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The Corona crisis has been a revelation for schools – but not a revolution

The global school lockdowns caused by the Corona pandemic won’t change our school systems fundamentally. But a number of important issues have become clearer. For instance, even the most avid fans of digital teaching now find it hard to defend this form of teaching in its purest form. These are the conclusions of three researchers, who want us to learn from our experience of Corona, but not to expect some kind of revolution in our school systems. Because school development takes time.

10.12.2020 | Eva Frydensberg Holm

Schools in lockdown and virtual teaching at home. Before Covid-19 rocked the planet in the spring of 2020, very few people imagined that this would be everyday life for millions of children and young people all over the world. The Corona pandemic led to the rapid closure of schools and educational institutions, presenting school systems with one of the greatest educational experiments they had ever faced. Many of these schools have now reopened, and researchers are busy discussing what kind of mark Covid-19 will leave on our education system. Has the pandemic revolutionised our school systems, or has it simply underlined some of the tendencies that were already in the pipeline?

One of the people studying the results of Covid-19 is the American historian Larry Cuban. He is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, with a research field comprising teaching and school reforms – including the effects of major events on the education system in a historical perspective. For instance, he has studied the effects of the Spanish flu in 1918; the Great Depression in the 1930s; and Hurricane Katrina, which ripped through New Orleans in 2005.

When he analyses school development, he distinguishes between what he calls incremental and fundamental changes. And he expects Covid-19 to result in the former.

“I don’t think any of the basic features of schools will change, such as the age-graded school, homework and grades to reflect performance. The medium of teaching has changed (from face-to-face to online); and we have experienced a sudden and temporary disruption of our teaching methods which will continue to some extent until a vaccine has been developed. Once the vaccine becomes available, we will only experience minor changes. For instance, we might be more inclined to use digital teaching when it’s impossible to meet face-to-face. But Covid-19 won’t change our school system fundamentally,” says Cuban. And he adds:

 “As a historian, I have studied the last two centuries of the American school system, during which period it has developed both incrementally and fundamentally. One of the fundamental changes occurred when age-graded schools were introduced in the mid-19th century. I haven’t heard anyone advocating that kind of fundamental change in the current situation. I have noticed a lot of rhetoric about more progressive teaching and organisation. But in this respect I draw a clear distinction between political talk, political action, and political implementation. And I very much doubt that there will be any political implementation. The only thing people want right now is to get back to normal life. Even though normal life has its problems, too.”

He explains that major events in the past didn’t lead to fundamental changes, either. Schools closed during the Spanish flu as well – and a large number of Americans lost their lives. This had a big short-term effect on schools, which were in the middle of a progressive development process at the time. But things returned to normal a few years later. The same thing happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

“Everything changed in the local area when the storm hit. The schools closed down, the teachers lost their jobs – and the whole way the schools were financed changed. This was dramatic, but the schools didn’t change fundamentally in the long run. There was a price to pay, but they survived.”

Emergency solutions, but not a revolution

Professor Per Fibæk Laursen at DPU, Aarhus University has just published a book entitled Didaktiske revolutioner (“Didactic Revolutions”). He describes didactic revolutions as events that occur when problems relating to teaching cannot be solved using traditional means, and when a strong and growing group in society wants changes to be made.

He has identified a total of six characteristics which need to be present before it is appropriate to describe something as a revolution. Apart from the two characteristics mentioned above, a revolution also requires changes in relation to previous practice, strong pioneers to lead the way, and the social conditions needed before it can be carried out. And finally, the potential for lasting change needs to be present.

Based on these criteria, Laursen has identified three revolutions in the history of teaching in Denmark which have resulted in permanent, radical changes and improvements: the transition from practical learning to learning from experienced teachers; the introduction of age-graded classroom teaching; and most recently (in 1920) the efforts of reform pedagogy to teach in harmony with (and not against) the nature of the pupils.

The lockdown of schools and virtual teaching that we saw in the spring dramatically changed the way we teach for a while. But Laursen does not believe that Covid-19 will lead to a fourth didactic revolution in Denmark.

“The teaching at all levels of our schools has been done virtually for a while. And it’s worked out well, which is innovative in itself, of course. But you can’t call it a revolution – mostly because there’s no future perspective involved. It’s pretty clear that this is only a temporary solution. Virtual teaching might become a bit more common, but it’s not a revolution.”

