Dr Christopher Thomas is Director of Partnerships for The Yidan Prize Foundation

We will be studying the last 12 months and its educational impact for decades to come. The closing of schools, colleges and universities in response to the global Covid crisis impacted 1.7 billion students globally (UNESCO)[1]. While we are starting to understand the huge academic, social and emotional impact that has had on students worldwide, it will take generations to comprehend the full toll of this unprecedented disruption.

But it is so important that we ensure our focus isn’t limited to understanding and mitigating the educational losses brought about by the pandemic. We have a duty to make our post pandemic perspective more ambitious and hopeful than that.

We owe it to future generations to find ways of sustaining the global creativity, collaboration and capacity for transformational change that we have witnessed across education systems in the past year.

That’s why I’m honoured to be the Director of partnerships for the Yidan Prize Foundation which has just established a visionary new Council of Luminaries. This multi-disciplinary council brings together innovators from neuroscience, education, economics, research and psychology to accelerate change and action within education and it is this type of bold, cross sector approach that has never been more needed.

So what can this new council and other educators, innovators and policy makers take from the pandemic that can help shape a brighter, better global education system in the future?

It’s a daunting question, but for me there are four clear outtakes we can build on to ensure that positive renewal as well as loss mitigation shapes education over the coming years...

  1. We have to recommit to the right to education 

The right to an education has become an increasingly accepted notion over recent decades. But when the pandemic forced the shift to online learning, we saw millions of students sat on the wrong side of the digital divide, unable to access the remote learning resources, lessons and lectures their schools, colleges and universities creatively provided.

Across the world only 57% of learners have access to the internet leaving over 700 million students offline and locked out of learning during the pandemic[2].

So our way of thinking about the right to education needs to change. In light of the impact the digital divide has had in blocking many students’ access to education in the past year, UNESCO is now rightly campaigning for an expansion to the definition of a right to education that recognises connectivity[3].

We have to also think about digital education as a public good – a good that should not be rationed by affordability, geography, or any other barrier. If we are to create a truly inclusive global education system, we have to push for a future of open digital educational resources, platforms and tools.

There are already some powerful examples of this in action. Anant Agarwal – a previous Yidan Prize winner embodies this approach – with the EdX platform he created providing free online access to over 2000 courses from over 130 higher education institutions. Khan Academy also provides open access, benefitting tens of millions of students worldwide. And PhET, a resource for science education, created by Yidan Prize winner Carl Wieman, provides interactive resources for science and mathematics educations that have been downloaded more than 800 million times, in virtually ever corner of the world.

With more sharing initiatives like this, more open-source platforms and tools and a redefinition of the right to education we can ensure that tech becomes a force that makes education inclusive rather than exclusive in the future.

But of course with inclusivity in mind, we must also be mindful of the fact that digital access isn’t yet relevant to all communities. When shaping the education system of the future, lockdowns have shown us that digital access must be a priority consideration, but it mustn’t be our only one. As well as opening up access to digital resources, platforms and tools, we have to continue to provide quality non-digital materials for those who are a long way off accessing a digital education.

  1. We have to put social interaction at the heart of the educational experience 

With students across the world having to go without in-person interactions with fellow students, teachers and lecturers for months at a time over the past year, the pandemic has created a watershed moment in our appreciation of the social and emotional aspects of education.

A recent study by the mental health charity MIND discovered that nearly three quarters (73%) of students in the UK said their mental health declined during lockdown[4]. These are sobering stats that we can’t afford to ignore when considering the systems of the future.  

Many of these students – thanks to the ingenuity of educators – were learning throughout this time. What they lacked were social interactions and emotional connections and the pandemic shone a light on the huge damage that is done when these are removed.

