“You don’t fire-fight in education. Covid-19 could have been a real opportunity to bring about a total paradigm shift”

Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee, Educationist

* ‘Examinations still dominate the system, elitism continues to remain the basic motivation of all educational efforts, the laureate system is still very much alive’

* ‘For a very long time, examinations results have been seen as the only measure of achievement.
Those who pass are seen as champions and those who fail as lazy and not hard working’

Based on his comprehensive experience in the education sector, Teeluck Bhuwanee shares his views, in today’s issue, on various aspects of how Covid-19 has impacted teachers and students’ learning, and makes suggestions that he thinks can help to enhance the student experience as well as performance. Teeluck Bhuwanee holds a PhD holder in Educational Management and is a UNESCO Consultant. He retired as a UNESCO Head of Office, after having been the first Registrar of the UTM, Senior Lecturer at the MCA, Lecturer at the MIE and Rector in state secondary schools since 1975.

Mauritius Times: Given the uncertainty about Covid-19, its duration and whether or not and when we’ll get back to the previous normal, what are the big questions that government, in particular education leaders, should address?

Teeluck Bhuwanee: Before I answer your question regarding the big questions, let us consider the different types of uncertainty and the “new normal” that we are all facing, irrespective of profession. The present uncertainty is one that was and is unimaginable and nobody is sure of what tomorrow will look like.

Every day, every week and every month reputable medical and other journals are publishing articles and studies that would not have been either published or acceptable by the community at large in the past. Previously, we would have expected these articles and studies to go through a rigorous review by peers before publication. Nowadays, these publications are themselves often so contradictory, that each scientist or researcher is faced with different other and often contradictory reviews that give rise to other debates, thus confusing the general public even further.

Every policy decision is often justified or supported by those articles or research or reviews that suits the proposed policy’s purpose. World Health Organisation (WHO), already and often questioned because of its regular change in recommendations, is no more a reference. The uncertainty, therefore, is likely to remain with us for a very long time, and the virus and its different variants will continue to affect us. We are also at the mercy of large pharmaceutical companies that are heavily investing in researchers and research to produce vaccines that will bring them the maximum profit within the minimum of time, thus the multiplicity of vaccines on the market, notwithstanding their different efficacy levels.

Now in such an age of uncertainty, policy makers and elected government officials make their case without a rigorous scientific approach, based on evidence that is often not even available.to them. Possibly that’s all they can do in such times of crisis, especially politicians who are more interested in getting elected than in the long-term benefits to the population. Covid-19 thus is the reason for every policy decision.

In such a situation, educationists and true pedagogues (not teachers, heads of schools, lecturers or union spokespersons who are called as such) must be very steady and steadfast in their utterances and educational recommendations that will affect generation of students.

First and foremost, they need to adopt and conduct compassionate attitudes and seek evidence from the schools and classrooms based on the interconnected principles of critical thinking, self-knowledge and empathy. This approach treats available evidence as intrinsic and self-evaluation as foundational to how students and educators develop the ability to relate to others who are unlike them and help students and teachers to develop a sense of their place in the world.

Heads of schools and teachers (who have all the documentation of their students and their families based on the application forms that they fill in when they join the school) must be made to develop this awareness in conjunction with the desire to act for social justice. Compassionate pedagogy emphasizes the ability to empathize with others, teaches students to be socially and culturally engaged agents of change.

Unfortunately, by stressing the fact that students who do badly at exams (the 5 credits debate and the students that don’t make enough effort), we are doing a disservice to large sections of the student population. These attitudes do not keep in mind that many students’ brains are already formed and developed before they even reach primary school, based on their physical conditions that include nutrition, social status and upbringing at the time of birth and their ongoing development. I was hoping that nutritionists, neurological experts and biology teachers could provide enough evidence for a compassionate approach to schooling and education in Mauritius.

Pedagogues and policy makers at the ministry should analyse the use of learning management systems (such as Blackboard) for social and cultural inclusivity needed for marginalised and students in conditions of deprivation in digital learning environments. With a focus on holistic, social constructivist thinking, collaborative community-driven pedagogy versus self-focused pedagogy, they should have dispelled some of the myths around social and cultural inclusivity, outlining the role of teachers, students, policy and pedagogy and perceptual gaps between western (primarily Cambridge set syllabuses) and local non-western learning (produced by MIE and the PSAC or NCE curriculum).

