Could do better: what students want from schools
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Since 2019, the free FT for schools programme and the World Bank have run an annual blog writing competition for students aged 16-19, seeking their views on education. We publish edited extracts from the winning blogs and runners-up, plus fresh reflections. Entries are invited here for the next round.
2021: In the context of Covid-19, how can we help children learn?
The world as we knew it has changed for ever. Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams . . . we can all agree we miss the “good ol’ days” of face-to-face interaction. While learning platforms have transitioned from physical to digital, not much else has changed. Why has our learning experience been so different? Why is attendance dropping and why are scores plummeting?
The never-ending list of assignments is a struggle, especially with mental health issues in teens at an all-time high. Schools could be more flexible with deadlines and workloads to reduce stress. I prefer class activities, debates and discussions, as opposed to assignments. With interactive as the way to go, these alternatives can be substituted for a more meaningful, effective and fun learning space.
It is important to recognise that teachers are only half the problem when it comes to unsuccessful e-learning. During a lecture that I led, presenting my work to a screen of alphabets (students’ online icons), I felt as though my efforts were being invalidated. “Speaking to a wall” described the situation perfectly. It is all too easy to scroll through lnstagram while teachers aren’t watching.
I empathise with teachers and students around the world and recognise that online learning is not a long-term alternative in a post-Covid world. As an extreme introvert, I am still surprised to see how much the small interactions affected my views on learning!
Update, summer 2021: The pandemic has affected this generation profoundly. Mental health and wellbeing are a long-term goal, not a short-term one.
Tarik Hakan Akcin
Governments, please invest in internet infrastructure — deem it as critical as roads or electricity. Coverage on its own is nothing to boast about; make it fast, stable and cheap.
With good teachers, mass-communicated education can be even more resourceful than face-to-face. Students didn’t flock to YouTube for no reason, even when schools were open. My most positive experiences include a free learning programme organised in partnership with a district government in Istanbul and a global Mooc (massive open online course) platform, where I have seen an astonishing number of students from Africa and Latin America.
After accessibility comes quality of education. Most teachers don’t organise their lectures in a suitable format for online teaching. Researchers should educate them and lectures should involve much more input from students, such as discussions and student presentations.
Importantly, what students need most is less stress and more counselling. With the uncertainty and inability to make the most of their time after years of a rather linear school life, this generation is insecure, depressed and indignant.
Policymakers must listen to students before introducing reforms. This education crisis can only be solved by co-operating with those who are experiencing it.
Update, summer 2021: We need extensive revision of curricula. Every child is in a race to complete too much course content, rather than learning. Teachers must make sure pupils are building on sturdy foundations.
Teachers must go. Their critical role must be reimagined as “facilitators”. Learning has become harder. Classes are not as effective as they used to be because teachers, through no fault of their own, simply have not been prepared with all the tools to teach online.
Half of our learning has to be done on our own, everyone learns at a different pace, and teachers are having trouble taking all this into consideration when planning classes.
I propose there be no teachers after kindergarten and elementary school. Instead, middle- and high-schoolers are assigned “facilitators”. They would be paid higher salaries and guide students, meeting them twice a week online and focusing on forming meaningful connections.
All classes should be taught through pre-recorded online videos of the highest quality, created by leading educators in each country. Tests would be taken on a secure platform. Only after passing would students move on to the next unit, allowing them to work and learn at their own pace, without fear of being held back or left behind by their peers.
The money that funds classrooms and other facilities should be redistributed to provide students with internet access and those from low-income families with meal tickets to purchase healthy breakfasts and lunches.
This new teacherless way of learning would ensure future pandemics or major disasters do not affect students’ education in the negative way we have seen this past year.
Update, summer 2021: The pandemic has been an opportunity for us to reimagine the roles of teachers in learning, but we must also acknowledge our need to heal and use our new skills.
2020: How would you make sure every child could read by age 10?
Faisa Syahla Sabila
Imagine getting lost because you are unable to read street signs, or not knowing the ingredients of the snack you have just eaten because you don’t understand the alphabet. To make the world a better place, we must start by eradicating the inability to read among our youth.
When I volunteered to teach in one of Jakarta’s poorest districts, I realised it was beyond important to make sure people knew what to do with the technology so it didn’t go to waste. I would make sure every child had access to high-quality education.
Inspired by our Taman Aksara learning centres, we need free internet access and up-to-date devices for the community, equipped with e-books and e-learning apps to improve their reading comprehension. Centres would be located in the middle of every district and could be used by schools and act as a library where children could study and do their homework.
A national assessment on reading comprehension should be mandatory for kids aged nine. The testing system would be similar to our national exam and learning centres would help students to pass. As Margaret Fuller (the 19th-century American writer and teacher) said: “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader — and we all are the leaders of tomorrow!”
