The COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate trickster. Its disruptions have caused chaos, isolation and despair, but are also revealing huge reservoirs of creativity and resilience in our society. It has thrown open windows on practices in and out of the classroom that had become hidden and unquestioned in our neoliberal social order: the inequalities that lurk in assessment processes that service accountability goals and audit regimes, curricula that ignore local knowledge systems, and lack of access to the digital resources that can expand our horizons.
Educators are now key workers playing an extensive role in caring for students’ mental and physical wellbeing, and the interconnections between education and other aspects of our minds and bodies are laid bare. Teachers, parents and grandparents have woken up to the special expertise and support that each can offer in ways that open up spaces for dialogue as well as critical reflection on the significance of the different types of knowledge that are brought to learning.
Our book, Resisting Neoliberalism in Education, contains many stories of the ways in which neglected aspects of education can be revalued, thereby transforming lives and learning across sectors and geographical contexts. The stories emphasise the importance of taking action to resist standardised, dull and careless learning that damages people’s lives. They challenge us to avoid the trap of fatalism and show how neoliberalism can be defied and changed through the power that education holds to unlock creativity, connectedness and agency.
We draw on Raymond Williams’s 1989 notion of ‘resources of hope’ to identify ten ways of disrupting the dominant neoliberal regime to help emergent, more emancipatory cultures to take root. Several of these are especially relevant to UNESCO’s COVID-19 Global Education Coalition and the global challenge for education and learning.
Firstly, online learning has the potential to connect people across space and time so can reduce inequalities and offer real benefits to learners. However, many people across the globe will be unable to have their voices heard until unequal access to online resources and equipment has been addressed. In the book we offer creative examples of how online learning can be used to develop and circulate contextualised and interactive resources that can contribute to relevant, sustainable curricula and pedagogies. For example, a website to enable digital sharing of positive learner stories in further education, publicised through social media, inspired others to create networks that helped to build resistance to the negative ways in which learners are positioned.
The need to harness digital technologies for such inclusive purposes is urgent, especially as emergency responses during COVID-19 have allowed commercial interests to further enter educational markets right across the world. One way in which this might be tackled is through developing and encouraging a ‘knowledge commons’ that uses and strengthens possibilities for open access to information by resisting paywalls and the domination of large-scale publishing companies.
Secondly, we have an imperative to prioritise learner perspectives when devising educational resources, so that they address the whole person and have local relevance as well as global connections. The Black Lives Matter campaign exemplifies how hidden voices and neglected perspectives can be foregrounded to boost the self-determination, self-identification, hope and regenerative possibilities of marginalised groups. In the book we also call for more recognition of young children’s perspectives so that the curriculum and teaching is shifted towards multiple modes of expression. These playful, joyful pedagogies change the dynamic between teachers, children and peers in ways that foster participation and respect.
Thirdly, we must cultivate the creativity that has already emerged in new partnerships between educators, other professionals and civil society. These include celebrities, fitness coaches, footballers, family and community support networks. Their activities have turned narrow notions of expertise on their head and demonstrated the importance of having a wider range of voices at policy tables.
Post-COVID-19 society is already emerging. Many possible routes are within our reach if we challenge existing discourses to make changes in deep structures of feeling and imagination. Educators, even when constrained by performative curricula, can open up spaces for critical reflection and dialogue and imagine new forms of teaching and learning that make education joyful and relevant. New meanings and values can then emerge that spark different ways of thinking, kindling the desire to learn more deeply and explore further.
Lyn Tett is Professor of Community Education at the University of Huddersfield and Professor Emerita at the University of Edinburgh.
Mary Hamilton is Professor Emerita of Adult Learning and Literacy in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.
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