We now have a greater appreciation than ever before of the multi-dimensional role educators and institutions play in creating fully rounded individuals – academically able but also mentally, socially and emotionally healthy, positive and able to cope with the challenges of the future. Learning is a social

With technology and AI’s influences a growing force in education, we have to acknowledge that digital learning – though creative and effective where it can take place – should only ever an input to the educational experience. Future education systems have to prize the now undeniable benefits of human interaction, togetherness and collective experience as much as the drive for sharing academic knowledge digitally. After all, learning is – and has to be – a social undertaking, with each novel interaction stimulating curiosity, creativity and expression.

  1. We have to give students the tools to embrace their new independence 

The rapid pivot to online education created by the pandemic necessitated new levels of independent learning for students across the world. Whilst this undoubtedly resulted in social isolation it also gave many learners a unique opportunity to stretch their goals and test themselves as independent learners. These are trends we must look to embrace in the education systems of the future.

One of the members of our Council of Luminaries, Carol Dweck, has become renowned for her work on the ‘growth mindset’ and never has the need to embrace this thinking at the heart of future educational strategy felt more pressing.

As the recently launched OECD report, Sky’s the Limit: Growth Mindset, students and schools in PISAoutlines, growth mindset takes as its premise the notion that intelligence is a malleable rather than fixed asset that can be enhanced with curiosity, resilience to failure, and a passion for learning[5].

Lockdowns have brought the need for these learning skills and positive attitudes to the fore as never before, bringing to life the huge potential of this increasingly popular educational strategy. As revealed in the OECD report, the impact of a growth mindset on motivation levels can be significant, with students coached in growth mindset strategies studying for 209 minutes a day compared to just 157 minutes a day for the control group[6].

This is because students with a growth mindset know that persistence and hard work shapes the result. And that is crucial.

While those with a fixed intelligence mindset will believe their academic and future life outcome is largely pre-determined, those with a growth mindset will embrace educational opportunities and consistently set themselves higher aspirations and more challenging learning goals. In fact, studies have shown that those with a growth mindset consistently outperform those with a fixed mindset even after accounting for socio economic and attitudinal factors[7].

So growth mindset interventions are potentially one of the most cost-effective tools educators have to simultaneously improve equity and raise achievement overall, which

brings me onto my final outtake… 

  1. We have to enable global collaboration at scale

The last 12 months have brought about a burst of creativity, best practice sharing, co-creation and collaboration across the education sector – at a scale few would have anticipated.

We can’t allow our new, very understandable, focus on mitigating national educational losses to undermine this positive trend for global collaboration. Because there is so much of real value to share, explore and build.

If we are to use the full potential of this watershed moment in education we have to make the creation of a truly collaborative international research infrastructure a priority for education. And we have to give practitioners a role at the heart of this infrastructure so that innovative research and policies, like growth mindset, can rapidly become meaningful, effective and contextualised practices across the world.

The speed at which Coronavirus travelled around the globe provided us with a reminder of how small our world really is and how intrinsically our systems and futures are linked. Getting education ‘right’ is now – more than ever – a truly global concern. But it is also an inspiring global challenge that we can embrace and be excited by in light of the transformational changes we have already seen over the past year…

Christopher Thomas, Director of Partnerships for the Yidan Prize Foundation

Dr Christopher Thomas is Director of Partnerships for The Yidan Prize Foundation - a foundation dedicated to promoting a better world through education. The newly formed Yidan Council of Luminaries is a multi-disciplinary council dedicated to building a global education system more responsive to the challenges of the 21st century and more inclusive for the millions of children marginalised by today’s systems.

The council brings together 16 innovators from across the fields of neuroscience, education, economics, research and psychology to accelerate change and action within education. 

[1] https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse

[2] https://en.unesco.org/news/startling-digital-divides-distance-learning-emerge

[3] (UNESCO – Education in a post covid world: Nine ideas for public action (International Commission on the Futures for Education)

[4] https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus/student-mental-health-during-coronavirus/

[5] Sky’s the limit: Growth mindset, students and schools in PISA

[6] Sky’s the limit: Growth mindset, students and schools in PISA

[7] Sky’s the limit: Growth mindset, students and schools in PISA

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