Schools are resuming classes amid parents’ fears their children may have a COVID ‘lockdown gap’ in their education following the stresses of remote learning.
The worry is children could not have possibly learnt as much at home, with parents as stand-in teachers, as they would have in usual school surroundings.
But to a renowned international education expert, these fears betray a uniquely Australian attitude and could even harm children’s emotional and social recovery from the pandemic shutdowns.
“The fact is that they’ve been learning many other important things while they have been learning remotely,” says Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy at the University of NSW.
“We adults should not create any kind of a sense of panic among our kids now when they’re back to school.
“That you have been left behind and you have to catch up, and you have to spend your weekends and holidays to take extra classes and tutoring.
“I think this is completely useless from the kids’ point of view.”
Professor Sahlberg says instead it is much more important for parents and adults to focus on children’s emotional rehabilitation.
“This whole pandemic has been very difficult for children,” he says.
“They feel fear, they feel a kind of uncertainty, and they feel all kinds of other types of loss – mostly being disconnected from their friends, their teachers and grandparents and adults and many others.
“I ask politely all adults to understand the children’s situation and to not create any further panic by talking about learning loss or focusing on academic things.
“Let’s be more concerned about their social and emotional wellbeing.”
Professor Sahlberg began his career as a mathematics and science teacher in his native Finland and has further added to his experience senior roles in Sweden, the US, and for the past three years, Australia.
Professor Sahlberg’s two children attend a local public primary school near their home, and certain views have surprised him.
“It’s a little bit of an Australian phenomenon this idea of learning loss and catching up and being left behind,” he says.
“There’s a big difference between the Finnish or Nordic education culture or culture in general, compared with here. No one would be really seriously asking these sort of questions [in Finland].”
The children, too, think differently. Most don’t realise or understand they have ‘lost’ something, such as numeracy or literacy.
“The kids think like this: ‘That you cannot lose something that you never had’.”
And children are resilient, as research on child survivors of wars and other crises has shown.
“They are able to take a lot of hits and shocks from outside but still do quite well and be able to keep themselves together and learn many things.”
The school environment is positive – especially for social relations and connections – and negative, for example, bullying and peer pressure.
“Some students have actually flourished and excelled during this pandemic because school is not necessarily a place for them, where they learn the best,” Professor Sahlberg says.
“There’s an equally significant number of those students who really need the school, they need the teachers, and they need the special help and support that school is providing for them to learn and understand and stay on course.
“Then there’s this big middle group of students who will do fine anyway.
He has sympathy for parents who had to be both carers and teachers during the lockdowns and says they and their children were asked to do too much from home.
“The parents kind of feel bad about that; they feel that they have not been able to do all these activities and pages and fill those sheets. But I think the parents should never feel guilty about those things.”
They also shouldn’t be overly concerned about a lockdown gap or learning loss. “Are we able to support all these children in rebuilding these lost connections and broken relationships and make sure all the kids come out from this horrible, horrible period of time healthy and happy and kind of strong, not just academically, but emotionally and socially?” he asks.
Story by Joe Scavo originally published in the Canberra Times, 11 Dec 2021