Increased resistance to the culture of testing

So in general, Per Fibæk Laursen does not believe that a new didactic revolution lies just around the corner. But he does believe that resistance to what he calls technical didactics (the increased use of testing, measurements and IT since the mid-1990s) will increase. And in this respect, the Corona lockdowns may have a role to play.

“Danish schools are reaching the limit in terms of performance pressure, assessments and evaluations. The whole idea of meritocratic schooling, involving getting as many pupils as possible to perform well in academic terms, distorts our education system in relation to the needs of society. And it puts psychological pressure on our children and young people,” he says. He explains that Covid-19 might help to change this:

“The use of virtual teaching at home has taught a lot of people to appreciate the qualities of face-to-face teaching and dialogue in education. Some high-school students have even been on demonstrations claiming the right to get back to school. So Corona has led to a renewed focus on values such as community, close contact, spontaneity and improvisation. All the things that you don’t get in virtual teaching. This might help to develop an alternative to what I call technical didactics. It might not be easy to see at the moment, but the same has been true of previous revolutions as well: you need to be aware that a problem exists before you can see a solution. And solutions sometimes take a long time.”

Schools socialise children

According to Larry Cuban, a number of people in the USA have pointed out that Covid-19 has created an opportunity to abandon the use of standardised tests and measurements. He is a bit sceptical about this, though.

“The USA has been involved in a system of reform focusing on high academic standards, testing and measuring results for 40 years now.” This system won’t simply disappear in the wake of the pandemic. But even before Covid-19, there was increasing focus on social and emotional learning, which a number of schools now have on their curriculum. I think this will flourish, but it won’t eradicate the other form of learning completely,” he says.

He also believes that the pandemic has taught people to appreciate the work done by teachers and the process of socialisation that takes place in schools.

“Schools don’t just teach children academic subjects – they also socialise them and teach them about social values. They teach them standards, and they teach them how to cooperate with other people. The general public don’t normally notice this, but I think a lot of people noticed it when we suddenly had a whole nation of children being schooled at home,” says Cuban.

Corona has been a revelation

Although Fibæk and Cuban do not predict revolutions and fundamental changes in the near future, Jesper Tække, a media researcher at Aarhus University, does believe that Corona has given the education system a shock. According to Tække, the pandemic has been a revelation, demonstrating the poor level of IT-didactic skills among teachers.

“The Coronavirus has revealed weaknesses in many areas of our society. In the world of teaching the virus has found a weak spot, showing that the digital competences of our teachers are in a very bad state. This applies throughout the school and education system. But the situation is most severe in our schools, where a large proportion of the pupils were simply given homework to do during the lockdown. The teachers were even unable to cope with software systems like Zoom and Teams. The Coronavirus has shown that despite 15 years of effort, it has been impossible to convince teachers of the merits of digital media – or at least, the vast majority of teachers,” says Tække. He underlines that this is not the individual responsibility of the teachers. The fault lies with the politicians, who have failed to invest in developing the teachers’ competences.

According to Tække, reactions to this revelation can be divided into two camps. A number of school managers, researchers and progressive teachers agree that the situation needs to change, and that investments must now be made in improving teachers’ competences. But the Coronavirus has also given the opponents of digital teaching fresh wind in their sails, because it has revealed that IT-based teaching in its purest form simply does not work.

“We researchers have been saying this for 30 years. But the Coronavirus has made it clear to everyone that replacing human contact with digital media is not the right way forward. Some people regard this as an excuse to do nothing. But this is not a valid argument against developing our teaching methods to include digital media. I can quite understand why some teachers may feel uncertain about this, but they just need a bit of help,” he says.

In the midst of a digital revolution

Unlike Larry Cuban and Per Fibæk Laursen, Jesper Tække does not hesitate to refer to the current situation as a revolution. He believes that we are in the midst of a digital revolution that will change our society fundamentally, and that our school and education system will have to change too. He points out that we can already see the changes – political, economic and sometimes didactic as well – even though things are still moving slowly.

“Previous media revolutions have taught us that it takes time for our norm systems and didactics to adjust to a new media situation. When a new communication system is introduced, the old norm system falls out of sync with the new situations that arise. It takes time to develop norms that can cope with the new opportunities that a media revolution creates. And one of the biggest challenges involves developing a system of didactics that can keep pace with these opportunities: How should we teach in these new situations – and about these new situations? How can we teach the pupils to cope with the new media environment? And how should they behave in this environment? We don’t know nearly enough about this yet. Here, too, the Coronavirus has made it clear that investing in hardware is not enough. If the task of lifting our teaching into the new digital era is to succeed, we also need to invest in didactic research,” says Tække.

