The closure of schools in the wake of the pandemic has brought the spotlight on the system of education that we have built over a long period of time. While our classrooms have stopped teaching our students, it is time for us to learn to identify all that is ailing our educational system and try and seek sustainable solutions.
Often pandemics have proved productive. It has been said that William Shakespeare wrote the play, King Lear during an epidemic of 1564. Even more startling is the fact that Sir Isaac Newton is said to have worked from home to give us the great theory of gravity. This means that it was a form of social distancing that gave us the theory gravitation. We are all brought up on the story of the fall of the apple on Newton’s head that ignited in him the idea of gravity. It seems that Apple has this uncanny habit of opening us to new things. The first apple that Adam ate opened his eyes and he realised that he and Eve were naked. Newton is linked to the book of Genesis in the Bible by Poet Alexander Pope who writes ‘Nature and nature’s law lay hid in the night and God said let Newton be and all was light.’ Maybe the corona moment of humanity will bring light to several dark spaces haunting and afflicting us.
Some schools have taken to distance learning programs. But there is a digital divide that cannot be bridged so easily. It is not just the poor digital infrastructure but also poverty as well as the attitude of the parents who are overly dependent on outsourcing education to schools and tuition centres. So far our children have been kept safe from the lethal virus as the schools have been closed but the prospects of their opening have sent a chill to the spine of their parents. Just as the opening of the borders of Goa to promote tourism and other activities did away with its green zone status, the parents have real fears that their children would become easy prey to the virus.
This is why we need to critically access the possibility of harm and danger to our children before we open our schools. Otherwise, we may have to face the likelihood of falling into the fire from the frying pan. Given the rising number of cases of infection and the consequent strain on our already ailing healthcare system, it would be penny wise and pound foolish on the part of the Government to open schools even with truncated syllabi and observance of best non-medical practices to keep the virus at bay.
There are too many slippages that cannot be fully plugged as the children have to journey to the schools from different distances. Even if the schools decide to divide each class into two and run on alternate days to allow space for social distancing the odds do not favour the safety of our children at a time when we all have acquired a dangerous ability to cough each other to death even without being aware of the same as non-symptomatic patients can do.
The distance learning program that is being pursued is plagued by unequal access to technology and educational resources. Moreover, e- teaching and learning skills just cannot grow without formal training. Besides, cutting down the syllabi may render the students unable to cope with the concepts of the same subjects in the higher standards when they reach those classes hopefully in the coming post-pandemic future. Thus, in the name of saving a year of the students, we may jeopardize their dynamic and evolutionary academic growth.
Maybe we have to come to terms with the gravity of our situation and access what we deem as the loss of a precious year of our students. Instead of bringing new concepts to the students, some opine that it is best to strengthen the existing knowledge of our students. To make distance teaching and learning more effective at a time of pandemic the schools cannot merely operate from their centralised premises.
The managements may have to do more. They may have to survey the living conditions of their student to ascertain the digital infrastructure that is available as well as to conduct meetings of the parents in those localities so that different groups of students could meet in different places in those localities under the supervision of one of the parents. The school can thus, establish study centres for the students and organise digital tools so that the student can join the e-learning program. Such decentralised e-learning will require continuous accompaniment and supervision of the school authorities to encourage both the students and the parents and may even have to conduct training sessions for the parents and guardians so that they can oversee and monitor the learning process of their children.
The challenge of a pandemic is an opportunity to review the reigning system of education. It is a great chance to think about new alternatives that can transform the teaching-learning experience and process for the students. Maybe, the corona moment of humanity is time to think creatively and find ways to convert our classrooms into learning spaces and schools into learning communities.
This would require us to revisit our teaching-learning techniques and pedagogies that are already operational in our schools and institutions of higher learning. There is a lot of teaching and less learning in our classrooms. Coronavirus has brought this practice to a halt. It is our best opportunity to think and seek new techniques and practices of producing learning.
Here one has to remember a fundamental principle: the way we evaluate is the way we produce learning. Thus, if the question paper seeks to check memory, students will learn to memorise. This can jeopardize other skills like assimilation, relating ideas, and applying the same into our living contexts. The disruption of the coronavirus is our best chance to put our hands to the new plough that will assist us to set up learning communities in our schools.
We need to do away with the reining consumer model of education where knowledge is produced in one place and transmitted in the classroom to be consumed by the students in their homes or places of tuitions. It is an opportune time to convert our classrooms into a space of knowledge production where the students produce knowledge alongside their teachers. They thus become prosumers of knowledge. The problem-solving pedagogy of Paulo Friere, Kagan structures of cooperative learning, heuristic pedagogies that induce discovery into the learning process etc., can provide alternative modes of organising our classrooms and transform our schools and educational institutions into learning communities.