What lessons from the crisis will help us transform our school & learning ecosystems?

In times of quarantine and closed schools, it became more fundamental than ever to question ourselves about how children are growing up in the school & learning ecosystems and what the future holds for them. And now that schools are reopening their doors, we wanted to find out what lessons will be kept from this crisis and how will these learnings help us to build the world we want for our children tomorrow? To answer this question we have held, in May 2020, a series of conversations with three passionate individuals from our Ashoka Belgium education community.
Edushakers community gathering

In times of quarantine and closed schools, it became more fundamental than ever to ask ourselves how children are growing up in the school & learning ecosystems and what the future holds for them. Now that schools are reopening their doors, we wanted to find out what lessons will be kept from this crisis and how these learnings will help us build the world we want for our children tomorrow.

The health crisis came with an abundance of challenges. Even though everyone was affected to some degree, measures were the most drastic for children and youth. They were forbidden from playing with their peers, deprived of the socio-affective bond some have with their teachers, worried about their loved ones and themselves and unsettled by often stressful conflicting messages. Moreover, inequalities between those who had a positive learning environment at home and those who struggled more were crystallised.

However, many also transformed the crisis into an opportunity for discovery, learning, mutual support and connection. Teachers, directors, educators, parents and many others in the school ecosystem were part of those. Schools completely revamped themselves and found solutions to keep in touch with their pupils whilst parents were discovering the many challenges (and unexpected joys) of home-schooling.

At Ashoka, we believe that it is now more than ever the time to ignite the changemaking spark in young people and provide them with the tools to work towards a better world where they can be empathetic, use their creativity, collaborate with each other and take initiative to solve problems.

In the past years, Ashoka has been building a community of schools and educators that truly believe in the power of changemaking when children and youth are given agency. We had the chance to hold a series of virtual conversations with some of them. We asked them what changes they observed in the school system during this crisis and what learnings will help them adapt to the future.

What lessons from the crisis will help us transform our learning ecosystem? Presentation of the interviewees

Linda Avet is the current director of the ChangeMaker School KOSMOS in Antwerp, a school with a very unique vision: “nature in the school and school in nature”. At the beginning of our conversation, she invited us to question ourselves on the purpose of offering school education to children: “Schools have to teach about life. We want children to become active citizens in a changing society. And our society requires initiative-taking, problem-solving changemakers. The key to change the world must start with education.

Benoît Naveau started the project Robotic Academy as a primary school teacher using pedagogical robotics to help pupils make sense of math with a hands-on approach. Whilst developing their digital and transversal skills and especially the «4C» - creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking - pupils regain motivation and interest in what they are learning. “My ideal school is one where there would be a teacher passionate about robotics, one passionate about theatre, and another passionate about cooking. And each of them would use their passions as a practical tool to teach their pupils the skills needed for the future.

Vincent Henquet has worn multiple hats in the school system, having been a sports and science teacher, deputy director and pedagogical coordinator. He has been working on the project Le Grand Set in his school for 8 years to give pupils more freedom and autonomy in their learnings. On Fridays, pupils in his school have the opportunity to choose from a variety of 11 modules in math, languages, technology etc. while developing cross-curricular projects. “There is room for everyone at Le Grand Set. Because we use differentiation to highlight the richness of every teacher and pupil. Even the “dys” students [with dyslexia, dyscalculia, TDAH etc. ndlr] can express themselves differently. This of course brings them greater personal development.”

Despite having had parallel conversations with each three of them, the connections between those were very natural to make. Using different methods and ideas, all three of them are transforming education to bring up children and young people who are confident in their changemaking power.

Digitalising with humility and different learning rhythms

The most visible change during the lockdown was indubitably what one could call a digital revolution in the education system. Even the most reluctant and old-fashioned teachers had to adapt and start using digital tools to avoid turning physical distancing into social distancing.

“Children already spend too much time in front of screens.” “Some don’t have access to the internet.” “I am not trained to use these tools” some of Benoît’s colleagues used to say, “but in fact those were merely excuses. For instance, when children work with robots in the classroom, coding only accounts for about 20%. The vast majority of the time is spent on speaking to each other, reflecting on the issues, confronting their ideas etc. The problem is rather that we don’t put the digital tools that exist to good use.