The need for digital literacy

Per Fibæk Laursen underlines the growing resistance to the technical revolution which seems very likely to create an alternative in the future, but Jesper Tække is more pessimistic. He believes that considerable efforts are required to prevent the culture of testing leading to a form of teaching that is driven by big data and algorithms. But he hopes that the pandemic has been an eye-opener.

“In my view there is good reason to fear that the culture of testing children and young people will result in a form of teaching that employs algorithms and big data to find out exactly what pupils should be learning and how they can be nudged into having what is regarded as the right attitude. This tendency is already apparent in the USA and China. In the humanities we try to warn people against this development, praising continental Europe as a region which focuses on formative education and critical, independent thinking instead. Our experiences during the Corona pandemic have given us new arguments in this respect. But I’m not sure that we’ll be able to resist the enormous forces involved on the other side,” says Tække. And he adds:

“You could put it like this: The stronger we grow in terms of remediating our culture of formative education in the digital media environment, the more able we will be to resist the culture of testing and big data behaviourism. Which is precisely why we need to learn from the revelations of the pandemic and start developing forms of didactics in which formative education is given a central role.”

Online instruction has its limitations

Larry Cuban believes that in the USA Covid-19 has caused many strong supporters of purely digital teaching to stop and think. He actually prefers to call it “online instruction” to underline that it has its limitations.

“Lots of people have been supporting the idea of online instruction in schools for years, but now they know what it involves. Anyone who has tried giving online instruction to small children knows how impossible it is. It might be an advantage in a few cases (quiet children or shy teenagers). But in general terms it presents major challenges. If online instruction achieves anything at all, it paves the way for a specific form of learning which focuses on teacher-centred instructions. The teachers talk to the children, set them a number of tasks, and then assess their performance. It’s very difficult to provide progressive teaching online. I think a lot of people have realised this during the pandemic, so I don’t believe that we’re going to see more online instruction in future – unless there are practical reasons involved,” says Cuban.

Give teachers time and freedom

The lockdowns and purely digital teaching experienced during the Corona pandemic have underlined a range of existing problems in the school system. Apart from the issues mentioned above, Per Fibæk Laursen also points out that the pandemic has shed light on the difficulties faced in schools by children from socially marginalised homes. These children seem to have found remote teaching particularly difficult. And according to Laursen, this underlines the importance of the sense of community and personal contact that children experience at school – particularly this group of children.

He wants us to study and learn from the lessons that the Coronavirus has taught us, but warns us against creating an atmosphere of crisis.

“When people discover any problems in our schools, there’s a tendency to whip up a sense of disaster. In the media this leads to demands for immediate political action, and the politicians often respond by carrying out reforms that don’t work in many cases – indeed, they may even make things worse. This is dangerous in terms of school development. School development takes a long time – attempts to speed it up rarely succeed. The Corona pandemic is a good example of what I mean. It may underline the presence of existing problems, but it doesn’t change anything fundamentally. So even though you speed up the legislation, the process of changing practice will still take a long time,” says Laursen.

He hopes that in the wake of the pandemic, the politicians and administrators will give our teachers the time and freedom needed to develop their teaching themselves.

Larry Cuban believes that the most important lesson we can learn from the pandemic is that we need to lower our expectations about how much reforms can achieve in our school systems.

“Covid-19 is a reminder that there are some things we can’t control but simply have to accept and get used to. If this can make us lower our expectations about how far we can go with school reforms, as well as lowering our expectations about what reforms are actually promising, it’ll be a great advantage for our schools.”


BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Didactic revolutions – six characteristics required before a didactic revolution can occur:

  1. A teaching problem that cannot be solved using traditional means
  2. A strong, growing group in society that wants changes
  3. A change in relation to previous practice
  4. Strong pioneers
  5. The social conditions required to achieve a revolution
  6. The potential for lasting changes

Source: Per Fibæk Laursen

PERSONAL BIOS

JESPER TÆKKE is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University. His research field focuses on the importance of digital media for society in general and teaching in particular, a topic on which he has published a range of books.

PER FIBÆK LAURSEN is a Professor at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. His research field comprises Danish schools, didactics and the teaching profession, topics on which he has published a range of books. He teaches on the Master’s degree programme in general education.

LARRY CUBAN is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, and his research field comprises education, educational management, technology in teaching and school reforms. He has written a number of books on school reforms and classroom management.

Didaktik