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With the emergence of the novel coronavirus in the first half of 2020, the world’s education systems have been through a test by fire. On-location learning went out the window in many countries around the globe, as schools scrambled to deploy various technologies to continue learning, some more successfully than others. The already existing fault lines in education have become a lot more visible with the global pandemic. The antiquated educational models, lack of qualified teachers, and stark differences in access to ICT across social classes – problems that educators have been dealing with for years – are suddenly out in the open.

Of course, not all countries or regions face the challenges equally, but today we are, nonetheless, looking at some of the biggest challenges to functioning education today.

Coronavirus and the digital divide

Before going on, we can’t possibly look around the impact the novel coronavirus has had on education. At a high-point of the pandemic, nearly 80% of school-age children were out of class, and the usually extremely conservative sector has had to take huge leaps forward to try to mitigate the consequences. While many countries have attempted to shift learning online as much as possible, many more lack the infrastructure and qualified educators to manage such a change in the extremely short timespan dictated by the pandemic.

Access to computers and sufficient bandwidth remains very unequal across the world – from nearly universal access to online learning in countries like Norway and Denmark to more than two-thirds of students in Indonesia lacking such opportunities, for example. A significant gap across social classes also exists in even the more developed countries, leading to fears that the pandemic will exacerbate the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Schools aren’t focusing on the future

Even for the lucky learners, who are in school, education still tends to focus on rote learning and “knowledge” of facts, as opposed to preparing children to face a world changing at an ever-quickening pace. This over-reliance on a learning model that was developed during the Industrial Revolution is not helping students prepare for the evolving meaning of work after they graduate. This particular problem is one of the most commonly cited reasons for the crisis in education.

Luckily, there is a growing voice among experts advocating for a shift in what is taught in schools. The idea is to move away from a fact-based curriculum to a focus on learning vital skills that would help students face the uncertainties of the quickly changing world. But ditching maths and world literature in favour of critical thinking and adaptability is, of course, meeting some resistance from the old guard.

“Success” measured by standardised tests

Our outdated education model is also reflected in the near-obsession with standardised tests. These supposedly unbiasedly determine a child’s abilities. But they also diminish complex humans down to a single number, create a lot of anxiety in both students and teachers, and promote a system of evaluation and motivation that is not productive in the long run.

Teaching the test and a focus on knowledge, as opposed to skills, naturally creates a feedback loop between the focus and output of the educational system.

A looming mental health crisis

The previous points also work to exacerbate another one: the worsening mental health of students in developed nations. Over the past several years, much has been talked about the reasons behind this change for the worse: from social media negatively affecting life satisfaction to the uncertainty of the economic future for recent graduates. But a school system prioritising performance as opposed to well-being and the stress from isolation during the recent pandemic are certainly not going to help the matter.

Conclusion

Education in the 21st century is facing many challenges. The reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the wide gap in access to technology becoming increasingly important in today’s education, while even developed nations are stuck in a system of teaching from over a hundred years ago and ill-equipped to prepare students for 21st century life. A focus on knowledge and facts has left graduates uncertain in their futures, exacerbating their already precarious mental health. But, it’s not all bad, of course. There are plenty of opportunities in education to look forward to, too.


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