The Past, Present & The Future of Urban Schooling in India
An irreversible change post-pandemic ?
Dais Editorial | 29/06/2021 06:00 PM
Do you have a kid? Do you have a Teacher in your family? Are you a parent and a teacher both? Are you on the Board of School Management anyhow? Are you facing troubles with the complete eco-system you are a part of?
As the pandemic began to strike last year, life across the world started coming to a halt, affecting people from all over – Offices being shut down, malls and recreational spaces locking out, roads wearing a deserted look and Governments unable to see a way out beyond imposing curfews. But as realization begins to dawn upon us that this may just not be a problem that will blow over in a rush – humans are adapting to a new normal. Life (read school-life) , after all, has to be restarted in newer ways than we could have ever imagined.
While those who can work from home, are somehow managing to do so, educationists can’t have hung up their hats, even in the face of a global pandemic. An answer has to be found: Learning cannot be paused for an entire generation.
Home schooling and gap years are not common choices for Indian parents.
By March 2020, school systems all across the globe had taken a hit - Approximately 1,576,021,818 students across 188 countries at varying levels of education had been affected by the pandemic*.
India also shut off access to its schools last year and has been keeping it so for a majority of 2021. World bank reports are pegging a loss of $400 Billion in future earnings if the closure of schools were to prolong – thus proving the assumed connection between India’s GDP and its desperate need for schooling for its children.
And while the world is grappling with an existential crisis, the education system faces a whole different kind of challenge.
What if we survive the pandemic? Would our kids be pushed back on their academic years because Governments took time to restore normalcy?
As millions of kids are sitting at home, not understanding what has hit them and why their parents are scared to even let them open the front door, leave alone going to school – Institutions have stepped up to educate an entire generation of children, in a manner most of them never thought they would, at least in their lifetimes.
A study by the Azim Premji foundation shows that nearly 92% of children from class 2 to class 6 have completely forgotten at least one specific ability in a language and around 82% have lost at least one specific ability in Mathematics.
Learning has to be revolutionized – there is no option.
The electronic device has now become the only means of reaching the class to the student. While urban schools have already been operating on a quasi-tech methodology of learning for years, government-run and rural schools have been finding it difficult to adapt to the new normal. Parents, on the other hand, can no longer chide their children for being glued to their devices - it is part of growing-up, now.
All said and done, this is undeniably a generation that will live through history. Their story of quick adaptation in times of inexplicable crisis is case-study for years to come. Everyone seems to have adjusted – schools, parents, children, teachers, even IT teams (some of whom were non-existent in institutions thus far) – everyone has risen to the occasion to ensure an entire generation does not lose out to a virus.
Schools have been putting in place newer systems of learning, teachers have been experimenting with pedagogical techniques to hold children’s attention and the students themselves are embracing mobile phones and laptops to stay ahead in the all-competitive academic ecosystem. Because while the rest of us are locked in, for the Schools in India – life goes on.
From blackboards to virtual classrooms – the screen has become the center of everything
The boundaries between homes and schools are becoming fluid.
Schools with their fundamentals and strong ideologies are expected to sail through this, and let’s be honest – they have not let us down. It is no mean feat to commit to reaching regular learning to children sitting off-location and actually delivering it – day-on-day, month-on-month with the pandemic hitting back with stronger intensity in each wave.
While about 1.5 million schools have shut down in the country in 2020 impacting the lives of more than 247 million children, the ones that have held on, have quite the rollercoaster ride.
While connectivity tends to fail those even in the best of schools in the top most tiers of cities – forget 4G/5G – sometimes a 3G data-flow-day being considered a great day - here are some of the challenges the Institutions, who made it all happen, have been facing:
1. Even though the students have gradually moved to home Wi-Fi networks and have bought headphones and tabs for handier access to class lessons – voice clarity and network connectivity have been consistent issues. The mischievous ones take benefit of it as well -A lot of times students are seen to switch their videos off during class stating they are facing poor data connection– making it difficult for teachers to keep the ‘classroom attentiveness’ up.
2. The hopes of starting physical classes from the 1st quarter of academic year 2021-22 have been quashed by the second wave. Institutions are realizing that students are perhaps the biggest sufferers of this pandemic because they have come back to being where it all started last year.
3. Schools are seeing children dropping on their emotional quotient – having lost touch with friends and peer groups, their young, impressionable minds have taken a severe toll with bouts of anxiety and helplessness frequenting in.
4. A majority of parents have willingly accepted the school’s methods of teaching in the new era, but there has been a section of parents that opposes online classes and questions their effectiveness. For them, classroom teaching is the only way their kids can learn and anything less means paying heavy fees for discounted ‘services’.
