Putting students at the heart of the system

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted schools but it has also provided an opportunity to rethink education, placing the learner at the centre of the system, says Dr Rita Bissoonauth.


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Covid-19 has disrupted our education systems and widened inequalities. School closures have created unintended negative consequences on the welfare of learners. Many learners in the continent have lost between six months and one year of schooling, possibly more for the marginalised children. 

According to the World Bank, these learning losses could translate over time into millions of dollars of lost earnings for the global economy because of lower levels of learning, the lost months of schooling during the lockdown, and potential dropping out from school. 

Our education landscape can never be the same after this unprecedented pandemic of Covid-19. The virus has revealed the fragility of our education systems and broken many dreams of young girls and boys.

It is threatening the progress made by African countries in terms of access, participation and completion at primary and secondary levels of education.

Successful school feeding programmes that ensured improved nutrition at basic education levels have been cut off, as well as heightened the vulnerability level of our girls within and outside the family setting.

Our response will impact the future generations to come, especially that of our grandchildren. It is our social responsibility as a parent, teacher or policy-maker to influence policy, planning and practice.

We need to reimagine our world, as part of our duty as citizens to improving people’s lives. It is thus imperative that we look at this unprecedented crisis as an opportunity.

Reimagining education

On average, class sizes in the Sub-Saharan Africa comprise around 50 students. It has been argued for many years that class sizes have to be reduced in order to enhance the quality of learning. Due to the social distancing post-Covid measures being put in place, it looks like class sizes will definitely reduce. However this means more teachers and more classrooms, implying a higher education budget.

This calls for a massive investment in public expenditure. At a time when countries are struggling with the economic impact of Covid-19, it is important to ensure that education budgets are not diverted to health care or other areas. Civil society and youth organisations have to scrutinise their national budgets to ensure that this does not happen. 

Financing education will only come through building wider national ownership from the community. It is by working together that we can build sustainable financed public education systems and contribute to building economies and societies that deliver on the Africa we want, the African Union’s vision as outlined in Agenda 2063.

Placing learners at the centre

Furthermore, this pandemic is giving us the opportunity to re-think the concept of teaching and learning. In most African countries, the teacher is at the centre of the learning process, where the learner does not participate fully in knowledge construction.

We need to focus on the learner being at the centre and involved in the co-construction of knowledge. This momentum comes at the right time, when countries are preparing for a ‘new normal’ where teaching and learning will be different from what we have known.

As schools are slowly re-opening around the world, many ministries of education are coming up with different scenarios for the new academic year. Many schools will not be able to welcome all students full-time due to physical distancing rules and other protective measures. School calendars will have to be modified, re-entry staggered and teaching provided in shifts. Blended learning, incorporating both face-to face interactions as well as distance education will now become the ‘new normal’.

This means that the learner has to become autonomous and control their learning, co-constructing their knowledge. Learners have to find innovative ways of looking for information. It is important to embrace innovative solutions to build a student-centric ecosystem that substantially transforms learning.

This is a first step towards transformative learning. Jack Mezirow (US sociologist and educator) defines transformative learning as “an orientation which holds that the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning.”

We are thus empowering the youth to make their own choices about learning, building on innovative school practices and nurturing local exchanges and sharing of knowledge and practices.

In conclusion, Covid-19 has enabled us to think about how to improve the resilience of our education systems, and how to become better equipped to face other potential crises.

We need systems that are more flexible, fully dedicated to all learners, girls and boys, with interactive, hands-on teaching and learning strategies enhanced by technology or ICT and with the full involvement of all citizens.

Dr Rita Bissoonauth heads the African Union International Centre for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA), based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

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