I am not sure whether heads of schools and teachers have seriously considered the impact of Covid-19 from the perspective of a student (when the schools were closed, the population confined and media as the only source of knowledge and understanding) and their experience with being on lockdown while studying.

Institutions such as the MRIC, local Universities, the MIE and similar institutions should have been encouraged to highlight the vulnerability felt by students in their studies, both psychologically and physically, and the need for connection versus connectivity in an online setting, and to alert primary and secondary school stakeholders to understand students’ increased vulnerability at this time.

Also, there should have been cross-sector collaboration among schools (state and private, urban and rural), universities, non-profit, and other organizations that serve to support students and teachers through and post the pandemic and create better connections via internet. Ideally, they should challenge how standardized curriculum through pre-primary and university education isn’t conducive to the learning environment, especially in times of crisis. Instead times of pandemic require a shift to a whole-child approach to education.

* Although the education authorities are understandably preoccupied with immediate problems resulting from the pandemic, for instance the application of sanitary measures, including social distancing in schools, the realignment of curriculum and academic terms and the recent issue concerning SC Credits, is it also time to revisit education goals and discuss long-term reform?

Certainly, there should have been a reconsideration of the whole present curriculum, which was designed to be delivered in a particular mode (primarily face to face). There is a need to view digitally networked learning environments in comparison to studio-based pedagogy and the inherent barriers of switching from studio pedagogy to education online. Delivery of all curricula requires student feedback. That is normally done via homework, classroom teaching and correction, regular tests and face to face explanations.

When the mode of delivery changes, there is a need for idea exchange, feedback and direct collaboration and most importantly — a sense of class community and connection. When we shift from one type of curriculum delivery to another, it requires a social constructivist thinking to support students. Teachers must map out a format for knowledge exchange between the individual student, the group and object of study. They must use learning management systems with multiple communication channels to build both independent and interdependent learning through relationships and community learning.

Now, this requires training of school staff in a different type of education delivery. Not all teachers can produce online content or delivery. Not all teachers have been taught the complexities of the technical requirements to carry out a Teams/Zoom teaching or other way of talking to students.

Policymakers needed to prepare educators to get through these challenging times, with hindsight to the impact of Covid-19 on student/teacher needs, by addressing students’ academic and social, emotional needs and also for teacher support and well-being. They must understand how educators will need to be able to engage students in their own inquiry and learning, be healing and trauma informed in their practice and be prepared for inequities that surface. They have to support educators with emphasis on collaboration time and finding meaningful connection to other educators, accessibility to resources/organizations that support physical and mental health, and mentoring new teacher roles.

It is also important to analyse the socio-economic challenges of Covid-19 and its impact on teacher learners, students and faculty and how the circumstances of the pandemic bring a pressing need for socio-emotional wellness, support and connection in online learning/teaching. Policy makers must question what kind of educator do our students need us to be at this challenging time? What support they need to ensure that connection, community and care of self and other are met? They must propose strategies to address heightened responsibilities towards vulnerable students, suggesting strategies such as the use of pass/fail option over letter grades. Educators must be trained to understand the possibilities of education post Covid, such as enhanced learner autonomy and positive change in regards to the climate crisis by proposing steps to working towards a new “normal” in education that embodies intersectionality and care.

Policy makers need to identify the key factors and attributes specific to studio-based pedagogy that have been effected by the switch to online platforms, such as the need for collaborative peer learning and material exploration, their use of technological platforms and tools, as well as experiences working from home. Teachers need to be trained to understand the needs of students to integrate their learning goals with external lives in navigating new digital learning environments.

One of the main components of studio-based pedagogy is the close relationship between the supervisor and the student and their engagement with their works in progress. Educators should utilise a variety of common constructions and structures of their teaching, unpacking the complexities of student development and learning and move forward past restrictions and potentially create new pedagogies for more fulfilling and autonomous learning models.

