[ANALYSIS] Don't confuse schooling with learning

News item: Deputy Speaker Aurelio ‘Dong’ Gonzales Jr. filed House Resolution 876 which seeks to postpone the reopening of classes in public and private schools until a vaccine against COVID-19 is developed and made available in the country.

In support of this, a partylist congressman said, "The Department of Education (DepED) should just postpone the entire school year without any exception. Our policy should apply to all to avoid any confusion. We are unprepared for this crisis.”

Then, in the late night weekly report to the nation on the emergency Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, the President said in a mix of English and Filipino: “It’s useless to be talking about the opening of classes.  Para sa akin, bakuna muna. Pag nandyan ang bakuna, okay na (For me, the vaccine first.  If it’s available, then it’s OK [to open schools]). Remember that.”

Before our leaders take such drastic measures such as postponing the start of the basic education school year, let us put this coronavirus in proper perspective. 

Wicked problem

The COVID-19 virus is what we call a wicked problem – a problem with no definitive formulation and no ultimate solution as of now. Hence, its end cannot be determined. As such, the hope of the world rests with the development of a vaccine which experts say is anywhere from 8 to 18 months from being tested and cleared for manufacture. It will take longer for such a vaccine to be manufactured in quantities to serve the world’s needs.

Without a vaccine and without the development of herd immunity, this coronavirus will be a long term issue. The fear of children being exposed to the virus when school resumes is thus very real because social distancing will be difficult to do in schools. 

But an indefinite timeline does not mean education should be postponed or has to stop. Stoppage will create a different crisis in education.

The COVID-19 health crisis should not be compounded by a “learning crisis.” 

Children must continue learning and if not in traditional schooling, then in some other way. Here is where educators (DepED and others) have to be smart and think creatively to make sure that this wicked problem does not stop the learning process of children. 

Every year of delay in learning can have a compounding effect on children falling further and further behind in learning.

New modalities to reach children

The new reality given the disruptions posed by COVID-19 is that traditional face-to-face schooling will need to be reshaped in a way where new modalities to reach children will have to be devised and ramped up drastically to allow for learning to happen.  

An earlier article reported on different distance learning modes that DepED and private groups were already developing. The UP College of Education released a white paper, “Stay Well, Keep Learning: Education Resilience and Learning Continuity in the Time of COVID-19,” where it spoke of pathways through this period so that a learning crisis can be avoided.

So, the message to the lawmakers who are looking to postpone indefinitely the start of the school year is this: Let us not confuse schooling with learning.

If anything, let us reconfigure, redesign and reengineer how education services can be delivered during such an emergency period. As former education secretary Edilberto de Jesus has stated in a number of discussions, “Let’s not waste a crisis. This is an opportunity to make significant change happen.” 

At the tertiary level, Phinma education president Chito Salazar wrote, “Deconstructing education (is) necessary as the world of work (has) changed.” 

At the basic education (Kindergarten to Grade 12), however, the same is true (i.e. the need to deconstruct basic education) but around a more foundational level: Learning how to learn.

In this time of coronavirus, the new normal will mean a disrupted educational model in schooling with  less face-to-face classroom contact hours between teachers and students but with the same desire to cover the “Most Expected Learning Competencies” (DepED Learning Continuity Plan, May 2020). 

This will shift more emphasis to home-based learning with more shared responsibility between school and homes. Given how fast the ground has moved under us in a short three-month period since the  quarantine and lockdown period, the concept and practice of distance learning with its different modalities will be a steep learning curve for the education sector (schools, teachers, administrators, students, and families).

Deconstructing basic education

This is where the “deconstruction of basic education” has to be creative and thoughtful.

Basic education really has 5 age-specific segments, each with their own nuances to address. How we reengineer basic education must be cognizant of how children learn at each level and the level’s principal learning objective(s).

Kindergarten (K) – socialization skills

1-3 (early primary) – simple literacy and numeracy

4-6 (late primary) – functional literacy

7-10 (junior high school) – learning to think along disciplines

11-12 (senior high school) – aligning long-term interests with the world of work 

Common to all levels is a foundational skill: Learning to learn – how children develop an ability to teach themselves how to think and act whether in a formal school setting or informally.

“Learning to Learn” should start as early as ECCD (early childhood care and development) which is even before kindergarten (2 to 5 years of age, or even younger [UNICEF]). Focusing on formal basic education (K-12), “Learning to Learn” is not about subject matter proficiency (i.e. math or science or English language or Filipino mastery) but rather on developing what are now called 21st century skills.

These are skills which when developed well will give children new abilities: To take apart situations even if they have never seen these before, to solve problems as these arise, to articulate what they feel are important to them and to be able to defend these with well-thought arguments, if and when necessary.

These skills are not learned as separate subjects. Rather, these are developed as children go through different subjects laid out in the curriculum (i.e. math, science, English, Filipino and so on).  

Take one of the 21st-century skills – critical thinking.

In Grades 1 to 3 (junior primary), critical thinking starts with learning how to ask good questions (who, what, where, when, how, and most importantly, why) in any subject. This will develop an ability to describe the world around them and to explain what a child sees, senses and/or thinks.  

In Grades 4 to 6 (senior primary), critical thinking will be about learning to think about causality (what explains a particular phenomenon, how might things be connected, and what might trigger other things).   

In Grades 7 to 10 (junior high school), critical thinking starts to focus on learning how to get to root causes to explain or to argue about and discuss phenomenon, events, happenings.

And in Grades 11 to 12 (senior high school), critical thinking is about learning to construct arguments, present ideas clearly, and defend positions in discussions and debates.

Learning to Learn is therefore a progression in skill-building.  

There are similar progressions in the other 21st century skills: Problem-solving, communication, digital literacy. Again, these skills are not taught as separate subjects; rather, they are developed as essential, integrative skills.

Goal vs vehicle

Viewed this way, “Learning” is the end goal of basic education with “schooling” as the vehicle. The challenge during this period of disruption is not to park the vehicle and wait, but rather to expand the fleet of vehicles to take our children to that destination called “Learning” using different modes of transport.

Postponing the start of classes further or indefinitely and not finding alternatives to the learning process will hurt our children in the long run.

In every crisis, there will be difficulties that need to be hurdled. This disruption in schooling is actually a great opportunity to declutter the curriculum and develop a tighter one that allows more for school children to time to get deeply into different subjects and try their hand at experimentation, problem-solving, doing project-based learning.

The UP College of Education paper stated this well: “During education in emergencies, learners will benefit from a Less is More principle in deciding what to include and how to organize the curriculum.”

Rather than postpone education because of fear of the unknown (the wicked problem), political leaders should stand by the educators and do what they have control over: Move resources to support new Learning initiatives in this time of education reconstruction.

Let’s not waste an opportunity provided by this coronavirus crisis to reimagine basic education and the learning of our children.

In Philippine basic education, 95+% are in public elementary schools and 82%  in public high schools, many of which are going to have difficult in social distancing and limited contact especially in schools in highly urbanized cities where large (overcrowded) classrooms is the norm.

Before COVID-19 and the disruption in schooling, DepED had three streams of education:

Traditional schooling is where the changes will have to be forged. Among the new modes are the following:

 

Juan Miguel Luz is adjunct faculty at the Asian Institute of Management and former Undersecretary, Department of Education.