Covid19 – Disruption or end of stagnation

Patricia Mukhim

The near invisible virus – Covid19 has thrown asunder our lives and our way of doing things. We have had to re-adjust our lifestyles. The lockdown has given us ample time to read, reflect and renew our thoughts – in short to get out of stinking thinking. Covid19 has allowed us time to shun the status quo and stir our minds for new ideas. Nothing good comes out of “Normalcy” because it hampers creative thinking. This imperative to think afresh and break through the barriers of conformity applies especially to Education.

Covid19 is also called the novel coronavirus. The word novel means that such a virus has not made its appearance any time in the past. It’s a brand new virus and I suppose it has come to teach humans that they shouldn’t take their lives, the environment, and the fragile eco-system for granted but to create self-awareness – a key dimension that has been missing in our education system. Students have always been told to model themselves on the best boy or girl in the class or some sporting hero or heroine. The child is never given time to discover his/her innate potential.

Covid has thrown education as we know it, completely out of gear. Now people talk of home schooling. The daily routine of sending kids to school with their tiffin early in the morning is now passé. Locked-down parents that are not frontline workers now have to take on the role of teachers to supervise their kid’s learning.  Children now have two sets of supervisors – their teachers who are dispensing classes on Zoom/Skype/Google Classroom and their parents sitting next to them. In other words the teacher who used to have a one on one with students directly must now also make sure he/she does not slip and say the wrong thing because the parents are listening and judging.  In fact now parents know exactly how their children are being taught in the classroom.  This is a huge challenge for the teacher. The parents will then exchange notes with other parents on how the lesson was taught and how it could or should have been taught. Conversations go somewhat like this, “That teacher cannot even pronounce the words properly. No wonder my child has also picked up such poor pronunciation.”

Pronunciation is the least of the concerns in education. Kids can pick that up at home or from the internet if parents are gung-ho about how English should be spoken. The more important part of education is the teacher’s communication skills because that is what decides whether students have actually comprehended and imbibed what is taught and whether they can use that knowledge in a non-controlled environment where their life skills are tested. In recent times we hear a lot about social skills and in fact the very idea of putting little kids in play school is for them to develop social skills or the art of relating to other students; understanding the needs of others, learning to listen when others speak, and above all inter-personal relations which begins with the art of conversation.

We would have come across friends or acquaintances who once they start talking cannot stop. You cannot get in a word edgewise. You just have to keep nodding your head because the person will not pick up cues that you want him/her to come to a full stop. That can happen on a phone conversation too and how often I have grimaced when the person at the other end goes on and on as if what she/he has to say is the most important thing and others don’t matter. Such a person has not learnt the basic art of conversation. Everything revolves around him/her. But this might be a deeply embedded character dysfunction perhaps because the person was never paid attention to as a child and might have been an introvert who has come out of their shell and therefore has a lot to tell the world. Psychologists call this inability to read the minds of others; their body language and verbal and non-verbal cues as social dyslexia. Indeed our childhood experiences have so much to bear on our persona as adults. Some of these disorders can be corrected if detected early in life.

Much has been spoken about the digital divide in education and how the rural students will fall between the cracks for not being able to keep up with their well-placed urban peers (a) because of poor connectivity (b) because the choice is between getting a smart-phone and buying the bare essentials for survival. Covid has already exposed an India divided down the middle. With 45.36 crore Indians as internal migrants living at subsistence levels, one wonders how Education will ever be an equalizer here, more so when the classroom as a social leveler is a thing of the past and the new learning regimens will have to include online classes to catch up with what’s lost.

Several parents have expressed dismay about kids spending too much online time with their smart phones/laptops/desktops/ pads etc. Parents are paranoid about their adolescent kids watching pornography which is a real possibility, or that they watch video games that are addictive by nature. When a child begins to get so immersed in computer games to the point of being sulky when interrupted and when the game intrudes into bed time or study hours then it’s time to consider it a mental health issue. The other day I was talking to a parent and he said that they even had to have special prayers for the two teenage children so that they get out of the gaming addiction.

Students suffer various problems in e-learning. Most e-learning models adopted by schools whose teachers are not well trained in the art, are boring because there is too much of text prescribed by teachers and everything is assignment based rather than learning and comprehending what’s taught. Since most teachers don’t or can’t use zoom/skype/ Google Classroom, they send WhatsApp messages to the students prescribing the lessons they should be reading up and answering questions for. Most children are confused unless the parents step in to help them. This is because the class is not interactive. Students are not able to talk back to their teachers and vice versa. This is particularly true of Mathematics and the Sciences which also include laboratory work.

The purpose of all learning is to encourage questioning. If a teacher throws up an idea there should be a whole range of other ideas with reasoning and evidence coming in from students. The answers may not be right but at least the student was able to think and throw up an answer. But such learning is possible only when teachers are well trained in the e-learning platforms. Besides it’s important to also remember that the attention span of a child or adult today is 8 seconds. It used to be 12 seconds in 2000. If the online class fails to motivate the student the teacher has lost him/her. Most children spoken to, miss their school and the classroom. They miss the physical interaction, the conversations the fun and games the mischief, even the scolding from teachers. Only now during the lockdown do children realise just how close to their hearts school is. But homes-schooling is also a reality and many parents are opting for that.

Coming to some of the elite schools of Shillong, many parents feel that their children are discriminated against and that even being chosen as school or class captain is based on pedigree. Again, many parents have ideas about education which they want to share but hardly have the opportunity to. Parent-teachers meetings are staid affairs where parents are expected to just endorse what the respective teachers say. There is no appetite for honest feedback from parents. Any parent who dares dissent with what the school says will see their child recoil into a corner and penalized. Should this even happen? Will the schools answer this question?

It’s time for schools to engage parents in honest conversations. They will find much to learn and adapt to for improving over-all learning outcomes. School principals need to treat all children equally and forget their parents’ pedigree. This is one change that the post Covid education should usher in.

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