Learning patterns have changed since we have entered the digital age affecting the way students experience learning. Educators must prepare students to be life-long learners through shifting environments by encouraging students to be agents in their own learning, with focus on the pursuit for knowledge instead of adapting to set conditions and relying on what they already know. Connectivism begins with the reflection of the individual and extends to their surrounding network, to learn through relationality in evolving communities of learning, understanding and living as a whole.

* All this is very nice in theory, but the policy makers are presently faced with a current crisis. What can they do to settle the present challenges?

That is exactly the point I wanted to make. You don’t fire-fight in education. You don’t wait for the problems to occur in order to find solutions. Covid-19 could have been a real opportunity to bring about a total paradigm shift in our response to learning, teaching. We have already had a window of opportunity when the reform of education was initiated after 2014.

That was the best opportunity to rethink the whole system, review the complete education paradigm, take courageous measures to provide the coming generations with a new educational package that would have prepared the children to study pro-actively.

I still remember having mentioned in an interview that I gave to this paper in 2014, the opportunity was ripe for bringing about a consensual with the assistance of so many ex-ministers of education (Parsuramen, Gokhool, Pillay, Bunwaree, and Obeegadoo) under the joint chairmanship of the then President Gurib Fakim (with her university experience) and the present Minister of Education.

Unfortunately, the reform took the shape of a nine-year schooling, later renamed 9-year continuous basic education, even though legally all Mauritian students are supposed to have been in school for 11 years. Unless reform meant RE-FORM the same with the same ingredients – CPE replaced by PSAC, Form 3 examination by NCE, admission to Form 1 (rebaptised Grade 7) based on grade 6 grades.

Except for all students of Grade 6 to be automatically promoted even if they do not get the basic pass mark, I do not see any major reform. Examinations (including Cambridge) still dominate the system, elitism continues to remain the basic motivation of all educational efforts, the laureate system is still very much alive although we have so many universities in Mauritius and even prepare our doctors in our country.

All this because we have not looked at the basic principles that should determine the future of education in a society that is becoming increasingly technological with Multiple Intelligences and Artificial Intelligence becoming increasingly the new mantra in modern society.

Way back in 2015, we should have been considering what advice to give to students/teachers on how to adjust to new modes of learning/teaching using online learning platforms. Technological advances were already challenging us to acknowledge the sudden shift to online learning as new modes of remote and/or blended learning were being developed with multi-media dominating the way of life throughout the community.

Had we made even a start we would not have been facing emergency remote teaching and learning. We would have been ready to provide support and resources for teachers and their well-being from the “secondary trauma” and “compassion fatigue” felt from supporting student trauma. The Open University should have been made to play a more active role in this reform thrust. Unfortunately, we missed the train then. Can we afford to miss the train again when we know that Covid-19 is not likely to go away soon and a NEW NORMAL is being ushered in.

* Do you consider then that Covid-19 requires a totally different approach to all the problems we are facing now?

Absolutely. Look at what is happening. We are still struggling to decide whether we go for full face to face or whether there will be a blended mode. How to make sure the syllabus is covered so that students can sit for the examinations? Which part of the curriculum to be de-loaded and who will decide that?

As long as we remain closed in our present systemic box, we will not be able to get out of the trauma, forcing parents to live in constant fear. If school is not closed but one class only where a Covid positive student is detected, what guarantee do parents have that their own child is not affected, with so many media mis-communicating regarding what is symptomatic, what is not, when to self-isolate and when to go to a medical centre.

* Social distancing, already a headache for 25-30 children or more in a classroom, will probably continue for another one year or more, and it’s likely that the shift away from traditional schooling practices will be maintained or even hastened. What are your thoughts on this question?

Covid-19 and post-Covid conditions will require us to consider at least four factors while we adjust. Policy makers must work along two parallel lines: operational activities for schools to get going and strategic policy thinking with a view to producing a new educational paradigm.

For operational matters, I suggest the ministry should provide greater autonomy to schools by making better use of the zonal system already in place. The operational dimensions of the day to day running of schools should be done at the regional level keeping in mind the specificities of each region, its socio-economic dimensions and greater collaboration between the zonal Directorate and the stakeholders – not trade unionists.

In this connection, I almost daily hear the president of a primary schools’ union coming on the media, acting almost as a spokesman of the ministry to justify decisions taken regarding policies of operations.

