What constitutes a crisis?
We’ve opened Pandora’s Box on tech inequity, but that’s just a symptom of another more insidious illness in our education system. Can we eliminate this disease, too?
Many New Zealanders know that our education system is structurally dysfunctional in a number of ways. True, it’s more functional than some, and of course we can be grateful we have one at all, but the statistics speak for themselves. Our teachers are still some of the most overworked and underpaid in the OECD, with a disproportionate number leaving the profession due to mental health concerns. We are ranked by UNICEF as one of the worst countries in the OECD for providing equitable education.
While some of our young people are receiving educational outcomes and opportunities that are second to none, many of our rangatahi — and their kaiako — are being let down by these ancient, rigid, unsustainable institutions. Look at our teen suicide rates; our adult literacy rates; our poverty and well-being statistics and you will see the consequences — look to our classrooms, and you will see the cause.
COVID-19 may have pushed our entire country into a state of emergency, but many New Zealanders have been living in ‘crisis’ for a while. The problem is that COVID-19, as with most disasters, does discriminate in its impact — which means the crisis is going to get worse for those who can least afford it.
Our education system has the potential be a core intervention for mitigating the far-reaching socio-economic fallout of this disaster, particularly for our most vulnerable communities. For this to manifest, we have to look beyond the superficial barriers to access that have plagued the old system for so long. I believe this could be — and should be — our moment to break one of the contributing cycles of poverty, once and for all.
Minister Hipkins’ address to the nation, following the lockdown announcement, was a landmark for teachers who already know and work with this reality. In particular, the still-frighteningly high statistics of students without access to devices. I wonder how many New Zealanders would have been exposed to this harsh reality for the first time, just last week. (And if you think lack of access to the internet is bad, wait until you hear about the lack of access to food, clothing, and a safe and healthy living environment.)
Many of us love to talk about ‘disrupting’ education. To my fellow pro-disruptors, I say congratulations — education has been disrupted! Now, what are we doing about it?
There is plenty of exciting discourse happening around the modification of assessment and the re-evaluation of content delivery, and the roles of educators in this changing world. For many educators, their immediate concern has been which newfangled EdTech tool they should use to deliver effective and engaging teaching from beyond the classroom, and rightly so. I do not decry this work — I contributed my own skills to the creation of a free professional development course to help teachers prepare. It has been exciting to watch educators all over the world come together and innovate an overhaul of the very nature of our educational institutions and ideals, accelerated over a series of weeks — not the decades that some might have forecasted previously.
There has also been some awesome kōrero on behalf of student-led and wellbeing-led Principals in this time, as well. Maurie Abraham spoke about the involvement of students in last-minute remote-teaching planning meetings. Claire Amos published Albany Senior High School’s guidelines way ahead of the game, offering an insight into some of the necessary structures all schools would need to consider. The leadership at my school has likewise taken that compassion-focused approach, for which I am grateful. However, I have also heard first-hand horror stories about SLTs demanding assessments continue as normal, and for teachers and students to remain accountable for term-time work, as though COVID-19 (and all of its consequences) were not taking up valuable real estate in our brains.
I feel compelled to write this piece not because of a lack of action, but because I want to see more widespread action and discussion on behalf of the students my colleagues in the Ako Mātātupu programme and I are here to serve. If we don’t include them in the conversation — in every conversation — we risk making the dysfunction of our education system more acute.
We risk widening the divide.
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed yet.”
— William Gibson
In the distribution of ‘future’ among schools and households across New Zealand, ours — those in deciles 1 through 5 — did not receive a fair helping. When I first entered the classroom as a Digital Technologies teacher last year, I knew the 20% figure in the abstract, but I didn’t really get it until I was faced with the impact on my students. In my classes, I have students who have been coding since primary school, and I also have students who balk at some of the simplest tasks that you or I would take for granted using a digital interface. Many of my colleagues report the same. That’s the least of our worries in this scenario, though. For me, and other teachers in my position, our first concern is — where are they living? Where are they sleeping? Are they safe? Are they fed? Will they be healthy — mentally, emotionally, physically, culturally, spiritually?
Will they have the space, the time, the quiet to engage with learning with minimal stress? And then (only then)… if they do have access to a device and internet, if I send them an e-mail, will they know how to access it?
Five of my students, surveyed in late February, reported they didn’t. That was back when we had plenty of access to devices, at school.
