Revising school opening processes

Taking stock of the current crisis in education

Over the 18 months of school disruptions, several studies have found that children have suffered some loss in their learning. Across the country, and elsewhere[1] in the world, there have been studies and reports describing the learning loss of children, besides underscoring the varying levels of effectiveness of digital instruction. A recent study by the Azim Premji University[2] (of 16000 children across classes 2-6) shows that 92% of the children had lost one language ability across all classes while 82% of the children had lost at least one mathematics ability across all classes. The ASER 2021[3] survey of Karnataka found a drop in levels of reading and mathematics competencies. A recently released research report by a national coalition for addressing the educational crisis found that 42% of rural students in urban areas and 48% of students in rural areas could not read more than a few words. The research also found that only 8% of rural children had access to any kind of digital resource for learning. More than 50% of the children had not had any contact with their teachers for a period of 30 days preceding the study.

It is very apparent that children are coming to school after a very abnormal disruption, and in many cases after major disruptions in their lives. Many children are perhaps coming to school for the first time and need to be welcomed in an atmosphere of trust and care. It would not do us any good to assume that schools can reopen, and learning can simply resume in the usual way with a bridge course, as has normally been the case. Even under normal conditions, the effectiveness of this bridge course was arguable. Teachers are also returning to teaching after a very unnatural change to their practice – and in many cases, also after personal disruptions in their lives. It is important that we understand the nature of this disruption for us to be able to support students and teachers in meaningful ways as they return to school.

The first and foremost priority when schools reopen would be to re-establish the connection between the student and the adult and help them rebuild the relationship. This requires time and space and an environment that is conducive for open interactions which allow the children and the teachers to build an element of trust and caring – which would be critical for any further programs on learning.

Isolation, limiting of physical activities and restrictions on normal activities have been difficult for all of us, and it is developmentally inappropriate for children as well. The first and foremost activity in schools must be to allow for spaces to be physically active, interact and play. These are essential for physical and emotional well-being. Being outdoors, experiencing the world around with safety measures should be prioritized. While it may be tempting to immediately get into learning loss and lost time, helping children (and in fact teachers and all of us) rebuild relationships with the external world, and with one another are critical. Storytelling, art, and games should be used as ways for children to build secure relationships, and as ways of expression for children. These need to be emphasized and prioritized across all levels of schools.

Deconstructing the impact of school closures.

While there have been several studies on learning loss, it is important to deconstruct the nature of loss due to lack of access to formal schooling. The impact of school disruptions includes physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects and this will vary depending on the age of the children. Where children have gone into the labor force, bringing them back will pose additional challenges. While the learning loss can be categorized along different domains, the most crucial thing to keep in mind is that it will be widely variable across any given group of children.

Broadly speaking, the disruptions due to lack of access to formal schooling spaces can be categorized along with the following:

  1. Effects on physical health and well-being: With schools closed and the lack of a hot mid-day meals, many children have had their important source of nutrition compromised. Added to this is the lack of access to spaces for children to play and be physically active. It hardly needs to be emphasized how important play and physical activity are for children
  2. Behavioral and emotional health:
    Children need to be reoriented to tasks of learning, including completing given tasks, following through on instructions and staying on tasks in a focused manner.

More emotional support may be needed for children – both in terms of addressing the disruptions in their lives, and in terms of (re)adapting to the skills of learning, processes of schools

Children with different learning abilities are likely to have been impacted more, without access to additional resources and peer support for children.

  1. Academic learning

1. Loss of skills in reading skills and mathematics, due to delays in the acquisition of new skills and lack of opportunities and resources to practice already acquired skills

2. Lower levels of learning in other subject areas, due to delays in access to resources and learning opportunities

3. Children need to be reoriented to tasks of learning, including completing given tasks, following through on instructions, and staying on tasks in a focused manner; this readiness to engage with formal learning will vary widely across contexts

4. More emotional support may be needed for children – both in terms of addressing the disruptions in their lives and in terms of (re)adapting to the skills of learning, processes of schools.

