Geoff Johnson: Pandemic upheaval an opportunity to re-examine public education

Shakespeare, speaking through the ­character of Brutus in the drama Julius Caesar, reminds us: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

Today, this week and for the months to come, the tide of pandemic restrictions, as difficult as they have been to navigate for some, has given us all the opportunity to pause to think about where we have been, but more importantly, how to adjust to where we are going and what the future will demand of everything we’ve taken for granted — including public education.

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There is talk of a “return to normal” but, especially in the field of public education, what is the “normal” to which we long to return, or should we be looking to build a “new normal” that prepares kids for a ­post-pandemic future?

True, the “new normal” tide has brought with it the requirement to accept some minor personal constraints in our everyday lives just to stay afloat, but it also could be the tide that refreshes and renews.

The “new normal” aftermath of ­COVID-19 is inconvenient and annoying for some, but has been freeing for others in both the ­public and private sectors, who, needing their organizations to survive the pandemic, have discovered in themselves and their organizations a propensity for innovation.

Small businesses, big businesses, the ­professions and most organizations that deliver public service of one kind or another have had to re-examine what worked before, and find themselves devising new ­mechanisms for delivering goods and ­services to clients and consumers.

In the same way, as the public school system in B.C. moves, step by hesitant step, back into full operation, it seems to be a timely opportunity for curriculum ­developers and public-education policy ­makers at all levels to consider the ­opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided.

A benefit of the “new normal” could be that education, once not seriously ­considered as a major factor in the day-to-day economic, social and political prosperity of the province, is now better understood by all involved as central to provincial success.

It is probably safe to say, for example, that the custodial role schools play in the economic stability of the province is now more clearly understood.

Beyond that, with kids at home taking courses online, parental understanding of what teachers do evolved significantly.

So when we talk about a “return to ­normal,” and fully reopening schools, it may be timely to ask whether the old “normal” is what we really want go back to.

Or has the accelerated access to ­information we and our tech-savvy kids have had access to for some time now opened new opportunities for teaching and learning?

Some influential voices are saying “yes.”

The Conference Board of Canada is a ­not-for-profit think- tank dedicated to researching and analyzing economic trends, as well as progress with organizational ­performance and public policy issues.

For the Conference Board, public ­education is certainly one of those issues.

The brief hiatus in the normal ­operation of public education could provide ­curriculum developers and policy makers the opportunity to take a deep breath and look more closely at what CBOC is telling them about some of the more influential ­factors in course design for kids moving into the job market in the 21st century.

That’s not to say that the fundamentals should be set aside, just that the ­development of certain skills, not normally front and centre in curriculum design, should become a more influential factor.

CBOC suggests that a student’s ability to communicate information effectively, not only in written or spoken language but with graphs, charts and accessible forms of technology, should be included in a broader notion of literacy.

A student’s ability to independently locate, gather and organize information using appropriate technology and ­information systems will develop higher-level thinking skills.

Students will need to develop the skills and attributes needed to contribute ­productively and add value to the outcomes of a task, project or team approach to seeking a solution to a problem.

As Shakespeare had Henry IV muse: “If only we could read the book of destiny! We’d see how time changes everything.”

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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