Interview with Fernando Reimers: ‘Educating in the Pandemic’

Fernando Reimers, expert and leading thinker in educational innovation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, gave an interview to ‘SOMOS SEK’ to talk about the future of education and, more specifically, about the need to create a global curriculum for students.  Last year Reimers held workshops for teachers at SEK Education Group.


1.- How will the new educational model that future society needs differ from today’s?

The COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting repercussions, as other similar calamities have had in the past, such as other pandemics, wars, economic depressions or the breakdown of democratic institutions. One of these repercussions, beyond the impacts of the pandemic on people’s health and on economic activity, will be to have created a shared experience that raises awareness of the volatility and fragility of the world in which we live. This awareness may lead more people to appreciate the importance of education and I hope that it prepares people to live in that fragile and volatile world. This leads not only to recognising the importance of a more meaningful education, which engages students in world affairs, with real-life problems, but also prepares them to develop their imagination for a better world, and the capacities to realize those visions. It is easy to draw comparisons between the consequences of this pandemic and the consequences of climate change, both are life-threatening, both require changes in our individual and collective behaviour to mitigate them, both require an understanding of science, allowing us to understand both the pandemic and climate change, and based on this understanding, make future projections that allow us to evaluate the consequences of different types of actions. In both cases there are tensions between short and long-term consequences, and between individual and collective consequences. As more people find similarities between the two phenomena, this is likely to increase the demand for more attention to be paid by schools on climate change.

We do not yet know all the effects that the pandemic may have, by definition a global calamity like this will have systemic effects, some are difficult to predict. For example, a recent study shows that the 1918 pandemic had the effect of reducing municipal public spending in Germany [1], and thereby reducing the well-being of many people, some of whom became politically radicalised, eventually constituting a source of militants of national-socialism that destroyed the Weimar Republic and the democratic regime. We do not know what the systemic effects of this pandemic will be yet, but I am sure there will be, and when they appear, they will generate new demands on schools.

More immediately, the pandemic has created an opportunity for many parents to take a close look at what and how their students are learning. This has allowed them to better appreciate the abilities of their kids, as well as where they are falling behind. Some students have taken advantage of the greater autonomy that the situation of studying in conditions of physical distance from their teachers has given them to continue learning, to study new things, to develop even greater intellectual independence. Others have not done so well, and this has shown the importance of educating more autonomous students, which are less dependent on their teachers. This is likely to be something schools are asked to tackle in the short-term, among other things because any return to school must consider the possibility of further interruptions, until a pharmacological solution to prevent or treat COVID-19 infections is available.

This means that in the future we may see that an aspect that stands any new educational model apart will be greater explicit attention to important challenges in the real world, such as climate change, and greater intention to teach skills that help to tackle those challenges. This will also include greater attention to the development of young people’s sense of purpose, greater intellectual autonomy, capacity for independent study, persistence in working on complex issues for long period of time. Interest in preparing students to understand and address real-world challenges generates greater interest in understanding how events in students’ local communities are linked to global events and processes. This will make education for global citizenship the civic education of the future.

It is possible that to achieve this, the educational model of the future will give greater agency to students, with schools engaging families and other institutions more, and offering a more blended model where classroom learning and online learning activities coexist, enabling students to experience a diversity of learning contexts and ways of collaborating with others. Perhaps the notion of ‘courses’ or ‘degrees’ will disappear to make way for ‘educational pathways’ where different students may have various types of affiliation with peers based on the ‘educational pathways’ they share. These pathways would cultivate students’ curiosity and interest in certain areas of intellectual or manual work, while allowing greater depth and expertise to be developed within those areas. All this would allow greater customisation of the learning experience.

Undoubtedly, the educational model of the future must achieve a much better fusion between initial education, that currently received by children in the period of compulsory schooling, with continuous, lifelong education, which will become increasingly important.


2.- In a constantly changing world, how do teachers prepare to educate global students?