5. Many children with different learning needs are likely to have been impacted more, without access to additional resources and peer support for children; this will result in greater variability in the classroom of students’ learning levels

6. Students have not had uniform access to learning resources over the year and this is likely to result in different levels of readiness for grade-level learning. Where they have had access to the more flexible and “open” modes of learning, students would need to readjust back to the traditional models of instruction.

Our school reopening strategies need to be flexible and responsive to this, especially in the context of children from government schools, coming from very marginalized and resource-deprived settings.

What should be the instructional process in schools as they reopen

Most states are adopting an approach to accelerate the school year, cutting “portions” and hastening to cover the syllabus. This will be as arbitrary as it will be ineffective. We need to look at carefully calibrated processes of instruction in school, based on the curricular principles applicable for each stage of school. This is the time to focus on rebuilding the skills of learning, reinforcing the skills of literacy and numeracy while building skills of communication, collaboration, and group work. Physical activities and games need to be emphasized and prioritized across grade levels.

We particularly want to highlight the urgency of relooking at the instructional processes for high school (aged 14-18 years), as there is an increasing demand to catch and deliver instruction for these senior years of schooling, with a disproportionate emphasis on examination. The latest UNICEF research on the impact of COVID-19 on learning levels shows that 80% of adolescents in the age group 14-18 years self-reported lower levels of learning. The same percentage of high school students also reported lower progress on social skills, readiness for work, as well as cultural and physical activities. 61% of high school teachers believe that students have fallen behind in their learning levels, as students are entering high school, without a whole year of adequate instructional inputs. Several studies have shown that there has been a wide variation in the access to digital platforms and learning, and this must be factored in the development of the modified syllabi across subject areas.

Possible approach for development of the syllabi and the assessments

The following is an approach that could be considered for the development of the syllabi and the assessment processes:

1. Have a preparatory module for all students entering high school (Class 8-10) at least for a period of 2 months focusing on language and mathematical competencies. This preparatory module is not in the nature of a bridge course, but rather to acclimatize students back to methods of learning. Each content area may need to be revisited with appropriate reference to prerequisites.

a. Language readiness package – Focus on strengthening language learning for building students’ fluency in reading, comprehension, and written expression

b. Mathematics readiness package – Focus on building arithmetic fluency, basics of geometry, and data handling

c. The module should contain teacher-led activities as well as adequate materials for practice and self-learning

2. Once the preparatory phase is over, students can be eased into the study of different subject areas

a. In the case of mathematics a rationalization of the syllabus must be undertaken, focusing on the core areas of mathematics that must be completed. It may be a good opportunity to also look at the mathematics syllabus in terms of a core and advanced mathematics streams. This will allow interested and capable students to pursue the advanced mathematics stream while also helping all the students develop a basic level of mathematical proficiency

b. Language instruction can proceed at grade levels, with the support of adequate (self) learning resources for the students, with a greater focus on reading, speaking, and comprehension and a lesser focus on grammar. The use of appropriate resources and designing learning processes that focus on creating an immersive experience will be essential.

c. Through an interdisciplinary, project-based approach, develop a curriculum for the sciences and the social sciences that focuses on their local context as well as directed towards building skills of observation, recording, analysis, and expression. The science and social science syllabi also need to be rationalized to include topics/ concepts that are more relevant to the students

d. Assessments for Classes 8 and 9 can be modeled on the format of continuous formative assessments, while Class 10 can go through a series of preparatory summative assessments

e. Digital tools can be used for supporting the learning of students; digital resources can be shared through local community-led networks for students to access

3. Create a mentored learning program for teachers to support the transaction of the syllabus along these modified lines supported through a resource portal; across the country, there have been interventions by many interventions along these lines

4. Institutionalizing local community support through local governance institutions/ community organizations will be essential to strengthen the efforts of schools. This opportunity can be used to strengthen the nature of discourse around education.

5. Support teachers with resources and demonstrations of some of these new pedagogies. Teachers must be allowed to develop teaching plans and strategies flexibly based on the requirements of the children; they need to be supported in this area. Consistent messaging of “lost time” and “loss” is unlikely to make the learning enjoyable for children and will limit teacher efforts.

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