Education on pandemic mode

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Education on pandemic mode

Sunday, 25 July 2021 | MUSBA HASHMI

Education on pandemic mode

Education has gone through many changes in the last one-and-a-half-year. However, the question remains unanswered on their permanency. Experts tell MUSBA HASHMI that it is the entire system that needs an overhaul for better results

In March last year schools’ gates were shut, hoping to open in a few months, but that month never came. It has been more than 18 months into the pandemic, and it remains unclear when physical classrooms will resume — though, it will not become part of history.

From online classes to no Boards, the education sector had seen several unprecedented changes during this period. Were these for the better is a question still unanswered.

50:50 scenario

However, the constant to and fro in Boards or school assessment decisions has exposed several fault lines in the education sector. Amid all the noise, students are left confused regarding their future. “The pandemic has, indeed, exposed fault lines and fundamental flaws in the education sector that existed even earlier. We must take this opportunity to not merely sail through the pandemic but to reform the system from scratch based on sound scientific principles of what constitutes good learning,”  says Dr Jamshed Bharucha, Founding Vice Chancellor, Sai University. He adds that the 50-50 formula on CBSE Boards is an understandable decision under crisis circumstances, but it should spur systemic reform for the future.

However, Bharucha says, “I would be interested to hear the explanation of why Class X and Class XI are given equal weightage, given that students are conditioned to view 11th as less important.

Students should not be penalised for not having taken 11th exams seriously, which has been the cynical message communicated to them by the system.”

Prof Dheeraj Sanghi, VC Designate, JK Lakshmipat University, believes that as a short term measure to reduce anxiety and stress in students, this is a welcome move. But this does not address the issue of quality at all.

On the other hand, Dr Sanjay Govind Patil, Associate Dean & Director — RICS School of Built Environment, Amity University, Mumbai,  says that it is a much-appreciated step to help break down the syllabus. “I fully vouch for this move because it will break down the entire assessment into small parts; hence, learning will be much better. Students’ shortcomings in the previous part exam could be overcome in the next exam through a robust feedback mechanism, thus achieving a better learning outcome,” opines Patil.

Re-energise system

High-stakes exams, Bharucha says, have no empirical support in research on learning. The learning tends to be transient, devoid of meaningful context, and does not transfer well to the kinds of problems students will have to solve as professionals. Research shows that, if administered frequently — with feedback after each exam and repeated testing of the same material in different ways — exams can be powerful tools for learning, not just for assessment.

“The system has failed students by continuing to rely on high-stakes examinations. Why should a single mark on a single high school exam be the measure of what you’ve learned throughout high school? Why should it determine what you can and cannot do in the future? Research on how the brain learns is completely at odds with this system of learning and assessment,” says Bharucha.

He adds that the CBSE Board decisions for this batch are understandable, but they are band-aids; they should be followed by meaningful steps to re-energise, mentor, and empower students whose education got disrupted and lives thrown into confusion. Most of these students, probably, will adjust and be fine. But, some may fall between the cracks of this rigid system of narrow credentialing and career channelling.

Time to nurture

“The Board should establish a committee consisting of a broad range of stakeholders — including students — to hear the concerns of students who have been adversely affected and to propose ways to get these students back on track in life. A nation has a responsibility to ensure that every single child should have a productive path forward,” says Bharucha.

The Board should also establish a diverse blue-ribbon committee to implement NEP recommendations at the high school level. The goal should be to enable students' unique talents and shortcomings and give them the fundamental cognitive tools to pursue their dreams. Society benefits when all talent is unleashed — in all its messy but glorious diversity.

 “There is no empirical basis for forcing students to make irreversible choices between streams. A student may love math and literature, computers and music, biology and economics. It’s the unforeseen combinations of ideas that will trigger future innovations — and continuous innovation is what drives economies. We, as educators, are deeply mistaken if we believe we know which branches of knowledge are in the best interests of our children to know,” adds Bharucha.

Sanghi says that the problems of quality in education were well-known much before the pandemic. “I feel that the problems of quality in the school education sector were well-known much before the pandemic. The Annual State of Education Report (ASER) has been telling us how poorly our students have been performing even with our standards. As far as international standards are concerned, we have not even participated in the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA),” says Sanghi.

