Don’t Go Back, Recreate the School, by Helena Singer

After six months of school buildings being closed, debates, balance sheets, proposals, controversies multiply around questions about “recovering learning”, “automatically approving or failing”, “how to follow protocols on returning to school”, “when closing the school year”, ” how to diagnose learning loss “, among others that address education with language of accounting. More extreme positions warn of “irreparable damage”[1].

This way of approaching the issue is conditioned by our schooling processes, which absolutely associate the act of learning with the experience of being in a closed room for several hours a day, alongside a few dozen people of the same age, attending classes on content previously prepared by teachers specializing in certain subjects and, every two months, testing what was learned in tests.

The pandemic abruptly suspended the main pillars of this experience: school buildings, classes, age groups, immobility of bodies in desks. As we were conditioned to recognize learning as a classroom experience, we immediately started to account for “learning losses” from the days when school buildings are closed. Some schools with greater financial resources and students from wealthy families tried to recreate the same pillars as quickly as possible on remote bases. These are the often-admired schools that have created a system capable of making their students stay the same 5 hours a day in front of the computer, watching with the same mates, the classes of the same teachers on the same subjects. The parents, at first, relieved with the maintenance of the routine, after some time, realized serious problems affecting their children associated with it, such as demotivation, fatigue and frustration. The students, more sensitive to the limits of the proposal, kept their cameras off maintaining some level of body and mental freedom but ended up increasing the teachers’ distress.

“Learning loss is a condition of dementia”

Apart from the schooling process, we know from experience, tradition, and science, that we learn from the moment we are born, we learn in different places, in the many social interactions experienced. Outside of the schooling system, we immediately find the idea of “learning loss” strange, used only when referring to dementia and other extreme situations.

It is for this reason that, instead of debating whether it is better to pass or fail, we should refuse any proposal that carries the word “automatic” and collectively reflect on the learning experiences of these six months, to recreate, from them, the necessary school for the post-pandemic world.

Some surveys launched in the period show significant data. First, we all learned more about the unsustainable Brazilian inequality. To stay just in a datum that is directly related to the theme of this article, TIC Kids Online 2019 survey, whose data only reached the mainstream media because of the pandemic, points out that 39% of students in urban public schools do not have a computer or tablet in home, 21% only access the internet by cell phone. In private schools, these rates are 9% and 3%, respectively. Inequality is also regional, with the use of the internet exclusively by cell phones being higher in the North (26%) and Northeast (25%).

These data are certainly related to the results of another piece of research, “Youth and the Coronavirus Pandemic”. About 80% of more than 33,000 young people aged 15 to 29 from all over Brazil who answered the online questionnaire carried out some type of remote education activity in the period, but encountered great difficulties, both in terms of technological infrastructure to access content and classes, as for the emotional balance itself and the organizational capacity to study. Despite this, the survey showed the great availability of young people to help in some way: 70% used social networks to raise awareness about the pandemic, 40% supported someone vulnerable to guarantee their well-being and 29% made some donation. That is, something very distant from a reality in which there would be “learning loss”. What did young people learn about inequality, solidarity and the common good? What have they learned about their communities and their own ability to promote good? These questions should be at the center of reopening of schools plans.

Teachers are also learning a lot in this period. The survey “Education, Teaching and COVID-19” was answered by 19,221 teachers from the state of São Paulo (almost 10%), residing in 544 municipalities (84% of the total). The teachers reported feelings related to challenge, learning and innovation regarding technology-mediated education. In general, 62% of the feelings mentioned were classified as positive. About 80% said that their role as a teacher will change for the better in the post-pandemic period and 68% believe that education in the broader sense will also improve.

Recreate school for a world without pandemics

The world that led to the pandemic is deeply marked by inequality, social environmental degradation and authoritarianism with a colonial, sexist and racist basis. As we have known since Bourdieu, Illich, Foucault and other thinkers, the disciplinary school, with its structure based on school years, classrooms, fragmented knowledge and tests, has its share of responsibility for maintaining this status quo.

The urgent need for transformation that the pandemic brings must now guide efforts to recognize, value and multiply the schools that exist on other pillars and to reflect collectively on the many lessons learned from the pandemic.

In these months, schools and families have come together in different ways. In the case of young children, those responsible were involved in mediating relations between teachers and students. Among the elderly, the intense sharing of home space brought family members closer to the school universe. There was also the recognition, by the school teams, of the life situation of their students’ families, forcing teachers to develop diversified strategies to maintain contact with all of them. All this experience should lead to the reinvention of a school much closer to families, which includes them in its pedagogical project, curriculum and management.

Speaking of curriculum, if it was not yet clear that an extensive list of fragmented content does not engage students in meaningful learning, now, with the long suspension of classes, the proposal to focus on what really matters wins. But it is not a matter of reducing the curriculum to a minimum because the time is short. The new school should become a space to produce knowledge aimed at the collective confrontation of the issues that led us to the pandemic. Fundamental learning of the period was about the strength, creativity, and solidarity of the communities. Faced with the inability and lack of commitment of governments to guarantee basic safety conditions for all, life-saving initiatives have multiplied, from the crowdfunding campaigns and distribution of supplies to the growth of community banks, including local production of new personal protective equipment, new circuits between agricultural producers and consumers, among many others. Returning to the old school, which ignores and even disparages the knowledge and strength of the communities, is inconceivable.

In addition to the power of communities, as shown in the survey, we learned more about the power of students. They became involved in many of these community initiatives and made use of their greater experience with technologies and social networks to interact, collaborate, debate, and disseminate, in various formats, relevant information and their own reflections. Here lies the post-pandemic school recreation center: finally, students and their experiences at the center of the school planning.

We arrived, then, at the most evidently eroded pillar of the school system by the pandemic: the time and space structure. It clearly exposed the massifying character of the structure based on classrooms with 30, 40 or more students in buildings that bring together hundreds of them. Now everyone calls it agglomeration. Nothing less adequate to education. We need a structure that guarantees personal educator-student interaction, individualized monitoring, at the same time, the collective experience of building the common good, dialogue, coexistence, caring for others, diversity. More than ever, we need opportunities for physical exploration and contact with nature. If buildings and the old structure are not for that, let us use all available resources, including the technologies that now teachers master, to create the structure of times and spaces that makes this possible.

Finally, we have learned a lot during the pandemic about the importance of the articulated work of social and institutional actors. Where the articulation of the agents of education, health and social assistance took place, it was possible to guarantee fundamental rights of students and their families, such as food security, prevention of the contagion of Covid-19 and access to educational resources. Maintaining and deepening these articulations where they were established and creating them where they do not yet exist should be a priority for the new school.

Let us use the last few months off to build this school. Not behind closed doors, in the offices as usual. Not only among school teams. But since now involving families and students in this construction. If that is the case, it makes sense to talk about outdoors meetings, in small groups in schools, squares, parks and other open spaces.

[1] The National Education Council (CNE) refers to research by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, Harvard University, and the McKinsey consultancy. In Brazil, the Solidary Learning Network published a study with the same perspective.

This article was first published in Portuguese at in September 2020.

Helena Singer is a sociologist with an interest in democracy and social innovation. She has co-created innovative schools in Brazil and is a founding member of the Brazilian Education Innovative Movement. She is also responsible for the Youth Years strategies at Ashoka Latin America.