One of the most shocking effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has nothing to do with infection or health. School closures have hurt the education of about 1.6 billion children around the world.
Two years into the pandemic, schools in all countries were completely closed for more than 4.5 months on average. According to the United Nations cultural body UNESCO, one in 10 countries had closed schools for more than nine months, and millions of children around the world had not returned at all. Data is still coming in, but it’s beginning to confirm what everyone feared: that the children facing the greatest learning disabilities are the ones who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged. And it is well known that learning losses leave lifelong scars, likely leading to missed opportunities and lower incomes for decades to come.
Many nations want to minimize these losses, but returning schools to normal operations would be a mistake. Instead, they should seize this moment to improve teaching and education systems based on research. As a feature published today highlights, researchers have accumulated extensive evidence, including randomized controlled trials, pointing to cost-effective ways to improve school attendance and learning in both low- and high-income countries. These strategies range from providing information to parents and children about the long-term benefits of education, to helping children understand what they read, involving parents in parenting, providing meaningful feedback on their work, and supporting students in planning and evaluating their own learning.
Too often, such research is overlooked by educators and ignored by policymakers who mistakenly believe they know what works best. But applying evidence-based knowledge to classrooms around the world would help children recover from the educational damage caused by the pandemic. It would also strengthen entire education systems, many of which were failing children long before the outbreak of COVID-19. Many children are denied an education because of conflict, poverty or politics, including crises such as the war in Ukraine and the Taliban’s decision to exclude many girls from school in Afghanistan.
Advocates of evidence-based education need to be realistic about the limitations of research. A major challenge is the huge variation in classrooms and schools within countries and around the world. A tutoring program that has proven effective at one school may not work at another if the children’s ages, learning styles, or home environments differ, or if it is implemented in a different way. Educational research usually serves as a guide — but it’s no guarantee that something will work for a particular classroom or child, or when extended to a nation. Therefore, it is invaluable for teachers to fully engage in research and the application of the results.
A bigger problem is that educational research is largely decoupled from practice: most educational researchers don’t teach; Most teachers don’t learn much about or participate in research. (Contrast this with medicine, where practitioners—physicians—generally learn about research when they educate themselves and consult evidence-based guidelines when they practice, and possibly do research themselves.) However, this is not the same everywhere. Research into teaching effectiveness is an integral part of teachers’ professional development in countries like China and Japan. Other nations should learn from this approach.
In addition, there is a growing body of evidence showing how best to bring research insights into the classroom. A top-down approach that imposes new methods on educators is generally unsuccessful. A better way, argues Rukmini Banerji, who runs Pratham, an educational NGO in New Delhi, is to encourage teachers and students to try evidence-based approaches for themselves.
Learn from disruptions
In some cases, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has led to new ways of thinking and working in education – difficult as these changes have been. Schools invented ways to deliver lessons digitally, teachers became more involved in children’s social and emotional health, and parents became more involved in what their children were learning at home. Unfortunately, the impact of these innovations has not been well studied because they happened so quickly. Researchers and schools should make the most of the data they can collect and, if possible, collect more so they can hold on to innovations that have worked – both to help children now and to strengthen education overall.
It’s also important to track cohorts of children to uncover the lasting effects of dropping out of school, as well as other consequences of the pandemic. And where innovations and catch-up programs exist, their impact should be measured with rigorous research so that data will be available the next time learning is turned on its head.
Some have suggested children may be able to recover quickly from COVID-related school closures by taking a learning spurt. A more realistic view is that the better off children will recover the fastest and the pandemic will deepen existing deep inequalities in education. Therefore, any effort to help children today – and to build the education systems of tomorrow – must first focus on the most marginalized and disadvantaged children.