Technology myth busted

Yet, the pandemic has exposed one myth which was that technology would solve all our problems. “There is no doubt that technology can help, but we have seen during the pandemic that access to technology is limited. We may take pride in having the largest number of mobile phone users with Internet access or the highest per capita data consumption, but all this is skewed, and the poor still has little access to online education. If we want to depend on technology to improve the quality of our education, we will have to seriously think about how under-privileged sections of our society can get access to both devices and data, and perhaps space where they can study peacefully,” adds Sanghi.

Being compelled to teach online has highlighted the known weakness of passive forms of learning in which teachers speak and students listen.  To keep the attention of students online, teachers have had to make the online sessions more interactive.

“But active and interactive learning should be the norm even in the physical classroom. In a physical classroom, a student can be physically present but mentally absent. Only by having students actively engaged (speaking, solving problems, collaborating, creating) in the classroom can meaningful and enduring learning be optimised. So, let’s come out of the pandemic with an agenda for fundamental reform that is more than a temporary crisis fix,” says Bharucha.

Plan for post-pandemic

Since we are amid a pandemic of the kind that hasn’t happened in the world for 100 years, Sanghi says, there is going to be an emergency response, and the decisions will change as the trajectory of the virus changes.

 “So, confusions will happen, and that would cause anxiety and stress amongst the students. We need to work on two aspects. One, what to do while the pandemic is still a threat, and education will continue to see disruptions. And second, what to do when the pandemic threat has sufficiently faded, and we are back to some normalcy,” he says.

In the current scenario, experts believe that we must keep some semblance of education going, at least what is considered as more important aspects of it, so we have reduced syllabus, easier exams, teacher training in online education, access to technology for the poor and so on.

“When we finally open up, we may need to redesign the curriculum of the next few years. Maybe some fresher courses. Each school Board will have to plan the post-pandemic scenario carefully. It should not happen that they now want to cover both — what was left during the pandemic and the usual syllabus of the next classes. That would be too much of a burden on students,” opines Sanghi.

Bring honesty in evaluation

Experts say that there are many issues in every aspect of school education. And we do need to rethink the whole education process holistically. However, few simple things can improve the quality of education in the short term drastically.

 “One idea is to ensure that the marks printed on the board marksheet reflect the educational attainments of the students. And, I am not referring to this year's process where you get some marks assigned based on your performance in something completely different. Even in pre-Covid times, CBSE would add lots of marks to the actual marks obtained by the students.; this is beside the practical marks where the whole country seems to get perfect scores. And that is on top of having easy papers and an extremely liberal grading. It may be noted that CBSE has the reputation of being one of the best school boards in India. If we can bring in honesty in evaluation by the boards, there will be a lot of pressure within the system to perform better,” says Sanghi.

He adds that the boards cannot be honest since there is competition among the school boards to be more dishonest than the others -- a race to the bottom. “They justify it on the grounds that if one board tries to be honest, its students will face difficulty in gaining admissions in universities that only look at Class XII marks. Also, if one State board tries to be honest, the pass percentage in that State would go down, leading to political issues. And frankly, there is no political constituency for quality education. There is only a lip service paid to the quality,” he says.

Multiple boards required

The changes, Sanghi says, should begin with having a large number of school boards. “Maybe every district should have one. There may be some school boards that are State-wide and a few which are national. By having 100s of small school boards, it would be possible for some boards to do experiments in improving quality that may succeed, and others could learn from it. Also, political pressures would be lower on individual boards if they all affect a smaller number of students,” opines Sanghi.

Second, there could be a few standardised tests in various subjects that would be optional for students. Students will take those tests only if the university they seek considers these test scores as one of the inputs in deciding admissions. “Universities should develop admission strategies that consider multiple parameters (and unlike the popular perception, it is possible to have a completely objective system that considers multiple parameters). If the admissions are based on standardised tests and other achievements of the students, we could start the admission process six months early. Students can be offered admission before the Board exams, and they will then take those exams in a stress-free fashion,” adds Sanghi.

Bharucha thinks, "In the future, continuous modes of assessment should be adopted (bi-weekly or monthly). Research shows that frequent assessment produces more enduring learning than a single assessment at the end; this will not be the last pandemic, nor will it be the last crisis that disrupts our lives. Learning and assessment must both be continuous. At any given cross-section in time, the student, the school, and the Board should know where a student stands."

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