UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 8 April

Family learning

© Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com
16 April 2020

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on family learning and community support on 8 April 2020 as part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC). Perspectives on and initiatives for family and community learning in response to COVID-19 were shared by the cities of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as by experts from Germany and Pakistan. More than 150 UNESCO GNLC members, city representatives and education stakeholders from around the world participated, resulting in a lively debate following the presentations.

In her welcoming address, Ms Rakhat Zholdoshalieva (UIL) began by highlighting how parents and caregivers are increasingly expected to take an active role in supporting and monitoring their children’s learning at home, signalling a partial shift of responsibility from schools and teachers. She also reiterated the existing gender roles that are enacted in this process. It is usually female youth and adults in the home who are responsible for supporting younger children’s learning; as a result, the workloads of women and older girls, including schoolgirls, have doubled or even tripled since the pandemic started.

In addition, there are significant associated challenges. The idea that all parents are suitably equipped to guide learning is problematic; the pre-pandemic issue of low literacy rates among children, youth and adults is therefore likely to be exacerbated by the current situation. In many families learning will also be devalued as the economic impact of COVID-19 is felt in the household. It is important to meet learning needs of parents and caregivers who are low literate and therefore require support to improve their own learning.

Nevertheless, the world is in the process of rediscovering the importance of intergenerational, family and community learning. These approaches are not new, yet we are now seeing them move from the margins to the very centre of discussion around government-led policy. A special mention was made about those families in which parents are migrants living in cities or other countries.

Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) previewed the presentations by experts and UNESCO GNLC member cities by introducing two main issues to be addressed: what family learning conceptually and practicably means across contexts, and how community learning has grown in response to the pandemic.

Ms Gabriele Rabkin, psychologist, educator, lecturer, Hamburg’s family literacy (FLY) project

Ms Gabriele Rabkin, speaking as an expert on family literacy as well as an informed citizen of Hamburg, Germany, summarized family literacy at the practical level by noting that programmes tend to be designed either for children or for parents and children, while locations of implementation include homes, schools, libraries and other community spaces. Many participating families have migrant backgrounds. In Hamburg, during the current crisis, there is a joint focus on literacy and creative expression, as well as a multicultural approach underlining the importance of intercultural communication.

Across Germany, all schools and kindergartens have been closed since mid-March, presenting a huge challenge for families, including those with adults now working from home. There is growing evidence of restlessness and aggression in families: popular outdoor spaces such as playgrounds are closed; outside children should be together only with their close family. In light of these restrictive and potentially damaging conditions, psychosocial and emotional learning of family members and communities should be a priority. Teachers and educators still have an important role to play as mediators in families, particularly where they have prior experience.

Ms Shaheen Attiq-ur-Rahman, Vice Chairperson BUNYAD Foundation, Pakistan

Ms Shaheen Attiq-ur-Rahman shared her insights into the Pakistani context, where there is a high rate of youth and adults lacking basic literacy skills, but strong involvement of grandparents, uncles and aunts because families live in predominantly multigenerational households. To respond to the current crisis of school closures, the Ministry of Education in Pakistan, through one of the open and distance education universities of Islamabad, is mobilizing expertise to support in the design and delivery of distance learning and trying to develop resources that cater to every age group.

The BUNYAD Foundation, where Ms Attiq-ur-Rahman works, primarily focuses on self-directed learning, learning in rural communities and learning programmes for youth. In rural areas, women tend to lack basic literacy skills and so there is often more reliance on fathers for reading, as they predominantly have literacy skills. This point, referring back to expected gender roles, echoed a recurring theme of the webinar. Ms Attiq-ur-Rahman also highlighted the role of religion and religious texts. As part of their literacy programmes, the Bunyad Foundation provides religious texts for reading in the home, as reading and literacy materials are often rarely found in the homes of families in rural communities. 

