Covid-19: Developing teachers to address unequal access to education

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Photo by Christina Morillo

Yesterday marked the annual United Nations’ (UN) World Teachers’ Day to celebrate one of the world’s most essential professions, teaching. UNESCO’s theme for the 2020 commemoration naturally links to the current education climate, as a result of Covid-19, “Teachers: leading in crisis, reimagining the future”.

There isn’t a teacher or academic in the country who hasn’t been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are already grappling with the “new normal”, and by now we all realise that the future will bring with it several complex challenges, particularly as far as teaching is concerned. The period during lockdown highlighted ‒ and even intensified ‒ inequalities in access to education, but we also have a unique opportunity now to reshape schooling, schools and teacher education institutions.

During the pandemic, the importance of the teaching profession was foregrounded, and the challenges facing teachers in the context of a diverse and unequal sector were highlighted. However, we have also seen that meaningful education can happen outside the four walls of a classroom, and beyond a rigid curriculum.

Our next step must be to foster more teachers who are critical, creative, and flexible thinkers to shape our current education system to be more inclusive in its accessibility and relevance. In addition, the reliance on a singular mode of curriculum delivery will need to be looked at critically by problematising the teacher’s lesson in the classroom as the learning encounter.

First and foremost, we will need to equip student and beginner teachers with the necessary skills and competence to use a variety of learning platforms. The “new normal” has given us the opportunity to assess the level of preparedness of pre-service teachers for the adoption and adaptation of technology in teaching and learning.

We also need to emphasise situational learning and a blended teaching approach, in which student teachers acquire the competence to apply their educational training skills to different contexts and environments. Post-Covid-19, co-morbidities and infections could reduce student teachers’ access to schooling, and they will need to be more prepared and empowered to cope with change and uncertainty. Student teachers must experience and understand the variations in organisational and pedagogical practices in diverse schooling contexts, which can be achieved through experience in traditional classrooms, virtual classrooms and reflective tasks.

Amid all of this, however, we must always remember that context is key. The vast majority of South African classrooms do not have access to alternative methods of teaching outside of the traditional approaches. And if they do, internet connectivity is too costly, or unavailable in certain areas. In addition, contrary to the assumption that present-day learners are tech-savvy and hence can cope with hybrid-innovative learning, the learners’ under-developed formal computer literacy competencies and easy access to devices are areas that will need to be addressed nationally.

At STADIO Faculty of Education, we feel that what we need, is flexibility in the way we deliver teacher education, so that we accommodate the diverse and evolving needs of our student teachers. This is currently being achieved through a flexible-hybrid model that was developed and implemented prior to the pandemic. The model iss premised on the following principles: i) that each student teacher has his/her own laptop with internet access; ii) intermediary level computer literacy competencies are established through additional training, iii) work-integrated learning (teaching practice) takes place in varying contexts, and iv) flexible-hybrid learning events that allow the student to choose how he/she wants to participate in the delivery of the teacher education curriculum.

Similarly, we need to find innovative, cost-effective and easily accessible ways to deliver the school curriculum to all of South Africa’s learners, so that every child gets the education they deserve, and no child is left behind.

By Professor Patrick Bean, Executive Dean of STADIO Faculty of Education.