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OP-ED: Investing in learning how to learn

  • Published at 03:59 pm September 5th, 2020
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How to restore education in post-Covid times

Nearly 1.3 billion students globally have been affected by educational institution closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools in Bangladesh were closed on March 18, 2020, and a number of distance learning initiatives were rapidly introduced for students and teachers.

Despite heroic efforts both locally and abroad, the educational price that students will pay is unprecedented in our lifetimes. The most recent study findings show that even with extensive distance learning programs, more than 60% of students have been left behind due to a lack of access to necessary technology and other socio-economic issues. 

Given these realities, there is no conventional way to achieve the subject-related competencies and content knowledge identified in Bangladesh’s educational curricula. The government is planning to waive some examinations and award auto-promotion to next grades. This is a pragmatic and reasonable short-term response.

However, without achieving the competencies and mastering the content knowledge defined, students will face unprecedented challenges learning the lessons of their next grade. Imagine a younger student who was not taught multiplication and is suddenly obliged to perform division -- a genuine possibility given the amount of schooling lost. Or imagine a senior student who has not been exposed to calculus -- a massive disadvantage when she goes on to study physics or economics. Again, a real possibility in our current situation. 

What should not be in dispute

●  That, despite the best of intentions and efforts, the effectiveness of distance learning is significantly less than that of traditional classroom learning in the presence of a teacher. A rough rule of thumb is that topics learned remotely are only 40% as effective as those delivered in person. Even more troubling, there are strong reasons to believe that an extended period of remote learning exacerbates the problem, with learning losses piling up and overall effectiveness dropping below 40%. 

● That national examinations are important and are not going to be waived long-term. Nor, in light of the centrality of the topics omitted during the pandemic, would it be appropriate to dispense with a rigorous and systematic presentation of these topics. 

● That the default response of school officials and public servants, despite well-meaning sound bites to the contrary, boils down to rushing the students through the missed material. Business as usual, except with more pressure on the students, is offered to us under the smooth talk of pedagogical innovation.

● That rushing students through material impedes subject mastery. A tenuous grasp of key topics will disadvantage students in their future academic and professional careers.

Learning how to learn

Any response must be sensitive to the limited resources available -- class time being by far the most precious. Parents and students are rightly skeptical of untested methods that consume time. Teachers have neither breathing space nor attention to spare on exotic interventions.

A general solution, which we would endorse, is to increase the velocity of learning without causing undue stress to the students. Covid-19 has made it necessary for students to learn faster, retain what they have learnt, make good life choices concerning their studies, and possess the flexibility of mind to deal with questions and topics they have been exposed to only briefly.

In a sentence: Students must learn how to learn. 

The relevance of knowing how to learn is obvious. It also seems obvious that students should have mastered it long ago. A good skill to have, certainly -- but where then is the mystery?

Again, and we cannot say this strongly enough, knowing how to learn is a skill, not a fact. This constitutes a deep and significant problem for teachers, students, and administrators. Why?

Human beings do not learn skills in the same manner they learn facts. 

To appreciate the practical teaching implications, it is helpful to reflect on how we typically talk about skills and facts. In ordinary language, there is a distinction between “know-how” and “know-that.”

(a) Know-that: “I know that 2+2=4;” “I know that Dhaka is the capital;” “I know that Covid-19 is a virus.” Know-that is knowledge of facts -- the sort of things ordinarily taught in school and tested on national examinations. Lectures are an efficient means of imparting facts. 

(b) Know-how: “I know how to ride a bicycle;” “I know how to cook khichuri;” “I know how to speak Bangla;” “I know how to make friends;” and, most importantly, “I know how to remember things;” “I know how to make good decisions;” and “I know how to be flexible and see implications.” Know-how, raised to the level of excellence in practice, is what we mean by a skill. When somebody really knows how to do something, then they are skilled. 

It is not a mystery how skills are taught. We do it all the time as parents. Whenever we teach a child how to use a spoon, brush their teeth, throw a ball, or speak a language, it all comes down to the same process: Skills form through practice. In the doing is the learning. One must do it to learn it.

Knowing how to learn is a skill. We can no more expect students to master it by lecturing them than we could expect students to learn how to swim through watching videos without getting wet.

The question before us, then, is this: Which skills are part of “learning to learn?” The short answer is that there are many, but that in our present context it is not hard to discern which skills should be prioritized. 

1) First among the crucial “learn to learn” skills are those relating to memory techniques. With practice, it is possible to recall a shocking number of facts and details. Knowing how to remember, being skilled in remembering, is different from knowing the specific facts that are remembered, for the same memory skill could be used to recall different facts.

2) Another essential element: Being skilled in making good decisions. We keenly hope that students will be able to organize their time and efforts effectively. Knowing how to efficiently manage one’s time and knowing how to prioritize one’s use of limited resources are vital in the post-pandemic world.

3) Finally, skills related to logical thinking. Logical thinking skills empower students to see connections among facts and enables them to extrapolate new information. Explicitly practised, analytical thinking nurtures mental flexibility: A sine qua non for students facing situations and test questions they have never seen before. Covid-19 has made it inevitable that our students will be examined on topics they heard mentioned briefly in passing; logical thinking skills will see them through.

Concrete recommendations

It would be ideal to cultivate learning know-how.  in all students. Pragmatically, a more targeted approach is desirable. Two options present themselves:

Option 1: Target those students who have the most pressing need for the “learn to learn” intervention; namely, students heading into their year 5, 10, and 12 examinations. This is the preferred option if the government decides to revise its current auto-promotion initiative.

Option 2: Target students who will be taking their examinations in the following year; namely, teach students in years 4, 9, and 11. This is a more conservative option.

Explicit teaching of “learn to learn” skills is accepted international educational best practice with a proven track record. Rigorously validated programs have shown long-term effectiveness in as few as 15 to 20 instructional hours. 

As is the case with all skill-based learning, it is advisable to spread out class contact time (Imagine cramming a week’s worth of exercise into a single day). Significant educational impact can be achieved by setting aside one hour per day for the first three to four weeks of resuming school.

Appropriate educational programs in the market are cost-light and relatively easy to implement. A “course in a box” method is suggested, where minimal teacher training is required. Typically, one or at most two days would suffice. 

Bangladesh has implemented more logistically-demanding projects previously. Consider how we currently enjoy the most advanced telephone technology available globally. Bangladesh did not necessarily install landlines in each and every household; instead, everyone jumped directly to mobile phones.

There is no need to always play catch-up when it comes to pedagogical innovation; no need to step through costly legacy systems. For the sake of our students now and in years to come, we should leap ahead and put ourselves on par with global educational best practices. And thus, address a major educational challenge of Covid-19 in the process.

Mark Nowacki is Founder and Director of LogicMills in Singapore. Rakibul Islam is a researcher and educator at the Noakhali University of Science and Technology. Shakil Ahmed is an educator, futurist, and storyteller, and part of the leadership team at Acumen Academy and #NextGenEdu.