A deep learning crisis has set in during the Covid pandemic. The National Achievement Survey (NAS) has captured a fall of nine percentage points between 2017 and 2021 in the performance of students in subjects ranging from maths to social science (IE, May 25). Since the absence of a formal, structured learning environment is being identified as the primary cause of this crisis, the learning loss seems to be more applicable to those children who do not have educational support at home and are constrained in other ways as well.
It is natural to expect any tool that assesses and quantifies the acquisition of formal learning skills among children will show gaps between what they should know and what they actually know. What is a bit perplexing, however, is that while the meanings of learning, pedagogy, and peer interaction have changed with the shift to the online mode, the assessment tools continue to be centered on the offline mode of instruction. Typically, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment go hand-in-hand and a change in any of these necessitates a change in the other two as well. That is not the case here.
The NAS is the first nationwide survey of quality education after the lockdown and extended closure of schools. Therefore, its results assume greater significance. School teachers have also been asked to assess students on a regular basis.
Now that the learning loss has been estimated, children with learning gaps have been identified and appropriate strategies framed for them, it is important to recognise the implications of labeling a section of as “weak”. We also need to examine the impact of this kind of assessment on the meaning of learning. Labelling a child as “kamzor bacchha” impacts her self worth and dignity. In the Kotra village in Rajasthan, for instance, where one of us works, it’s common to see a few children playing early morning while most others make their way to the support classes — a sense of shame on their downcast faces is obvious.
One has also seen children running in the opposite direction on seeing their teacher: “Maasahab aa rahein hain, bhaag. Mobile se kuch sawal pochenge aur phir kahenge tum log ko kuch nahin aata hai” (The teacher is coming, let us run. He will ask a few questions from his mobile and say that you don’t know anything). Incidents such as these reflect how children have begun to view their teachers and what assessment means to them.
The more fundamental impact of such assessments is on the meaning they give to learning. Remedial programs like bridge courses are based on an understanding of learning as an additive process, one that can be recovered by increasing either the content intake or the instruction time. Second, it also assumes that learning manifests itself easily irrespective of who is evaluating and under what circumstances, without bothering to understand how children relate to the assessment exercise. Third, it validates certain kinds of learning which takes place in the classroom and excludes all other experiences outside it. Without downplaying the importance of foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, one must admit that there is a risk of them being given disproportionate importance to the neglect of all other kinds of learning that seldom gets measured. Related to this is the narrative of poor children lacking basic foundational skills.
While the assessment survey focuses on what children do not know, it is also important to know what they may have experienced/acquired in this period. While the experience of each child may differ, one may not be wrong in generalising that each child may have gone through some amount of grief, uncertainty, fear of death, the pain of losing someone close, alienation from one’s friends and classmates. Some would have even faced poverty, hunger, dislocation and the resultant frustration. This also means that children may have also matured more, their needs would have changed and so would their expectations from school. It is also important to acknowledge the fact that just because children did not come to school, they did not stop learning. In Kotra, we observed that the last two years have also meant a little more time for children to be with friends, support their parents and learn from them, and explore local forests and areas in their village. All these experiences should be integral to the learning process. It becomes critical for schools to integrate elements of these into classrooms.
Rather than asking how to make children ready for school, a more valid question to ask perhaps would be how to make schools more responsive to children and their needs. Although the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has been continuously lamenting the falling learning levels of school children since 2005, we will confine our discussion around the pandemic. Schools need to be prepared to offer and invite students to process grief through cultivating safe spaces to express and share their feelings and needs. Providing such spaces would be very critical in processing grief. This should be ingrained in school culture, and not be a one-off event and its effect on the overall growth of children should be observed. This will allow children to reclaim their spaces in the classroom. This practice is rooted in the child first approach.
Opportunities to build confidence in children must be created and students should be enabled to work in groups so that they can share their experiences with their peers. The well-being of teachers should be considered absolutely essential to the process. Thrusting them with responsibility unilaterally mandated by their seniors will not take us far. These measures will have a positive influence on the teacher-student relationship and help bridge the trust deficit that has been created by long school closures.
(Nawani is with the School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Kumar is the CEO and Co-founder of Kshamtalaya in Kotra, Rajasthan.)