Re-imagining Education Beyond Covid19

21 August 2021

by Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin, S.J., Chairman, Synergeia Foundation

(Delivered during the Synergeia Foundation – Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Conference on “Accelerating Progress and Equity in Education, August 19-20, 2021, Manila, Philippines)

“… as we try to re-imagine education beyond covid 19, we can be helped by reflecting on a double triage of choices that we need to confront now and even after the pandemic.  The first sorting is all about separating the learned from the learning person.  And the second triage is about sorting the destroyer from the builder…”

Good morning.  Maayong buntag.

Thank you for this opportunity to share some reflections.  I’d like to invite everyone to step back because there are many problems and details from this pandemic itself.  And we don’t have a crystal ball, on what education might be after this pandemic.  And so, I’d like to reflect with you and to dream.  I have some things to share with you and I hope that you will bear with me.  Hindi siya ma-detalye and it is more directional.  I adopt this from words that I gave to medical students, the future doctors who are graduating from Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro. 

My reflection is about “triage,” a familiar word these days.  It comes from the old French word trier  which means to sort, to cull or to separate out.  “Pagpipili.”  It was actually adopted in World War I to sort the wounded.  “Sino ba ang dapat dalhin sa operating room?”  They would sort the wounded according to the severity of their injuries.  And in this pandemic, we have been applying triage to separate the positive from the negative, the symptomatic from the asymptomatic, the seriously symptomatic from the not too serious, etcetera, etcetera.  But triage is more than just medical. 

In this conference, in this conversation, and as we try to re-imagine education beyond covid 19, we can be helped by reflecting on a double triage of choices that we need to confront now and even after the pandemic.  Ano yun?  The first sorting is all about separating the learned from the learning person.  And the second triage is about sorting the destroyer from the builder.  Let me explain.

The first triage: separating the learned, yung marami nang alam, from the learning person, yung taong laging natututo.  This pandemic has uprooted so many things, education being one of them. And our students most probably are feeling a heightened sense of insecurity especially when they compare themselves to those ahead of them who were taught, trained in the time-tested tools of conventional pedagogy.  Kita ko ito, kahit sa mga engineer, mga doctor.  “Ah, sa pandemic ka nag-graduate.  Medyo hilaw ka siguro kasi medyo blended lang…online.”  They are probably insecure.  They are probably thinking how inadequate and unprepared they are to the task ahead of them.  To which I say, sa tinuod lang, sa totoo lang,  no one is ever adequate to the task.  No one is ever fully prepared for a world that is always continually evolving.  As the virus variants attest … alpha, beta, delta, lambda – as these variants attest, the world is always in a state of flux.  It is never still.  We are never still.  And so, if education is to teach our young ones anything, I hope it is to love learning.  I hope it is to never stop learning.  Fear stops learning.  Insecurity avoids learning, pride spoils learning.  The internet has gems of learning and wisdom but it is also crammed with overnight experts and know-it alls who couldn’t care less about their little knowledge being a dangerous thing.  We need to teach enough for people to know that they do not know everything.  If they know that they do not know everything, then, they will be humble, they will listen, they learn to adjust and adapt, and they will even be bold enough to innovate, to create.

Alam ninyo kung merong lang akong pabaon, I wish that these words by Eric Hoffer can be burned in our minds.  I hope it will be a refrain for us all our lives, today or post-pandemic.  Eric Hoffer said this in 1973.  He said “The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning.  It should produce not learned but learning people.  The truly human society is a learning society where grandparents, parents and children are students together.”   In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.  The learned usually find themselves…to live in a world that no longer exists.  The first triage for us is to separate the learned form the learning person.  If we choose learning over learned, then we will prefer bottom up to top-down approaches in teaching and learning, even in education governance.  That means subsidiarity, that means empowerment, that implies choosing the localized approaches, over centralized and uniform strategies in education.  Method, process, pedagogy over content.  The ‘how’ of learning over the ‘what of learning, especially in basic education.  We need not be threatened by variety and diversity.  We can leave our learned podiums and learn from below.  Learn from those whom we empower on the ground.  As learners, they will always be adopting our pedagogy and governance to context that never stops evolving in a post pandemic world.

