Learning and teaching under lockdown, the Chilean experience.

By Tamara Cepeda & Hugo Parra Munoz , PhD (C) School of Education, University of Bristol

I. Teaching and learning in Chile

Not even in our worst nightmares. As usual in the Southern region of Latin America, Chilean teachers, students and their families began the academic year on March 4. This fell just a day after the first COVID-19 case in the country was reported. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak classes in Chile were suspended on March 16. What means attend to school in Chile? The educative context is marked by the neoliberal politics. They have gradually dismantled the public education system (Bellei, 2018; Ruiz, 2012) and have installed a network of financing through demand (Verger, Moschetti, & Fontdevila, 2017) and a voucher system as modes for financing public schools (Murnane, Waldman, John, Bos, & Vegas, 2017). Moreover, the neoliberal project has installed a culture of New Public Management (Falabella, 2014), NPM, and has configured and established norms oriented around metrics of performance and results. The setting has been invaded by discourses which privilege numbers and mechanical notions of learning (Flórez Petour, 2014). The grading system used in the country, framed in a high-stakes system, promotes competition and rivalry (Percerisa and Falabella, 2017). The literature in the country evidences a strong connection between students’ socio-economic background and their school achievement (García and Paredes, 2010), and the resultant inequality is linked to the market-oriented transformation of the system (Torché, 2005). Piecemeal reforms have generally only exacerbated inconsistencies and the sense of outright chaos, a historical top-down approach in which a highly centralised policy fails to take account of local contexts and the use of policies based on foreign models which are uncritically applied to Chile without due note of its specificities (Flórez Petour, 2014).

After COVID-19 broke out, students and teachers had only eight days of face to face classes. Since that day until now, education has moved entirely online; tensioning the reasoning of monitoring and accountability associated to NPM. Likewise, in many other cases, Chilean teachers were not trained for that type of teaching practice; they did not receive any technological, pedagogical, or logistical support. A recent OPECH report (Chilean Observatory for Educational Policies, September 2020), stated that this unprecedented lockdown situation has deeply impacted upon learning, demanding everyone involved to adapt to new conditions that represented challenges in various aspects (OPECH, 2020). It has accelerated the sense of vulnerability of the current times, as Bauman (2000) denounces, intensifying the work and deepening the precarious conditions of overwhelmed school teachers (Sánchez Cerón, 2018). We find it necessary to emphasise here, that during March prior to the pandemic the country was already barely operating with any sense of ‘normality’ after the national uprising began in October 2019. That academic year was already challenging to finish. For the educational landscape, the uprising brought one significant change: the end of the PSU, the competitive test used to offer university places in the country. It had been identified as a significant element in the (re)production of acute social and knowledge inequalities in education. During January 2020, students protested fiercely during the administration of the PSU, demonstrating against the elitism of the test and thus access to Higher Education, as it foments segregation and inequality. The test was boycotted in masse with the slogan ‘No more PSU’ used widely. This demonstration culminated with the elimination of it and the creation of a ‘Transitory Admission Test’ that will be used for the first time this year during November if health conditions permit.

Students protesting against the University entrance test, January 2020.

Chile also presents damning data in the OCDE reports, as a member of this organisation. Particularly for upper secondary level education, where both authors had taught for several years before embarking upon our PhDs. The number of students per teacher at the secondary level is one of the largest among OECD countries (usually there are 45 students in a classroom with just one teacher!), and conversely the annual expenditure per secondary level students is one of the lowest (OECD, 2016). In that reality, Chilean teachers give their lessons and assess learning processes. In that reality, students are supposed to learn. Furthermore, teachers are expected to teach a large number of hours (1,064 hours in Chile, within an average of 655 working hours, in OECD countries), whilst receiving among the lowest salaries in the OECD countries. In these conditions, the COVID-19 outbreak hit the already crisis-ridden Chilean classrooms.

A typical secondary school group, these are some of the 45 students that Tamara was in charge of as teacher and tutor before coming to the UK to start her PhD.

