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Monday, May 17, 2021

The pandemic is an opportunity to critically examine our education system — and change it for the better

Hopefully, the debate over the cancellation of board exams will help us identify gaps in the system and teach us how to make it more equitable and resilient

Written by Ameeta Mulla Wattal |
Updated: April 17, 2021 9:24:40 am
At a school in New Delhi (Express Photo: Amit Mehra, File)

“We don’t need no education, We don’t need no thought control, All in all, we have become bricks in a tech wall”

With apologies to Pink Floyd

The past year has been a watershed as far as the lives of our children are concerned. Whenever I hear adults speak of their difficulties and challenges, I wonder if they realise how their child, more so the adolescent, is managing to cope. The difference is phenomenal as the emotional compass of the child is still evolving.

A child’s life is not a package deal. It has within it the sounds sights, colours, fragrances and experiences of the growing-up years. Every year is a milestone in learning. The continued uncertainty, the alienation from normalcy, the lack of real-time peer connections, the stranglehold of adults on the lives of children have been compounded by the learning world turning upside down.

The productive potential of an entire generation has been reduced. Public outcry, signature campaigns of students and parents, PILs, and doctors’ opinions on the spike have created intense anxiety and pressure, resulting in the cancellation of the Class X Boards and the postponement of the Class XII Board. This was followed by an immediate backlash, with the same players protesting the decision. Our system is not built to deal with education shutdowns, cancellations and postponements — that is a clear indication of our highly competitive attitude as gatekeepers of reward and punishment.

There is a larger tragedy that is playing out beyond the board examinations for the 25,000-odd schools affiliated with the CBSE. It is time that we, educators and policymakers, realised the effects of school closure on more than 1.5 million schools across the nation: Learning gaps have affected the most vulnerable and marginalised children across the country. Millions of them have had no access to learning due to lack of devices, connectivity, or teacher support. How are they going to cope with an examination system for which they are not prepared? For a large group of students at the university and school levels, online exams have proved to be a disaster. High-stake examinations require connectivity, security and proctoring which is absent.

Even before the pandemic, there were attempts to recalibrate systems that have become completely outdated. This is an opportunity to reimagine and modernise learning. There is no time to lose because there is no certainty on what the situation will be in March 2022. We cannot as a country transit from one learning crisis to another using cancellation or postponement of exams — they are only tools of appeasement.

The children who will be giving the boards this year have had to learn a lot. Often on their own. They have been taught in a draconian system to crack and pass examinations rather than learn for the sake of learning. If a new system of assessment is to be designed, that cannot apply to the current batch but would have to be introduced for one or two batches down the line.

We need to find means of assessment that are fair, robust and remove dependency on time-tabled exams. Changing how we transact content in classrooms and frame questions that encourage a student to think requires a competence-based learning approach to be embedded in the system. Creativity and the ability to be resilient will be the most in-demand skills. They cannot be ascertained when we mine the minds of children for three hours for predictable scores.

There has to be a bridge between higher education institutions and schools to ensure a seamless movement into tertiary learning. Papers for entrance to university and professional examinations need to be reviewed and reset to dovetail into the new learning of this century.

Millions of children may remain without brick-and-mortar schools for some time to come. Virtual curricula may focus solely on literacy and numeracy rather than engage with the experiential. They may not encourage inquiry-based learning, integration of arts and sports, and the embedding of social and emotional learning in the curriculum.

The method of exams needs to be revisited along with the content of classroom learning. We must initiate an integrated curriculum that enables students to address their uncertain future with imagination, creativity and purpose, and encourages them to move towards individual and collective well-being.

The lesson plans in every classroom from nursery to Class XII should be woven in a manner that emphasises certain key necessities: Transversal competencies, cultural competencies, interaction and self-expression, a focus on taking care of oneself and managing the requirements of daily life. Creating competence in both technology and work and building skills required for the future should be the guiding principle for such plans. The rubrics of assessments have to be holistic across subjects. A system of moderated teacher assessment throughout the term will create a different climate, giving students incentive to keep working through any disruption to their schooling.

What does the pandemic mean to education in the long term? It is an opportunity to deconstruct the National Education Policy at the grassroots and urban level. The NCERT, the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, and other agencies have been working on textbooks and learning protocols to initiate the process. Such efforts require greater urgency.

To thrive in a globalised world using 21st century skills, learning must be seen as a pathway to attain well-being and happiness and create opportunities to contribute to humanity. The student will get her voice only when learning moves from the contextual to the conceptual.

Hopefully, the debate on the cancellation and postponement of the board examinations has helped us take a critical look at the inequity in our systems and motivated policymakers and educators to build a more equitable and resilient educational system for the future — that future is already here.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 17, 2021 under the title ‘Don’t waste the pandemic’. The writer is principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, Delhi.

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