To Fix Education, Start with Teachers, not Technology
It’s hard to quantify the damage that the COVID-19 pandemic has done to education in South Africa. The term ‘learning loss’ has been thrown around casually and dangerously, without a true appreciation for its devastating effects. The gaps that have been created in terms of projected generational earnings losses, poverty, and skills and knowledge deficiencies will take years to overcome. This will hamper the contributions that South Africa’s children will be equipped to make to our society and democracy in the future.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation called school closures ‘an unprecedented risk to children’s education, protection and well-being’. The World Bank estimates that US$ 10 trillion in earnings could be lost to the current global cohort of learners, due to lower levels of learning and their potential for dropping out of school.
But the real worry for South Africa is the negative impacts of interrupted schooling on children’s educational outcomes, including their cognitive skills over a lifetime. One of the many effects of the pandemic is that it has magnified existing inequities in education, which should not have been ignored in the first place.
There is a growing digital divide that leaves most South African students unable to participate in virtual learning scenarios. We can only hope that the greater awareness of the inequities will drive an increased urgency to fix them.
Where do we begin?
So, what can we do to continue to prepare our children for the future, and make sure they are ready to make their way in the new world they are stepping into? For a start, we should stop thinking technology will fix the problem. Technology has never been the answer to our educational challenges. Like any other tool, its effectiveness is determined by who wields it, and how.
If we’re going to seriously counter the effects of learning loss on South African learners, and uplift the entire education system in the process, we have to start with the professional development of our educators, and we need to raise the esteem in which they are held, both locally and across the world. Education begins with teachers, and no education system in the world will change until we address them first.
Part of the problem is that in South Africa educators aren’t seen as professional to begin with. The widespread perception is that the entry requirements to do a teaching degree are among the least rigorous of all degrees. The fact is that people need rigorous education if they themselves are going to be educators. We have created an infinite cycle of under-preparation and under-service, where teachers aren’t the subject matter experts they need to be.
There’s no other industry in the country, or the world, where we put so little faith in the people who deliver the outcome. We expect our medical personnel to be qualified and equipped, our accountants to have degrees and experience. But when it comes to education, our views are different.
And frankly, it’s heart-breaking. Every person you meet can tell you a story about the teacher who changed their lives, the educator who saw potential in a troubled child, or awoke a lifelong love of writing, or set someone on a path that changed their life. And yet, we give so little acknowledgement and effort to the profession. How do we change this?
Let us recognise great teachers
As a society, we must start recognising greatness in teachers. We must not just celebrate the achievements of their students; we must link student success directly to the role of teachers.
Government, independent education organisations and training institutions must forge partnerships, and commit deeply to the work of professional development and training. We must make teaching a profession that is admired and create opportunities for more people to enter the educator pipeline. We must understand how to provide rigorous education, and to provide ongoing professional development.
And yes, we can use technology to great benefit, if we understand that it is just one tool in a larger arsenal to provide a superior educational experience – a tool that our teachers are continually trained to use.
The pandemic is going to continue to disrupt education for the foreseeable future. But learning losses do not have to be inevitable, especially if every educator believes that their learners can succeed – and if, as teachers, they are empowered with the right tools and resources to drive student achievement and growth.