II. The OPECH report and our experience

The OPECH report identifies three main issues affecting learning during lockdown. The COVID outbreak just makes worse a situation that was already complicated enough. Firstly, there is a clear issue of work overload. Teachers are spending more time working during the lockdown, doing even more than the usual. Consequently, many are declaring themselves ‘tired’ or ‘very tired’ under the current conditions. These conditions have clearly made it very difficult to harmonise work and family life. In spite of these considerable obstacles, teachers have shown a commendable level of commitment towards their students’ learning continuity. During these months, we have known about former colleagues stressed, working all day barely attending to their children and bursting into tears and breaking down. The increased time in front of the computer makes it difficult for them, for example, to engage with their children’s learning or even undertake simple daily tasks like cooking.

Secondly, the report highlights socio-emotional aspects by stating teachers’ worries about the health and emotional condition of their families and also the high reported levels of stress. A number of teachers also exhibited high levels of burnout. Inevitably, this has tended to be higher among teachers with parental responsibilities. In this regard, teachers also face significant worries about their students’ mental, economic and social wellbeing during the COVID outbreak. The demands of this seemingly ‘new world’ make teachers’ duties recording classes, doing online courses, sending material, homework and assignments, and assessing their students.

To add further complexity to the panorama, teachers were worried about their students: quarantined families, families who tested positive, death, unemployment and (increased) poverty. Not only students were left sometimes in households with no formal incomes, but also there were threats of not receiving payments for teachers as well, especially within the subsidised system. Following our well-known culture of the neoliberal system, parents would not (and indeed could not) meet the schools’ fees, prompting fears about teachers’ salaries. All this under the logic that ‘if parents don’t pay, we don’t have the money to pay teachers’. One school in San Bernardo, a district in the South of the capital, mostly inhabited by families who belongs to the Chilean lowest quintiles, just cancelled online teaching by adopting the logic: ‘if parents don’t pay, we don’t teach’. In private and subsidised schools, teachers were enlisted to call their students to know about their situation. So, beyond their teaching function, they were expected to remind the parents’ of their ‘debts’ to the school. This action was often carried out using their personal mobile phones, and consequently their own data and allowances. This meant that the schools sidestepped their logistical responsibilities in the same way as when teachers themselves supported all the online teaching/learning process. In this scenario, Teachers’ Unions reject the erratic government policies for returning to face-to-face education; claiming the lack of health equipment and the schools’ infrastructure, where students are crowded together.

Lastly, the situation made the lack of ICT learning and conditions among the educational sector manifest, even considering attempts to educate teachers and students about online learning. In a country with a significant rural population, the lack of internet access has also been problematic. Most of the schools did not supply the requisite technological tools for either teachers or students; a factor for stress and burnout increase and, on the other hand, engagement decrease. The lack of internet connection and technological supplies meant that many teachers had students who never participated in classes and thus were not submitting any type of assignments. Within a high-stakes system, that means that students could end up repeating the academic year. For others, learning to use new platforms, such as Zoom or Classroom implied long hours, a slow process, frustration and adaptation difficulties. One teacher said:

“The main challenges have been in the creation of resources with which to assess students, that allow the collection of full information, by using new platforms, which are engaging, but at the same time facilitate the revision or that give reports of students’ attainment. The lack of time is still a very present problem.”

As has been stated, Chilean teachers have a historical work overload that makes it almost impossible to teach in the right conditions; the lack of time is a transversal theme. During teacher interviews that Tamara conducted online in July, time appears a crucial axis for several issues. Time influences teachers’ decisions about assessment methods. In this line, it was a determinant sphere in the decisions made associated with the use of tests and standardised test formats; a formative assessment that becomes summative. These curricular and assessment dilemmas are an expression of the teachers’ desires, which collide with the demands of the system, the lack of student feedback, the overreliance on grades and numbers, and the lack of reflection on students’ attainment. It generates the conditions for configuring a scenario of teachers’ and students’ reticence to embrace changes. In the meantime, at one moment, the country exhibited some of the worst rate of infection per inhabitants and high fatalities percentage in the capital city (June 2020, OECD). Therefore, the health system collapsed.

Ambulances waited up to 12 hours with COVID-19 patients outside a collapsed hospital in the south of the capital, in the cold winter weather and without any food or drinks.

