Commentary

Promising practices for a post-pandemic renewal of learning: lessons from Global Dialogue 2021

Following our recent Global Dialogue event, which brought together leading experts from across the world, we consider key promising practices for a post-pandemic renewal of learning. This commentary draws on the insightful contributions and rich discussions from the event to identify some of the key ways in which we may be able to improve education for all as the world recovers from Covid-19.

Global Dialogue 2021: ‘Practical steps to a post-pandemic renewal of learning’ was the first virtual edition of our Global Dialogue event series, hosted by Education Development Trust on 25th  February 2021. The event facilitated discussion among global experts* on the design of interventions which aim to make the events of the last twelve months less damaging to the futures of children and young people around the world. Featuring a plenary session examining these key issues and three 50-minute sequential panels on effective teachers, home and community in support of learning, and girls’ education and inclusion, the event was designed to give participants new insights, hypotheses, practical approaches and potential collaborators to support them in making their mark on the futures of young people as we emerge from this pandemic. While the panels covered diverse and distinct topics, several broad themes emerged from across the dialogue.

This commentary seeks to bring together major cross-cutting themes from the panels, identifying five key themes which should inform wider discussions on how we can best achieve not merely a return to ‘normality’, but a renewal and improvement of learning in the post-pandemic world.

 

  1. The need for evidence-based interventions

The panel discussions clearly highlighted the importance of ensuring that any interventions are based on sound evidence of what works. This applies not only to catch-up programmes and remedial education, as many have highlighted in recent months, but also to longer-term measures. For instance, interventions which seek to improve learning outcomes through teacher professional development will be most effective when based on the evidence of what works in adult professional learning. This applies not only to successful training courses and mentoring – the medium of which will, as we argue below, be heavily context-dependent – but also to interventions like communities of practice (CoPs). The best CoPs will also produce evidence of what does or does not work for teachers in given contexts.

The need for evidence-based changes also applies to wider interventions, such as reaching the most vulnerable students and engaging parents and communities. This means that we must be judicious and selective in considering programming options and continue to examine the evidence that exists.  In some cases, such as that of girls’ education, there is already significant evidence of effective practices in action to increase girls' participation in school such as eliminating school fees, providing school feeding programmes and building more schools.

Moreover, the pandemic itself has generated a wealth of evidence with the potential to teach us a lot about the successes – and failures – of interventions. This is, however, dependent on the collection of quality data for targeted approaches.

 

  1. The importance of data

Quality data is fundamental to not only measuring the success of interventions and furthering the much-needed evidence base, but also to ensure effective targeting of support for both teachers and learners. What is more, teachers need not only skills and support, but also data, to teach effectively. Such data will help them to take a targeted approach to benefit their students’ learning and will be the key means of knowing about individual children’s circumstances. Community-level and household-level data and monitoring – such as that collected by community health volunteers – can be a key means of assessing risks to individual learners, as well as informing decision-makers at both local and policy levels.   

This emphasis on data can ultimately make meaningful and important contributions to wider policy, helping to ensure a necessary focus on the most marginalised. Schools systems may benefit from data for systems diagnostic approaches and landscape assessment, but we must ensure a focus on targeting the most marginalised, being mindful of how marginalisation presents itself in many different forms. Girls with special education needs and disabilities, for example, are often particularly affected, especially in times of crisis. It is therefore critically important for policymakers to understand this in specific contexts and collect data accordingly. From there, they can design targeted interventions that actually meet the needs of affected groups. Such data enables interventions such as that in Kenya, in which the government’s school re-entry policy specifically targets girls from poor households, providing them with sanitary pads, mentoring programmes or scholarships to address the barriers to their return.

 

  1. The need for collaborative approaches

Barriers to learning renewal may, in some cases, be best addressed by collaborations across and between communities and sectors. Collaborative approaches can be particularly valuable in enhancing the learning agenda for the most marginalised. For example, leveraging collaboration between the education, health, social and private sectors can help to address barriers to girls’ education. 

However, collaboration is a valuable tool in other areas too. For example, collaborative communities of teachers hold real potential to improve teaching practice – and learning outcomes – as teachers share their knowledge and experiences with one another. Comunidad Atenea, a social network created in Argentina, with support from the Varkey Foundation, to facilitate collaborative teacher communities online, is just one example, which highlights the importance of communities of practice for teaching staff and leaders. Given their creativity, experience and understanding of local contexts, collaborative networks of teachers sharing good practice may be one of the most powerful resources we have in strengthening teaching and learning outcomes.  

 

  1. Harnessing community and parental engagement

Communities of practice are, however, not the only communities that can – and should – be effectively harnessed to improve education outcomes for pupils: local community and parental engagement appears to have real potential to effect positive change.  For instance, remote learning initiatives are notably more effective with caregiver or community support for learners, and community-led back-to-school campaigns have proven to be effective. In Rwanda, for instance, community-driven back-to-school campaigns have been used, especially targeted at vulnerable children. As a result, 95% of learners had returned to school by January 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic has in many places served to strengthen relationships between schools, families and communities. In Himachal Pradesh, India, for example, 92% of parents have engaged with their children’s teachers using WhatsApp during the crisis, while in Ethiopia, university students have assisted remote learning efforts in local communities. Such strengthened relationships may hold promise for future education initiatives. There may even be potential for more citizen-led assessments, which could be built on to understand children’s remedial support needs.

