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Learning from past disasters

By Isabella Wood on 18 June 2015

Somewhere between the sloshing buckets of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market Pandora’s box had a second coming. And when the heavy lid was lifted, out flew COVID-19 and all the ills of the world; from fear to isolation, death to unemployment, and the ever chilling winds of change. Though in our haste to shut the lid on all that these last few months have seen, let’s not forget what Pandora managed to hold back. Something a handful of countries have been lucky enough to witness far sooner than their neighbours—hope. As Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet, proclaimed, when Pandora shut the lid, hope remained. So, as an educator, what do you hope to do with it?

Let’s take a moment to consider that this isn’t the first time children's education has been interrupted by the world in which they learn. As we’ve been reminded throughout these recent disruptions, schools are not immune to the greater social context. Whichever emergency grasps students by their backpack—from conflicts to natural disasters, economic downfalls to health crises—we owe it to children to reduce the impact on their learning. How? By prioritising and investing in more inclusive, efficient, and resilient education systems. In 2015 Save the Children wrote a global report on what children want in times of emergency and crisis. In it, they examined 16 studies reflecting the voices of nearly nine thousand children facing 17 different emergencies—ranging from Ebola recovery in Sierra Leone to Haiti’s post-earthquake needs (Save the Children, 2015, p.1). 99% of the children in these crises placed education as their priority.

A young aspirational school girl lines up ready for class in rural Sierra Leone. Photo (no changes were made) by Geraint Hill licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

As we settle back into schools amidst COVID-19, we’ve been given an opportunity to build them back better. By examining the recovery methods of disasters come and gone, we can learn how building a more resilient education system might, in turn, help us to build more resilient students. We’ll discover the importance of building equitable education into our path forward. And perhaps by listening to our students along the way we’ll come to understand that “children are not only victims of disasters but also leaders, agents of change and the vanguard of a more resilient future.”²

Education in crisis

Learning through the eye of the storm

Perhaps you’ve forgotten that the last decade began with devastation too. On January 12, 2010, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, one of the deadliest disasters on record, struck one of the western hemisphere’s impoverished countries—Haiti. It took over 220,000 lives, leaving nearly 1.5 million people displaced and almost 4,000 schools damaged or destroyed. Two weeks later, the Haitian government called on the international community’s support to conduct a Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA).

Haitian children attend school classes provided by Non-governmental Agency Partners in Health, at Ancien Aeroporte Militaire Individually Displaced Persons Camp, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Apr. 27, 2010. The camp houses over 40,000 displaced Haitians of which about 13,000 are children. Photo by Kaye Richey.

With 46% of the Haitian population under 18 years old, millions of children needed help. And so, aid organisations stepped in amidst the rubble to consult children, to listen to their ideas and priorities for their countries reconstruction (E. Bildi & M. Ibrahimii, 2013). Led by Plan International and UNICEF, these consultations gathered insights from close to a thousand young people, providing an opportunity for them to discuss three equally important topics. First; the impact of the earthquake on their lives, second; what they needed most in the recovery process, and third; their hopes and dreams for the future of their country. While aftershocks still seem to tremble beneath the feet of Haitian children ten years on, important lessons can be taken from that initial invitation to participate in disaster recovery. Children were seen as active citizens ‘able to participate in making decisions and taking action on issues that are relevant to their lives’ (L.Benson & J.Bugge, 2007, p,1). This invitation has the potential to be far more than tokenistic, enabling children to help in order to ‘regain their sense of power and security’ (L.Benson & J.Bugge, 2007, p,2). Put a pin in this idea of children’s involvement in disaster recovery, we’ll circle back to it. In the meantime, we’ve got more to learn from education in emergencies from one of the most flood-prone countries in the world—Bangladesh.

The school ground is slowly flooding by the tide. Photo by: J. Bahnarin Salud, 2012.