5. Since a lot of parents are also undergoing financial stress due to the pandemic, with some losing jobs and others having cash flow crunches in their businesses; schools have been impacted due to fee reductions and payment delays. Their costs, of course, have continued to remain static – a lot of direct and indirect staff needs to be paid. A particular bone of contention is the ‘transport fees’ – many parents contest the need to keep paying school bus fees in lockdowns, without realizing that the transport service provider has contracted his fleet to the school and has mouths of drivers and helpers to feed. Discrepancies like these have seen a unique shift happening in urban areas – students dropping out of private schools and shifting into government schools where fees are relatively lower and teaching styles fairly similar, thanks to the pandemic- online.
6. Technical and IT infrastructure was thus far running on passable standards in most schools that did not feel the need to urgently transition to better technology and IT systems. The pandemic has pushed schools to quickly turn this around and invest in setting up compatible technology enabling them to restart classes. The other challenge is educating the teachers too – they are not used to teaching students on Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams. Overnight trainings had to be conducted to ensure the staff was ready to face the online learning world.
7. The Benefits of online and digital learning are sure experienced and understood but most institutions and teachers still stand for returning to offline pedagogy as soon as the situation permits – the melting pot of ideas and combined learning where students from diverse backgrounds, upbringings and cultures interact under a single roof can simply not be replicated. There seems to be no denying that interacting with peers and friends in class also helps students build social skills that ultimately contribute to their overall growth and development.
Parents have a new dilemma – the child who wouldn’t leave the screen thus far, doesn’t want to look at it anymore
While everyone is trying to grasp the tree and its branches, the ground on which the tree stood is feeling a tremble – parents don’t know where to look, whom to go to as the pandemic unfolds– there is no precedence of this calamity, no one knows how to deal with it, there are no how-to articles on Google for what this disaster is bringing upon us everyday and there are no learnings from grandparents either because no one has ever dealt with anything like this in their lifetimes.
Normally raising a child is a complex job. Enter the pandemic and a fresh thrust of some choices on to the parents, uninformed and uninvited. Schools are shut and a new normal way of learning has to be fast adapted – there being no alternative. Most homes cannot accommodate 2 children and 2 working parents suddenly with individual spaces and personal devices for 7-8 hours in a day for work and study – and yet this is the most common form of family construct we see in the urban areas.
Some of them have experienced the support of the school that has empathized and worked together with them in times of crisis:
1. Regular information of the kid’s progress at school continues to go to the parents
2. Transitions between boards like CBSE, ICSE and IB are being handled deftly.
3. Inputs and day-to-day updates on the Covid situation are being provided to the parents as well as the children
4. New admissions and transition in classes are being effected with smooth precision
5. Students going abroad for further education are being guided and helped by their institutions’ counsellors
6. Kids have become independent – they have quickly adapted to technology and can function to a great extent on their own devices. Younger kids have learnt the internet faster, becoming more prompt in their information gathering and absorption skills. They are going beyond their comfort zone, giving rise to impromptu innovations and quick fixes.
Parents are also enjoying some more facetime with their kids. The entire travel to school and back has been saved, the kid is spending more time at home discussing current topics and academic progress with parents, moms can see their kids having hot meals rather than pre-packed dabbas, dads are seeing their kids forging relationships with people they haven’t ever met... there are pros undoubtedly to this entire situation.
And there are cons:
1. Discipline has gone out the window, or shall we say the laptop screen: Students have learnt muting themselves and turning off video screens much before they have learnt any part of their syllabus. While the teachers continue their lecture in class, students promptly turn off videos citing network issues and spend time whiling away or even sleeping. Most of them don’t dress up for class anymore. Many parents have been narrating instances of forcing their kids to settle down in front of the laptop and even sitting with them throughout the entire school time – so that the kid’s attention doesn’t waver. For working parents, this has become a nightmare.
2. Many even have noticed teachers becoming casual: Lectures not completing in time, are being left midway, majority of the time is being spent in keeping kids attentive and taking roll-calls, technical challenges are becoming excuses to skip classes and have students complete the topic by themselves, home assignments aren’t checked individually anymore, students don’t know if their work done is accurate because the teacher isn’t checking anymore – instances of negligence seem to be growing and so are the complaints.
3. Fees only seem to be going up, no cutbacks: For Institutions who have been spending heavily on lavish playgrounds, inbuilt swimming pools and basketball courts, expensive auditoriums and passing down these expenses to parents in the form of escalating fees – the lockdown seems to have brought in a hard reality check. Having refused to reduce the fee, schools instead keep adding on unnecessary frills like buying school kits, school uniforms, bags, shoes, books, add-on courses, customized packages for concentrated attention on one’s child, transport fees and so on. They justify these as constant expenses that are a part of the standard school fee.