False Securities of a Socio-Economic Crisis
Attendance is a deceptive measure for accessibility — school campuses obscure where the inequities are most desperate. If you looked at a classroom of my students, you might not be able to tell who had spent over an hour commuting to get to school. Whose family was struggling to feed them. Who may not submit any work, but took a beating and still turned up. We count bodies in the classroom as justification that we are providing access to learning, but that access looks different to different students — the ones who are exhausted, or hungry, or traumatised may be in class, but are still partially absent. Our pastoral care and support staff can sometimes catch them, but the stigma attached to these students’ contexts means that they sometimes don’t.
And then, there’s the racism. Even if students do come to school, they face persecution and bias against their success, more commonly from their teachers than their peers. It is appalling to me that some of the primary adult relationships our students will experience in their schooling will be based on rejection of their communities and cultures, but this is the ugly truth we have to face if we are to have any hope of eliminating it. This racism will not just disappear as our schools move online. It will simply change form as we continue to juggle how to assess and monitor student engagement across platforms, both during and after the lockdown.
Education is supposedly the ‘great equaliser’, but we seem to have settled for “good enough” because on the surface, it might not look like there is much to complain about. Some of my students, and their families, know different.
This lockdown has revealed that difference by lifting the mask of attendance and centralised resources and at least considering the problem of material access to education resources — namely, digital access — but consideration does not seem to go beyond that, and it needs to. Our students’ homes have now become their primary learning environment. Tell me that a young person living in a crowded state house with a chromebook and patchy wifi, and a family stressed about losing their ability to pay for basic necessities, has the same access to learning and education as a young person living in Remuera with a MacBook, fibre, and enough toilet paper in the cupboard to go a whole month.
…They’ve both got internet and devices, haven’t they?
The reality is that Māori and Pacific peoples are going to be over-represented in the demographic of students who have increased barriers to access in their learning, compounded by the remote teaching format. The cycle of poverty risks becoming a downward spiral in the post-COVID world. Can you imagine trying to work, let alone learn, in a household with more than 2 people per bedroom? How can we ask our students to deliver the same quality of work from these environments? It is for this reason (among others) that I don’t set homework. Now, all of the work I set is ‘homework’, whether I like it or not.
We have needed the kind of governmental investment we’ve seen in the last two weeks for private businesses and airlines — and we needed it yesterday. Had we been more proactive on ensuring equal access to digital technologies education for all of our students weeks, or even months or years ago (it’s been a problem for much longer than that), the conversations could then more easily shift to what the other barriers in our students’ lockdown environments are, and how we can address those from afar. The past is the past, but those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it, so let’s prepare and respond rather than react to the future we can already see coming.
I am worried that once we have solved the internet-and-device access problem, we may go back to the false sense of security that has allowed this inequity to perpetuate, unchecked. The internet, for all its wonders, is not necessarily the all-purpose hammer to the nail of this social issue. It doesn’t need an app — it needs a change of attitudes.
A few days ago, I participated in a global workshop with fellows across the Teach for All network, of which Ako Mātātupu is a partner organisation. Teachers and educational leaders from afflicted nations across the globe were present — from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil, the USA, and others. We came together to discuss how each of our organisations and colleagues are handling the COVID-19 crisis, to share ideas and solutions, and offer support. As educators, we have a unique connection into our communities, insights and relationships that take a while to build but that become vital in the face of disaster. We are sometimes the only advocates for those we serve.
Stories told in that workshop were a sobering reminder that we do have a lot to be grateful for, here. How can we wash our hands if we have no water? One educator, from Teach for India, asked of the group. In Pakistan, families called teachers in desperation after not being able to afford food for two days. Another participant, from Afghanistan, described how school campuses have been converted to makeshift hospitals.
In the face of this immense shared horror, there was light in the words of the director for Teach for Pakistan. She described how she brought her staff together to plan for the impending crisis, and she asked, “Who are we as people in this time?”
It seems like such a basic question, but it struck me as how important it is — even, apparently, in such dire circumstances as she and her staff were faced with.
The #MaslowBeforeBloom hashtag describes a common stumbling block in education. Sometimes, we’re so busy being teachers, we forget that we’re human, too. We’re so busy thinking about our students’ learning needs that we forget they may not have met their basic needs, first. We’re so busy believing it is our responsibility to provide information and instruction and ‘knowing’, we sometimes forget that our students also come to us readily equipped with wisdom we can benefit from. They know their context, and their culture, better than we do.
