All that we learnt in 2020 about learning

One thing was amply clear – our education system was simply not equipped for the quick switch to virtual education. The question is, how will things pan out when schools reopen?

When one looks at the lessons learnt about learning itself during the lockdown, there is one thing that is abundantly clear – our education system was simply not equipped for it. We were so habituated to telling children ‘what to think’ that the demand that online teaching placed on teachers – to assist children with ‘how to think’ – threw the entire system off gear, leading to weeks of flux and confounding chaos.

Be it familiarity with technology or the concept of heutagogy, everything was being tested out for the first time, and true to the Indian spirit of surviving everything with a little bit of ‘jugaad’, we got through this daunting phase, but not without hitting some serious bumps on the way. 

If one were to pick out 5 ‘truths’ about the education system that came to the fore during this period, they would likely be as follows:

Internet access far from universal

Internet penetration is far from attaining the universality that is being painted. In a survey conducted by a leading non-profit organisation, it was estimated that anywhere between 40-80% children in urban and rural areas respectively did not have access to smartphones or internet connection, which effectively meant that they were left completely out of any online home-learning programmes.

Those who do not have access to the Internet have not received any kind of instruction or education, especially children in rural areas and also amongst the urban poor.

Teachers have struggled to keep up

Teachers, even in some of the most elite schools, struggled with online teaching – not merely because they were unfamiliar with technology but because online facilitation requires a completely different pedagogical approach. One heard the term ‘heutagogy’ being discussed seriously for the first time.

Heutagogy is a student-centered instructional strategy that emphasizes the development of autonomy, capacity and capability. Given the limited interaction that children had with teachers or with peers, heutagogy would have been an effective way of ensuring learning continuity among children had it been the popular approach to learning in schools. But as is common knowledge, the approach in most schools continues to be teacher-centric making an alternative online model extremely challenging to execute at least in the short term.

Teachers are also anxious about how things would pan out when classes resume as each child is going to be at a different level of learning. Syllabuses may not be rationalised and this could prove very daunting for the teachers. 

As the schools have asked parents to pay some amount of fees, the online classes are expected to cover most of the ground as regular classes. A teacher I know has struggled to ensure that they have adequate number of devices at home both to teach and for the online class requirements of her two children. The school did not cut teachers any slack and any extra effort on the teacher’s part came from their own interest and initiative.

Those most in need left out

The children who needed learning continuity support the most were deprived of learning opportunities the most. While schools that catered to the better off, ‘privileged’ children improvised and got online systems up and running, children attending public (government) schools were pretty much left to fend for themselves.

Some effort was made to make learning accessible with the help of mass media like local TV channels but with little or no follow up from the teachers, these were feeble attempts, if at all, to ensure learning continuity for the most marginalised who could not rely on parental support either.

The argument was that in the absence of internet connectivity among the vast majority of the demographic that attends government schools, any other effort to mobilise physical teaching camps may not be appreciated by parents who would most likely be concerned about their children contracting infection. Mass media appeared to be the only medium feasible in the face of such a massive challenge.

The economically disadvantaged groups have been left out of the ambit of any kind of learning during the pandemic. My domestic help has their children in government schools, where they have not heard from their teacher in months.

Women most affected

Women bore the brunt of it, as overworked teachers and mothers. Several reports have discussed the fatigue and mental breakdown women have faced during the lockdown, thanks to the pressures of managing work and additional responsibilities at home.

Schools expected parents to supervise children during online classes – especially for very young children – and it was invariably the mothers who now had to don the hat of teachers as well, sometimes juggling work from home over and above their usual domestic responsibilities.

Teachers, who are predominantly women, reported cases of severe stress and fatigue as they had to plan for and execute engaging online classes even if they did not have the luxury of a conducive atmosphere at home. 

Many anecdotes have emerged over the course of the pandemic of the extra burden on women having to manage the household, follow-up on children’s education and work.

A personal friend who is a founder of the startup spoke recently of the struggle to manage her startup and cater to the requirements posed by online classes. The schools assigned a lot of work to the children that ultimately became her responsibility and the school did not make any concessions for the parents under duress. 

Students miss the social experience

Online learning could not replicate the most important aspect of schooling – social interaction. Online learning was least suited for really young children given their short attention spans and the need for experiential and kinaesthetic learning but most importantly because of the absence of any form of socialising with peers.

At this age play, they say, is the best way to learn and online learning meant that that form of learning was tragically unavailable to children. Yet, there were stories of children connecting over one of the many video call platforms but video calls were an awfully inadequate substitute for physical interaction. 

Older children, especially those used to vibrant discussions in class and being part of energising group work sessions had to make do with breakout rooms and raising virtual hands during online sessions and online classes could hardly replicate the bonhomie or camaraderie one experiences in an actual physical classroom.

Only time will tell if this is likely to have an irreversible impact on children’s mental health and well-being or if returning to schools would heal some of these wounds and erase some of the trauma the social isolation has caused children.

Apart from the economic, emotional and social devastation the pandemic has caused people all over the world, there is no denying the fact that children, too, have had to pay a heavy price. Those with happy, supportive homes probably had some of the trauma mitigated during the lockdown, but given the duration of the lockdown even the most privileged child is bound to have stories of loneliness and tedious boredom to tell once things return to normalcy, whenever that is.

When schools eventually reopen, teachers, school leaders and parents would do well to prioritise children’s socio-emotional well-being  for some time before the pressure of ‘catching up’ overwhelms and takes over children’s lives. Schools should sensitise teachers and provide adequate training in order to prepare them for school life post the ‘new normal’.

That will help children to quickly adjust back to what will hopefully be a better version of the ‘old normal’ and to erase the difficult memories of the lockdown, and forget them as if it were all just a bad dream!

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