It seems many schools went beyond the bare basics into over-aestheticizing simple learning. And in times like these, both parents as well as institutions are being pushed to re-evaluate their spending decisions.
4. Lack of socio-cognitive development: Friendships at school, relationships with teachers and peer groups, understanding and adaptation of one’s physical environments, emotional and social quotient building – these imperative aspects have taken a severe setback. Online formats have become agenda driven – a 50-minute class that’s too short to focus on anything apart from the written word is recorded on a live session and done away with. One-to-one connections have disappeared. Affinity for the teacher, the institution, the school playground and assembly halls that parents have grown up in during their school years has almost-zero presence in their wards for whom the only thing they love is the mobile phone.
5. The worst sufferers are the children’s eyes: Learning on the screen, gaming on the screen, entertainment on the screen, homework on the screen, playtime and catch-ups with friends on the screen – children of 2020/2021 seem to have become slaves of the blue-light emitting devices namely laptops and mobile phones and 12-13 hours of screen time has to have physical ill-effects. Eye-strain, weakening of eyesight, weight gain, obesity, depression, anxiety have started becoming common problems for young children because of this newfound routine.
But the teachers have gone above and beyond their call of duty, the future of an entire generation is in their hands
From light music to online comedy, teachers have kept themselves upbeat somehow – while the world forgot that they too are human beings. Professor-bashing on Twitter and WhatsApp groups about how teachers misbehave in online classes is not uncommon. But they tend to go on... with a smile and a sense of responsibility – carrying the huge burden of an entire generation’s future in one of the largest disasters humankind has ever seen.
Being parent-like figures to their students at school, teachers understand that these are terrible times for their students’ health – being glued to screens at all times, very little physical movement, increasing pressure of home assignments with no social life to release the pressure – the last thing they wish is to contribute to this burden, where unnecessary.
Many of them admit that this is the time that has brought them closer to their students. They now see each one of them on their screens – there are no bright front-benchers or ‘Dabboo’ back benchers anymore.
They just explain the concept and now can pick anyone off the screen to give feedback and explanation – there are no favorites any longer.
Teachers share some of their tips and tricks they have picked up during these times to keep the learning just right:
When explaining a new concept, they pick out students to repeat or explain the same concept in their words – since the students don’t know who could be picked off the screen, they maintain attentiveness.
Students have been taught to take turns while speaking – speaking all at once makes noise and this is true even for physical environments – but when it is coming out from a single device straight into your headphones, the noise can become unbearable and you cannot tune it out anymore, just like in a physical class. So, they are compelled to maintain that discipline.
They have increased collaborations with parents for younger children – so that attention is not compromised.
They have learnt how to use voice and tonal modulations better since their body language that any case takes up 50% of their communication is now compromised in the online version of teaching.
They have learnt to concentrate on their own health as well – to restore balance in their mind and body. Meditation, Yoga, Zumba, evening walks, unwinding time with friends and family have contributed to keeping them healthy, happy and capable.
They have learnt to adapt to technology – thus far a lot of teachers were getting by with basic computer skills. Now they have to not only become technologically capable but they have to also learn the possible misuses so that their enterprising, mischievous students don’t outsmart them at their tech game.
They do miss the personal interactions of course – the hugs, the love, the admiration and even sometimes drawing or solving something for their students in their notebooks – these little gestures are conspicuous by their absence. This is uncharted territory and educationists seem to have dived headfirst into it.
Challenges remain; whatever is left of confidence, is shaken by the Government's confusing stance to the students and frequently-changing diktats to institutions . . .
Exams that keep on getting re-scheduled and cancelled thanks to Twitter furores, lockdowns that keep on getting extended because the state governments have no plan in place for the second or third waves, vaccinations not reaching their end consumers, months after being approved because of poor planning – the list of Governmental faux-pas keep ever increasing and here again, students have been suffering the most.
Exams that keep on getting rescheduled and cancelled thanks to Twitter furores, lockdowns that keep on getting extended because the state governments have no plan in place for the second or third waves, vaccinations not reaching their end consumers, months after being approved because of poor planning – the list of Governmental faux-pas keep ever increasing and here again, students have been suffering the most.
While a lot of them have dropped out or are being made to drop out of school due to lack of financial or technical support (parents’ inability to buy separate devices for each child, smaller home units not permitting individual spaces to study for each member, loss of jobs and business cash flows restraining home finances to the extent of not being able to pay school fees and so on), the ones who are continuing are fighting a war with changing rules every day:
Competitive exams like NEET for medical entrances and JEE for Engineering got cancelled at the last minute and students didn’t know what the next couple of weeks of their lives would look like.
