Pandemic 'an opportunity for renewal' – expert


Reports have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on students’ mental health and learning.

According to one study, more than 90% of senior students consider the disruption to normal schooling as a stressful experience, and more than one in four said it was “one of the most stressful experiences of my life”.

However, the massive shake-up that the education system has undergone since the shift to remote and flexible learning has provided some unique opportunities for schools to improve the way teaching and learning happens.

Renowned education expert Professor Pasi Sahlberg is the deputy director of the UNSW Gonski Institute for Education. He believes greater attention should be given to what kids have learned during the pandemic rather than to the losses in learning traditional school subjects and student test scores.

“This global pandemic is a test for school systems’ flexibility and complex problem solving. Many educators see the disruption as an opportunity for renewal,” Professor Sahlberg told The Educator.

He says one silver lining during the pandemic is that many students and their parents are “looking at what school could be with new eyes”.

“They ask more often than before what do we really need to learn at school that is meaningful and how to teach important things to all children so that they would become lifelong benefits,” he said.

“Another ‘old negative’ that might turn into a ‘new positive’ is a growing consensus that Australia needs much smarter, inexpensive and less harmful way than NAPLAN to assess what students learn in school and how education systems make progress toward commonly agreed goals”.

COVID is taking its toll, but play can help

With two young children of his own, Professor Sahlberg said he has seen the common issues of social isolation, loneliness and mental stress among children during the COVID-19 firsthand.

“My experience is that children are much less concerned about missing some important lessons at schools than they are about not being able to be with their friends or not seeing their grandparents,” he said.

“The pandemic has its toll on kids, but play can help”.

Professor Sahlberg said that in the age of COVID, play – with or without Lego – gives children time to think about something else by bringing joy and positive emotions to their lives.

“At the same time, unstructured play at home, or better yet outdoors, develops problem solving skills and resilience. I see the power of play here at home every day,” he said.

“Although my kids’ social play with their friends may be interrupted, we the parents are playing with our kids more than before. This enriches relationships within families that has long-lasting benefits to children”.

Now is the time to make a meaningful change

A recent analysis of PISA 2018 data by ACER found that while young people consider the pandemic to be an extremely stressful experience, their self-efficacy is high.

Professor Sahlberg said schools can leverage this to support students’ resilience and wellbeing moving forward.

“PISA 2018 data about students’ self-efficacy were collected two years before the COVID-19 appeared. Although majority of 15-year-olds then believed in themselves to get them through hard times, their answers today would probably be very different,” he said.

“In other words, we should not underestimate the devastating power of social isolation and toxic stress, and overestimate children’s own ability to bounce back during the time of COVID-19”.

Professor Sahlberg said evidence from around the world suggests that two out of three adolescents currently suffer from mental health challenges.

“Furthermore, the pandemic is exacerbating whatever the kids are struggling with and amplifying the pre-existing social and educational inequalities,” he said.

“Some kids, for sure, are more resilient than others, but many are much more fragile than the PISA data suggest”.

Professor Sahlberg believes this is why schools should make student and teacher wellbeing a big priority, turn the conversations with kids and parents into positive ones, and accelerate joint efforts to reduce educational inequalities through better policies and improved practices in education.

“Now is also the right time to put up a good fight against wide-spread bullying in schools and make every school a safe place for every child and every teacher to come out from this terrible pandemic healthier and stronger”.