Education in times of Covid-19: Challenges and Opportunities

On February 10th, 2021, the Education Policy Centre hosted an event to discuss the impacts of Covid-19 on the English schooling system and its approaches to creativity. Considering the multidimensional nature of creativity, the event afforded a broad understanding of the word as well as a specific reference to the arts. The event’s title “Education in times of Covid-19: Challenges and Opportunities” served as a springboard for two experts, Professor Catherine Boyle and Laura Mcinerney, to share their insights and experiences in their respective field.

Laura Mcinerney, education journalist, public speaker and co-founder of Teacher Tapp, has twelve years’ worth of experience working in schools and interviewed over 60 important figures in the realm of education. Laura’s journalism career spans across publications such as The Guardian, The Observer and The New Statesman. She has also published two books, “The Leadership Factor ” and “The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools.” Laura enriched the discussion by providing a bank of statistics from teachers, parents and the current conservative government. Thanks to Teacher Tapp, she has been surveying over 6,500 users daily to reveal what’s happening on the ground in schools. 

Professor Catherine Boyle, Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies here at King’s College London, contributed her extensive research in the field of arts and humanities, which specifically intersect with community arts engagement. Projects such as community theatre and empowerment projects are on her list of achievements. She is the director of the Centre for Language Acts and Worldmaking, a flagship project funded by the Arts and Humanities research council and which aims to reinvent modern language learning. Creative projects to her name include “Out of the wings” which brings the wealth of Spanish-Language theatre to English-speaking theatre professionals. 

Laura began the discussion with a pertinent question to our digital times: should the camera be on or off during online teaching? Interestingly, Laura cited the example of the Netherlands, where 80% of teachers require pupils to have their cameras turned on, whereas the Brits prefer the camera off. During the discussion, questions were raised as to how dark screens could potentially prevent collaborative and creative thinking. As such, the results generated by Teacher Tapp demonstrated that group work in British schools happens less often than officials think.

For this reason, Laura suggested that the current office tends to overestimate the amount of group work taking place in state schools. As such, politicians claim that STEM subjects are being taught in fun, engaging ways but in reality, the situation is very different, with pupils having to work on group projects less than half the time. This demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, generative, collaborative thinking is not flourishing in state schools. A chronological ‘road map’ of group work was shared to demonstrate how the pandemic, unfortunately, didn’t quite lead to creative, innovative teaching strategies. In fact, there was no group work taking place in the schools surveyed, either in-person or online, during September, October and November 2020. 

However, Laura also noted that even in an ideal Britain where the Government would always endeavour to champion creativity, especially initiatives backed by passionate teachers, this hypothetical fervour may fail to reach those communities that have different perceptions of what education should be like. For instance, communities suffering from financial precarity or communities with a migrant background may want their children to pursue traditional professions, which guarantee security and social mobility. 

Strikingly, the Teacher Tapp collaborated with the British Phonographic Institute to inquire into the wealth of an area and its relationship with music amenities available within state schools. Predictably, those who attended schools in wealthier areas were twelve times more likely to have access to an orchestra or choir to participate in. These statistics also sharpen socio-economic disparities further down the line. Raw talent needs to be nurtured through guided practice and tuition, yet pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out on these important elements of success and thus are less likely to obtain a scholarship from esteemed music conservatoires. Laura pointed out how creativity isn’t just a conceptual tool or practical skill for high school students to possess, but also an access route or an unspoken qualification, which affords some a less bumpy path into creative industries. 

Whilst attitudes towards creativity in schools have had a chequered history in the past decade, Laura’s presentation concluded with some thought-provoking ideas on micro-credentialism and its future. She provided the exciting example of the 19-year-old collaborator recently hired onto the Teacher Tapp team after they completed a 12-week Codecademy course, who is now enjoying a lucrative salary. Laura thus encouraged the participants of the event to reflect on micro-credentialism and its potential to trickle down from professional settings to options available to 16-18-year olds. 

Going further, Catherine’s presentation focused upon the organisation Language Acts and Worldmaking, whose purpose is to ‘examine language as a material and historical force which acts as the means by which individuals construct their personal, local, transnational and spiritual identities.’ Thanks to her directorial insight into the inner workings of the project, Catherine explained how the organisation reacted to the pandemic. She emphasises the importance of community work takes into account intersectional and transnational perspectives. 

Language Acts and Worldmaking seeks to redefine what language learning is and debunk any myths about a monolingual British society. Such myths could stem from their causal link with what Catherine labelled the ‘crisis of language learning in schools.’ She stressed how the soundbite ‘worldmaking’ is extremely evocative and plays a crucial role in encouraging innovative and unconventional ways of framing and thinking about language learning, perhaps for those who were previously closed off to such opportunities. 

Referring to the organisation’s mission, Catherine stated that their work seeks to empower culturally aware and self-reflective citizens. Such ideas were catalysts for conversation throughout the whole event; the participants reflected on how these attributes can serve as building blocks for a student who has the agency to develop creative and abstract thinking.

Catherine spoke of the privilege that working in academia brings and how collaboration between communities, high school and primary level education could enrich each respective group. Unfortunately, she also pointed out that the curriculum restricts such creative cooperation, with even the most fervently creative teachers being bound by curricular limits. In response, Language Acts and Worldmaking began providing small grants to anyone who wanted to do something related to modern foreign languages or language learning in general. The initiative was a resounding success, with 96 projects having been funded nationally as well as internationally. One example that Catherine cited was formulated by King’s students. “Empowering Young Latin American Women” was an opportunity for recently arrived Latin girls to have a space to ask questions about higher education and university processes. Practical creativity provided a venue for all involved to design their own book cover with eclectic collaging as the main medium used.

Catherine’s strong ideas about the use of an arts and humanities creative outlook vis-a-vis responses to the pandemic was a striking feature of the event. Language Acts and Worldmaking sought to counter any reluctance to see research in the arts and humanities as a key player in the response to Covid-19. “Worldmaking in the time of Covid-19 – we narrate everything,” as Catherine eloquently stated. 

Discrepancies between the dominant narratives and those within local communities are important to consider, especially if they dictate the understanding of events. With this in mind, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a data-mining project took place. Media in Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Arabic and a plethora of other languages was scrutinised across time to discern concerns surrounding Covid-19 within different communities. Young people were encouraged to engage creatively in this process, helping with the data collection and formatting it into podcast form. This was acted as an empowering and awareness-raising project, which demonstrated that we are part of a global world and brought to the surface the importance of empathising with a non-English language experience. Again, this project offered ways for students to apply divergent thought processes and acquire new creative humanities skillsets.

A provocative soundbite ended Catherine’s presentation. With specific regard to the event’s title, Catherine boldly stated education has experienced the ‘fantasy of the pause’ during Covid-19. Referring to such issues as Laura had previously mentioned, for instance, online schooling, the closing sentiment was one of bravery: if there had been more to it, the education system would have pressed pause in ways that are much more creative and better than what we are doing now. 

The event was a testament to the variety of perspectives on creative thinking and practices, not only within the English schooling system but generally for anyone’s personal development. The community was the theme that commanded most airtime from the event. Laura’s final recommendation was that the government should subsidise professional artists to give lessons in schools while teachers should prioritise core learning. Both Laura and Catherine’s suggestions centred on an increase in societal cohesion and cooperation to enrich curricula, broaden horizons and make certain professions and fields. Essentially, this increase in cooperation would allow for a creative change within the education system. 

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