By Victor Koyi,
Africa Regional Director
COVID-19 presents a great challenge to the education sector. It forces us to explore new ways of educating our children. As schools reopen, there is need to rethink learning as we adhere to the containment measures aimed at minimizing the spread of the virus. Crowded classrooms are a common scene in most schools in Africa – which makes social distancing impossible. For our education systems to get to where they are today, it has taken decades. Most schools that we see today have taken years to construct and still some lack essential facilities. Therefore, it is foolhardy to believe that more schools and classrooms can be constructed overnight to ensure social distancing. Instead, for a start, let us capitalize on the already-existing resources.
In order to ensure social distancing in schools, which is the biggest challenge compared to giving children masks or providing soap and water, we need to take the discussion beyond measuring the distance from one desk to another and start exploring new ways of learning. Can proper and effective learning take place outdoors say in the school garden? Yes. Certainly. When I was young, we had practical agriculture lessons in the field where students learnt how to farm. Students were allocated a small plot of land that they had to tend to which was eventually graded. We looked forward to these lessons because they were fun, practical and enabled us to interact with the real natural world.
Outdoor spaces allow for social distancing to happen more naturally. Besides minimizing the risk of transmission, learning outdoors can also build resilience amongst learners and increase physical activity. It also raises enthusiasm and motivation for learning. In outdoor learning, learning comes alive, things become real not just conceptual. Such hands-on experience lays the foundation for experiential and practical learning that extends beyond the classroom.
There are various benefits to learning outside and this is something that schools should embrace as we work on the long-term financially demanding infrastructural improvements. Luckily, for most schools especially in rural areas, space is not a problem. Time is ripe for education systems to integrate more learning about the land with formal education. Afterall, this is how our ancestors learnt. Back then children learnt societal rules and survival skills in real and natural environments.
In addition to learning outdoors, school timetables can have classes on a rotational basis – while others study in class, others study outdoors with smaller class sizes and alternating attendance patterns.
The UNESCO International Commission on the Futures of Education’s new report ‘Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action’ presents ideas for actions today that will advance education tomorrow. One of these ideas is to protect social spaces provided by schools. The school as a physical space is indispensable. Traditional classroom organization must give way to a variety of ways of ‘doing school’ but the school as a separate space-time of collective living, specific and different from other spaces of learning must be preserved.
Now, while some may argue that going back to the days of learning under a tree is retrogressive, we must be innovative given the limited resources. However, we must acknowledge that challenges exist with outdoor learning. The weather may be a challenge – it could be too hot, raining etc. Children can also get easily distracted. Even more crucial is that most teachers lack familiarity with outdoor learning and do not have the necessary hands-on experience. This calls for training, creativity and innovation.
Rethinking learning calls for innovation as we engage with all stakeholders including governments, learners, teachers, parents, communities, schools’ managements, civil society and researchers.
In addition to providing masks to school-going children, introducing non-contact greetings, and ensuring schools have adequate water and soap for sanitation and hygiene purposes, it is time to explore innovative and creative ways of learning outdoors to ensure social distancing. We may find it difficult to get started, and experience barriers related to physical constraints but with time, we will get used to it.
This pandemic has had multifaceted impacts on children – especially the most vulnerable – schools reopening plans should be holistic. As we focus on how to improve the physical infrastructure, let us not forget that while schools were closed, some children went through a lot of traumatic experiences – being abused, lacking food and forced to engage in child labor. Reopening plans should also focus on child protection and wellbeing such as providing psychosocial and emotional support and meeting children’s health and nutrition needs.