With the pandemic now going beyond a year with no end in sight, everyone has been affected in various ways, not the least of which is education. Children in elementary school, adolescents in high school and young adults in university and college have been forced to take their education online with mixed results. I myself have one child in university and two in high school and they have had a difficult time with the online format.
First of all, children and adolescents were already getting too much screen time and now it is worse than before and we all are aware that too much screen time is detrimental to productivity, attention span, focus and vision. Second of all, online education may be effective for some but, for the majority, it does not replace in person classes and lessons where the student can interact directly with the teacher, ask questions, and discuss ideas and concepts with their peers. Thirdly, the socialization aspect gets lost with online education. Children and adolescents are not socializing with their peers and dealing with isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression.
However, if we look at the old model of education, it was far from ideal. Yes, students were in the classroom, yes they could ask their teachers questions and yes they could socialize. However, the modern education system has not changed dramatically from World War II, in which it was designed to churn out workers who would follow orders and not question authority in order to man the factories, which were producing all the consumer goods, which came into demand post-World War II. Our world has changed dramatically since then, not just because of the pandemic but because of the other challenges that we are facing with climate change, environmental destruction, regional conflicts and political instability in various parts of the world, economic disparity and global poverty, human slavery and trafficking, racial discrimination and lack of trust in government at all levels.
The challenges that we now face cannot and will not be solved with our outdated education system. Therefore, although we see the current move to online education as a step back and detrimental to our children, I see it as an opportunity to redefine what education truly signifies. How do we do this?
First of all, our education system should be designed to prepare our children and adolescents for modern world challenges. Instead of rote learning and memorizing facts, the focus of education should be problem solving. If we look at a subset of education, medical school, there are some medical schools around the world which approach this from a problem solving approach, once a certain basic level of knowledge has been achieved. This model needs to be extrapolated to all of education. For example, we can look at history and memorize dates, names, facts and statistics from the past, however is this truly useful information? I would argue that it is not, unless we can take the lessons from history and apply what was learned to the challenges that we face in the modern world. Given all the global and local challenges humanity now faces, it would not be difficult to design a problem solving approach in all subject areas. Some of these, such as math and science, already lend themselves to this approach, however, this needs to be extrapolated to history, geography, language and social sciences.
Second of all, the classroom model no longer serves our children and adolescents, not only because of the pandemic, but because we are not designed to be indoors. For thousands of years, human beings have lived in harmony with nature, not in fear of it. Children were taught in nature, by their elders, everything that would make them happy, healthy, vibrant and productive members of society. Being indoors is only a recent phenomenon and has been proven to be detrimental to our health and well-being. There are numerous studies looking at how being out in nature improves, not only health and well-being, but also focus, productivity, intelligence and creativity. Now that we are in the middle of a pandemic and it is risky to be indoors, maybe this is a sign that education needs to be taken outdoors.
Thirdly, the classroom environment promotes inactivity as it is a static and stationary environment. Our bodies are designed to move and this is how we have lived our lives for thousands of years until recently, when the dictates of modern society have forced us to become more sedentary. There is much evidence that physical activity is important, not only for health and fitness, but for mental and emotional well-being and improves memory and intelligence. Physical activity is not something that should be reserved for recess, lunchtime and gym class but, somehow, needs to be integrated into all aspects of a student’s learning. There are many creative ways to do this, too detailed and in depth to mention in this blog but all you have to do is look at history and the lives of our indigenous ancestors, who already had this wisdom and were living it before their culture and way of life was stripped from them from European colonization and modernization.
In summary, we may look at what has happened to education around the world as detrimental to our children and adolescents, however, I choose to see it as a wonderful opportunity to redefine what education truly means and how it can evolve to the next level for the betterment of all students, society and the world, which is changing more rapidly than the current system can keep up with.
Dr. Nauman Naeem