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Lessons from Refugee Education for Current and Future Pandemics

How refugee education can inform education in other times of uncertainty
Masked teacher calling on masked students raising their hands

As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to echo through society at large, education must adapt to the ever-changing conditions of its new reality. How to approach education in uncertain times is an essential question many teachers must face as case numbers surge and recede with new variants and the changing seasons.

In a new essay, Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson argues that educators can learn much from refugee education. Drawing on her own research with Syrian young people living in Lebanon, Dryden-Peterson outlines in Pedagogies of Belonging: Lessons From Refugee Education For Times Of Uncertainty some promising practices from educating refugees that can — and should — be applied to teaching during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

While uncertainty and marginalization is not new across education, notes Dryden-Peterson, the pandemic has highlighted these conditions more sharply for certain groups. In the piece, she calls for three different learning pedagogies that should frame education as the pandemic continues to impact learning: predictability, adaptability, and future-building.

Establish A Sense of Predictability

Uncertainty is not “a negative state to circumvent,” writes Dryden-Peterson, but in times of crisis uncertainty is “increasingly unavoidable” and something that educators must “find ways to learn from and within it.” In order to help ease uncertainty felt by students, educators should develop a pedagogy of predictability. Some suggestions covered in Dryden-Peterson's guide for educators, Pedagogies of Belonging, include:

  • Create safety through students' understanding of what is expected of them.
  • Establish small elements of routine, like recapping the previous day’s lessons at the start of a new day.
  • Build trust with students so they know what to expect, such as scaffolding tasks over time to build stability and knowing.

By giving students a routine, they become more comfortable in their learning environment, contrasted by the uncertainty and changing nature of the world around them.

Teach Students Adaptability

While seemingly at odds with predictability, a Pedagogy of Adaptability can benefit both students and educators, writes Dryden-Peterson. The ability to “analyze, renegotiate, pivot, and transform” helps educators meet short- and long-term goals, especially as conditions change. When instilling adaptability, educators should try to:

  • Be transparent about why changes need to be made.
  • Focus on the future as well as the present by offering students a chance to share their experiences in times of stress and struggle.
  • Give students time and space to decompress and reflect while learning.

In many ways, adaptability can work with predictability – finding new ways to establish familiar routines, or creative ways to build trust in new situations – rather than be at odds with it.

Prepare Students for An Unknown Future

Students who have been through a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic may feel similar to refugee students who view the future as unpredictable.

However, young people can “thrive in uncertainty” when teachers don’t anticipate a return to “normalcy,” writes Dryden-Peterson. To create a future-building mentality, teachers can support students to:

  • Connect their past, present, and future ways of learning. 
  • Imagine what the future will be and develop their own goals.
  • Learn ways to navigate changes for themselves.

Teachers “can support young people in learning how to bridge this distance between what exists in the present and this type of newly reimagined future, even in the context of ongoing uncertainties,” writes Dryden-Peterson.

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