Why calling everything a 'crisis' is damaging

The tendency to label any issue a crisis means we overlook opportunities for innovation, say three teacher-researchers

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge

Covid catch-up: Why talk of a crisis in education is too simple

Sometimes one can’t help but wonder if life is not lived in a state of permanent crisis. 

For years now we have been hearing about the mental health crisis, environmental crisis, financial crisis, race crisis, political crisis, climate crisis and more.

Indeed, sociologist Robert Holton (1987) wrote more than 30 years ago that “in the contemporary world we are told that ‘crisis’ threatens us on all sides”. In education, this goes back even further, with Hannah Arendt’s famous essay on “The Crisis in Education” dating back to 1954. 

Now, of course, “crisis in education” is on the agenda more strongly than ever as the pandemic has ripped apart traditional schooling, and issues such as lost learning and catch-up became dominant narratives.

How the Covid crisis presents us with opportunities

The ubiquity of crisis talk risks leading us to become immune to the significant problems facing our world, and perhaps to feel impotent in the face of them.

Yet, there is good reason to not capitulate to a kind of crisis malaise. Gert Biesta (2020) reminds us about the original meaning of the word “crisis”, which “is not a state of chaos, but a critical moment or turning point that calls for consideration and judgement (in Greek: “krinein”)”.

Thinking about it this way, it is possible to see moments of crisis, such as the pandemic, as an opportunity to interrupt the status quo of our personal and professional lives. We can use crises, therefore, to question what is happening, how we ended up here, and what kind of responses can be made.

Crisis in education: league table anxiety

There’s plenty said about crises in education, yet what exactly is considered to be a crisis depends on whom one talks to. As one example, let’s take the common view that there exists a crisis in student performance in literacy and numeracy.

Every three years the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes its results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Countries that see a drop in their Pisa results are experiencing what is now known as the “Pisa shock”’ – an immediate state of “crisis” in the national education system.

But is this “shock” indicative of a real problem, or does it say more about the way education performance is now largely framed by global competition, national productivity and economic progress?

In the international education sector, educational achievement levels are evaluated according to the number of graduates who make it into prestigious universities, and league tables that compare achievements within and across schools of students in, for example, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB DP) or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE).

Here as well, student and school performance are connected to global competition within and between transnational education systems, driven by a commitment to making a profit.

What works in education? Looking for evidence

When a school or individual student’s ranking declines, claims of a crisis at both system and school level tend to take hold. Such a scenario has functioned to give life to the “what works” logic of contemporary education, whereby the identification of good education is dependent on that which can be measured.

These claims of crisis seem to imply an unquestionable commitment to, and concern with, a narrow view of evidence-based education practices.

This view considers evidence to be that which can be measured, leaving little room left for thinking about how education is connected to questions about what it means to be human in a complex world.

This evidence-based order is visible at global, transnational level, but also at school and classroom level.

The famous work of John Hattie (2008) on effect-sizes, for example, has been influential at a school level as school leaders and teachers have implemented certain strategies and practices based on statistics that ostensibly measure “what works” in the classroom.

What is lost?

A more recent crisis narrative that fits the “what works” logic has emerged from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education. This crisis is termed as one of “learning loss”, a discourse that transpired from global reports by Unesco (2021), whereby the loss of learning is connected to prolonged school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only national governments but also organisations such as the International Baccalaureate (2020) are now referring to “learning loss” as a pressing issue that requires addressing.

All this means that as responses to educational crises follow the narrow “what works” approach, schools are often attracted by the latest “educational fads”, adding yet another demand on the work of the teacher.

Even more problematically, these “fads” can actually perpetuate – or even create – crisis as they gain their attractiveness and power by implying there is something broken about the current situation. 

What is perhaps most concerning is that, despite decades of commitment to this seemingly unquestionable and narrow evidence-based approach to reform, the current state of the world – including education – asks us to wonder if “what works” actually does not seem to work after all.

Crisis response strategies for schools

If “what works” doesn’t work, how else might we think about, and respond to, perceived educational crises?

If we are to see crisis as an opportunity to interrupt the status quo, we might begin by asking questions that help us to understand what is going on, questions about our assumptions of what counts as “good practice”, questions about what school is really for, and also questions about the validity of various claims of crisis in education.

In both local and international schools, there has been an increased focus on wellbeing in recent years. This has come as a response to suggestions of increasing levels of stress, anxiety and mental health problems among young people.

However, it has also become a response to address concerns about increasing student academic achievement (Balica, 2021).

While increased attention to students’ wellbeing is undoubtedly a good thing, as we argued previously, this often results in superficial responses that are focused on individual happiness, rather than looking at deeper, structural causes.

To better respond to a crisis in mental health, and to interrupt the current state of affairs, we need to be asking questions that look more deeply into the roots of issues and how they have emerged.

Asking the right questions and being creative

We then need to ask if what we first see as a crisis is really a crisis at all.

Is a drop in achievement levels a crisis? Are there crises that we have invoked ourselves? Which crises are we willing to “endure” and which ones do we wish to tackle?

This process also requires asking questions about what, as a school community and as educators, we find important. What is it that we educate for and how? What are our responsibilities towards the communities we serve? What kind of opportunities can we create as part of our crisis response?

Scholars such as Alexander Gardner-McTaggart (2021) and Gert Biesta (2020) have emphasised the remarkable teacher initiatives and creative responses that became apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Because of a lack of immediate crisis response from policymakers and educational leaders, many teachers were forced to take matters into their own hands and often did this successfully.

Allowing for creative and at times unorthodox approaches to complex issues can make an immediate difference to a school community.

A crisis can then be turned into an opportunity to re-evaluate “what works” and make changes in school communities and, ultimately, society at large – however difficult this may be.

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge have all been teachers and leaders in international schools, including in Asia. They now work in the Department of International Education at The Education University of Hong Kong, where they teach and conduct research on critical aspects of international schooling

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