UNESCO learning city of Gdynia, Poland

Ms Katarzyna Ziemann, Deputy Director of the Social Innovations Lab

Ms Katarzyna Ziemann of the UNESCO GNLC member city of Gdynia, Poland, recognized the importance of online tools for non-formal education and community and social development. Gdynia has organized a series of initiatives for family and community learning. ‘Familial Gdynia’ is an umbrella term for online meetings organized between families and experts, including psychologists, psychiatrists, midwives and educators, as well as online story series with actors reading fairy tales. Opportunities for family learning are also facilitated by online science centres, which provide information on experiments families can try at home.

For the older community, a virtual university of the third age has arranged online lectures, non-university classes and opportunities to interact. Further strengthening community bonds, neighbour centres for online meetings, activities and integration have been established. Local people use these platforms to share recipes, offer support, DIY ideas and more; they are the virtual embodiment of community learning. In response to a follow-up question on how well the city of Gdynia is reaching out to people without technological devices, Ms Ziemann reported that volunteers, non-governmental organizations and other groups are in regular contact with families that do not have internet access in order to see to their needs.

UNESCO learning city of Cork, Ireland

Ms Deirdre Creedon, Access Officer, Cork Institute of Technology

Cork’s community responses to the pandemic are shaped by a rich local history of community initiatives, including learning neighbourhoods. Such initiatives mean that structures to support learning networks are already in place. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Local Authority Community Response Forum has been set up in every local authority area to help vulnerable members of communities; in Cork, 30 different partner organizations are working together towards this mission, including the city council, county champions, postal service, Community Welfare Service, charities and more. To name two specific initiatives, people in the community who suspect they might have the virus have been provided with transport to community testing centres, and the ‘Music Generation’ project has promoted family learning by asking families to explore which sounds in the home can be turned into music.


The presentations given by experts and cities sparked a vibrant discussion among panellists and participants. The first of several questions posed by moderator Ms Macauley (UIL) looked at how we define communities as compared to families. Ms Gabriele Rabkin of FLY Hamburg asserted that communities provide families with much-needed support, but the family itself is the most important and intimate connection to the child. Ms Zholdoshalieva (UIL) added to the conceptual discussion by arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic means that the importance of parents and families in children’s learning is being more widely acknowledged at policy as well as practice level, as are the learning needs of parents and other adults. Emphasis was previously placed on formal education, but now we are more clearly seeing the important role played by informal, intergenerational and family learning.

Asked about the different approaches used for learning at home, including those not reliant on internet access, Ms Creedon commented that, in Cork and Ireland more widely, home schooling for primary school-aged children is also taking place through TV networks, with a lesson broadcast on television each morning. Both Cork and Gdynia mentioned that older children – secondary school students – are performing as educators in the family home by assisting their younger siblings with educational tasks. Such interventions, alongside other non-formal learning initiatives, are seen by Gdynia as conducive to primary school pupils’ engagement in learning, as their attention spans tend to be shorter. Responding to a question on women’s roles in the family, Ms Attiq-ur-Rahman explained that, in Pakistan, children are turning to their mothers for learning support and benefit if she is already literate; in addition, the mother-in-law plays an influential role and could provide much needed support.

At the conclusion of the session, Ms Zholdoshalieva (UIL) summarized the debate. It was clear from the information shared that the cities of Gdynia and Cork are not only now creating new opportunities for family and community learning in response to COVID-19, but are also drawing on pre-existing programmes, including those that promote family, intergenerational and community learning. In Hamburg and Pakistan, it is apparent that formal and informal intergenerational and community learning activities are already taking place, but we are now beginning to learn about how they complement both high- and low-tech government initiatives. She also called for collective efforts in documenting and sharing emerging family, intergenerational and community learning materials and resources in the times of COVID-19 and developing open educational resource repositories for future purposes.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the three previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19 – the cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Iran): Outcomes of webinar on 19 March  – https://uil.unesco.org/lifelong-learning/learning-cities/unesco-learning-cities-responding-covid-19

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19 – the cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil): Outcomes of webinar on 24 March – https://uil.unesco.org/unesco-learning-cities-and-responses-covid-19-outcomes-webinar-24-march

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April - https://uil.unesco.org/lifelong-learning/learning-cities/unesco-learning-cities-responses-covid-19-outcomes-webinar-1-april

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw