2020: the worst year for Ugandan education since the war. What have we learned?

2020: the worst year for Ugandan education since the war. What have we learned?

By Sean Clarke, CEO Clarke Group Education

November 30th, 2020

There has to be something positive we can take away from 2020, right? It can’t just have been a disaster – a write off year in its entirety. The notion of almost this entire year being a complete waste, on top of all of the suffering we’ve endured, is too ghastly to believe. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic and all its associated limitations on our lives, the sickness, and the outright tragedies, do not end on the 31st December. But if we have hope and optimism, we must believe that next year will eventually bring an end to this far from normal ‘New Normal,’

But what can we take away from 2020 that is positive? What can we have learned that will enrich our lives? In Uganda, education has been more disrupted than any other area of life. Schools and most universities remain shut and have been since the onset of the pandemic. For many children and students, formal education has simply ground to a halt. For these, the majority of our Ugandan children, a year of lost learning represents a year of lost earning in their adult lives. The price of possibly protecting our society from the spread of this disease has been paid by mortgaging their futures, and in turn the future economy of Uganda. We will not know for years the heavy price this is, and the toll it will take. 

But for some, education has not stopped. Some schools have continued learning, and there have been lessons learned on that journey. The first lesson was that learning remotely has many challenges, regardless of technological and connectivity limitations. Learning in isolation from classmates and teachers requires huge self-discipline - not a common trait in most children! It's extremely easy to become disengaged - there is no teacher in the room to notice you have become distracted, nor the positive peer pressure of being surrounded by other students doing their work. Real time guidance and tutoring is severely limited. Video conferencing helps, but cannot guide a student as they are working through tasks and problems. Should they go off course, they may consolidate distorted concepts that need unlearning. 

This assumes that the technology and connectivity to have video conferencing and online classrooms is available, which of course it very often is not. Availability and cost of hardware and the cost of data are, for many families, huge barriers to accessing remote learning. The same is also true for schools, especially when they are receiving very limited school fees. Somehow they need to cover the additional cost of internet and computers, as well as training and IT support for teachers, while the parents of their students are reluctant to pay even reduced remote learning fees. 

Teachers should be, and in general usually are, good at learning, they should be able to practice what they preach. But for many all the barriers described above are very real for them as well. Learning the new skills required to operate the hardware and software required for remote learning, and to deliver learning with the flair that makes it engaging, despite the circumstances, is a steep learning curve indeed. Some teachers have never had to use a laptop before. To go from there to using video conferencing with the whole class, and preparing and delivering digital lessons and assessments, is a huge step. 

Meanwhile, their teaching has never been under more scrutiny. With eLearning every parent has the potential opportunity to join in every lesson. Any teacher knows that having a lesson observation from a fellow teacher, while an important part of professional development, can be a high pressure and stressful event. But now every parent, head teacher and manager can be in the classroom at any time, observing and passing judgement on any error or limitation. To make matters worse, given the economic pressures facing schools, many of these teachers are receiving partial salaries, or even not receiving salaries at all. 

This brings me to a second and more hopeful lesson that I have learned on this journey through 2020. And that is that our teachers are heroes. Because I have watched, first hand, teachers at Clarke Junior School and faculty at Clarke International University, face these challenges head on. They have encountered every one of these challenges described, and have pressed on regardless. They have recognised that learning should not and, if they have anything to do with it, will not stop. They have shown compassion for their students, in spite of the impersonal nature of eLearning. They have encountered numerous problems and worked out solutions, and learned new skills to overcome them. They have pulled together and supported each other, sharing the strengths they have to cover the weaknesses of others, and are not too proud to reach out for help when it’s needed to ensure they facilitate learning to the best of their abilities. Not only this, but I have seen teachers enthused by the new skills they have learned, excited by their new ability to use IT, and to apply it practically to facilitate learning. 

Not every teacher can thrive in the hostile environment of 2020. Of course there are those who, due to lack of support, or without the required growth mindset, cannot respond so positively to these extreme challenges. But for those who have prevailed, whether we are back in the classroom in 2021 or not, they are now stronger teachers for their experiences in 2020. They have new skill sets under their belts. They will be utilizing available ICT, and pressuring management to provide IT resources. They will be unphased by their lessons being observed. They will demonstrate the values of resilience and determination, values we want our children to adopt.

To those teachers that have resolved to keep on learning in 2020, we salute you, and pray for the many blessings you deserve in 2021.

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