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Corona Diaries: if engineers and scientists can do it, why not educators?

April 21, 2020

“Mummy, Daddy, what’s a pandemic?”

“Hush child, Mummy and Daddy are enjoying a nice quiet glass of wine. If you’re really interested, here’s a good book about the last time this happened. It’s called Pale Rider. Come to think of it, here’s another good book called The Tipping Point. It explains why everyone in your class loves Peppa Pig.”

That might be the script for one of those talking baby videos, or some insane cartoon along the lines of The Simpsons. I only mention it because I had an equally insane thought the other night. I was thinking about how tough it must be for locked-down mums and dads to assist in the education of their kids at home.

To maintain some semblance of the national curriculum must involve chaining them to a table for those online classes, and wracking brains to retrieve some memory of Henry VIII, algebraic expressions, adverbs and cloud formations.

But what if we did something different?

The idea is this. If we have engineers who are capable of designing medical equipment from scratch in a few days, and scientists who can develop vaccines in one hundredth of the time it normally takes, surely there are enough fertile brains around who could rapidly develop a Pandemic Curriculum that would help kids to make sense of the economic, scientific and political dimensions of an event that in a few short months has changed their world.

You could argue that there are plenty of adults who would also benefit from such an education. All the more reason to develop something that would engage both kids and grown-ups.

Given that for most students there will be no exams this summer, we have an unprecedented opportunity to chuck out the normal curriculum and replace it with something that doesn’t just help kids understand how the new world works, but gives them some of the life skills they will need when the doors open again.

So here are a few things we could focus on:

How do viruses spread? And by extension, how do trends, fashions and fads go mainstream? Which of course is where Gladwell’s Tipping Point comes in. Get students to design a simple mathematical model that shows what it takes for something to “go viral”. Learn about assumptions, and how they can derail predictions.

Design your own vaccine. This could be a puzzle in which you set out to stop a virus in its tracks. Could be on a computer (good for gamers?) or with physical objects depending on the age group.

Create a video public health campaign. Home-made rainbows are only a starting point. Students could collaborate online with their friends, pets and parents to create stuff far more effective than endlessly repeated government slogans. There could be a competition for the best video per age group, and tutorials from furloughed film producers on video techniques.

Spot the fake news. Use the blizzard of online information on COVID-19 to analyse and sort the results into probable, possible and fake. In the process, learn about provenance, motivation and propagation. Who’s behind this shit, and why?

Create a pandemic budget. Learn about debt, what governments pay for, how they raise money and how they spend it. Then create your own budget.

Design the re-entry. How would you get things back to normal? What would you open first, and why? How would you avoid a new lockdown? Work with your classmates to develop your own plan.

Create a charity. Think about how the world will be different after the pandemic. What sort of charities will be needed when there’s not so much money around? Design a new one that will deal with different needs – perhaps loneliness, staying healthy, self-sufficiency, community cooperation, green issues.

Those are just a few ideas based on things that are likely to keep adults awake at night. Is it better to keep the young in a state of blissful ignorance, or get them thinking now about dealing with the real issues that will face them as they grow into adults?

Some aspects of the established curriculum – the three Rs for example – should continue as designed. But as for the rest, Adolf Hitler, Shakespeare, trigonometry and photosynthesis can surely wait for a few months. Our kids need to learn some different stuff right now.

I’m not a teacher, though I’ve designed a few courses and trained a few adults – both young and old – in my time. So I know enough to imagine what could be achieved, even if I don’t have the pedagogic skills to deliver it.

But there are enough smart educators around who might have some time on their hands and who do have those skills. So what are you waiting for? If the Mercedes Formula 1 team can invent a CPAP oxygenator in days, surely you can create an alternative curriculum in similarly short order that will revitalise all those bored kids and mooning teenagers stuck at home with their tetchy parents?

Getting the bureaucrats onside would be no easy task, I know. But if you’re in Britain, how about getting Dominic Cummings to sponsor a course on Red Teams and super-forecasting? That might persuade him to kick Gavin Williamson and his Blob into action.

As I said the other day, we need to stop blaming (at least for now) and start doing. There’s an educational opportunity out there which, unless there’s a lot of stuff already in train that I’m not aware of, is going begging.

And by the way, if you think I’m obsessing about education only in Britain, my country, this is an international opportunity. How great would it be to see kids working on a pandemic curriculum with their counterparts elsewhere in the world? That would teach our politicians a thing or two about overcoming inward-looking national stereotypes.

It’s not too late. Let’s get to work!

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    thank you most especially for the penultimate paragraph.
    The one further north that recommends, in effect, critical thinking skills, is long overdue, and probably the one the “powers that be” would be most opposed to.
    After all, if the hoi polloi were to use those skills, who would man the production lines? who would man the front lines in the everlasting wars?

    • Thanks Debby. Not sure on the critical thinking stuff, but it may be a matter of political orientation. The last Labour government over here massively increased enrolment into universities – from about 20% to 50%. They got slammed by the other side (the party of big money) for degrading the value of a degree and giving graduates false expectations. My view is that you can’t get too much education, and if we have to respond to an influx of educated people into the workforce, then we need to think our way round the problem of all the boring jobs that these people are reluctant to fill. But that’s probably worth a whole book! S

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    a suggestion.
    He may seem an unlikely purveyor of wisdom, but you might find some of his pieces interesting.

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    sorry, this is in the wrong order. In response to your remarks above, I whole heartedly agree. There is never too much education. There is also never too much discussion (unless it is going around in circles). But please note, I said discussion, not argument.
    I was not advocating against critical thinking, but rather FOR. It’s the people who send folks to do the awful jobs for no money (see Bezos) and off to war to replenish the coffers of arms manufacturers (see Cheney), who are running the government here, and I suspect, their equivalent there have a heavy hand in decisions as well.
    Hope you like our “hillbilly philosopher”.

    • Thanks Debby. I do like him, even though anyone who can quote Milgram is no hillbilly. It would be interesting to see what those good ole boys in Michigan would make of his message. S

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