The zonal Director should be empowered to handle his/her region and in a consensual manner deal with matters pertaining to the running of classes with the school heads, teachers, parents and other stakeholders. That should leave time to the Directors at the Ministry to work together in developing national policy, based on the evidence provided by the zones and on research on the following four issues:

  1. Rethinking and Restructuring time

Covid-19 has provided us with the one imperative that matters most: moving away from a system where time is the constant and learning is the variable to one where learning is the constant and time is the variable. Educationists seem to believe that time is the most essential element (length of the terms, number of days students go to school, number of days students missed, completing the syllabus before examination time etc.).

In fact, the emphasis should have been on the learning dimension, not schooling mainly. By focusing on time, our schools and systems are flawed because they are based on fixed ideas about the school day and the school year. School systems still run on adult-driven priorities and we all the time hear of so-called pedagogues and others saying that “in the past, it was like this, it was like that… that is the way it should be done because we are a product of that rationale of having always done it this way.”

With Covid-19, schools are forced to figure out how to simultaneously serve students and accommodate social distancing, and parents, administrators, legislators, and health professionals exploring new time solutions, such as reduced class size, staggered arrival/drop-offs and flexible hours in its school reopening guidelines. Now with a de-loading of the syllabus, we may be re-evaluating the length of individual lessons or units, use of weekends, and whether to hold class year-round as well as rethink the time when students enroll and when the school year begins and ends. The inherent illogic in time-based education systems is teaching to test scores and not mastery of the knowledge that is required

  1. New models of learning and teaching that are student-centred

The way we teach in both primary and secondary schools in Mauritius made teachers rely on batch-mode, factory, industrial, or similar models, that do not sufficiently acknowledge the unique traits, weaknesses, or disparities students experience, so that social status influences all student outcomes whereby better-off students come out ahead compared to disadvantaged students and other students start behind and fall further behind.

Throughout the world, Covid-19 is forcing everyone (those who want to see, of course) to acknowledge variations among students like never before, such as within the basic ability to access the Internet for distance learning and home space and time and space available for homework.

Many older students are caring for siblings while parents work or may not have the proper setting for study. Policy makers must identify and support strategies about how different each student is and reject the idea of one-size-fits-all education and focus on educating each student step by step from where they are. The Ministry staff should develop policies to build truly student-centered education with a full spectrum of possibilities.

This requires them to search the different approaches that are working in other countries (such as Rwanda and parts of Kenya, in the UK, in California and Westminster School District in Colorado), more knowledge and cooperative action. We are living in a world where experience sharing has become the norm with the widespread use of the internet and help us move to a true 21st-century educational approach. Groups such as KnowledgeWorks and Aurora provide the support schools need to help them shift to models that educate more students more fully.

The old model of the school teacher is still seen as the only way the new school teacher should be and often still being imposed by old Presidents of teachers unions that believe that educational online programmes can be produced by anyone with some 2 weeks training. I still recall my own days when we produced live educational programmes on educational television from 5 to 6 p.m. of 20 minutes duration. When I compare the programmes that we produced and that the old MCA disseminated with the present programmes, I cannot see major change from the programmes of the 1970s and the ones of 2020, except for some minor cosmetic changes in settings and better use of the media, including graphics and design.

Even after Covid-19 the teacher typically serves as the main resource for their students, by insisting on the lecture approach in which the teacher stands in front of the class or the camera and delivers information to students, who are expected just to accept the data and sit for written examinations. Data, information, theories are readily available at our fingertips via smartphones and computer screens.

Knowledge is readily available on the internet and rather than data transmission, teachers should promote skills acquisition, including the ability to think logically, research quickly and efficiently, and more. Students require many new skills that will help them to navigate the flood of information and misinformation available, and to make correct decisions in the new world of rapid change. Policy makers must devise strategies for teachers to focus not on being a resource by themselves but on providing whatever resources are necessary for both individual students and the group to learn best and to look at new ways of observing students and learning about them to ensure a good resource-to-student match.

