As a species, and for thousands of years, we have tried to explain the things we don’t understand. To survive, humans have always struggled to comprehend our environment and the dynamics of what surrounds us. In the beginning, we invented magical, theological, mythological, and esoteric explanations for the phenomena we could not make sense of with the little knowledge that we had about our context and ourselves.
The sun, moon, fire, lightning, life, and death have all been gods, dragons, legends, and hypotheses that we’ve come up with to grasp that we could not explain. Then, as we came to understand the workings of that former “magic,” we incorporated it, explained it, and used it to ask ourselves new questions. This process continues the adventure of understanding who we are in the world around us.
In a similar way, as a species, we’ve always sought the ability to anticipate the future as a means to predict and prepare for the unexpected. We have reached out to astrologers, fortune tellers, card readers, and many other invented methods that try to guess what will be coming next for us for centuries. Many of these proposals are linked to ideas of magic, and others come closer to science, the study and analysis of history, and the events that humanity has faced in the past.
Economists, statisticians, scientists, sociologists, and other representatives of the study of human behavior and its environment have developed models to try to anticipate occurrences, cycles, and events. Undoubtedly, many of these models have proven to be reliable and are able to foresee different circumstances that act predictably within a chain of elements following an ordered and sequential pattern.
However, although a minority of scholars may have mentioned them, there are also those events that occur outside any framework that fits the prediction models of most so-called “experts.”
These are the events that Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “Black Swans.” They are those random moments that humanity does not see coming and that burst forth loudly and unexpectedly to push off balance the normal flow of our day-to-day lives.
I see this current coronavirus pandemic, more specifically known as COVID-19, as a black swan in all its magnitude. To analyze whether we really find ourselves in the presence of such an event, I suggest doing ”The story” thinking routine. This thinking strategy invites us to realize that every anecdote, book, experience, etc., has three stories: the main one, a parallel one, and a hidden one.
With this pandemic event as the main story, we have a highly contagious virus, which apparently originated in China and came from animals, quite possibly from a type of bat.
The parallel stories in this event reveal that the pandemic began in its place of origin, swiftly spread to other continents, and evolved into a pandemic that expands morbidity and mortality to exponential growth levels that have taken all experts and world leaders by surprise. Within these parallel stories, we see narratives of how this virus has destabilized entire countries’ infrastructure and logistics in a matter of weeks, pushing them to make radical decisions not seen in recent history. We see the closing of borders in an open and globalized world; curfews for millions of people in cities and countries; ghost metropolises; airports without flights; highways without traffic; buildings and malls without people, without activity; empty gyms full of treadmills, and machines left untouched by people who, ironically, now need to actually go outside and exercise in the open in order to be healthy.
But what is the hidden story of COVID-19? Hidden stories are often made up of multiple, synergistic elements, some identifiable and others written in indelible ink, impossible to read at the beginning ; but then, with the passage of months and years, the hidden stories become evident and help explain those unexpected and profound changes that black swans bring. The impact and transformation brought by these hidden stories are then analyzed from economic, political, social, cultural, and personal levels for years to come.
With that in mind, I suggest that one of the hidden stories of this pandemic that we will one day analyze will revolve around how we educate and relate to each other. We live in a society of people who don’t have enough time; time is the most important resource of any human being. Time is not renewable, and every second that passes is time forever gone. Do we have time to be productive? We sit in vehicles for hours, going from point A to point B, hardworking or efficient. Our most important legacy should be our children, but too often, we do not have time for them, and they do not have time for us either. Our occupations and theirs only give us time for a few minutes of interaction, and within those few minutes, we succumb to distractions such as mobile phones and technology that connects us with what is outside and far away but disconnects us from what is inside and nearby ourselves and the people who are important to us, including our children, parents, family, and friends. In an era in which human beings’ life expectancy has increased dramatically, we live for many more years, but we have less time.
When I talk to teachers about rethinking the educational model, they frequently say,”We don’t have time.” And again, the question is, “What do we have time for, then?” Do we have time to complete a book chapter by a certain date so that we meet a curriculum deadline, and students can pass or fail based on a number or letter that is only there to support a system? Or should our time be allocated and invested so that students really learn to navigate the learning process and come to understand and develop the knowledge, skills, competencies, dispositions, and behaviors necessary to allow them to understand themselves and their environment better? Wouldn’t the time for education be better spent on developing human beings who have what it takes to thrive in a changing world while also adding value to it.
