Saturday 1 August 2020

School and Syllabus can take a Break

A school year ended and another began without much ado. No examination fevers, no revisions, and no progress, forget progress reports. Hence, no wins or losses, or rather, no winners or losers worthy of the title. And worse, no re-opening. Enough cause for worry for the teachers and the parents. So we moved on to online classes. But have the children taken to online learning? Perhaps not. The teachers try their best to make up for the lack of  personal care, individual attention, physical proximity, direct eye contact and those heart-to-heart conversations by putting their heart and soul out there on the screens, but to no avail. Four hours of strenuous teaching, what with turning to videos and Power Points instead of the blackboard (sometimes blackboard too), do not turn around even half the time’s worth of education, as per feedback. All that screeching and beseeching by the teachers and the parents respectively have not really got across to the children, especially the little ones.

Perhaps the young ones cannot figure out what’s happening in their lives. Perhaps they cannot understand why their lives have suddenly turned topsy-turvy. All of a sudden they realise school was the best thing in their lives. All that chit-chatting with friends, that last minute snatching of one last game before they were called back to their classes, the sharing of the lunchboxes, the catching up on things they have seen and heard around them – all of that disappeared in a flash. And along with that is also gone one of their major opportunities to learn. Dealing with their pent-up energy, enthusiasm and emotions is the new challenge.

So we’re thinking of a dwindled - and impoverished - syllabus. We will slash away parts of certain subjects in order to lighten the children’s burden of online education. But which are those subjects and who decides? Not the children for sure. They, as usual, don’t get a chance to choose. So here we are, making the same old mistakes but with a far worse impact. The situation calls for some drastic measures, of course.

Let’s suppose we, as a nation, decide to toss away one whole school year. We may not lose much. We may gain a lot instead. Let’s use the time to teach the children some life skills. Let’s allow them to work on their hobbies. Creative thinking will come to them naturally. Let’s instil in them the love of reading. They will not have to learn language and communication skills from the textbook anymore. Teach them gardening. They will learn to love nature and respect their environment. Let them brush up on what they learnt in school the previous year. They will be more than ever ready to start school when the time comes. Allow the students to discover by themselves what their favourite subjects are. They will know what self-learning is all about. They will also learn critical thinking, self-assessment and decision making to some extent. These are the first steps to self-dependence and independence. One year down the line, the children will be better equipped to take on their challenges, and they will make up for the time and the lessons they lost - if we still insist on calling this a loss.

We may realise in the end that setting back a year was not a major loss but a huge gain after all. The parents will be relieved of providing each family member with a computer at a time when many have lost their jobs and many are working on reduced salaries. For the job vacancies that will arise in the coming year, don’t forget, we have enough qualified, unemployed youth who can fill those posts.

The biggest advantage of all – we don’t have to put children’s safety at risk with increased online exposure. According to UNESCO, “Half of the total number of learners — some 826 million (82.6 crore) students — kept out of the classroom by the Covid-19 pandemic, do not have access to a household computer and 43 per cent (706 million or 70.6 crore) have no internet at home, at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the vast majority of countries.” UNICEF notes, “Millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during lockdown in the Covid-19 pandemic”. The ‘harm’ mentioned here includes sexual exploitation by online predators and such other risks.

In the meantime, when the school and the syllabus takes a break, the educationists and the decision makers, can work on making the much-needed changes in our education system. For starters, the children should be able to learn what they want to learn. For example, math needn’t compulsorily go along with the sciences. Students should be able to choose to learn math along with history, the languages, or even art if that’s what they want. There will be lesser stress on children and they will learn better. Human beings need not be categorised. They are born with diverse skills and talents. Allow them to develop their own skills and talents. They will grow up to become better professionals, better leaders, and better human beings. The world needs them.

Is this too much to wish for? Is this too impractical an idea? One only needs to look at the social media platforms, which are now flooded with children’s ingenious talent, for enough evidence to agree that the time has come for a drastic change. Perhaps this is the ‘real’ writing on the wall. Perhaps this is not a crisis but an opportunity.