GWEN MADIBA - Welcome to uOttaKnow, a forward-thinking, expert-driven, current affairs podcast produced by the University of Ottawa. Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. I am also the co-president of the Equal Chance Foundation. uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for thought-provoking discussions on today’s trending topics.
The return to school and fall learning experience has been unlike any other, with stops and starts, localized outbreaks, and underlying anxiety. Education looks a lot different during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministries of education from across the country and beyond are faced with unique challenges surrounding learning, health and safety, and equity, as they strive to create the best possible learning environments. As society grapples with the long-term effects of this pandemic, questions related to children, youth, and learning are top of mind for many. To discuss pressing questions surrounding education and youth during the pandemic, I am joined by Dr. Joel Westheimer, University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa and education columnist for CBC radio’s Ottawa Morning and Ontario Today shows. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Westheimer.
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - Thank you. It’s really nice to be here.
GWEN MADIBA - In this current period, where we all face much uncertainty in our lives, it is clear that there will be long-term effects and impacts on society due to the pandemic. In terms of children and youth, how do you think this will shape the younger generation — Generation C, as we now often hear them referred to, for the coronavirus?
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - Yeah, Generation C. That is starting to grow on me, this generation COVID. But I’m not sure all of the people from that generation want to be necessarily identified only with this. But as the pandemic does, you know, go on and on, past the kind of emergency three months, it is starting to seem like it’s going to have a significant impact. And I think that it’s going to make a difference, whether we, you know, see this kind of waning down by the end of this academic year or, as some experts are predicting, you know, we’re going to be in this in some form or another for three or four years. Because three or four years, of course, are a really formative period in a young person’s life; even this one year is formative. So, I do see some impacts. Now there’s no way to generalize across a generation. I think that for some kids and young people, it’s going to give them a sense of fragility and unstableness in the world, which could affect them psychologically and emotionally and developmentally. But for others, it’s going to give them a sense of resilience, you know, as in the way that many people talk about the generations that went through World War One or World War Two, and so forth. So it’s hard to say, but there is definitely going to be an impact, for sure.
GWEN MADIBA - Do you think that Generation C youth will develop skills of adaptability and resilience to a greater extent because they’re growing during these challenging times?
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - Yeah, so I think that they are going to develop certain skills. The thing is, let’s step back for a minute because we have to look at the context that kids were in before this pandemic started and acknowledge that, you know, the pandemic has served as a kind of X-ray, for society. It’s exposed and made visible a lot of the issues that were present in society before the pandemic, and are here now during the pandemic, and are likely to be here after the pandemic. And those issues are numerous. And one of them is a growing sense of loneliness that a lot of young people and adults have experienced, probably in part due to social media and to other technological developments and in part due to shifting norms in our society. And that has, of course, been exacerbated during this period. So loneliness is now a big issue during the pandemic when all of us have limited social contacts and are in social isolation. But it’s important to remember that that was already a problem, and so this is going to magnify that problem and that does concern me.
Now, some young people are going to be able to find ways out of that in the way that they have before the pandemic. They will get involved with issues that they care about, for example, or with sports teams or theater, and make connections that way. And they can do that now using the technology that’s available to us. For others who had trouble linking into those activities, and felt a sense of isolation even before the pandemic, you know, having Facebook friends, instead of real friends, and so forth, for those young people, it’s going to be much more difficult because this puts yet another obstacle in their way. And I think as adults, it’s part of our job, and especially as educators, to help smooth that way for both those groups of kids. So some will adapt, some will have a lot more trouble.
GWEN MADIBA - In terms of the economy, the pandemic has shed light on structural inequalities in society. We are not all in this together the same way. And disproportionate effects have been felt by the most marginalized groups. How has this pandemic amplified existing inequalities in our education system?
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - Yeah, so that’s a perfect example of the kind of issues that were present in society before and that are now being made much more visible during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, and now currently, we have rapidly increasing economic inequality in both the United States and Canada. In fact, in Canada, the rate of acceleration of economic inequality is higher than in the United States. And so we have massive differences in people’s access to resources and to opportunities. And that was before this crisis that we’re in now. During the crisis, of course, we see those same issues magnified. But we lay on, top of that, that part of the lack of access to opportunity is now through technology. Some children are at home without proper internet access, without high-speed Wi Fi, without laptops, or with one shared laptop for the whole family, right, whereas other kids have their own laptop, have their own bedroom, have a quiet place to do their studies, and to do the zoom calls and whatever else they’re doing now. And so that creates a situation where there are inequalities that have magnified. It used to be that, yes, there was lots of inequality already, but you’d show up at school and at least you were all in the same classroom, you all had access to the same learning materials. And now, that is no longer the case.
GWEN MADIBA - The Black Lives Matter protests that galvanized following the death of George Floyd in May this year have also brought discussions around race, inequality, and opportunity to the forefront. Do you think this increased attention could help bring change in the education field surrounding an equal opportunity?
