new normal is established?
Let us start with what is often cited as the main purpose for school; academic education. We have found, at Markham College and many other schools in Peru and around the world, that we can actually do this very well without being in school. There are variations of course that depend on the subject. It is hard to teach a science curriculum based on practical experimentation without having a laboratory to do it in. But in the humanities, the languages and mathematics, even in some cases the arts, children can actually achieve better than they would in school. I will examine the reasons for this later on. There are also variations that depend on the resources available. I cannot deny that a school like ours has tremendous advantages when every family and every teacher is connected to the internet, and we have the tools to make it work. But I have tremendous respect for the Peruvian government initiative to make resources available for children to learn at home in the most difficult circumstances. This has put the efforts of many more affluent countries to shame.
Why do I say that have achieved better in some areas? This is because school is not just about academic education. It is about social interaction, psychological development and the general process of going through youth to become an adult. With regard to academic education, these aspects are a distraction. Teachers will suggest that children talking, playing, relating with each other over issues other than the ones the teacher is trying to teach wastes time and focus. At home, in isolation, these distractions are not there. What else is there to do, to get away from the family, but work?
For this reason, children will come out of this process as more responsible, independent, focussed learners, better equipped for an adulthood where most of their learning is online anyway. But, they will have a gap in their social and emotional development that relies on being with people and mixing with them. Our challenge, as teachers, when we return to school is to fill that gap. Our challenge now is to provide the support to reduce its negative effects. At the moment we are supplementing our academic programme with a wide range of different activities. Last week, I watched a large group of 12 year olds, wearing swimming gear and helmets, doing white water rafting and camping out. Of course, the rafting was on a chair in their living room. The helmet was often an upturned wastepaper basket. The paddle was a broomstick and the tent was a blanket strung over their bed. But they loved it because they were doing it with their friends and teachers, and they could see and hear them all through the conference online. This kind of experience does not replace the actual rafting and camping they would have been doing, but it does a great deal to preserve their emotional, social and psychological wellbeing.
So as teachers we have, as always, multiple roles. They have changed in the tools we use, and we are probably working longer hours, but the aims are the same. Once we return to school we must make sure we keep the skills we have learned, keep the best of the online experience, and work hard in the areas we have missed out on.