III. Open analysis

The full analysis of what we have set out cannot yet be satisfactorily concluded. We have been in permanent contact with former teaching colleagues on the ground who are facing this unprecedented situation on a daily basis in the country. They have been doing teaching online for seven months now. The precarious context that Chilean teachers have faced for decades has been exacerbated by the health crisis and the intensified work under emergency conditions. Teachers have reported and felt a lack of support and even absolute abandonment from the educational authorities and employees. The ongoing situation in Chile; in the political sphere, along with the upcoming election for changing the constitution at the end of October, forced by social mobilisations; the ongoing demonstrations which have maintained the momentum from the social uprising; the opposition of the Teachers’ Union to returning to the classroom; configure a scenario which remains open for further reflections. However, we suggest that the historicity of dismantling public institution as part of the neoliberal privatising processes has generated a situation that we, at least, could characterise as incompatible with dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude. It invites us to think about the challenges of education in aspects such as the curricula of the teacher training; the support that teachers and students require undertaking online teaching and learning. Elements such as the technological imbalance of Internet access within a deeply uneven society; the lack of technical support at the national scale and also the constant tendency toward imposing the Western paradigm with scant regard for the reality and specificities of firstly Chile and secondly the various Chiles, a pluriversality, which have unveiled from the aforementioned might also be reviewed.

A typical cramped Chilean classroom environment.

As many scholars have suggested, the pandemic provides spaces for analysing what is occurring at the interior of the education institution. However, the analysis might surpass the reduced limits of the didactic procedures. The academic and political debates of the last two decades have been dominated by managerial calculations, policymakers and educative actors who have discussed aspects such as, who has to administrate the public system and what are the modes for better assessing students and teachers. The debate has been reduced to the engineering of education. This feature could be associated with the gradual dismantling of public education. It is a process of dismembering it from its material conditions and symbolical values. We must recognise, the precarity of Chileans schools has impelled us to concentrate our analysis in statistical aspects, such as the quantities of students and teachers in a classroom, or learning accountability as a guide for determining the meaning of educative quality. The reflection on the educative purposes and the place of the public education – from a pedagogical perspective, in so far construction of comprehensive subjects – is avoided. The current situation at the Chilean school invites us to think not only about better methods for teaching, rather to steer our thought to aspects related to what we are teaching. As an example, the Ministry of Education of Chile has commanded a curricular reduction to “essential pieces of knowledge”, without questioning the overwhelming objectives of learning, their uncountable learning indicators and the implications of that selection or body of knowledge. A critical analysis might transcend formal aspects, inasmuch as procedures, in order to reflect holistically upon the epistemological aims and limits of education and by extension the meaning and raison d’etre of schools within our societies.

As teachers, we may wonder how ‘social distance’ will work within classrooms with 45 students and a very limited space, where if we have corridors, it is only because of earthquakes…. By now, the re-start of face to face classes seems to be something that may happen in March 2021, as most educational actors refuse to come back to school due to the insecurity of the health situation. It is noteworthy that in the last weeks some students in Year 11 and Year 12 of 4 private schools in the most exclusive areas in the capital, went back to classes in person. It would be interesting to continue analysing the Chilean situation in the upcoming months, especially when in the last weeks all the districts of the capital were declared to be out of local quarantine for the first time in 7 months.

Finally, we must mention here that as a product of the national uprising that started one year ago in the country, on October 25 2020 Chileans voted to have a new Constitution, with an overwhelming 78.27% of the votes. People’s participation in this plebiscite was the highest since the return to democracy in 1990. The new Constitution will replace the one imposed in 1980 during the Pinochet dictatorship. The constitutional convention voted to write the new Constitution will be the first in the world to have gender parity and will be fully elected by popular vote during April 2021. For the educational sector, the new Constitution will support and reformulate the redefinition of the balance between State and the market in guaranteeing quality public education (against the private), freedom and diversity, and therefore, education as a human right. These events open hope for change related to the inequalities of the system. As both authors come from low income backgrounds and also were in the country during the social uprising one year ago, we see these aspects opening multiple possibilities for future analysis.

Massive protests in Chile one year ago, during the social uprising.


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