Unlearning education

31 August 2020
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Updated 31 August 2020

Unlearning education

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our world hard and suddenly the unimaginable has become a reality.
Travel bans, school shutdowns and nationwide curfews have become the norm. The pandemic has forced us to halt our lives, disrupting every aspect of our day-to-day routines. When it comes to the education system, COVID-19 has left 110 million students without access to schools as a result of closures. This is compounded by the fact that in January 2020 more than 260 million students and youth were out of school to begin with. Yet the pandemic has also forced us to adopt an inevitable shift toward digitizing education.
While digitization may pave the way toward widening educational access, a sudden shift toward digitization also means that many will be left behind due to issues with digital literacy, internet accessibility and quality.
With a new reality in place, there is still room for deep-rooted changes. Digitizing education has been on Saudi Arabia’s national agenda for some time now. A shift toward becoming a knowledge-based economy calls for that. Digital education allows for widening educational access and equity, should the proper infrastructure and access be in place. It also helps with information retention as this is increased by an estimated 25-60 percent when learning online and, lastly, increased learning from a diversified set of resources, among many other benefits.
Yet, the success of a digital or blended educational model alone is not enough for reforming our education system. If our ultimate objective is to graduate change agents who are equipped with 21st-century skills, we need to build for a more experiential and collaborative educational process.
What are 21st-century skills anyway? A graduate equipped with these skills is one who is equipped with the “four Cs” — graduates who are creators, critical thinkers, collaborators and communicators.
For a blended education to truly succeed in revolutionizing the outcomes of education, we need to unlearn how we think about our educational systems.
Fostering the four Cs means that the times of a tutor-centered educational process where teachers direct information at students who are then expected to download without critical reflection are long gone. It is time to design and work toward a new educational process.
In its Schools of the Future Report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) emphasizes eight traits for a quality educational experience suitable for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Innovation, self-paced learning, student-driven and collaborative learning are some of these. These changes have already been tested and shown great success.
Escuela Nueva (EN), or the “New School” pedagogy, has been doing just that across Columbia for the past 30 years. EN’s collaborative, student-centered approach, as well as its emphasis on the values of democracy and the cognitive skills of how to learn are at the core of its success.
Technology can act as an enabler of this unlearning, or change, process. In the case of self-paced learning for example, a blended approach allows students to engage with a multitude of resources at their own pace, and develop customized and personalized learning journeys. This paves the way for making the student an active agent in their educational experience and nurtures a journey of lifelong learning.
South Africa’s Valenture Institute is another exemplar of how education needs to evolve. The online high school offers students a new educational experience, where dedicated success mentors and educational material that is 70 percent interactive allow students to safely socialize, collaborate and flourish into “change-makers who can meaningfully participate in the rapidly changing world outside of the classroom.”
Achieving these kinds of outcomes calls for the creation of an educational journey that carries through with the students across their entire day, and their entire lives. A journey where both caregivers and formal educators are core elements of the pupil’s educational process. This requires immense investments in revamping our curricula and the facilitators of the educational process (both parents and formal educators). Now is the time to think about education as a process of unlocking our students’ character, passions and potential.   
Moving forward, it is essential to enhance the capacity of these core agents of change, to successfully create schools and students of the future. National institutions will eventually redesign the educational process to ensure these modes of action. But meanwhile it is the responsibility of every parent, teacher and educational reform advocate to start pushing for these changes. I invite us all to start thinking and acting on how we would like these changes to manifest themselves. And the simplest action that we can take is to develop a genuine interest in the educational journeys of our children and to shift our own perception of ourselves away from that of authority figures, and toward that of peers and facilitators.


Muna AbuSulayman is an international development expert with a diverse cross-sector work experience of more than 20 years, and one of the most recognizable media personalities in the Arab world.