Education in Malta, as elsewhere, is suffering because of COVID, the climate crisis and conflicts around the world.

Children’s lives and learning have been disrupted by the pandemic. How will they recover what they have lost? Have we evaluated how much they have lost? The lives of teaching staff have also been disrupted and their needs must be addressed.

Does the money rightly spent on mitigating the social and economic effects of COVID mean that there will be less money to spend on education in the coming years?

There are 40 conflicts raging in the world, not only the war in Ukraine. Schools are being destroyed, children and teachers killed, millions of people displaced and forced to flee for their lives.

Millions are suffering from the scarcity and sharp rise in costs of essential food and other daily necessities like energy. At the same time, a new arms race is underway and governments are committing themselves to spending more on war (so less money for education as a consequence).

There is a great deal of pressure for innovation in education. But beware.  

There is an Education Industrial Complex that uses innovation to create a market for its products and services and we must not allow it to dominate our education agenda.

Every country must find its own way in education. While learning from each other’s successes and failures, we cannot import ready-made, one-size-fits-all solutions.

Innovation is painful and difficult. It creates uncertainty, anxiety and a fear of the unknown. Not everyone is comfortable with risk, confusion, failure and disappointment. So, it has to be handled with care.

Authentic and inclusive consultations are essential with all involved: students, teachers and their unions, parents and the social partners and civil society at large.

Unless well planned and well-implemented at every stage, innovation and reforms fail. We ruin changes by rushing them. Innovation is not improvisation and it is not hoping for the best.

Education is caught between very powerful forces pulling in opposite directions. The electoral cycle encourages governments and ministers to appear to deliver by the following election. This runs counter to the education process which is more long-term, slower and largely invisible.

The political temptation is to prioritise visible deliverables: buildings, hardware… and less support is given to the essential invisibles: teachers’ and students’ well-being, time for education in school, the process of learning.

Unless well planned and well implemented at every stage, innovation and reforms fail- Evarist Bartolo

The tempo of life in the world outside school is at least five times faster than the tempo of life inside school.

How can we prepare our students for tomorrow’s world if we remain stuck in the world of the day before yesterday? At the same time, teachers already feel overwhelmed by their workload.  So changes have to be introduced in a gradual, incremental and sustainable way.

Changing the world

What do we need to learn in school in the 21st century? How best to learn it? How best to evaluate whether we have learned it? What skills and values do we need to develop in our children for a world that is continuing to change rapidly, making a lot of what we have learned in school obsolete?

What values do we need to nurture for a society where we have lost our comfort zones and, in many ways, live like nomads wandering disorientated in existential deserts?

When we carry out changes in education, we may fall prey to tunnel vision, ignoring the powerful impact of outside school factors on school: social inequality and exclusion, sickness, family conditions. Even if Mandela says that “education can change the world”, it is not realistic to expect education to change the world on its own.

For example, education cannot get children out of poverty single-handedly, but for them to benefit from education they need to be lifted out of poverty.

So, when mobilising support for education we must widen our approach and also mobilise for supportive social, economic, health and welfare policies.

We must change the present situation where schools feel isolated and besieged by the whole world around them – the bewildering changes in the world, social, technological and behavioural.

We will be defeated if we try to run schools as sanatoria and quarantine children from the hostile and infectious world outside. We need to build strong ties between school and the community to ensure its support for and reinforcement of what goes on in schools.

Good innovation is solving a real problem in a new way. It is making good use of new knowledge. How are we going to use the discoveries of neuroscience about the learning process for the benefit of students and teachers? How are we going to use artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies to help us improve education?

To deal with the climate crisis we need to change our production and consumption models. We need to change the way we work, what we produce, how we produce it. We need to change our lifestyle… education is expected to be part of the way we deal with all these changes and our transition to a new decarbonised world. We have to educate for a new world.

In a world which is becoming more polarised and divided and where new emerging blocs are hardening themselves against each other, we still need to find ways of living together as equals.

Pandemics, the climate crisis and conflicts cannot be solved by one country or a group of countries alone but we are not allowing a minimum basis for global cooperation to address these global challenges. How can we have the illusion that we can fight over everything but then work together to address global issues?

We must not give up. As Viktor Frankl says: “For the world is in a bad state but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his (and her) best.”

Evarist Bartolo is a former Labour education minister.

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