It seems almost a cliché to describe these times as extraordinary, yet they are, and there is no better word to describe this moment.
The question that keeps me up at night, the question that informs every part of my being, is how will this extraordinary moment impact the learners of the world?
Recently on ABC's The Drum, I listened carefully to the voices of current Year 12 students discuss whether we should cancel the ATAR. As a proud educator and as a mum, I genuinely felt the anxiety, the stress and the sadness of these extraordinary times. Already, Year 12 is not Year 12 as we knew it.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres says the world is facing a defining moment as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts global education systems. It is the most significant disruption of education in history. An entire generation of learners is facing enormous challenges on a monumental scale.
I understand the upheaval and challenges facing students seem tough and unfair. But I think there is something else about these extraordinary times that must be named. These learners will emerge more resilient, more creative, and with more determination than any generation before them.
This group of Year 12s will be the generation to watch.
It will not be an easy road. The challenges students are facing right now are genuine and very serious. We have a responsibility to support and nurture them through this period. We must encourage them to dream big, see beyond the now and, importantly, we must help pave their pathways to success.
From adversity comes opportunity
There is a lot of focus on what the class of 2020 is missing out on. This is valid. Nobody should discount the upheaval that they have gone through, and the disappointments along the way.
Not only have they been on a carousel of face-to-face and remote learning, but they have also missed out on the defining coming-of-age social aspect: school formals, 18th birthday parties, sports events, school productions, graduation.
But instead of focusing on what's been lost, let's instead think about what has been gained. The upheaval and changes mean that students are learning invaluable life skills – skills that are not usually taught in the classroom.
Students are learning how to manage change, how to communicate with people across boundaries and how to manage time in a flexible environment. This is about adaptability, creativity, resilience and grit.
These are smart skills, and they are vital for tomorrow's workplace. The adversity young students face today will serve them well in the opportunities they seek out in the future.
Global solidarity will create a significant shared moment
In Australia, the national conversation about whether the ATAR should count towards higher education is gaining momentum. There are also calls for end-of-year exams to be cancelled altogether. Students and teachers are divided – and understandably so.
For some students, if exams are cancelled, they see something they’ve worked their whole school lives for as being wasted. For others, it’s the least the government could do: if they’re missing out on everything else, why should exams still go ahead?
In Victoria, every Year 12 student will be individually assessed so that the impact of coronavirus can be reflected in their Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). This means schools will provide information about school closures and absences, increases in family responsibilities and the impact on students’ mental health.
There is no simple answer. And while the discussion around the ATAR is Australia-specific, the challenges facing senior high school students are not unique.
This is a shared experience between students all over the world. Yes, the disruption looks different from one country to another – even one city to another – but students will be united by this moment. The class of 2020 will share a bond that goes beyond borders.
What will they do with this connection?
Changing education for the better
Education has the power to change lives. As the world faces unsustainable levels of inequality, we need to create inclusive, resilient and quality education systems that are fit for the future.
Today's students must be co-designers in the future of education. If there's anyone we can learn from, it's our students.
Universities will need to be prepared for a generation of new students, who will expect more from us. They will be ready to call out problems and equipped to design solutions – to make the education system better.
These learners are witnessing the best and the worst in terms of online learning. They are digital natives. They are not going to tolerate mediocre systems, slow processes and a system unprepared for them and their knowledge.
Through the experiences of this year, this generation can redefine learning and curriculum. And they will.
At Torrens University, we have always believed in choice and co-design. We have never been a factory of smart kids in, smart kids out. Instead, we've believed in looking at the whole picture of each student and working with them to design a path through education to the job they want.
We've always believed the ATAR is essential, but the individuality of the student is even more so. We know the number that comes after 13 years of study is only one measure to understand a learner's capability, talent, wit, drive and capacity to succeed in university.
If we ever had to individualise education, it's now.
Everyone now is getting the opportunity to learn in different ways – some will want to learn digitally; some will want to come face-to-face in the class.
A better future
Beyond COVID-19, rather than putting up more isolating walls, I foresee this year's learners breaking down those walls. The interdependencies between people, countries and planet are now coming to the front of everyone's mind — what an amazing time for learners.
There will be more care, less selfishness. More focus on the social good, less focus on materialism.
Before 2020, I never personally understood what grit was. COVID-19 has taught me what it is. It's about coming out of something stronger than you went into it.
I genuinely believe you have to lean into the opportunities around you. So, the question that will be asked of this generation of learners is not "How did COVID-19 affect you?" Instead, it will be "What did you do during COVID-19?"
There have never been so many free courses, digital choirs, opportunities to be creative, new ways to connect. So, what we did during COVID-19 will differentiate us. We can come out of COVID-19 stronger than before. And this is especially true for learners, and particularly the year 12 class of 2020.
I stand by – waiting to support everything that they will lead and create.
Linda Brown is President of Torrens University Australia and Think Education, and the Chairman of Media Design School in New Zealand. She has more than 23 years of management experience in the education sector in Australia and the United Kingdom.Do you have an idea for a story?
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