Government gave into the pressure of cancelling CBSE and Class 12 examinations all over the country to ensure safety of students, but forgot that these students have to move to degree courses in India and abroad after clearing these exams – they now have no clue what they are going to do till the pandemic settles down.
Schools keep on increasing fees and creating add-on frills like development charges and annual charges to their academic bills – The Government continues to flip-flop between supporting them and bashing them, depending upon what their social media popularity guides them to do.
Summer vacations that were declared ad-hoc have been extended in a similar manner, delaying the start of academic years – lack of clarity frustrating students and parents alike who don’t know if they can plan any routine for themselves.
Students are a popular class of citizens – Twitter and Instagram awake – and tapping into them is a natural space for the social-media savvy Government. Initiatives for student connect like Pariksha pe Charcha are being innovated to somehow keep the student community in belief that the Government is listening to them. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone a step further to inspire the young future of India with his book of education mantras – The Exam Warriors.
Teachers aren’t left behind in this race for popularity either – The National Awards for Teachers to celebrate the unique contribution of the educationists to the Indian ecosystem are an annual feature since 1958 but found prominence and promotion under the Narendra Modi Government.
With an aim to refresh and rephrase India’s narrative on its youngest and largest demographic, The National Education Policy 2020 was unveiled with much fanfare and amidst equal furore. Its initiatives are many but aim seems to be simple – Students must not only learn, but they must also know ‘How to Learn’. Education thus, must move towards less content, and more towards learning about how to think critically and solve problems, how to be creative and multidisciplinary, and how to innovate, adapt, and absorb new material in novel and changing fields. It brought in a change in the pedagogical structure to school education of 5+3+3+4, mother tongue medium of instruction, bagless days and informal internships and the implementation of coding for children from class 6.
A National Toll-free number under the Manodarpan initiative was launched by the Ministry of Education to address students’ psycho-social issues.
One is tempted to say that the Government is trying its best to protect the students – the initiatives brought in to help and support parents and children are there for sure. But many believe these are too few and far between – with a lack of thought and clarity towards implementing well-meaning policies, often giving in to opposition and social media pressures to save popularity over logic. Many educational institutions (without going on record) did mention the lack of support they experience from their local as well as the Central Governments. Parents who themselves are suffering at their workplaces and businesses, are further exasperated with frequently changing policies on their kids’ education.
But it is undeniably one class of citizens whose suffering trumps all – the students themselves. They adapt and get accustomed to newer rules every day. They even suffer the wrath of their parents and teachers and the pendulum-like Institutional policies; and yet somehow manage to maintain their balance, virtually play with their friends, connect with peer groups, give their exams, work on internships and clear academic backlogs with astounding determination.
As adults, we perhaps have failed to deliver the safety and security we promised our children when we decided to bring them into this world. But these young minds have become shining warriors of a fight that wasn’t even theirs to begin with. They were supposed to sit back at home for a few days, play on their mobile devices and tabs, stay off from running down to play at 5 pm while we repair the world back to a safe place, soon enough for them to not notice.
But we are failing and there seems to be no end in sight…
With the third wave knocking on our doors and expected to be more severe for children this time – our resolve to restore equilibrium seems to be getting tougher by the day. Vaccines for older groups are still coming short and trials for children are yet to begin in a decisive manner. Parents too are skeptical of experimenting with early-stage and hastily-approved jabs for their little ones.
The kids we notice though are still smiling their sweet innocent smiles, exuding charm and innocence even today. They don’t seem to be giving up – not on us, not on themselves. If their bright hopeful eyes are anything to go by, they still trust us to give them back the world they had just started to love.
If not for ourselves, we have to keep fighting this war for our children and support every activity that is being done to pull humanity out of this hell-hole we have fallen into.
As the Dais World Team spoke to parents, teachers, academicians, counsellors, students, child psychologists all over the country; we felt brighter and more empowered with every conversation.
While a lot of news surrounding us is of gloom and despair, the inherent ability of the human species to learn, to adapt and most importantly to never give up or give in, shone up in all its brilliance to us.
One look at the little geniuses strutting around our houses and we know there is a world we owe to them – a world where shaking hands and hugging is a way to exchange to warmth not disease, a world where your loved ones care for you when you fall sick and don’t lock you up in a room, a world where going to play involves dirty hands and scratched knees and not watering eyes and sore thumbs… a world that is safe for those who are coming as much as, if not more, for those who went away.
"Remember, we are all looking at the same sky."
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