Stephen Cox is the Chief Education Officer of New Nordic School, Espoo, Finland. Stephen is a successful international leader having worked over 20 years in the government and private educational sectors. He has worked at a senior board level leading year on year improvement in all aspects of leadership, change management, professional development, coaching, innovation, start-up, digital strategy, and future of learning in the MENA region, Finland and internationally.
Before joining education, I worked in the healthcare industry in the UK for nearly 10 years. During the COVID-19 crisis, I have particularly admired my former colleagues from afar as they enter the frontline, putting others’ lives first before their own. This has left me humbled, working in my current profession in education. As we know, education has also faced its challenges with the closing of schools and the advent of online learning. The education community has responded tremendously well with endless amounts of ‘free’ resources and expertise from companies and educators. The vast information overload has left many educators, parents, and schools slightly overwhelmed, not knowing which way to turn for the best.
Over the last few months, the ability to communicate, collaborate remotely, and work in uncertainty have become more important. The skills and attributes of grit, perseverance, resilience, and leadership have come to the forefront at this time. These competencies are what we want to instil in young people and right now, adults need them more than ever. We are all having to continue to develop these emotional and well-being skills as we enter an ever-uncertain future.
Those people who have adapted and are coping well with the current situation are full of optimism and positivity despite individual tough circumstances and what life throws before them. They also have strong emotional well-being strategies that enable them to cope and adapt better. They are more ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’ which is the new norm and view happiness as being intrinsic to having a purpose in life.
The education pandemic
This is equally important in education too. What is interesting, is what we deemed to be the most important factors in education has taken a back seat or even ceased to matter at this time. Examinations, for example, and the importance of ‘getting that grade’ for the best possible opportunity at the next level of education or university entry has even fewer guarantees now. I hope this experience enables parents, educators, investors, and governments to rethink how learning should take place, especially with the advent of new technologies. If used in the right way for personalization, technology will enhance learning and move us forwards, but unfortunately, it will still not get rid of poor teaching.
For me to explain what I mean by the education pandemic, I need to explain a metaphor with the current COVID-19 crisis. Of course, this is a completely different situation, do not get me wrong, with terrible outcomes from the virus, but there are similarities between what we are dealing with now and our global education environment. Let us take the COVID-19 virus itself which is causing this pandemic. This equates to our outdated education systems across the world which are not meeting the needs of young people. This is where our education pandemic lies. We are now trying to find a cure with a vaccine and, in the meantime, adopt preventative measures and treatments to slow down the spread of the disease and the devastating effects of it.
With our broken education system, our ‘virus’, we are finding treatments or preventative measures to stop it from spreading, which will lead to poor learning outcomes if left untreated. Good or outstanding schools, governments or whole countries (Finland is a good example of this) put in place treatments and intervention strategies, pedagogical processes, teacher training, curriculum adaptations and endless other initiatives which ‘treat’ or prevent the broken education system from spreading its ‘virus’. These ‘treatments’ and ‘preventative measures’ lead to excellent outcomes for young people. However, they also do not cure the problem and consequently, less personalization leads to many students not reaching their potential. Many students develop learning disorders, lack purpose, get bored, and do not go on to thrive. As I mentioned, coming from a medical background, some students go on to develop a condition that I have termed ‘learning-paenia’- the deficiency of learning.
So just like COVID-19, those countries, governments, schools, institutions or dedicated educators who develop the best ‘preventative’ measures and ‘treatments’ have better outcomes, and we see a mixed picture of the pandemic of education across the world and in communities.
What’s next for education?
So, is it time to stop taking risks? Of course, when it comes to COVID-19, yes, for our safety and well-being, let us listen to what the science and medical profession tells us. In terms of education, no, let us try some new ideas and encourage risk-taking which can bring about more purposeful learning inside and more outside the classroom. Schools, parents, and teachers have all had to take risks setting up new ways of learning and in some cases that may have paid off and in others it may have been less effective. What I do hope, going forwards, is that we do not stop trying new ways of learning because of the limitations of our current education system. We need to re-think the changes we need to put in place now for us all to grow and thrive at this challenging time.
With COVID-19, we hope for a cure sooner rather than later, and again I admire and respect the tireless hours our scientists are putting into the research to enable that to happen. But what about a cure or a vaccine for our education pandemic? What can we do to stop this spread of learning-paenia? Of course, education is complicated, there is not a single injection or ‘vaccine’ that will cure the education pandemic now or in the future, but I believe there are changes now we need to consider at a country, government or even a school level.
Firstly, we need to fix our education system today and provide new curriculum and systems that meet the needs of young people. One, that is future-ready, does not require initiative overload to ‘treat it’ and shapes the future for lifelong learners. Secondly, we need to improve the blend and communication between schools and universities. We need to look at alternative pathways which are not heavily reliant on grades and knowledge but draw upon various sources of evidence that evaluate the whole student which puts wellbeing and happiness at the heart of decision-making. Of course, subject knowledge is important and there is a place for it in education and careers, but we need to focus on the skills and competences that all of us need right now and even more so in the future.
And what about the technology you may ask? Technology will be the enabler and activator of these changes, which will enable new education systems and curriculum to develop cost-effective quality affordable solutions that focus on developing people and eradicate the education pandemic. Just like the ongoing pandemic, it is the people that matter right now. It is the people that are at the heart of transformation in education, and we will continue to need dedicated educators now and, in the future, who are willing to take risks to lead on these new changes, and help find the cure for the education pandemic we live in.
I am optimistic.