Increasingly, teachers will have to be students themselves, and willing to learn with and sometimes from their students. It is unlikely that the figure of the teacher, as it has been traditionally conceived, can meet all the demands of a much more diversified and rigorous education. Hence the need to increase the educational capacity of the school by establishing an alliance with other institutions. Teachers may not have, for example, sufficient capabilities to teach about climate change, or to foster the inventiveness necessary to find solutions for climate change, so partnerships with universities, climate scientists and other sectors developing technologies to reverse climate change may be necessary. This requires new skills from teachers.

To develop these skills, teachers must study continuously, training should be integrated into work, as is the case with university professors or other professions. There will be very diverse forms of training, combining those that support the self-directed efforts of each teacher, their own continuous training plans, with efforts in diverse communities within the school, between schools, and also that allow teachers to learn with colleagues in other professions. Without a doubt, online education will play a very important role in supporting all these types of professional training.


3.- You are currently helping the OECD to analyse the impact of COVID-19 on education. What are your conclusions and what recommendations would you highlight?

Yes, at the beginning of March of this year, when I understood that the pandemic would go on for a long time, given that it seems that the development of medication to prevent infection or to treat it will be available in the mid to long term, I invited the OECD to collaborate with the Global Innovation in Education Initiative that I lead to carry out studies that will support decision-making to ensure educational continuity in different parts of the world. Over the last two months we have carried out two surveys to study what the impacts of the pandemic have been in education, in what way educational continuity has been provided, where the challenges lie, what we know about how much students are participating in these forms of distance education and what are the plans to try to reopen the schools. We have published two reports based on these global surveys, the first that proposed the need for each institution and educational system to develop a continuity strategy, and suggested elements that such a strategy should address. The second, recently published, featured the different kinds of educational continuity that have been tried and with what results. We are also publishing a series of short cases studies documenting innovative ways of providing educational continuity. When I started doing this work, my hypothesis was that the pandemic could cause the greatest educational setback experienced by humanity in a century. I am not so sure now that this will be the case. It is truly admirable to see the great efforts that have been made by teachers, heads of schools, governments, parents, and the students themselves, to give educational continuity. This reflects the great importance placed by society on education, and the efforts made to ensure education continue in the best possible way. In truth, the great surprise for me has been to see the enormous potential for innovation that educational systems have shown.


4.- How can we prepare students today to face challenges as complex as climate change or culture clashes?

These are undoubtedly complex but essential educational challenges, as I explained at the beginning of the interview. It is important to prepare students not only with the ability to recognise these issues, to know what they are about, but to understand them in depth, and to develop an attitude not only to understand them but to make them opportunities to create a better world. This means that these topics should be opportunities for interdisciplinary study, the study of climate change certainly involves studying science, chemistry, physics, biology, but also humanities, which allow students to develop empathy with the various groups that experience the effects of climate change and expands their imaginations. But it also means studying technology, design and innovation, so that they can create geo-engineering solutions, such as placing particles in the atmosphere that block some of the solar radiation.

The purpose of my book Empowering Global Citizens was to illustrate how a curriculum geared towards developing skills to meet, understand and address major global challenges could be developed, through projects carried out over the school year, where students collaborate in groups, integrating what they learnt in various disciplines, applying what they learnt to the creation of some type of project that demonstrated a deep understanding of the subject.

In truth, the aspiration to educate students as global citizens is not new, it is an aspiration that is part of the very idea that all people should be educated, reflected in the inclusion of education as a right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations at the end of World War II. The language of article 26 of the declaration of Human Rights speaks of a broad, humanistic education:  “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” These ideas have been progressively permeating the aspirations of nations and people for the education of their children. The challenge we have to face is more about achieving what we set out to do a few decades ago. The COVID-19 pandemic creates a new sense of urgency to do so. There is no doubt that the pandemic will leave a deep mark on the lives of people and the communities of which they are part. Whether this mark makes us more tolerant, more creative, capable of creating a rebirth, such as happened decades after the Italian plague of 1347 with the Italian Renaissance, or whether the pandemic leads to conditions such as those that increased intolerance in Germany after the pandemic of 1918 will depend, to a large extent, on what educators do to foster the discernment of our students, their ability to understand the events we are experiencing, and above all, their ability and desire to develop their talent to improve the world .


[1] Blickle, K. 2020. Pandemics change cities: municipal spending and voter extremisms in in Germany, 1918-1933. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Staff Reports.


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