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - I think that there’s going to be. This is my hope. I’m an optimist at heart. So I have a lot of hopeful thoughts about what this might do to education, and issues of race is one, but I'll talk about them all together. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were lots of tweets that I still recall, where people were at home, teaching their kids, and they were tweeting things like “Homeschooling day three. We should triple the salaries of our teachers!” And I love that because what we were getting was a sense of awareness of not only the importance of education, but the difficult job that teachers and other educators have in the classroom, right? Teaching is not easy. It’s not glorified babysitting. It’s very, very difficult work. And these were parents at home with one or two kids as opposed to a teacher in a classroom with 25 or 30 kids. And so, there’s a new appreciation, or a renewed appreciation, for the work that teachers do and the important role that education plays in our society. And I’m hoping that that’s going to be followed by a demand for an increase in resources and opportunities for teachers to create a livable workplace, and for students to have a much more livable learning space. It’s important to remember that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And so, this is a real opportunity to create the kind of working and learning conditions - the teaching and learning conditions - that make these things possible. I’m very hopeful that’s also going to happen in terms of specific issues, like this attention on race right now. I think that we are getting a wake-up call. There were always a good portion of educators who were aware of these issues, but not everyone, and not in the same way. And this is really bringing those issues to the forefront in a way that I think will be healthy if we carry that on, when things go back to whatever our new normal is.
GWEN MADIBA - Innovation is certainly a buzzword that continues to be in heavy circulation. When we talk about innovation relating to new ideas and positive change, what do you see coming out of the current situation in the field of education?
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - I think that in the same way that we’re going to get some changes in fields like medicine; for example, I don't think telehealth is going away, because it was clear the benefits of that. There’s no reason for every single person who has a sneeze to go into a doctor’s office and expose others to germs and expose themselves and have to drag themselves out of bed. Telehealth has filled a hole that was much needed. And I think that will continue after the pandemic is over. In the same way, I think education has shown the importance of certain innovations that have come from this; that yes, we can contact families through zoom, we can have communications in ways other than just parent-teacher night, for example. At the same time, it’s also shown the huge limitations of this technology. Teaching online can fill in for teaching in person in some ways, but definitely everyone is aware of the ways that it zaps the human relationship out of the teaching-learning environment. And so it’s also going to, I think, renew calls for the idea of creating classrooms that are attentive to the social and relational needs of teachers and students. And that might mean smaller classes, that might mean classrooms where furniture is arranged in different ways. It might mean giving teachers different kinds of expectations and requirements around what they’re doing in the classroom. One example right now is that teachers are very aware of the need to be attentive to the social and emotional and developmental needs of children during this time of extended social isolation. But of course, those needs are there even when we’re in a classroom together. And for the last 20 years, or so, of education reform, we’ve been focusing more and more narrowly on test-based curriculum in only two subject areas: math and literacy. And that's been a kind of worldwide trend. This is something that the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg calls GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), and he gives it that acronym GERM because he says it’s infecting one school system after another. And he sees it as a bad thing. And I do too. Which is that, and what he means by this global education reform movement is, education reform that is narrowly focused on individual achievement and raising test scores. And that shies away from the importance of social connections, meaningful relationships, and proper and healthy development of kids. And so, I think that we might see, I’m hopeful that we will see some lasting changes in the way that we look at the purpose of schooling and the way we answer the question of what our schools for. And I think that that’s something very positive that could come out of the pandemic.
GWEN MADIBA - Countries around the world are working to protect public health by placing limits on citizens’ ability to move freely, access public spaces, such as parks, and gather in larger groups together. The way we engage as citizens has rapidly shifted. Dr. Westheimer, I know that you’ve published widely on the subject of democracy and education. Now, more than ever, do you see the need for youth to be engaged as citizens for the health of democracies?
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - It’s a very important question. And, you know, after witnessing the presidential election process in the United States, we know that this is a critical time for kids to be taught about democratic citizenship and the importance of strengthening our democratic institutions. It’s not just a problem based in the United States; we're seeing it in Brazil and in many countries around the world. And I think that we should worry about it here in Canada as well. And so, I think that it’s critically important that children learn about the importance and history of democratic societies and also the ways that they can get in. People need to learn and understand that democracy is not a spectator sport; it’s one you have to participate in. And for children to get involved in that way, schools can play a big role. They can educate and give exposure to kids in ways to participate, that, first of all, strengthen our democratic institutions. And second of all, address a bit of the alienation and loneliness that I was talking about before. Because anyone who’s worked on something that they believe in, a political campaign or an issue-based club or campaign or organization, knows that tremendous meaning comes from that, and you meet like-minded people from those kinds of activities. And schools are really going to need to sensitize themselves to the need that young people have right now for those kinds of meaningful connections and meaningful work. School cannot be just about a test score or about individual achievement; it has to be about connecting to one another. And connecting to one another in a community is really what citizenship is about. I don’t mean the legal sense of the word citizenship. I mean the sense of the word citizenship as a member of a community, and you have a local community, you have a regional community, a provincial community, a national community, and a global community. And all of those are ones where we want to foster connections and allow children to forge connections that are meaningful and that help to improve society for all of us.
GWEN MADIBA - Thank you, Dr. Westheimer, for taking the time to share your expertise with us today. We appreciate your insights in the field of education. You can follow Dr. Westheimer and his work by visiting his website: joelwestheimer.org, and by following him on twitter @JoelWestheimer.
DR. JOEL WESTHEIMER - Thanks so much Gwen. It was a pleasure to be here.
GWEN MADIBA - uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. This episode was recorded at Pop-up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their long-standing relationship with this territory which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French, or to find out more about uOttaKnow, please refer to the description of this episode.