When the floods rolled into Muhammed Rezwan’s home region in rural Bangladesh, his friends were denied an education for months at a time. Up to 70% of Bangladesh can become submerged come Monsoon season, with two-thirds of its land less than 16 feet above sea level. Inhabiting one of the most vulnerable countries on a warming planet, twenty million Bangladeshi are at risk of becoming ‘climate refugees’ by 2030. It was an understanding of these shifting tides that informed Rezwan’s practice as he became an architect.

I considered dedicating my life to building schools and hospitals in flood-prone areas, then realised they would be underwater soon... Not only do floods cause the loss of lives and livelihoods, they also severely interrupt children’s education. That’s why I started designing spaces on boats for school. I thought that if children cannot come to school, then the school should come to them.

And so, drawing on his architectural expertise, Rezwan established Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a registered non-profit organisation aiming to ‘transform the region's waterways into pathways for education, information and technology’. Shidhulai’s floating school model has sailed to flood-prone regions in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Zambia. While these floating schools may seem like a foreign concept, the threat of climate change is already on our shores.

From raging fires and flash floods to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, it seems as though we barely have time to gasp for air before we’re dumped back into the waves of another disaster. It’s overwhelming. It’s disorienting. It’s exhausting. Instead of harnessing the momentum of change this flood of disasters has carried, you’d be forgiven for wanting to take the next few months off. Or at the very least, wanting things to return to as they were. Though, just as the world in which they learn has changed, today's students aren’t the same as they were yesterday. Likewise, continuing to rebuild schools as they worked yesterday, and failing to heed Rezwan’s approach to innovation, will only leave them underwater tomorrow. Now is the time for educational innovations anchored in resilience. Now is the time to future proof our systems to ensure all students have access to an education when, and not if, they don’t have access to a school.

Economies and student wellbeing; an intertwined decline

Through the canyons of the Great Depression to the valleys of the Great Recession, economies in decline have a habit of dragging students down with them. As our world stares into a new era of global economic uncertainty post COVID-19, it’s important to examine how the lessons from past macroeconomic events can help us safeguard equality within our education systems to keep students on secure developmental tracks.

Considered the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the global economy took a sharp decline from late 2007-2009. Known as the Great Recession, this economic disaster began as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Students making the transition from formal schooling to tertiary education or work are particularly vulnerable during a recession. As an Australian study examining the effect of the GFC on student wellbeing states, ‘the particular danger of macroeconomic events, like the GFC, would be the potential to knock youth off a typical developmental track; delaying transitions, interfering with increasing independence from parents, and extending periods of career and educational uncertainty.’ (Parker, PD et al., 2016).

To examine the effect of the Great Recession on children, UNICEF published a report in 2014 titled ‘Children of the Recession: The impact of the economic crisis on child wellbeing in rich countries’. In it, they drew attention to the opportunity that lay within the disastrous economic downturn. ‘Fifty years from now, we will look back at this period as a critical juncture in the history of many affluent countries. The Great Recession may be remembered for the generation of vulnerable children it left behind. But it may also be remembered as a transcendent historical moment when recovering nations laid the foundations for more inclusive societies based on equality and opportunity for all. How else will we repay the debt we owe to the children of the recession?’ (G. Fanjul, 2014, p.42).

Here, on the edges of the COVID-19 recession, we stand at a defining moment. And as educators on the frontline of students wellbeing, what do we hope to mark it by? The remote learning experience of COVID-19 drew society's attention to the students in ‘rich countries’ being left behind. These kids, without access to reliable resources, from internet connections to devices, should be at the forefront of our post-lockdown, early recession efforts. If we manage to take this lesson for what it is, an opportunity for equality, then perhaps we can fulfil UNICEF’s hopes, albeit six years late.

Building back better: the brickwork

Acknowledging the responses of prior disasters encourages us to analyse our own experiences as educators during COVID-19. As we emerge from the pandemic we bring with us lessons learned the hard way, and with them, greater opportunities. At once, we’ve glimpsed both the potential of online learning and the vastness of the digital divide, from inaccessibility to inequality, and the growing need to close the gap. We’ve witnessed the positive impact parents can have when they invest time in their child’s education, and what’s possible when the world is forced to innovate in the face of adversity. Your experiences as an educator are equally valid and valuable, and sharing these with your school community is an important step in recovery. In order to transform this recovery period into growth, it’s crucial that we learn from our failures and implement our successes into regular processes. So let’s break down, brick by brick, what we’ve learned from disasters, those we’ve experienced and otherwise, in order to scale up effective solutions into lasting positive change.

