No single description or picture can capture the impact the coronavirus pandemic has made on children’s lives. Faces of 15 children, who live in a village in Bihar stare at you from a photograph taken by Dipankar Ghose which appeared in this newspaper on July 7. The picture accompanies a report (“School shut, no mid-day meal, children in Bihar village back to work selling scrap”). But even for the reader who might not go through the story, the visual should suffice to judge the larger picture and figure out certain things. One is the meaning of democracy. Though philosophical, it is a relevant point because Bihar is currently in election mode. That may be the reason why The Indian Express photograph and story received the government’s immediate attention. Hours after the Express report, the state’s bureaucracy swung into action. What this action was and what it means can wait; let me return to the picture.
Two of the 15 children have hair that an older person has tried to sort out. The hair of all the others is dry, sparse and has that shade of light brown we recognise as a sign of serious nutritional deficiency. At least six children in the photograph have the stare that speaks of hunger. I don’t mean the gaze of a hungry child desperate to be served a delayed meal. No, it is the stare that children acquire when they stop waiting for a meal. These are children in whose life eating is no longer a daily activity. They go hungry so often that they don’t expect to be fed anytime soon. Their expression reveals that. Their large eyes are without expectation.
From the quick action taken by the officers it is clear that they are in no hurry either — at least as far as children’s hunger is concerned. What the officers mean by “action” is that they have now issued an order that should have been issued a couple of months ago. The Indian Express story and visual pushed them into taking such an action. It is hard to say what made them do so, the story or the visual — perhaps both. It is quite amazing that a newspaper’s effort to foreground the plight of rural children matters so much.
However, if you look at the action taken, you figure out how poorly children’s needs are understood. The delayed order that has now been issued is about money and dry ration. The money will go to the bank accounts of these children or their parents, and they will be able to collect some rice from the school shortly. The money and the ration will accurately compensate by measure, though not in nutritional value, for the mid-day meal these children might have been eating if their schools had been open.
A cooked mid-day meal, though measly, is a right that India’s children have gained from the highest judicial intervention in routine schooling. The coronavirus has disrupted this routine, even in villages where no outbreak has yet been detected. The meal might have continued if the women who cook it for a modest honorarium had been allowed to do so. The government prefers to distribute grain in place of a meal. Had village teachers been trained and permitted to exercise a modicum of autonomy, some of them — among those who don’t commute — might have found ways to serve children a bit of food and learning. In a central command-based system, such locally practised discretion remains a fantasy, virus or no virus.
However, the pandemic has triggered a different kind of fantasy which is sweeping over our fragile school governance system clear across the country. This fantasy promises to deliver the children’s right to education through the online medium. The curriculum compressed tightly into short modules, with 30 per cent segments deleted, will cover whatever the child requires for a regime of outcome testing and final exam. Many different things are happening simultaneously even as the parallelogram of policy forces tilts towards new lobbies and the quick fixes they are keen to offer.
Annual surveys, and those who conduct them, have been crying aloud that the public system of teaching is not effective. Belief in the veracity of these surveys is widespread in the media and the urban middle class. This general belief has drummed up a plea for scaling down curricular goals and pitching them at minimal outcomes. Online teaching and a truncated curriculum are among the many signs of a changing scenario in children’s education. The corona pandemic has created conditions for inducing breathtaking speed in the announcement of new measures and demand for their mindless and immediate application.
While no one can argue that reaching out through the new tools that technology offers us is not important, sensible application of these tools is all the more crucial when there is so much stress to act. Consider curriculum slashing. Furore has rightly followed the bizarre choice of portions to be slashed for next year’s secondary and higher secondary exams.
If you come down to the primary level and notice what a compressed curriculum might mean, you will wonder what learning means for the holders of scissors. For helping teachers, parents and children to negotiate the compressed calendar, reference is made in it to the Diksha portal. I visited it and sampled the experience that primary level children or their teachers might go through while learning about polygons. The speed at which the e-tutor was asking me to grasp the meaning of images and signs that were moving on the screen was so stressful that I decided to switch off. I knew that the old obsession was back with a digital vengeance. It is an obsession with covering the syllabus, leaving learners to fend for themselves. And learners have known for over a hundred years how to protect themselves. The reader can guess the correct answer: Our children have coped with poorly designed curriculum and pedagogy by taking shelter in rote memorisation.
The digital age will be no different. The 15 children of Bihar whose parents will now get rice and money to feed them will soon learn the magic of rote learning when they hit the truncated Grade I online syllabus.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 11, 2020 under the title ‘Rice and digital learning’. Kumar is former director, NCERT and author of The Child’s Language and the Teacher.