Sarah Pavey is an independent Consultant & Trainer and EPALE Ambassador, and is Schools Representative for the Information Literacy group, .
Imagine you lived in a country where survival took priority over formal lessons, imagine you were a child living in a war zone, imagine you resided in the Australian outback, imagine you were one of the estimated 60K children in the UK (OSA, 2020) or 2.5million in the USA (NHERI, 2021) permanently home-schooled or imagine you are growing up in a country where formal education does not begin until you are 6 or 7 years of age (the world average is 6 years old)(UNESCO, 2020). How would you feel about the rash of COVID related education headlines declaring that the pandemic has ruined your life chances and even estimated your loss in future earnings through not attending school?
The COVID pandemic has hit schools in the UK catering for all ages of students hard. It has turned the world of education, and the way teachers teach, on its head and everyone in the school community has had to adapt at short notice to sometimes daily change. Just a year ago, everyone was in school full time preparing for the examinations later in the year and devising lesson plans for face-to-face delivery. This life now seems an eon away and we are unlikely to return to anything approaching normality for this academic year at least.
Suddenly, school staff are adapting to blended learning, teaching a few vulnerable students in the classroom, others via a social media platform and yet more being delivered work for completion at home. Despite the cancellation of public examinations for a second year, the emphasis for teacher assessment is still rigidly based upon what they think the student might have achieved in a formal test rather analysing their approach to problem solving or task completion.
The Government reminds us constantly to reflect on our daily processes for safeguarding our fellow humans from disease by washing hands, keeping a safe distance, wearing masks, staying at home etc but our education system just wants to know if this policy has been successful not how it was achieved. Even in this changed world, schools are being told to replicate how education worked before the crisis instead of embracing new ideas and opportunities. This has inevitably raised questions of inequality when it comes to home technology yet this approach to learning also impacts heavily on information literacy. Unfortunately, the current Curriculum in England and Wales is limited when it comes to self-directed learning and the critical thinking skills needed (many connected with information literacy). All this in a world where we have been asked to consider our role as responsible global citizens to fight a microscopic and sometimes deadly enemy, we bind our children to old school rote learning.
Reporters are quick to blame education deficit on lack of social contact, digital environments that some children cannot access, parents who are working and unable to supervise and more. However, many children were being home educated long before the COVID crisis struck. Although the practice is still illegal in some countries, in others such as the USA it is now almost considered mainstream. Countries such as Australia, where there are vast land areas between small communities or isolated houses, have used rudimentary “digital” learning through two-way radio for decades. Other countries have embraced television and more conventional radio channels as sources of delivery. Are these students disadvantaged or advantaged?
The statistics tell us homeschooled students gain better test scores, success in higher education and in employment. Research indicates this may be because of the flexibility and opportunity for self-directed learning and understanding (Ray, 2017). The Unschooling movement takes this concept even further so that students themselves can decide what they want and need to learn. This too reports similar success patterns with many going on to entrepreneurial employment in STEAM subjects (Gray and Riley, 2013).
So how does this relate to information literacy? A small study of UK home schooling families (Elmore, 2016) looked specifically at how information literacy skills were developed in this environment. The research suggested that rather than a formal model, the skills were largely acquired by co-learning and modelling from parents and a mixture of trial and error. However, the nature of the home school program, particularly amongst students who were not studying for formal exams, showed an intrinsic enjoyment and curiosity about the information processes that academic models suggest. The fact that home schoolers and unschoolers are often praised for their critical thinking and problem-solving skills surely must reflect their confidence levels in information handling. Maybe we should be taking some lessons from this.
Many will argue that the pressures on families during COVID have been too great, the lack of technology access being a prime example. However, it could be that we are simply trying to bash square pegs into round holes. Perhaps, we should be thinking differently and adapting the Curriculum followed by students in England and Wales so it is not just a fact crunching exercise, but a journey of curiosity and discovery fuelled by skills in information literacy. Then we can begin to grow our young global citizens into wise, knowledgeable and compassionate human beings prepared to safeguard our planet from future pandemics.
Elmore, J. (2016) How do Home Educating Families’ Experiences of Information Literacy Relate to Existing Models? Available at: https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/100593/1/ElmoreECILHomeEd.pdf
Gray, P. and Riley, G. (2013) “The Challenges and Benefits of Unschooling, According to 232 Families Who Have Chosen that Route”. Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, 7 (14) 1-27.
NHERI (2021) Research facts on home schooling. Available at: https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/
OSA (2020) Annual Report 2018-2019. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/872007/OSA_Annual_Report_Sept_2018_to_Aug_2019_corrected.pdf
Ray, B. D. (2017) A systematic review of the empirical research on selected aspects of homeschooling as a school choice. Journal of School Choice, 11(4), 604-621
UNESCO (2020) Primary school starting age. Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/se.prm.ages?view=map