COVID-19: Education's moment of enlightenment
Here's a question: You have two options presented to you right now - live or learn! Which do you choose?
Hopefully, 100% of respondents will choose to live. Humans are generally hardwired that way. So in essence, teaching and learning should be about enhancing the quality and sustainability of life.
Yet, in many education circles across South Africa recently, debates raged about how best to respond to the disruption to teaching and learning due to the government enforced 'hard' lockdown. Discussions revolved around online teaching and learning challenges; which are the most effective digital platforms, Zoom, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Team; whether online sites could be zero rated for data; how to access data; whether learners have access to digital technology; and whether there'll be sufficient academic calendar days to complete the curriculum. All the noise about making the right decisions within a matter of a few weeks was causing major anxiety and possibly irrational decision-making.
What COVID-19 revealed are the significant socioeconomic inequalities in our society, as well as our inabilities to process challenges of such a magnitude. So while many were debating technology, many learners were concerned about where the next meal would come from.
Critical reflection on our curricula and epistemology will render many of the current education debates futile especially when we immerse ourselves in the unique generative moment that COVID-19 presents. With so much disruption and fragility around us, now is an ideal time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life, and accordingly, adapt education for an emerging world, rather than pursuing a tick-box exercise of completing a curricula stuck in the 'old world'! In this generative space that we are in during lockdown, the more important approach is not to focus on 'to do', but on 'to be'.
The rush towards online learning is not improving learning efficiency, but exposing more of the fault lines in our society, such as the significant socioeconomic divide and an education system that is far too utilitarian and not aligned with imminent social and economic changes. Therefore an alternative approach is to step back from trying to be 'productive' and to deeply and meaningfully ponder the situation we are in.
Economist and author W Brian Arthur once wrote: "All great discoveries come from a deep inner journey." It is a similar inner journey that spawned timeless spiritual doctrines and great scientific discoveries throughout human history. Perhaps now is an ideal time for learners to quieten the chatter, filter the noise, tap into latent intuitive wisdom and nurture self-awareness and how to best live in a world of uncertainty.
What threatens our survival on this planet are not natural disasters, but mindless and ego-driven human actions. These include the impact of rampant industrialisation and excessive consumption demands on the planet. Social consciousness, transforming behavioural patterns of aggression and arrogance into compassion and empathy, and developing more environment friendly modes of economic activities are ways in which we should be future-abling our young generation.
It is unfortunate that COVID-19 arrived with such devastation, resulting in lockdowns of megacities, thousands of people dying and disruption of global economic and social systems. However, for those willing to observe and listen during lockdown, there have also been many benefits. Quiet has returned to many bustling streets. In megacities, smog has lifted and, for the first time in years, people are able to breathe clean air. Families have bonded and nature seems to have been rejuvenated.
Trying to understand the emerging 'new' world based on analysis of the past is what Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan (2007) referred to as 'retrospective distortion'. We have to accept that our cognitive models that influenced our ways of doing business, relating to each other and the planet, have become dysfunctional. This dysfunctionality over the last 100 years of human history is replete with incessant global conflicts, environmental destruction, widening economic inequality, chaos on a global scale and now COVID-19!
Survival during COVID-19 lockdown and efforts to 'flatten the curve' requires humanity to collaborate, empathise, explore new synergies and be resilient. When we interrogate educational models of the 20th and 21st centuries, we realise they were dominated by scientific and technical rationality. These were motivated to meet economic imperatives and driven by powerful market forces. What this resulted in was the commodification of knowledge; knowledge that is utilitarian, objectified and packaged to meet economic needs. Therefore, educating for a new reality requires educators to facilitate new skills that align more strongly with the changing needs in our society. Undoubtedly, navigating uncharted territory will be messy and bring with it much uncertainty and anxiety, yet the world of emergence, complexity and uncertainty require new ways of thinking, new ways of doing and new ways of being.
Making education meaningful requires that it aligns to the contexts of our learners. Therefore, with so much need for learning devices, data and functional learning spaces, curricula need to be tempered accordingly to lower the cost burden. All the academic disciplines can be taught and learnt through engaging the senses - observing, listening and thinking. The world is a 'living classroom', alive with science, math, economics and language. Applying experiential and action learning methodologies supported by educators who pose probing questions via online platforms or social media, will enable effective theory-making and learning.
Important too is the need to promote critical thinking. In Future Shock (1970), Alvin Toffler predicted the following: "The technology of tomorrow requires not millions of lightly lettered (wo)men, ready to work in unison at endlessly repetitious jobs, it requires not (wo)men who take orders in unblinking fashion, but (wo)men who can make critical judgments, who can weave their way through novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality." There is no doubt that Toffler's reality has arrived! It came stealthily, speedily and with great impact through COVID-19.
Facing the challenges of COVID-19 during lockdown and post-lockdown is scary, but there is hope! Some of the defining characteristics of humans are adaptability, intelligence, resilience and innovation. It is through these qualities that we've overcome many global threats in the past: Spanish flu, world wars, natural disasters. But we will only thrive if we are able to learn, reflect and adapt to the new normal.
The 'hard' lockdown provided us with a golden opportunity to transform and develop our consciousness and to once again find our integral connection with society and the holon of life.
Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is Chief Executive Officer at TSIBA Business School and is an alumnus of UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.