Empower students as active citizens

The best efforts of disaster recovery are those that empower young voices with a platform not only to be heard but to take action. It’s no longer acceptable for children's involvement to be tokenistic, where they’re given a voice without the choice about how they participate. We need to move towards a place where we’re not only educating children on the issues that directly affect their lives, like climate change, but are giving them a platform to translate that knowledge into self-initiated action and decision making. And in doing so, are acknowledging them as active citizens.

Back in 2011, the Government of Georgia, with the support of UNICEF, integrated child-focused Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and climate change into the national curriculum. Children in seven high-risk regions of Georgia were then given an active role in piloting this new curriculum. The consultations that followed gathered important feedback, particularly in making the new curriculum more interesting and interactive. Fast forward almost a decade and what child-led programs of work have we integrated into our own curriculum? Taking the School Strike 4 Climate initiative as an example, young people have transformed their concerns about the climate into organised action. Have we done our part to transform the education they engage with to reflect these concerns? Or better still, empowered them to instigate initiatives beyond the school gates? ‘By offering children the opportunity to participate more fully in disaster situations, we cease to be interpreters of their needs and thoughts, and instead begin to accompany them in the design of actions and adequate strategies that strengthen their capacity to reflect, contribute, and lead their own development processes.’ (Plan, 2005, p.21). Consider how this notion of student led projects or programs can be extended beyond disasters and implemented into other areas throughout the school.

Champion family support

One of the more positive consequences to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis is increased engagement in students’ education from their families. An engagement that has fostered a deeper appreciation for the role of teachers within society. While levels of involvement undoubtedly varied from family to family during remote learning, studies show that students do better when their parents or guardians are engaged in their education (A. Henderson et al., 2002). As such, we should look to maintain and even strengthen this connection moving forward. With the recession creeping in, now is also the time to take stock of families changing financial situations. By identifying the families that have recently begun to experience hardship early on, we can hope to mitigate better the impact this recession can have on students’ education. If you’re in Australia, your school should also be across the new disadvantages added to the Education Access Scheme to support students whose parents or guardians are on the Job Keeper or Job Seeker Allowance.

Foster future planning

Taking stock of the compounding impact on senior students from the COVID-19 disruptions and economic downturn is overwhelming. Not only have their studies been derailed in a definitive moment of their schooling careers, but they are being asked to plan their futures in a time where planning a week from now seems futile. If past recessions are anything to go by, youth unemployment rates are set to rise. In Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States the jump in unemployment levels during the GFC for those aged 16 to 23 was notably larger than the working population as a whole.

In the US youth unemployment rose from beneath 10% to almost 18%, while in Australia the youth unemployment rate grew to more than twice that of the national average (Parker, PD et al., 2016).  Along with unemployment, the GFC also saw a rise in young Australians not in education or training, called NEET rates. ‘High NEET rates suggest an interrupted transition from school to work, or from school to further education, with long-term individual and societal costs. Increases in the NEET rate reflect the recession’s impact on a generation of young people; the kind of productive adulthood their parents took for granted is slipping away.’ (G. Fanjul, 2014, p.11).  So, where exactly is that hope Pandora held behind? And how can we instil it in a cohort of students graduating secondary school in the disaster that is 2020? By helping them create flexible roadmaps for their transition out of school. Rather than helping students set concrete plans for their transition, we need to help them be adaptable to the rapidly changing needs of the economic environment. We need to arm them with the skills that are most likely to be of value within that economy, and the hope that comes from knowing that many of the jobs that they’ll come to fall in love with are yet to be invented. That maybe someday they’ll be the one to invent them.