Update, summer 2021: This pandemic has taught us that books can be our “window” on the world, even if we are stuck at home. Books allow us to learn and grow just by holding them in our hands. So, keep reading, keep learning and don’t be afraid to dream.
I lost a parent in an accident when I was nine and found myself on the street. There are no skills, no talent and no compassion — you had to fight for everything. Our daily education was survival, since eating once a day was a daunting challenge. You had to queue for the toilet or to wash your clothes. To sleep, I had to sneak into empty stores and lay cardboard on the ground.
One day, Aysh, a street child I had always liked, was reading a book. People driving by stared at her curiously. I saw pride, respect and hope in their eyes. Before this, the only expression I had ever seen from them was pity and hopelessness.
I enrolled in the programme she recommended, which provided accommodation and food. I had to get rid of my street attitudes. The most important thing was learning to read. The books took me to enchanting places I never knew existed, and I found so much comfort and joy opening their pages.
Reading helped me heal. It exposed me to the struggles and stories of other people. I realised it was important to be positive and strong. I saw the need to create more reading programmes to help young people.
There are 13.2m out-of-school children in Nigeria. Many will live in crushing poverty for the rest of their lives, including young women, who are the greatest victims of illiteracy. A world where every child could read is definitely a goal worth pursuing, and this is what I intend to dedicate my life to accomplishing.
When I was 12, I couldn’t read or write, nor spell my own name. Because of this, communication became harder by the day. Every time I stood up to read a book before the whole class, I would be mocked and laughed at. As a result, I spent most of my time at school in isolation.
No one should have to experience such shame and embarrassment. If I became minister of education, I would see to it that every child by the age of 10 would be able to read and write well. I would build reading centres in each and every community. We have very little access to books or educational material, with only one public library in each city, too far away for most people to go to.
A lot of Malawian children, especially in rural areas, spend an outrageous amount of time watching films and end up ditching classes. I propose that makeshift cinemas be replaced with education centres where children can get extra help from tutors and access to books, even after school hours.
We have many children with learning challenges such as dyslexia, but public schools can offer very little help. I would introduce resources like recorded lessons and use shapes to help process information. I would implement extra classes for neuro-diverse students to help them learn how to read and write better.
Being able to read allows people to become creative thinkers, which is essential in developing our nation. Children are the future and the hope of our nation.
2019: How would you reimagine education?
Picture this: you are a student in the year 2030. School is completely different from what your parents remember. You only attend four days a week and most of your time is spent in outdoor learning spaces. With blended e-learning, you can study on your own, focusing on strategic topics through a plan personalised for you. Your artificial intelligence learning assistant grades and offers feedback on your assignments, guiding you through problems step by step, reteaching concepts from scratch if necessary.
For geography classes, you put on a virtual reality headset and are transported to the Andes. Mesmerised by the colossal formations all around, you take notes on which materials constitute the vibrant spectrum of rock layers. History debates come alive as you and your classmates reimagine the Paris Peace Conference, sitting in the Palace of Versailles. The possibilities are truly endless.
Mastery before advancing and project-based learning will form the cornerstones of this futuristic education system. A curriculum unique to each learner can focus efforts on weaker areas and stimulate development in stronger ones. This approach can be blended with team projects aimed at solving real-world problems, internships and design thinking.
With technology such as augmented reality, classrooms will become interactive learning hubs, ensuring students are actively engaged with the learning material.
Update, summer 2021: Our plunge into widespread e-learning has been rough, but it has helped millions of students discover capabilities for which no in-person substitute exists. We really are never going back.
In sociology, I took a sip of my future. Online, I dug up Crash Course videos, articles in The Atlantic, edX courses and everything in between. A mélange of theory and application was always to be found: long and short reads of various styles, quizzes, data visualisations, videos and discussion forums made a compelling narrative.
Offline, I tuned in to the intimate experience of being human — talking, collaborating, inquiring, creating, storytelling. If anything, this class instilled in me a sense of mental flexibility, such that I could navigate tomorrow’s uncertain world with almost everything unconceived.
In my 17 years, I have witnessed the crumbling of that old story — a phase of formal education followed by work and retirement. In an exciting era where “change is the only constant”, one so inundated with super-intelligent machines, algorithms that can read our moods and the constant remoulding of jobs, college education will have to be at the forefront. It will be reimagined.
Enter pop-up classes. In the spirit of audacious experimentation — with content, timeframes, spaces and participants — they render the cookie-cutter lecture obsolete. They have the potential to respond to an accelerated loop of skill recycling, synchronised with the staccato rhythms of technology-driven 2025 and beyond.
Technologies such as Stanford University’s “skill-prints” will breathe new life into the beautiful partnership between academia and industry. A blended future of higher education that I was tiptoeing into in my sociology course might not be so far away after all.