This black swan that we are facing is confronting us with our nature; it brings out the best in us as a species and the worst. Fear makes us act selfishly. We rampage supermarkets and take everything we can without thinking about the needs of others. On the other hand, we also unite to help others and are capable of making difficult decisions that require personal sacrifices for the common good. We are experiencing challenges that change the parameters of how we see things. Discrimination is an unfortunate but inherent part of our species, and overnight, discriminatory elements have changed from skin color, gender, or socio-economic level to who is infected and who isn’t. Now, discriminators experience discrimination in their own flesh as less developed countries deny entrance to citizens of developed countries.
Our primary responsibility as parents is that of preparing and educating our children for the future. But we have often believed that by delegating education to schools and teachers, they are responsible for this commitment we inherently made to our children by bringing them into the world. As a result, now that our children are with us all the time, we find it incredibly difficult to handle the situation. We are probably good coaches or leaders with our subordinates at work, but we have a hard time leading at home.
For now, my invitation, and in order to simplify this reflection (with fear of oversimplifying it), is to observe what happens with the closure of educational centers in highly affected countries, which also happen to be some of the most developed countries in the world.
For decades, some pioneers, researchers, and thinkers have questioned the current educational model, which has been implemented for centuries with minimal modifications in relation to its methodological structure. We all know about the incredible and sometimes dizzying changes happening in today’s world, and it is no secret to anyone that education is worryingly lagging behind the context in which it operates.
There is already important research and evidence of the successful foray of technology and software in the areas of learning and teaching. There are measurements that show how learning certain subjects, such as mathematics, is more effective and economical by using software and with little or no participation from a teacher. Despite the fact that these resources are more effective and efficient, however, the educational model refuses to evolve. It remains anchored to a scheme that is centered on the principal teacher, memorization of information, and evaluation through standardized tests.
Let’s go back to the black swan and its hidden story, then. Schools and universities have closed without clarity about when they will re-open, many of them estimating that this will not occur before the beginning of the next academic year.
Educational institutions have been left with no other option than to look for alternatives rarely contemplated before. Until now, they had made use of technological possibilities timidly and simplistically, perhaps using some apps and platforms, but only as mere support to a traditional model. But now, schools and universities, some more versed in the subject than others, have had to rethink how they promote and provoke learning in their students.
We have to understand this as a process, which will consolidate as students become more exposed to this new reality. This implies the use of technologies and requires a methodological change and a new vision for the roles of the teacher and the learner.
There is already some evidence from those places that have had to be the first to implement the online alternative, which suggests that this black swan has forced an irreversible migration from traditional education methods to the coronavirus model pushed us to. Perhaps we will begin to shift into learning far from the four walls of a classroom, using resources that go beyond the teacher as a provider of information, and empowering the learner to exercise autonomy, appropriation, and empowerment. We must hold on to the timelessness of learning while expanding the possibilities of knowledge and realizing that schools, universities, and the teacher might lose relevance as the teaching-learning process axis.
It is very difficult to determine the magnitude of impact these new measures generated by the urgency of the unpredictability of the moment will have on students, teachers, educational institutions, and societies tomorrow. What we can anticipate, though, is that tudents and their communities will have the opportunity to experience this massive new way of approaching learning, work, and the many other activities that are part of our way of life. Some of the side effects of this black swan will be quickly evaluated as positive, neutral or negative, and others will take more time to be assessed.But what will be most relevant in the future will be the questions that the pandemic has made us ask ourselves. Many of the paradigms that accompany us, those that we never question, those that we continue to ride through inertia, will suddenly reveal themselves as deserving reflection and a more thorough rethinking. This black swan will have provoked that.
This black swan has pushed us to stay home longer, cook again, try new recipes, eat with the family, tell stories, be teachers, be creative, and discover our children and ourselves. It has surely also made us rethink what we do every day, how we do it, and why we do it.
I may be over-simplifying things or, on the contrary, over-complicating them. Time will tell. We know that other black swans, such as the horrific events of September 11, 2001, triggered a definitive change in the history of nations, the world, and its citizens. And in that case, as with many others, these events’ impacts have not yet been fully determined, as time increasingly adds more hidden stories.
The impact of this pandemic could potentially generate a depression. It could change laws and policies globally on health, migration, research, and international trade. It could transform business models, bury companies and industries, and spur innovation and the emergence of new ways of doing things. It could inspire a rethinking of priorities for people when it comes to everything that relates to the ways we live, learn, work, interact with and educate our children.
So how big is this black swan? Only time will tell.