Innovations and iterations; the time is now

As we’ve seen a rise from the floodwaters of Bangladesh, disasters can inspire innovations that build educational systems back ‘stronger and more equitable than before.’ (World Bank Group, 2020, p.37). But innovations don’t need to be solar-powered or systemic. Innovations can start simply with a conversation. Adopt UNICEF’s research methods and respect your students as active participants in examining what worked during remote learning and what didn’t. Why did some kids excel while others were left behind? Were they better set up at home? Were their parents more involved? Were they more confident to ask questions without the pressure of the kid next to them? Or did they thrive given the opportunity to move through the content at their own pace? Involving students in your school's analysis of remote and online learning might not seem innovative. But allowing them to share the decisions of how your school might transform these insights into implementations post COVID-19 is.  

Throughout this analysis of insights and strategies for implementation, zero in on the failures and opportunities online learning presented. In order to future proof education, we must first identify its gaps, past and present. Did a lack of access hold back students in your community? Was every student granted equal access to reliable internet, devices, and remote education? When properly implemented, online education has been proven to increase student engagement and retention. What strategies can our education system put in place to make sure all students have access to these benefits, regardless of having access to a classroom during times of disruption? The digital fluency gained by both teachers and students during remote education should be iterated upon in order to create a more agile and resilient approach to learning.

Finding hope between blurred lines

In an educational landscape where the development of our student’s wellbeing is demanded of schools as much as their learning, how can we be expected to protect them against all the ills of the world? As educators, we’re continually drawing and redrawing the line between parental responsibility and our own. The truth is, disaster disregards the parameters we set when the sun was shining. And while examining the effect disaster has on education, we have also to acknowledge the effect it has on other facets of young lives. Doing so might incite a sense of hopelessness, but stay with me. Repeat Pandora’s name three times before you move on to the next paragraph and remember what she held behind.

In the economic context, countless studies have shown that downturns have a pervasive negative effect on the wellbeing of young people (Parker, PD et al., 2016). Impacting more than their education, the GFC strongly affected young people’s social domains, general life satisfaction, and satisfaction with career or future prospects. These findings were consistent with prior research into the GFC and Great Depression where wellbeing in social domains and optimism for the future were particularly at risk. Likewise, across the world, natural disasters infiltrate the full spectrum of children’s wellbeing. 19.4 million Bangladeshi children are already exposed to the most detrimental and hazardous consequences of short or longer-term climate change (UNICEF Bangladesh, 2019, p.23). These events devastate more than their education, ravaging an industry that provides livelihoods for 60% of the population; agriculture (UNICEF Bangladesh, 2019, p.23). As their parent’s income is impacted, poverty increases, food security declines, nutrition decreases, and disease develops. While education might be cut short in Bangladesh due to climate disasters, the consequences see children pushed into darker outcomes like labour or child marriage.

To give up on hope in the face of such hopelessness would be a disservice not only to your students but to humanity. Remember that hope was found at the bottom of Pandora’s box, beneath all the injustices and devastations. Perhaps we need to look at hope like we should be looking at happiness or fulfilment; as something we need to export from ourselves into the world, rather than trying to import it from the world into ourselves. At least that way our students, and the disheartened among us, can hope to find it.


  1. A. Henderson & K. Mapp, 2002, A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement.
  2. E. Bildi & M. Ibrahimii, 2013, Towards the resilient future children want, Children in a Changing Climate
  3. G. Fanjul, 2014, Children of the Recession: The impact of the economic crisis on child wellbeing in rich countries, UNICEF office of research, Innocenti
  4. L.Benson & J.Bugge, 2007, Child-led disaster risk reduction: a practical guide
  5. What Effect Did the Global Financial Crisis Have Upon Youth Wellbeing?
  6. Plan UK, 2005, After the cameras have gone, Children in disasters.
  7. Save the Children, 2015, What do Children Want in Times of Emergency and Crisis
  8. UNICEF Bangladesh, 2019, A Gathering Storm Climate Change Clouds The Future of Children In Bangladesh
  9. World Bank Group, 2020, The COVID-19 Pandemic: Shocks to Education and Policy Responses

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