“And of course, it also requires some humility” he continues “because pupils often know more than their teachers when it comes to computers and digital tools. So, it is different than before when the teacher would be the one mastering the subject in the classroom. But if we continue seeing teachers as those who simply transmit knowledge, then the internet would be the best teacher. This is our chance to not simply translate traditional teaching methods to online platforms, but to completely transform our approach to teaching. Teachers should help their pupils identify their needs and guide them to find the information required to solve their task. Instead of masters [“maîtres” in French means both “master” and “teacher” ndlr], they ought to be guides, even coaches.

Vincent goes even further in his reflection “The digital tools also allow to transform the teaching and learning rhythms. When youngsters are at home on their own facing a new task, their focus is totally different than when they sit in a classroom looking out of the window, whilst exchanging messages with their friends and somewhat listening to the teacher with only one ear. We have to remind ourselves that in a full day of classes, children only learn for about 3 hours. So now I tell them, even if they only work for 15 mins, those are fully focused 15 mins, they make them count. I believe that in the future, regardless of the pandemic, it would be interesting to organise teaching times differently. Pupils could come to school for two or three days per week and work independently at home for the other one or two days.” The idea is naturally not to let pupils completely on their own during these days at home. On the contrary, their teachers would stay connected, guide them through their tasks, and be available to answer questions. And one can easily imagine what Vincent aims for the days spent in the classroom: truly meaningful learning times, used to spark creativity and collaboration, by letting pupils work on different interdisciplinary projects in small teams, as they do on Fridays at Le Grand Set.

Involving parents in the school and recognising teachers’ work

Another very visible change is how this situation completely altered parents' roles in their children’s learning process and how they view teachers. Most parents struggled - quite understandably - to juggle their different roles as educators, home-schooling teachers and professionals. It has been challenging and exhausting for many, yet positive outcomes could also be perceived.

Many teachers and schools offered a strong support to families. Linda explains “A study by the University of Antwerp showed how arduous it was for families to coordinate the work of each of their children. So, we tried to make it as feasible as possible for them by sending out the same tasks for children from different years, and simply adapting the requirements according to their age group.” KOSMOS also organised virtual calls with their pupils and parents every week. They would explain the learning objectives on Monday, check how they were doing on Wednesday and evaluate the week on Friday, additionally to setting up mini-classroom video calls with those pupils that had more difficulties with specific tasks.

“During the lockdown, the classroom came to the families and the families entered the classrooms.” says Linda “As we use alternative teaching methods at KOSMOS, some parents struggled to fully understand what we exactly offer to their children. But now, after experiencing it, they truly understand and value it.”

As parents return to school (digitally), they see the mission, the teachers’ commitment, and even their own teenagers through a different lens.” adds Vincent.

Parents’ involvement in their children’s learning journey and the school ecosystem seems to be a key ingredient for success in children growing up. This is clearly seen within KOSMOS, where parents form a large group of committed contributors. The pedagogical team ensures that they are aware of and involved in what is happening in the school. Many informative moments are organised throughout the year and working group meeting times are adapted so parents and volunteers can also be present. As an example, they have set up an eco-group to achieve and deepen the ecological vision of the school, together with teachers and parents, and later the pupils.

Benoît also points out that when he launched the project Robotic Academy as a mini-company in his classroom, not only all his pupils were involved in developing it, but also motivated parents and other engaged adults. Everyone could help out through diverse activities such as coding, building the robots, designing t-shirts, contacting potential partners etc. “It was an opportunity to create deeper connections.

Moreover, giving a more active role to parents in the school community also means they can bring more constructive feedback, contributing to further improving the school’s methods whilst recognising the teachers’ work and efforts.

Teaching is sometimes described as “the most beautiful job in the world”. Yet, it is certainly a very challenging one which often receives little recognition from the outside world. As the shortage of teachers continues to grow every year in Belgium, putting schools under great pressure, the question of how to make this role more attractive is key. “Governments have to give people trust and treat teachers as professionals.” says Linda whilst adding an example of a concrete initiative “Teach for Belgium attracts so many motivated young professionals. That’s because they receive coaching, trust and they are believed in. We need more of that.”

