COVID-19 and Education: Emphasizing the Journey, Not the Destination

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Geneva Global has worked to help children who are stuck at home with few or no ways to study to continue their learning journey. These efforts focus on formerly out-of-school children aged 9 to 14 enrolled in Speed School classes that we have operated with government and civil society partners in Ethiopia since 2011 and Uganda since 2016.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 schooling responses rolled out by the respective governments have been highly unsuited to our learners. Like many countries, these relied largely on technology solutions (Internet, television, radio) to which most of our students do not have access, coming from the poorest families of poor communities. Furthermore, the response programs comprise lessons of just one or two hours per week and feature the rote transmission of content. Neither the pace nor the style of instruction is suited to Speed School learners.

Barred from the classroom, we had to figure out how to help learners advance their knowledge on their own. Unsurprisingly, the learner-centered instructional methods that are a defining feature of Speed School have equipped our learners with the independence, core skills, and inspiration to do this. The COVID-19 shutdown created the conditions to show Geneva Global and our government and civil society partners that we were achieving our goal of creating capable, motivated, independent learners. While every country context is different, we think these insights are applicable to a range of communities, educators, and public health officials that are all struggling in so many countries to sort out how best to deploy “least bad” educational alternatives while students and teachers remain unable to meet in the classroom.

Getting a leg up on the COVID-19 school shutdown

Speed School is an accelerated education program that groups children in classes of 30 to cover the first three years of primary schooling in just ten months. Speed School features activity-based, student-centered methods and aims to ready students to continue in Grade Four of a government school the following year. Independent research shows that these students routinely learn better than their peers in conventional classrooms.

The advantages of the Speed School model under COVID-19 conditions only truly appeared in Ethiopia, where the school shutdown occurred at the start of the third term (corresponding to Grade 3). In Uganda, schools shut down just a few weeks after the start of the new school year. So, children went home without having learned yet their “ABCs” and “123s” or acquiring the skills, habits, and excitement of learning academic lessons. Many of these children also come from families of illiterate parents, meaning there may be no one at home who can help with their studies.

In Ethiopia, the Speed School students had already acquired a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy skills and knowledge. They had become curious, organized, motivated learners who see learning as both a form of play and a source of pride. Deprived of the classroom, most embraced the chance to complete worksheets and to explore, experiment, and interact to keep building their knowledge and to keep alive their aspirations to enter Grade 4 in September. Their parents were already attuned to the rhythms of their children’s learning and better able and committed to supporting this actively at home. Sending these students home with interesting readers and curriculum-based education tasks to complete has yielded convincing learning outcomes. Following up with micro-classes, where possible, has solidified these gains.

In Uganda, we expect to begin shortly a strategy of one-on-one visits by facilitators to Speed School students. There, the spread of COVID-19 has been more aggressive, so many local authorities have continued to resist the idea of micro-classes. The goal of the visits will be to plant the seeds of early learning so that students (supported by their parents, guardians, or others) can quickly commence learning on their own, guided primarily by the worksheets and written instructions the facilitators will leave with them. Maintaining weekly learning sessions with the facilitator will help students advance through the curriculum.

Keeping learning alive

In both countries, Geneva Global is now working with civil society and government education partners to co-create and enact more formal strategies with two complementary goals. The first, as mentioned above, is to keep learning happening during the shutdown. The second is to ready students, teachers, and parents to resume classroom-based schooling once the COVID-19 shutdown is lifted. The main strategies comprise the following, most of which our partners in Ethiopia have been instrumental in refining and have shown to work well:

  1. The distribution of learning materials—readers, worksheets, supplies, etc.—and independent, activity-based learning tasks to all Speed School learners in their homes to permit and encourage independent learning.
  2. The direct distribution of technical documents and the virtual sharing of audio and audio-visual content on the Speed School methods to facilitators and their supervisors to allow them to continue to strengthen their ability to design lessons and deliver classes.
  3. The conduct of weekly (or bi-weekly) “micro-classes” for individuals or groups of up to five students at or near their homes or even at the school to provide instruction and guide subsequent self-learning. (These micro-classes only occurred where the local COVID team authorized these in writing and with students whose parents had given their written approval.)
  4. The delivery of text messages several times a week to facilitators to guide them in (i) their own continuous professional development, (ii) the delivery of the micro-classes, (iii) taking COVID-19 precautions and urging students and their families to do the same, and (iv) guiding parents in steps to encourage and support their children’s self-learning.
  5. The delivery of regular text messages to the parents or guardians of the Speed School pupils to (i) guide them in how they can support their children’s self-learning, and (ii) provide updates and guidance related to COVID-19 prevention.

These strategies share four common aspects:

  1. Students are deliberately trained in class to learn independently outside the classroom; not just during COVID-19 but for life. This begins with learning to read, but it includes the cultivation of curiosity, rigor, critical thinking, observation, and planning. It also cultivates their resilience and helps them know when and where to seek help.
  2. The requirement that the amount of content students must learn, i.e., the curriculum, should be stripped, or condensed, to its core elements to optimize learning.
  3. Students learn content better when it’s linked to knowledge and practical applications drawn from their local context. This is the Math of the kitchen, fields, and marketplace; it’s the Science of local illnesses and cures, the surrounding environment, and local production; and it’s the Civics learned from traditional leaders, government officials, and civic leaders.
  4. Both the teacher (we call them “facilitator”) and parents must create conducive settings and tasks for all this learning to occur. This concerns not just the practical conditions of learning, though these are certainly important. It means clearly conveying the expectation that children can and should learn and an emotional investment in encouraging them to do this.

Learning as the journey, not the destination

As in the Speed School classroom, the aim of independent learning under COVID-19 is not the destination. It’s the journey. Students should not simply learn that two plus two equals four. Rather, they should discover as many “real-life” situations as possible where this, and other, calculations serve practically. They should not just learn that cows and chickens are common domestic animals, different from wild ones. They should discover how to raise healthy chickens for eggs or meat, to process milk safely, to derive cultural meaning and economic gain from these activities, and so on. Learning about “My Community” is not merely a list of places and people to know but a collection of relationships and responsibilities to maintain.

The importance of this manner of learning is what the COVID-19 crisis may have revealed more than anything else. Geneva Global does not believe we have learned anything exceptional about how to manage education and learning in reaction to the present school shutdown. We do believe, though, that we have equipped our students exceptionally well to keep on learning despite the shutdown. We believe further that we have shown parents and teachers how they can ready students for this kind of continued learning before a crisis strikes. Our real takeaway, then, is the profound value of having fostered motivated, capable self-learners. These are children who are ravenous to keep learning despite the shutdown and who succeed in doing so, not children who see the shutdown as an extended vacation.

As we continue to work with the Ministries of Education in both countries moving forward, the value of a condensed curriculum paired with accelerated learning that is relevant, activity-based, and student-centered is becoming increasingly salient. With the return to school, the Speed School model and methods should help students cover what they missed more quickly, prepare for a possible new school shutdown, and learn their lessons better. If there is a silver lining to be found in the COVID-19 education shutdown, it may be the even greater realization that the approaches to learning used by Speed School are ones to emulate for all children in all classes at all times. The proof will be in the comparative performance of the former Speed School learners in Ethiopia as they join their peers in the conventional classrooms. We look forward to telling that story soon.