Post-Covid-19, with a better focus on student independence and proper resourcing, should help curriculum developers to better analyze what we are teaching overall. What facts or processes do we want our children to really remember years down the road? Does the curriculum reflect the underlying skill sets we want students to walk away with and focus on practical, hands-on application that’s easy to transfer to real-world settings?

* The theme of Teachers’ Day 2021 is ‘Teaching: Leading in crisis, re-imagining the future’. Whether in the classroom or remotely, teachers will remain a fundamental pillar in education. The older generation recalls with nostalgia their teachers of yesteryears. How is the present generation of teachers doing?

In many ways, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on our stability and way of living — and we aren’t done. It isn’t behind us. But the challenges of these times offer an outstanding opportunity for us to transform what we do in the classroom or in front of a camera or a computer screen, for the betterment of all.

All teachers and certainly educationists know that the system needs fundamental transformation to serve current and future students. Transformation is survival from all points of view. The Covid-19 has provided every teacher with the opportunity to rethink how the present and next generation needs to be taught. If we properly use this moment for the better, it could mean improved education for more students.

Those students could emerge with knowledge, skills, and abilities we’ve only dreamt of being achieved broadly. The working models are there, the thought leaders are there, and we have the ability to transform all of our schools. Society will benefit, but more importantly, we will be more prepared than ever to help every student reach their fullest potential.

* In such situations how can authorities make sure that learning is actually taking place. Generally, it is assumed that pass mark in examinations is such an indication. Many recently praised the system, with an obvious rise in examination results at SC and even at the PSAC. Do you consider that our system, in spite of its imperfections, is actually delivering?

For a very long time, examinations results have been seen as the only measure of achievement. So much so that, those who pass are seen as champions and those who fail as lazy and not hard working. It is true that we have seen a 15% increase in SC passes and we have seen this as a cause for satisfaction. Others have even been very complacent about how well we are doing.

I do not believe passing examinations is the only measure of success. When examinations results have been steadily increasing or decreasing with a + or – 2-5%, it is worrisome for one year to see a sudden increase of 15% passes. We do not have all the detailed results to make a proper systemic analysis. However, we don’t yet fully understand the effects of social isolation, inconsistent structures, and personal trauma on student engagement. What we do know is that student engagement remains important to learning and achievement, and it’s likely that teachers will need to find new ways to motivate and engage their students constantly if Covid-19 continues to affect us.

According to educational neuroscience expert Dr David Sousa, student engagement can be defined as “the amount of attention, interest, curiosity, and positive emotional connections that students have when they are learning, whether in the classroom or on their own”. Student-driven engagement is more effective than any other motivation in education.

The better teachers focus on creating challenging learning tasks and giving students the roles, responsibilities, and collaborative structures to engage in these tasks with their peers. Engagement comes from peer interactions and the challenge of the tasks, rather than primarily from interactions with the teacher. Teacher-driven strategies, on the other hand, are highly dependent on a teacher’s experience level and personality, while student-driven engagement strategies can be more easily learned through professional development. There is a very high correlation between good student engagement and improved academic outcomes in education research.

I was hoping that rather than continue in using the old mode of learning and teaching, the authorities would concentrate on assisting teachers to develop more student-centred strategies than doing “business as usual”.

The insistence on reducing the debate to 5 credits, 90% presence in class, making time the most important variable in the education equation will only make us lose another opportunity that Covid-19 has given to us.

Your final thoughts?

During Covid-19, many private schools were able to innovatively develop low-tech and blended-learning solutions to ensure continuity of learning in the short-term. However, given the uncertainty in school reopening, the possibility of intermittent closures, and the pressing need to remediate for learning loss, it is of vital importance that school operators and supporting organizations develop blended learning tools that can serve as an effective medium- to long-term teaching approach.

Along with the delivery of multimodal learning, it is critical to track learning outcomes to ensure the effectiveness of solutions and support schools in scaling their blended learning methods. Currently, tools and methods that can meet this more long-term need have only been developed as stop-gap measures, and little is known about the effectiveness of these blended learning solutions, both factors that prevent their adoption at scale.

I will end by asking everyone to adopt a flexible and compassionate attitude and seek evidence from the schools and classrooms based on the interconnected principles of critical thinking, self-knowledge and empathy.

* Published in print edition on 10 September 2021

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