Linda also emphasised the need for effective Human Resources policies in the schools when it comes to recruiting new teachers. The importance of looking for the right match between the school and the teacher should not be overlooked. “I would rather have no teacher, than a teacher that doesn’t match our school vision.” Like in any other work environment, a strong culture fit allows everyone to thrive and blossom. But for this to happen, a school vision has first to be created. And it is the school leadership’s role to initiate that process. When KOSMOS was first created in 2012, Linda invited her team to sit together and co-create the school “I asked them to draw their vision for education, to visualise their ideal school. And then we had to explain what we saw in each other’s drawings. The people in this team were the pioneers, most are still working in the school.” And that’s how the vision of going back to basics and creating a nature school teaching 21st century skills was born.

Building trust, empathy and closer connections

The teacher-pupil relationship was also in some cases completely transformed. As pupils were at first overwhelmed by the amount of emails and notifications on SmartSchool, teachers had to find more informal and individualised ways to stay in touch with them. But even when the agenda was set on explaining an exercise or answering a specific school subject-related question, conversations would sometimes naturally shift towards more personal topics with pupils sharing their fears and struggles from home. It was for some the opportunity to create closer connections with a new sense of respect and affection.

The relationships are now richer at individual level. There is less stigmatisation.” explains Vincent. “Schools tend to put children in boxes in a very stereotypical way.” adds Linda “but alternative forms of education can have a very positive impact on children with difficulties. We once had a child that came to our school with a very heavy emotional baggage - having changed schools several times before - but after one month at KOSMOS he became a completely different child.”

Benoit also experienced that when a child trusts their teacher, they also build confidence in themselves. “Look at my pupils, even when they think they are not capable of doing something with the robots, they eventually do it because they trust me.” At the start of the project Robotic Academy, he asked four of his pupils to experience playing with the robot on their own for an hour. Those were the shiest, less confident and closest to school drop-out kids in his classroom. However, most surprisingly, after that first experience, confidently and on their own initiative, they chose to visit all the other classrooms in their school and present what they had done with the robot. This eye-opening experience is what convinced Benoit to continue developing his project and adapting it every year with the feedback he received from his pupils, their parents and other teachers.

From these conversations, it seems that developing more individualised relationships, where pupils are given the room to talk about their emotions and feel truly listened to by teachers that are not afraid to face vulnerability, and who transmit them confidence and trust, is the foundation to build a society of caring and empathetic individuals.

Empowering children to learn autonomously

Another key lesson from this crisis is certainly how important encouraging children’s autonomy is for their future development. Many parents have asked schools for tools to help their children work more independently. “But schools in traditional education tend to give little independence to children.” says Linda.

“We have put together weekly workplans for our pupils which require them to work independently. Many parents told us how surprised they were to see how autonomous their children actually are.” This is a direct result of the fact that KOSMOS’ teachers promote and encourage the development of children’s autonomy throughout the whole school year by allowing them to be the master of their own learning process.

Vincent also noticed that the pupils who have experienced a full year of Le Grand Set activities were more capable of working autonomously and knew better how to work together. In other cases, collaboration between pupils also started growing organically, particularly in cases where they were already used to supporting each other in the classroom. They are helping each other out and making sure no one is left out.

Developing pupils’ autonomy also goes hand in hand with giving them the tools to assess their work better. Only by evaluating themselves are they able to acknowledge what subjects and skills they can master and for which ones do they need more support from their teachers.

In Vincent’s vision of the ideal school system “(...) Teachers will continue to give certifying evaluations. But next to that, pupils should be given the opportunity to carry out a personal and collective self-evaluation where they develop hindsight and a constructive approach.”

On that same note, Benoit is currently developing a teaching manual to guide teachers who want to use pedagogical robotics in their classrooms. The aim is to create different modules developing transversal competences together with a system of teachers’ evaluation and self-evaluation. Pupils would be asked after each module how they think they did during that module with regards to that specific competence.

Role of children and youth in changing the education ecosystem

One cannot deny that many changes have happened in a very short time-period, and many others are still to come. The idea of going back to the past seems absurd, as there will probably not be a “post-covid world” but rather a “with-covid world” for a while. But another question remains unanswered: which role are we willing to give our children and youth in this context of change? Will we continue to see them as too young to make their own decisions or will we let them become key stakeholders in creating the world of tomorrow? Will they be empowered to partake in important discussions and to contribute with their creative ideas and empathetic questions?

Linda, Benoît, and Vincent all agree with the need of letting young people be actors of these changes and truly active in their learnings. And you, would you put them in charge?