In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 24 January as International Day of Education, in celebration of the role of education for peace and development. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 challenges all nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by the year 2030. As we think about this in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the emerging post-COVID-19 environment, what does inclusive and equitable education look like and how do we ensure that lifelong learning opportunities are benefitted by all?
Pacific Island Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA) results have provided us with rich data that identifies trends in literacy and numeracy for primary school students in the region. The PILNA data in recent cycles have also provided additional insights that speak to learning more broadly in terms of the learning skills that primary students are developing. PILNA 2018 data indicates that problem-solving and critical thinking skills are a challenge for many students in the Pacific region. For example, over 70% of year 6 students struggled with questions that required interpretation and reasoning in numeracy. Similarly, over 50% of students were unable to provide an explanation for their responses to questions in literacy that asked them to interpret what they had read or to make a decision or support an opinion, based on their reading.
At the senior secondary level, student results for the South Pacific Form Seven Certificate (SPFSC) have shown similar trends in recent years. Higher-order questions requiring students to apply their knowledge and problem solve in subjects across the spectrum, but particularly in the sciences and maths, are challenging. Students are generally able to respond to questions by applying recall or direct application of skills and knowledge, but struggle when asked to inter-relate multiple concepts, to address real-world situations or to extend their thinking into a more abstract use of skills and knowledge.
“…traditional education has frequently focused on problems that already have solutions…”
How do we equip learners for the demands of lifelong learning in an ever more rapidly changing world? Traditional education has focused on skills and facts, the kind of education many of us have experienced and the kind of education that has long been a staple of formal education systems around the world. It has frequently focused on problems that already have solutions and in supporting students in getting to those solutions. In recent years there has been increasing recognition that if learning is a lifelong effort, education needs to provide learners with skills that will allow them to solve problems that don’t yet have solutions.
Learning in the twenty-first century should be less focused on facts and figures, which are far more readily available than was the case in past centuries. Instead, education for lifelong learning must emphasise the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information, as well as collaboration and digital literacy skills. Gaining these skills, however, involves different ways of engaging in learning that are often not as readily available in large classrooms or in settings where students are not encouraged, or perhaps even overtly discouraged, from questioning what the teacher is saying. The efforts to develop the many skills needed by learners are complicated by the added challenge of disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic and efforts to fill the gaps with distance learning and virtual gatherings.
As we navigate the COVID crisis, we have a unique opportunity to reset standards in education, by providing the tools to ensure future generations embrace critical thinking both here in the Pacific, and globally.
This blog was written by EQAP's director Dr Michelle Belisle. It was first published by the Inter Press Service news agency here.