What will endure this crisis, when we look back on it, will be the opportunities we had to express our humanity and humanness in the most authentic and compassionate way. As educators, that might not look like creating the most engaging and effective online learning program — there are plenty of existing ones out there. It might look like touching base with all of our students and their whānau and asking if they’re ok. It might look like asking them what their capacity is and creating a system for checking-in, providing a language or method of articulating what their place in the post-COVID world looks like to them, at that moment in time. It might look like leveraging the connection we have to our communities, not just to distribute content, but to receive insight and co-create the new normal that they need from us.
Pratiksha, one of the Teach for India fellows, shared the importance of fighting our action bias in the face of such immense and complex challenges. That our need to act first, and ask questions later, can create long-term harm— that she has been learning to sit with the discomfort of not knowing the answer, but being willing to ask the questions. That’s the place I’m coming from, here and now.
I would love to help build our post-COVID education system on the assumption that the inequity won’t exist when we establish it, but we cannot afford to make that assumption knowing what we know. Those with privilege will continue to benefit, as they do, from fast-moving innovation; those not in the class the innovation was created for will be left trying to adapt solutions poorly built for their context. I don’t want our statistics next year to just be a showcase of how young people (and their teachers) with privilege can thrive in a remote teaching environment; we already know they can, and will. I want to see that we listened to the needs of students in less-than-ideal situations and were flexible enough to offer them the advantage that authentic remote learning can offer.
It feels like the hashtag, #MaslowBeforeBloom, is doubly important now. Using this time to get to know our students and their context, and formalise that process, may not appear to progress their ‘learning’ through the metrics of traditional educational achievement. We may not see it in NCEA credits or other achievement metrics, but we will see it in their self-esteem and resilience, which can then translate to their self-actualisation no matter which mode of learning or development they choose later on. It doesn’t mean lowering our standards or applying deficit thinking to their abilities, but it does mean adjusting our attitudes, and the metrics we use to measure the non-linear nature of what our students’ development will look like herein.
If we can help our students emerge from this era with their natural curiosity and wonder intact, and with a developed sense of agency and self-efficacy, then they will be prepared to learn and grow to meet any challenge beyond it.
We already know there are far bigger challenges on the horizon.
The Dregs of Disaster
I’ve been thinking about the Greek myth of Pandora’s box a lot, lately. The child of Hephaestus, gifted on the one hand with powerful curiosity, and on the other, a box containing all the evils of the world. While the term “Pandora’s Box” is sometimes used interchangeably with the idiom “a can of worms” (referencing how Pandora’s curiosity became her undoing) I haven’t often heard reference to the closing act of the myth. Once all of the evils had been released, there was one item left in the bottom of the container — hope, shimmering there in the wake of the horrors passed. It suggests that we have to come to terms with the capacity for ugliness and evils in all things, even ourselves, in order to have any hope of transcending them.
One of my undergraduate mentors, who helped coordinate the Student Volunteer Army efforts after the Canterbury earthquakes, was a fan of the western motivational interpretation of the Chinese character for crisis — poetically, a blend of the characters for “Danger” and “Opportunity”. The potential for danger, and opportunity, in this post-COVID culture increases over time. As more extraordinary measures are taken, more extraordinary complexities present themselves. In some ways, we are opening many Pandora’s Boxes simultaneously — those of our pandemic management strategies, of our climate mitigation strategies, of our infrastructure and supply chains, of weaknesses in our urban development and design. They are nesting dolls in the much larger hoard of human messiness in the process of globalisation, and the aftermath of colonisation.
Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built In Hell, hinges on the idea of the post-disaster utopia —that in the bottom of each of these disaster-boxes is that same spirit of hope. It is on us to grasp that hope and do something about it.
At the bottom of the disaster-box of educational inequality, the shape of my hope is that the inequities revealed by this crisis will all be uncovered, so brutally and honestly, that we as a wider society will have no choice but to do something about it. It may be a naive hope, given how much we knew of these before now, but the moment for action has come.
We can’t un-know what we now know. We can’t un-see what we’ve seen. And once we’ve created solutions to access for our students— all of our students — we can’t possibly take them away when we are deemed no longer in a state of collective ‘crisis’. We talk about preparing for a ‘new normal’, but for some, ‘crisis’ is normal. It’s not new, at all.
Thank you to Michelle Johansson for a lot of the helpful facts and figures and support around thinking, Chris Henderson for the valuable discussion around applying decolonised thinking to crisis contexts, Claire Amos for her continued thought leadership on the rapidly changing landscape of education, the Ako Mātātupu and Teach for All teams for providing support and insight onto what it looks like for us and our students.