All is now fair in India’s ailing pedagogic spaces

Reconciling the new technological environment with child psychology and educational theory has not been easy

Updated - December 11, 2020 01:04 am IST

Published - December 11, 2020 12:02 am IST

When someone teaching at a reputed nursery said earlier this year that she was taking online classes, I thought she was joking. She is a Montessori specialist and Montessori methods are mostly incompatible with virtual learning. How could she be asked to go online, I wondered. With the passage of days and months, the question has lost its relevance. The novel coronavirus has turned our ailing pedagogic spaces topsy-turvy. All is now fair and there are no fouls. And in any case, there is no referee.

Reconciling the new technological environment with child psychology and educational theory has not been easy. Schools have struggled to cope with the pressure to comply with market forces and thoughtless policies. Though there is no worthwhile evidence that smart classes contribute to intellectual development, both private and government schools have installed ‘smart’ infrastructure at great expense. The ethos has been astonishingly charged up for quite some time now. Given the scale of the market that children offer to the information technology (IT)-related industries, school authorities in the private sector and State officials have been equally under pressure to make decisions on the run.

Also read | Online classes: the yearning to go offline

The pandemic and pressures

The novel coronavirus pandemic has created its own pressure on the education sector. Response to this pressure reflects poor systemic capacity to adapt to unforeseen situations. Spaces available for deliberation and working out details have always been quite limited, and academic advice has had only a marginal role. These systemic weaknesses only intensified under pandemic conditions.

The feeling that there is no alternative to going online erased the need to make stage-wise distinctions and age-specific provisions. Nor was there any scope for assessing the situation in rural schools region-wise. Examination agencies slashed the syllabus and teachers were told to adopt a harder duty routine, combining screen time with messaging and responding. For the vast population of children who had no access to laptops, smartphones were hailed as a substitute. They were distributed in some States on the assumption that they would remain useful for a long time. The usual rush to start the new session left no time to consider the implications of children’s unbounded access to the Internet and their increasing facility with the smartphone.

It will soon be a year since the switch over to the new arrangement for engaging children started. Instead of getting wiser, the system appears to have got poorer in its ability to benefit from teachers’ experience and advice. Now and then you hear the anguished voice of middle-class parents, but they too are preoccupied with planning the best possible post-pandemic life for their children. Coaching outfits are now offering a lot more than preparation for entrance tests. Parents have no idea how to judge the competing claims made by private companies that their courses will protect children from learning losses incurred due to school closure. Many online courses are advertised with the claim that they will enhance the intellectual growth of children’.

Opinion | Classroom connect: education in the times of a pandemic

No safety net for children

Childhood is now fully exposed to the attractions of the virtual world and there is no one to offer a safety net. Young children’s access to the Internet brings them face to face with self-styled video teachers of every subject, manufacturers of video games, fantasy app makers, and coding instructors. These and many others have successfully penetrated the armour that the family and the school used to provide. From entertainment to education and preparation for jobs, the new claimants of children’s attention have no dearth of wares on display in the humungous mall known as the Internet. Merits of the various items on offer are not easy to estimate. Let us consider the claim that courses on coding will enhance the analytical skills and structural awareness of elementary schoolchildren. Vocabulary of this kind attracts educated parents, but it also reaches out to teachers and the children themselves. Not just companies, drafters of policy documents and advisories of international organisations now use terms such as ‘analytical skills’ and ‘critical inquiry’ as brand signs for the so-called ‘21st century skills’.

Comment | Limitations of online learning

Deceptive vocabulary

These terms evoke older, familiar ideas that had similar names but carried a different meaning. To give just one instance, ‘critical inquiry’ implies the ability to place a problem in a wider context. Analytical skill developed in the course of a contextualised enquiry should be transferable to new problems belonging to different spheres of life, including the social sphere which tends to be complex and prone to constant change. This is why social science teachers face greater difficulties than science teachers do in introducing children to basic concepts. Children whose sense of context is confined to a rectangular screen can hardly be expected to transfer their analytical ability to social or human situations. Educational theory recognises this limitation, but that hardly matters to IT-related industries. In the case of early instruction of coding, the curriculum gives precedence to production by small children so that they develop greater interest in the course. Let a seven-year-old experience the joy of designing an app, say the promoters of coding courses; logic can be taught later.

Comment | E-learning in India, a case of bad education

Fascination of precocity

For quite some time now, the assumption that schools in the West and countries such as Japan are more tech-savvy has served as a populist guide to school policies in India. The assumption is false, but it is often sustained with the help of baseless or highly exaggerated news. For instance, Japan is said to be replacing printed textbooks with digital ones. Nothing of this kind has happened on any scale in reality. Provision of a hands-on experience and the reading of printed material remained undisturbed in primary schools even under pandemic conditions in European countries, Japan and China. Online teaching was perceived only as a supplement, that too for older children. Stage-wise specificity of appropriateness is seldom given serious consideration in our system. The general logic currently applied is that if digital resources are useful for higher classes, why not induct the youngest age group in online learning?

Editorial | Digital disconnect: On online learning and digital divide

Respect for the natural pace of intellectual maturation and the importance of hands-on experience have enjoyed universal currency. Over the recent years, acceleration of learning, outcome-driven teaching and frequent testing emerged as parts of a new ideology in education. These ideas gel nicely with certain culturally entrenched beliefs in our country. Many parents feel happy to be told that their child is precocious. To see a small child working hard or talking like an adult is seen as a sign of genius. This is not a new belief: its roots can be found in folklore and mythology. The modern schooling system has introduced and propagated a culture of competitiveness. Parents want to see their child moving ahead of others. Children internalise this desire early and teachers encourage it despite what they learn during their training about individual differences in pace and style of learning.

Ground Zero | In the time of online classes, Northeast waits for a faint signal from a distant tower

Facetious advice

The competitive culture entrenched in the social ethos fits in well with the new regime of frequent regular testing and the thriving market of ready-made tests. Online teaching facilitates and encourages frequent testing. The sense of achievement boosted through instantly available results is similar to the pleasure that success in coding or winning in a video game brings. Moral criticism of the video game market has failed to discourage the kinds of material that parents might otherwise find objectionable. Fantasy apps are an example. To be told that some of them foster a gambling mindset may not surprise new age parents who argue that it is best to let the child get prepared for the real world. Similar arguments can be advanced about exposure to manipulative advertisements, violent entertainment and pornography. The argument that children cannot be insulated from such things is facetious. Equally facetious is the advice given to parents that they should make children fully aware of the risks they face.

Krishna Kumar is a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.