The second triage has to do with separating those who would destroy from those who choose to build.  We are, all of us here, in uncharted territory.  While there might be common threats in past pandemics and plagues, this one is unprecedented in its reach and in what it threatens to destroy and take away from us.  There is no denying that this orientation is symptomatic of our times today.  This pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  Now stress has a way of uncovering many aspects of ourselves that were hidden before on a societal level.  Inequalities are more stark than ever. Between those who are homeless and those who are at home.  Between our children who go hungry every day and those who do not.  Those who can still catch school and those who are consigned to catch up…  laging naghahabol.  This pandemic has uncovered how impoverished our health system, our educational and political systems have been for decades.  And now we are learning painfully how bad structures, incompetence, corruption and even non-existent systems can be a matter of life and death.  In this pandemic you can deal with them not just by incompetence but by sheer numbness and negligence.  You only have to do nothing for things to depreciate and fall apart.  On the other hand, with all the closures and quarantine, there is no denying the openings that this pandemic is giving us.  Openings of conversion and renewal.  And we see heroic efforts of frontliners who continue to risk working and caring for others despite the danger they have become to their families.  Doctors, nurses, and other health care givers who would rather be home with their beloved and yet are isolated form them.  Dedicated volunteers, true public servants, in makeshift vaccination and testing centers, those in community pantries and other grassroots groups who have been tireless, tireless, in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and multiplying the little loaves of our will and spirit.  Busy teachers striving to teach, no matter the odds.  Students wanting to learn despite the disruption.  Scientists, researchers, working round the clock to create vaccines and every manner of cure to end this scourge.  They are all builders, not destroyers. 

So, amid the ruins and devastation, we are being ushered to a clearing of new possibilities and potential.  This is a time of creation.  Ours is a time for builders, not destroyers.  The rebuilding ahead of us will be massive.  And it starts with admitting that we can never go back to the way things were.  Which is just as well.  We have seen how unsustainable our good efforts were in the past.  How easy it was for others to uproot and destroy the good that was planted.  And while we endure this pandemic, let us already do this triage of separating those who like to threaten and demolish from those who are always laboring with courage and to create good things that will last.  And that means continuing conversion at the personal and institutional level.  That means transformation of culture, effective systems, structures, responsible governance.

Despite our unpreparedness, our transition to digital transformation has been accelerated by this pandemic.  However grossly uneven the transition and the benefits have been, post pandemic education will play an important role in levelling the field in ensuring that the pitfalls of digital hyper-connection (at maraming pitfalls ito) are avoided and that its merits (because there are merits of a digital world) are not easily undone. 

And so the triage is for us to choose the builders and to sort them from the destroyers, the doers from the undoers. 

To summarize, the double triage that Philippine education post pandemic would have to confront are about having to sort, first, learned form the learning person, and second, the destroyer from the builder.

To close, ang wish ko lang (at alam ko wish ito ng marami), that education were a real priority for our leaders and decision makers.  Kaya nakakataba ng puso na ang mga tao tulad ni Mayor Stef.  Biruin mo, Mayor na nagbabanggit ng mga statistics and facts about her own municipality, the challenges that they are facing in education.   How I wish education were a real priority of our leaders.   You know leaders are always doing triage.  They always have to choose.  And when education comes to the room where you will have to do a triage, education is not commonly treated as “seriously or severely injured.”  Wish ko lang education be up there along with health, and livelihood, and community development.  If today we can talk about a climate emergency, sa totoo lang, we also have an education emergency in our hands.   Imagine if our children were perennially in the hospital ICU, we will be panicking, di ba?   We will be worried sick.  It does not take much to re-imagine our children already confined in some sort of an educational ICU for life.  They are there hurting, as our nation has been for so long, for so long now.  This pandemic has been such a pain but it is also ushering us to a clearing where there are real possibilities for conversion and renewal in Philippine education.  Please, let us make the right choices when we do those triages.  God bless you to be brave for others.

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