The post-Covid learning challenge | The Indian Express

In addition to several other damages, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a major educational breakdown. Students whose academic levels, particularly in the rural and semi-urban areas, were already far below the target feel completely lost. Teachers who went through a traumatic spell in dealing with the Covid crisis in their families, while negotiating unfamiliar online classes, associated technical glitches and endless online meetings are also at a loss as they meet, say, a Class VII student who has completely missed classes V and VI. A recent series of articles in this paper has highlighted the challenges posed by the educational emergency in classrooms in Delhi. The student, in several cases, could be from a family of first-generation learners; she is not likely to have any smart device or connectivity to attend the sporadic online classes. It’s also not unlikely that her parents may have lost their jobs.

Several post-pandemic studies have shown that students lag behind in all the school subjects. It has also been shown that online classes have not proved helpful and education cannot continue in this faceless inactive mode. A recent survey conducted by Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur showed that in 2021, the proficiency levels of middle school students in Hindi and English were dismal. This happened because of a comprehensive breakdown in studies during the pandemic, particularly in the case of underprivileged students who lacked digital devices, connectivity, books and a dedicated space to learn. A much larger survey carried out by the National Achievement Survey (NAS) of 34 lakh students of Classes III, V, VIII and IX reports a striking dip across subjects and grades (IE, May 26). The dip was far sharper in rural areas compared to urban areas. The nature and acuteness of the crisis will vary from place to place and no homogenous solution is likely to be pragmatic.

Deficits in reading comprehension and basic mathematical abilities inevitably impact learning in all other school subjects. All states have been trying to address this issue in their own way. However, what seems common to their efforts is a desire to identify “learning gaps” and address them quickly to create a sense of “all is well”. We need to appreciate that there are no shortcuts in education. It demands suitable teachers, teaching-learning materials and time. A major crisis in education is not just a question of identifying and addressing some learning gaps. Nor is it a question of quickly creating some capsule programs in terms of linear and additive learning outcomes. It would be wrong to treat education in the doctor-patient model based on diagnostic, prognosis and remedial intervention.

Those who were closely involved in the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) of the 1990s would recollect that the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, state committees on educational research and training and district institutes of education and training worked in perfect sync for five years or so. It was also possible at that time to establish district, block and cluster resource centers (DRC, BRC, CRC). The academic model adopted was one of a cascade type of training where a cadre of state-level master trainers (MTs) was created through a series of workshops, often conducted by college or university faculty. MTs were supposed to train the primary school teachers using the DRC, BRCs and CRCs. As the five-year mission came to a close, the whole edifice crumbled like a house of cards. The DPEP was implemented in 273 districts of 18 states. The mission was supposed to “overhaul the primary education system in the country”. Did anything significant happen in DPEP in terms of academic growth and conceptual clarity of primary school students? Did our primary school system get overhauled? One wonders whether anybody would stick her neck out for an affirmative answer.

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The response to the educational breakdown in the post-pandemic period is again being made in the same framework of “diagnosis, prognosis and treatment”. “Crack teams” are being created to examine learning gaps and outcomes and reconfigure and reduce the syllabus. A small group of MTs will train lakhs of teachers in a short period with a guide. Suitable teaching-learning materials will also be prepared to match this whole exercise. All this will be reportedly done at breakneck speed to address the learning gaps. But can such an effort prove effective when the DPEP failed to achieve anything substantive over a period of more than five years?

The fact that education is about ensuring rational inquiry and enriching cognitive capacities needs to be recognised. This cannot be done in a hurry. Why should we always look for medical or managerial solutions to educational crisis which demand a long-term intervention? There is no way one can bring the lost years back. But there is also no way that you can use some quick fix solutions — online, offline or a combination of the two — to recover the learning that has been lost.

Our schools officially run for about 180 teaching days or so; the real teaching days vary enormously in different contexts. Can we think of running the school for 240 days or so? The present teachers who are already overworked and traumatised should not be asked for any more work. We should fill in all teacher vacancies. Thousands of trained graduates have been waiting for years to teach. Appoint them as temporary teachers with immediate effect. Let’s invite our recently retired teachers and pay them well. Some college and university teachers may volunteer to teach in schools, say, once a week. Can we devote, say, 60 days per year for a period of two years to cover the syllabus students have missed? Rather than opting for short cuts and addressing “hard spots” or “learning gaps”, we should ensure a comprehensive response to an acute emergency in education. Students must go through the whole syllabus originally planned for them and they should do so by engaging in conceptually challenging tasks. Let’s not forget that students love to go to school and engage in peer-group activities, sports, and cultural programmes. Good teachers are their lifeline. They begin to avoid school when it gets boring.

The author retired from Delhi University and is Professor Emeritus, Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur

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