With almost every child across the United States out of school due to the coronavirus, schools are shifting their thinking from stop-gap measures to the future of learning.
The current scale of school disruptions, both nationally and globally, is unprecedented, yet the nature of them is not.
Lessons learned from working with displaced refugees and people in settings of conflict can help us as we plan for a future of learning amid uncertainty.
In an immediate crisis, we think about what we absolutely need to stay alive: our health, food, water and shelter. As the long-term nature of a crisis sets in, we think not only about what is lifesaving but also about what is life-sustaining, including learning.
It’s not what keeps us alive, but it’s essential to what makes it worthwhile to be alive. But what kind of learning meets this high bill? Disruption forces a reckoning with what the purposes of education are.
In our research, we ask refugee children and families about the purposes of education, and they are clear and consistent in their replies: The purposes of education are to help them make a future. Children look to parents and teachers to help them understand what these futures might hold, yet in contexts of uncertainty, these futures are unknowable.
As we think about the future of learning in our long-term context of uncertainty during Covid-19, we must educate for unknowable futures.
My research with refugees and those living amid conflict shows that schools can work in concrete ways to prepare students for these unknowable futures by teaching young people how to adapt to change, to identify and disrupt inequalities and to create relationships of belonging.
Learning that prepares young people for different current and future situations enables them to be ready to apply their skills and knowledge so they can adapt to change. Hopeful yet unrealistic assertions that all will return to “normal” stand in the way of young people learning to live with this uncertainty.
Bauma, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a teacher of refugees in Uganda, told his students that, “You must begin to live here where you are, from the moment you arrive.”
He explicitly taught them to participate and succeed in a new and unfamiliar context and, in the process, helped them develop a lifelong capacity for thriving amid uncertainty.
Also essential to this learning is young people cultivating the ability to ask and find answers to their “how” and “why” questions. In conflict settings, we find that children who learn about the histories and underlying causes of their current situations are better able to thrive in uncertainty and to plan for the future.
For example, Siyabulela, a black student in high school as apartheid ended in South Africa, found in his schooling no explanation for why he had to share an outdoor water tap with thousands of other people while a large house had multiple indoor taps for one white family.
Productive education in uncertainty develops in students the tools to identify and understand the roots of the inequalities that shape their daily experiences, as core and not tangential to their education. As a teacher in South Africa explained, “Children know when something is an aside. And we don’t want to make them feel that they, as people, are an aside.” While standardized education during crises can be effective in promoting access to schooling, as during the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa, these one-size-fits-all approaches are less likely to address underlying inequalities.
We find in conflict settings that teachers who share experiences and identities with their students and who have local autonomy to adapt pedagogy to meet their students’ needs are more likely to address structural inequalities with their students and work with them to develop strategies for action. As the coronavirus pandemic illuminates and exacerbates structural inequalities in the United States, all students need tools to identify and act on the devastatingly unequal effects of Covid-19 on communities of color.
Education for uncertainty is also, at its core, education for belonging. For refugee children, we find that schools can build belonging by helping young people forge caring relationships and see themselves as integrally linked to others. We see how teachers and students, even when physically distant, connect both to further specific learning goals and to show care for one another.
Somali refugee teachers use social media to provide feedback on assignments to their students and to provide encouragement in hard times. The many actions by teachers to connect with students during the current pandemic — through materials dropped off to homes, phone calls, videos and online classes — build shared senses of stability and belonging needed to thrive in uncertainty.
As the interconnectedness of our lives has become all the more visible in the face of this pandemic, the real-life learning about how each of our actions influences every other action as well as the vastly unequal ways we experience the pandemic is an opportunity for young people to grapple with questions of what we owe one another and how we act on those responsibilities.
The coronavirus has disrupted education for almost all children globally. In conflict settings, we see that disruption can create openings for reimagining education in ways that address uncertainty by focusing on long-term purposes.
As we seize this opportunity to rethink the future of learning, we must ensure it is learning that prepares students for unknowable futures.
This story about lessons from abroad in teaching refugees was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Sarah Dryden-Peterson is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the director of REACH, an initiative focused on creating welcoming communities and quality education in settings of migration and displacement.