The summer when school changed forever

Professor Robot: School closures will introduce e-learning to millions of students. © Alamy

Is this a catastrophe or a golden opportunity? As the virus forces nearly a billion students around the world to study at home, the notion of traditional schooling is coming under scrutiny.

When they will reopen, no one knows. What is sure is that, in the UK, exams such as GCSEs, A levels and Scottish Highers will not take place as planned this summer.

“On Wednesday night, I witnessed my daughter and her friends experiencing something akin to a bereavement,” says Dr Rachel Mathieson in the Guardian today. “They will not be able to go through the ordinary rites of passage associated with the end of one’s schooling. Instead, they will be self-isolating for a lengthy period, with nothing to do. The mental challenges are going to be hard enough for children and parents, without the added purposelessness these students now face.”

Officials reckon that around 850 million children worldwide will be kept at home because of Covid-19.

Many teachers have pointed out that being away from school is made easier by the digital age. Thanks to resources like Khan Academy, BBC bitesize, or any number of Moocs, anyone with access to the internet can, in theory, learn almost any subject from their home.

Some companies, like China’s Squirrel AI, are incorporating artificial intelligence. “Imagine a tutor who knows everything about you,” says its founder, Haoyang Li. He expects the power of AI to allow students to learn 10 to 100 times more than they ever did before.

Such pronouncements have not impressed the many influential teachers, who passionately believe that schools exist to do far more that enable simple accumulating and regurgitating of knowledge. As Jean Piaget said, “The principle goal of education should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things.”

Experts have always argued that much creativity comes from being amidst other students. Indeed, collaboration and learning how to socialise are two critical aspects of education which are extremely difficult to replicate sitting in front of a laptop.

But few are in any doubt that the long summer of relative isolation enforced by Covid-19 will raise deep questions about the way modern education works.

The ancient Greeks learned while out walking. Many innovative schools today practise real-world, project-based learning, often called “deep learning”, rather than following set subjects and “teaching to the test”.

So, is this summer going to be an educational catastrophe or a golden opportunity?

School’s out

An opportunity, say reformers. By leaving the classroom, it will finally dawn on the whole system that there is no point being trained to work in a factory. You do not need to sit in a row and wait for a bell to ring. You do not need to take exams. Through this challenging experience, we will discover how education can be more self-directed, more engaging, and better for all.

A catastrophe, says the opposite camp. The coronavirus pandemic will be a terribly difficult time for both teachers and students alike. In the absence of a community of fellow-learners and hands-on support, we are likely to truly appreciate what it is that makes going to school so important.

You Decide

  1. What do you think you will miss most about school? Make a mental list and post it on Instagram later.
  2. Would you ever be okay with an AI teacher? It might be fun to take a free trial online later. It’s easy to look up.


  1. On one side of paper, draw the layout for your dream classroom. Make sure there is enough room for a whole class. Annotate your diagram. Now, send a photo of it round to some of your friends.
  2. Imagine you are writing a letter to someone from another planet. In 300 words, explain why children have to go to school. Email it to your class tutor.

Some People Say...

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Mark Twain (1835 -1910), American writer and humourist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the basic model of teaching has not changed fundamentally for about 150 years. We go to a big building, sit in rows, and soak up information from an expert. Various techniques are deployed to help us remember and think about what we are learning. Then, around once a year, we sit in rows and do exams to test us on how much we have learned.
What do we not know?
Essentially, and put very crudely, the big debate is about knowledge versus skills. At one extreme, school can be all about learning a ton of stuff and remembering it. At the other extreme, it can be about acquiring skills as a communicator, debater, leader, thinker, writer, and so forth. To do these things well, you need some knowledge – but not for its own sake. Knowledge is a means to an end.

Word Watch

Scottish Highers
Subject-based qualifications that can lead to university, further study, training, or work. In Scotland, you can normally study four or five Highers. The flexibility of the Scottish curriculum allows these to be studied over one or two years.
The new disease caused by the coronavirus, which has spread to most countries around the world and killed thousands
Massive open online course. A free, online course aimed at an unlimited number of people joining in.
Giving back the same information; repeating the same thing.
Jean Piaget
Famous Swiss psychologist, who focused on child development and education.
Deep learning
Often said to revolve around six Cs: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, citizenship, character, and communication.


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