The current crisis took us by surprise. However, it is still our responsibility to take action. Grounded in reality, we ought to honestly scrutinize the state of affairs in the COVID-19 context, and act accordingly. Reality should inform our analyses and interventions. Otherwise, we will continue spinning in an empty cycle. The ramifications of such a deteriorating and unpredictable crisis are massive, both short-term, and in the long run. The crisis triggered by the new coronavirus is changing the world as we know it. We have an opportunity to alter what “normal” is. We need to actively participate in creating what a post-COVID-19 world looks like.

Our response to crises often deepens existing injustices and widens opportunity gaps, especially when the supposed remedy is hasty and arbitrary. It is imperative that we look for the root causes and not merely content ourselves with immediate results. Partial solutions contribute to postponing crises and not solving them. With every intervention, we need to ask a persisting question: what if this crisis occurs in the future? What would be required to avoid floundering responses?

This contagion has revealed that lack of solidarity is the real crisis. In the absence of solidarity, the most important requisite in these times, we are compelled to face the consequences for our educational systems. An unseen virus induced an evaluation of our education systems and an honest interrogation of its values. It instigated questions around our curricula: What is the point of theoretical and abstract notions in our curricula around cooperation, solidarity, symbiosis and synergy? Spewing perfect answers in tests around such values might get students a good grade. However, what is really needed now, the heart of the heart, is our ability to enact these values in our daily lives. Solidarity leads to justice and only justice guarantees foundations for solidarity. What are the challenges facing historically marginalized peoples who are ready to engage in solidarity work through institutions that have not been just? These are not simply philosophical questions but rather urgent and concrete ones.

Societies that described themselves as “refined”, “developed” and coalesced have quickly been exposed for being lonely, far from cohesive. With no solidarity in their foundations, they are like a body with no soul. This moment necessitates that we question all those responsible for decision making concerning educational systems. While failure in history tests are not surprising, this utter global failure in the relevance of education to daily life is profound.

Forgive my honesty. This is no time to start talking about achievements; not when all the challenges brought out and revealed by the virus continue to exacerbate. Many of us were unprepared and lacked comprehensive emergency plans. We need to hold ourselves accountable. The first responsible act is for us to be scientific, concrete and direct. This crisis is not a space for showing off achievements impossible to reach in this context.

What do we need? What is required?

We need, more than ever, to summon wisdom into our educational discourse. At the micro level, what students and teachers need the most is to understand themselves and their actions and to gain insight into the impending danger. What they need most is a moral boost through thoughtful intentional emotional and social support so they can engage in meaningful self-reflection to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

At the institutional level, institutions need to honestly reflect on their state of affairs if they commit to restoring their balance and recalibrate their work rhythm in order to have a chance to take a step forward. Institutional responses need to be meticulously probed and guided by the wisdom inherent in strategies that connect educational content to the current crisis. We need to search for educational tools and patterns that facilitate praxis whereby students can practice what they learned. What this moment requires is not an end to curricula but consolidation of efforts and a focus on concepts that support cumulative knowledge building through the dynamism of theory and practice. This is the moment that requires teachers and students to connect all they have learned and taught to their daily lives. For example, language teachers could help students improve their writing skills through writing about and exploring their feelings and experiences. Grounded in their reality and visions, students will be simultaneously learning about themselves while practicing literacy structures and functions. Both aspects should be assessed and supported. In order for such approaches to be incorporated into education, now and in the future, we need to attend to teachers’ capacity building and skill development in all aspects necessary.

Solidarity, (or lack thereof, which this crisis revealed to be the real crisis) ought to be reinforced not only as a value but also as a practice, not only during a crisis, but also in daily life. This crisis leaves no doubt that it’s time we overthrow the tendency to confine teaching to the evaluation of learning outcomes. Rather, we should re-introduce value systems in education, which were rendered invisible and social outcomes considered unworthy. Methodologies devoid of explicit learning and practice of value systems is evident in textbooks and pedagogies. Teachers are trained to focus exclusively on academics with no space for their role in building and strengthening social fabrics and enacting social change. Confined to abstract academic frames, teachers disconnect from meaningful knowledge construction required for their role as agents of socio-economic, cultural and political change. The world is paying the price for that now. Having retreated into their personal zones, some teachers grapple with low morale, a weak sense of belonging at best. Such regression is not surprising in light of what we have witnessed. Civic education, for example, became suspect and even cancelled or supplanted by abstract knowledge divorced from explicit values. Some even invested in developing assessment tools, rubrics and academic standards for this with total disregard to connections with daily social life on the ground. Solidarity is essential for a vibrant citizenship. Therefore, it is imperative to revisit the role of our educational systems in supporting and strengthening solidarity not simply as an idea but as daily behavior and systematic action, not as a definition retrieved for a grade on a test, but as manifestations in the smallest daily decisions and behaviors. In reality, our educational systems have promoted a status of schizophrenia by burying alive the simplest element of an active citizenship: solidarity.

Third, this crisis instantly exposed how weak partnerships are, both partnerships between governments and civil society as well as partnerships within civil society itself. Distrust, suspicion and ambiguity, in addition to vague principles are, unfortunately, epitomized. In theory, we are in partnership with governments, but in practice, where is the partnership? Governments allude to civil society only to avoid criticism and create an image of engagement (not partnership), to market government efforts and perform to the international community as passing an indicator in a checklist. Partnership, as this crisis has unveiled, requires that we participate in (re)creating meaning for concepts and words and are fully involved in imagining and developing solutions. This requires trusting our abilities in critical historical moments. Governments rarely, if ever, have the ability to deal with crises with the agility and dynamism that civil society can. Civil society includes all segments of society from social movements to unions to clubs, etc., and are the ones capable of innovation and creativity in solutions, tools and approaches. Without a solid collective value system that honors life and is built on trust, solidarity and mutual responsibility, societies are at risk of destruction, violence and selfishness.

We need to invest in restoring and building trust in people’s power. People have the capacity to imagine and develop tools and generate creative solutions to our predicament. Teachers are especially positioned to do that. With trust and support, teachers can lead us through this crisis with their innovative and creative minds and skills. It’s time we raise our expectations from teachers and to embrace what they can offer. A vast number of teachers were faster than the educational systems in imagining and implementing initiatives to address the crisis; not as a result of any centralized leadership, but rather because these teachers still held onto their initiative taking and creative spirit.

We have an abundance to build on and move forward from. We can either distract ourselves with bragging about alleged achievements while the crisis worsens exponentially, or we can replace the shallow fragmented curricula with meaningful comprehensive ones. Instead of talking about the importance of citizenship, we need to rethink its spirit, values and practices. Otherwise, we will entrap ourselves in the center of the furnace, scrambling. There is nothing wrong with crises revealing our weaknesses, provided we are learning and growing through contemplation, self-reflection, and grounded analysis to re-imagine a more just, humane and sustainable world.

Finally, unless we are fully convinced that there is a lot to do, we won’t liberate ourselves from theoretical exaggeration and empty assurances. This crisis is not about courage, as some seem to believe, but about will, clarity, science, and professionalism. Is it not time already that we revisit our intentions before we revisit our tools?

Written by: Refaat Sabbah
Translation from Arabic by: Yamila Hussein
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The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement that aims to end exclusion in education. Education is a basic human right, and our mission is to make sure that governments act now to deliver the right of everyone to a free, quality, public education.