To realise this potential, capacity building will be required for teachers and school leaders, to give them the skills for effectively harnessing parental and community engagement.   However, it will also be necessary to build capacity and role clarity for parents, caregivers and community members to ensure maximum benefit from these new relationships. Many parents and caregivers will not feel confident in supporting their children’s education – especially if they have not benefitted from a good education themselves: in these circumstances, peer support within communities can be especially helpful, potentially even extending to parent or caregiver communities of practice. In any case, expectations of parents’ roles in education need to be more clearly defined by schools and school systems to enable effective and context-appropriate collaboration. Critically, this should enable sharing, rather than shifting, of responsibility between schools and communities, without putting undue pressure on parents.

 

  1. Flexible use of technology

Finally, the use of technology emerged as a key issue, which is perhaps unsurprising after a year dominated by remote learning in many places. The potential of technology for teaching and learning has perhaps never been clearer than through this pandemic, but the challenges, especially relating to equity and mismatched expectations regarding its use, have never been more apparent either. It is increasingly clear that technology – particularly digital technology – is not a silver bullet, and to realise its potential, we must first and foremost consider context-appropriate solutions from a ‘spectrum of technology’. Within this, we must not undervalue low-tech options, such as radio or messaging services. The Rising on Air remote learning programme, for example, has reached approximately 12 million children in Africa through radio, SMS and WhatsApp, while in Northwest Syria, teachers are using WhatsApp groups to communicate with students during school closures. Low-tech options such as phone calls or SMS have also provided a means of communication between schools and families in which parents have limited literacy or digital literacy. Such channels of communication may be continued post-pandemic to help involve parents and caregivers in students’ learning for the long term.

Of course, there are also settings in which high-tech options are more suitable, but the potential for successful use of technology for education in many places will rely on adaptability – not only to local contexts and infrastructures, but also at the level of individual children and their households. For this, strong data and needs assessments will be required, but multiple modality tools which can easily adapt to different learner needs may prove highly valuable. In Jordan, for instance, the Learning Bridges programme is using Padlet, a low-bandwidth tool which can be used in various formats to ensure inclusivity (for example, videos can be played or converted to a digital script for online use, and a printable PDF of the latter is available for learners for who require hard copies of the same material).  There have also been applications of multiple-modality uses of technology in successful back-to-school campaigns. The success of these measures is arguably in that they are able to meet students where they are and adapt to their specific contexts.

Of course, such use of technological tools will require training and development for teachers and school leaders, and digital literacy will be an increasingly important skill for teachers across the world. Interestingly, however, these tools may in themselves help to provide a means of providing some of this support, as the use of technology has proven to be an effective means of providing training and development activities for teachers. This is not only through videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, but also through lower-tech avenues. There have been successful examples in Rwanda and Lebanon, among other places, of providing teachers with professional development and support through phone calls, SMS and WhatsApp. Again, the best platforms for these purposes are likely to be heavily context-dependent, and this will need to be a consideration that is given careful attention by leaders and decision-makers.

 

Amid all the challenges of the past year, it has been highly encouraging to hear examples of bright spots and promising practice discussed in this year’s Global Dialogue event. It appears clear that there are many practical actions that can be taken, and the recovery from the disruption of the pandemic presents us with a key opportunity: to learn from the variety of experiences of school closures and reopening, and to apply these lessons and innovative solutions to create a better future for education.

 

*We would like to thank all those who participated in our Global Dialogue event, especially our keynote speakers and panellists:

Dr Valentine Uwamayira, Minister of Education, Rwanda

Elyas Abdi Jillaow, Director General, Ministry of Education, Kenya

HE Dr Geremew Huluka, State Minister of Education, Ethiopia

Baela Raza Jamil, CEO, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) and Commissioner, International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (Education Commission)

Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

Dr Cristóbal Cobo, Senior Education Specialist, World Bank

Victoria Collis, Managing Director, EdTech Hub

Nicola Dean, Deputy Director, RewirEd, Dubai Cares

Hugo Gorst-Williams, Deputy Head, Children, Youth and Education, FCDO

Rachel Hinton, Senior Social Development Adviser, FCDO

Sarah Horrocks, Director, Connected Learning Centre, Education Development Trust

Dr Saima Malik, Senior Research and Learning Advisor, USAID

Rosa Muraya, Deputy Project Director, Education Development Trust

Jorge U. Colin Pescina, Education Specialist, Global Partnership for Education

Agustin Porres, Regioal Director, Varkey Foundation

Rebecca Rhodes, Senior Research and Learning Advisor, USAID

Carlos Vargas Tamez, Head of Secretariat, Teacher Task Force, UNESCO

Chantal Uwiagiye, Mathematics Lead, Building Learning Foundations, Education Development Trust

Jeannette Vogelaar, Regional Advisor, Education, Middle East and North Africa Regional Office, UNICEF

 

Following this commentary, Education Development Trust will shortly be publishing a report which builds further on the ideas discussed at Global Dialogue 2021 and explores promising avenues for a post-pandemic renewal of learning.