The global pandemic has accelerated many disruptions across the educational landscape. Arguably, this change has been coming for awhile, but it’s also important to recognise that it’s not at all an easy journey for teachers
In the first weeks of Singapore’s lockdown-induced home-based learning (HBL), I took some time to host wellbeing check-in sessions with some teachers. That’s fancy language for “opening a Zoom room, allowing teachers to sign up, and having teachers share (mostly, vent) their frustrations over the situation”. These sessions turned out to be incredibly heartwarming. What struck me most was realising that much of the teachers’ anxieties stemmed from the fact that they really care for their students. One teacher shared with the group that this was the first time she saw her students in a home setting. It allowed her to notice her students’ family environments, and she came to realise that each child’s mental and emotional state coming to school was so intertwined with their experience at home. This called on her to radically rethink how she personalises her classes in school for her students. Yet, it’s not an easy task, given the tools we have today.
Parallel to her sharing lay other important concerns. Some teachers articulated their struggle with capturing the attention of their students. After all, they were competing with content creators on Youtube, and they were never going to emerge victorious against the likes of Pewdiepie or other Youtubers. Other concerns were fairly existential – some questioned why we still go through so much content in our syllabus, when there are other pressing needs like emotional wellbeing. Others reflected the need to involve more stakeholders – parents, friends, siblings – into the growth of a child. Bear in mind, we weren’t talking about the future of education – we were addressing issues that were happening today.
I think it would be unwise to categorise these concerns as pandemic-specific. In the last decade, the proliferation of technology – social media, increased access to creating and distributing information, or the ease of coming together across the world for a shared purpose – has really changed the way we should think about teaching and learning. Gone are the days where our schools and institutions hold the only keys to knowledge. There’s new opportunities for learners to be self-directed, organise into groups, and seek knowledge quite literally at their fingertips.
At the same time, I think the digital age has also brought about a sense of isolation. It’s much easier, in this digital era, for us to shut ourselves off from the real world. We might compare our internal struggles with the seeming perfection of the world of social media, or choose to drown ourselves in the hypersensations of Netflix binging or mindless gaming. The ramifications are that we live in increasing isolation and in urgent need of people who are able to connect deeply – socially and emotionally.
So, how does this lead to the changing roles of teachers?
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the responsibilities of content creation and delivery will continue to diminish. I’d argue it already has been for long, and it’ll continually ease into the education landscape at a comfortable pace. For any subject matter that you can possibly teach, there will be someone, somewhere else in the world that can do it even better. There might even be enough diversity of content creators that caters to the personalised needs of students.
The educator’s role turns from one of content creation and delivery, into one of curation and facilitation. Instead of preparing 2 hours for a 1 hour class on the history of World War II, I think an educator can go “here are videos I found from three different countries and their perspectives on World War II, let’s spend our lesson unpacking why they might be different”. Immediately, we open another dimension of discussing emotional reactions, values, or picking up communicative skills – all personalised, human and very relevant to holistic learning [Crucially, this actively involves the learners, keeps them engaged, and encourages them to contribute to their own learning and those of their peers.]
Secondly, also guided by technology, but also by virtue of changing approaches, assessments will be very different. I think teachers will be extremely happy to hear that they are likely, in the foreseeable future, not going to need to do any heavy marking ever again. All the hours taken away from family time because they need to ascertain whether the student has figured out the right steps to a mathematical equation is likely to go away. In place of that lie an abundance of tools that allow for peer evaluation or artificial-intelligence-guided grading, not only at levels of higher education, but even down to preschools. That leaves teachers with the roles of guiding, reviewing, and providing feedback – spending more time on what happens before and after the exercise of the assessment in itself.
Third, educators are at the frontline of our volatile, and, as aforementioned, potentially isolating world. As our next generations face increasing pressures over their mental and emotional health, we have to acknowledge that our educators are placed in a situation with greatest exposure to these trends. This is a huge responsibility. It calls for educators to be “feelers” on the ground, observing and tracking the wellbeing of the students. At the same time, we need to make sure that we pay close attention to the wellbeing of our teachers, who themselves are similarly, if not even more greatly, vulnerable.
Overall, I think these changes speak towards the reclamation of the human aspects of teaching and learning. In fact, I believe it’s why we all became teachers in the first place – to be more human, and to interact with our students as mentors or coaches.
Where do we go from here?
It can be tempting to call for a rethink of education. Yet, what is even more pressing is to create tools that can support educators in doing their human jobs well. This includes supporting day-to-day observations, enhancing interactions with students and parents, or nudging reflexivity over personal wellbeing and development.
We need to recognise that this journey is not at all easy for teachers. Amidst these disruptions, our educators do care deeply about their students, and we should do the same for them.
Ng Aik Yang
For the past 8 years, I’ve been inspired by educational innovations around the world and I write these pieces in spirit of sharing insights I’ve gathered in this journey. Hopefully, they can fuel the change in education to become more deeply meaningful and enjoyable. Get in touch with Aik at firstname.lastname@example.org