We are facing an ‘education emergency’ today: Educationist Rishikesh B.S.

The researcher, who leads the Hub for Education, Law & Policy at Azim Premji University, talks of the urgent need to refocus on fundamentals and get children back to school

Published - July 23, 2021 02:16 pm IST

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Since March 2020, there has been a sea change in the teaching-learning process. The chalk and blackboard have been replaced with computer screens or mobile phones and online classes have become the norm. This has, however, created a huge digital divide, denying many students access to education.

Rishikesh B.S., who leads the Hub for Education, Law & Policy at Azim Premji University, says remote schooling has severely impacted students from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds. Serving on several government advisory committees formed to chalk out an education map and also implement the New Education Policy, the professor talks of the various fallouts of remote schooling. Excerpts from an interview:

What impact will remote schooling have on educational trajectories? Can the Internet ever replace physical schooling?

The last one year has shown that remote schooling using technology is neither sustainable nor desirable. Meaningful education cannot happen remotely, particularly at the school level. A pre-pandemic study in the U.S. showed that students in online schools lose between 0.1 and 0.4 SDs (standard deviations) on standardised tests compared to students in traditional schools. Similar research has emerged from around the world which indicates that remote schooling has impacted learning negatively. The clear and loud statement is that technology at best can only be an aid, and that too only in a real classroom. Today, every child is a few notches below their potential, and it will take them a long time to compensate this lost time.

How has it impacted children emotionally and in terms of pedagogy?

Education is a socio-human endeavour, hence any remote mode snatches away the very core of good education. Children are not just empty vessels to be filled in with content. Schooling is expected to develop a child holistically — it includes social and emotional development plus learning various interlinked concepts across subjects. Learning takes place by engaging with peers, facilitated by an adult. Even if Internet-based live sessions are available, simple acts of learning through engagement don’t happen. Despite options such as ‘break-out rooms’ and sincere efforts by teachers to make sessions interactive, teaching remains unidirectional, with didactic pedagogy the mainstay.

Some children have become over-dependent on gadgets while others have no access to technology...

The most recent study by McKinsey states that learning loss is global and significant, adding that “teachers in high-poverty schools found virtual classes to be especially ineffective, bolstering concerns that the pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities”. The evidence is clear. Technology can only exacerbate the divide and not bridge it. Data from the NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) 75th round presents this divide starkly — less than 5% of rural households have computers. This number barely touches 25% in urban areas. Hence, even among urban dwellers, a vast majority don’t have a computer, which means the only digital access is the mobile phone. To push for digital learning given such ineffective means is an erroneous approach.

Meanwhile, children on the other end of the spectrum, with full access to technology, are being pushed towards too much screen time without any thought for the repercussions this has on their health or the development of social skills. At the end of the day, no child is truly benefiting.

The dropout rate seems to have increased during the pandemic. Why?

The very fact that child helplines began to receive more calls during the first lockdown was a warning that we did not take seriously enough. We should recognise that for a large majority of children, school not only provides a learning environment, but is also a safety net from the familial and social evils that surround them. Stuck in situations of dire poverty, children are pushed into menial jobs to earn a few extra rupees or forced into farm labour. Increased child marriages and child trafficking cases too have been reported from across the country. The continuous school closure has led not only to children dropping out of school, but something far worse.

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

What can be done to bring students back to school?

The most recent report recommending opening of schools comes from the Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty Committee, which uses global evidence as well as guidelines from Indian and American paediatric associations to recommend schools opening wherever the positivity rate is low. In fact, there is no disagreement among experts that schools should be the last to shut down when we begin lockdowns and the first to open during the ‘unlock’ phase. We are facing an ‘education emergency’ today, given the sheer numbers and the complete absence of schooling for millions since the pandemic began. Centralised decision-making won’t work. Ideally, Gram Panchayats must take this decision based on criteria set by State governments or the Ministry of Education.

How do you assess the learning loss since the pandemic?

Some people don’t like to call it learning loss, as that puts the onus on children. However, the consensus is that we have failed to provide learning opportunities for children. The McKinsey report refers to studies from several countries that suggest ‘school shutdowns in the second quarter of 2020 put students up to six months behind the academic milestones their cohorts would typically be expected to reach, and that the losses were greater in maths than in reading, and disadvantaged populations experienced more severe setbacks in all subjects’. A study by Azim Premji Foundation across 44 districts and five States in our country showed similar findings. The bottom line is that the learning loss has been huge, far more than what anyone had anticipated, and it is continuing. If we don’t address it now, it will accumulate exponentially.

What have been the key learnings from the past year, and what changes must be made going forward?

Things are slightly different this time around, as State governments and the respective education departments have had ample time to plan in advance for various scenarios, but whether that will result in changes on the ground is to be seen. In my opinion, the key learnings from the past year that should be used going forward are these: One, there’s been very little meaningful and structured learning for over a year and the loss of learning among children at all levels is huge. Second, learning happens only when the teacher is present along with the children, hence all efforts should be made to bring teachers and children together for as long as possible. Third, the syllabus will have to be reconfigured to include the core concepts of the previous year or two. It will be pointless to begin with syllabus pertaining to a specific grade. Four, it is important that various State education departments use their funds to create study material for foundational literacy and numeracy and for core concepts in higher classes — the appropriate material should include handouts for teachers and facilitators as well as lots of self-study material for children that can be picked up from schools even if the school is shut or if the child is in quarantine. Finally, continuous and comprehensive assessments should be encouraged, and teachers given the flexibility to carry these out in order to understand what the children have grasped so far and where the gaps are.

Is there a need to reform assessment patterns?

Assessment reform is the need of the hour. The standardised board exams serve no purpose and are based on the regressive idea of tagging children as ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. Assessments have to be constructive with feedback for improvement built into them. A far more useful exercise is ‘teacher-led’ and ‘classroom-based’ assessment, which helps teachers as well as children. It is unfortunate that education departments are spending energy trying to figure out how to conduct board exams. The school-leaving certificate should not be based on a one-time exam as it is not an elimination exercise. With two consecutive years of no board exams, now is the time to usher in much-needed assessment reforms. It will not only reduce the stress on children but also help take the education system away from the ‘teach to test’ mode.


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