The pandemic has faded from our memories. There was relief in going back to what we were used to, but many new things have become a part of our lives and we seem to have let go of some old habits. During the lockdown, there was talk of the “new normal” everywhere. Online education was projected as the future and so was working from home. Over the two years when schools were closed, administrators, teachers, students and their families learned and absorbed some new skills, practices and ideas. Which of these has survived? And which old habits have resurfaced?
The recently released ASER 2022 report points to many big changes in rural areas. Almost every household (95.8 per cent) had a cell phone by 2022. The proportion of households with smartphones has doubled from 36 per cent to 74.8 per cent since 2018. Mobile phones and smartphones are the new normal for rural families, although, for most urban folk, it is an old story.
Television was the old normal in most households before the popularity of the smartphone surged ahead. As a result, the percentage of households with TV sets has barely changed from 62.5 per cent to 62.8 per cent over the last four years. It is no surprise that the availability of reading material other than textbooks has gone down from 6.6 per cent to 5.2 per cent of households. Is “not-reading” but listening and watching the new normal? Will it become a part of the education process?
Fears had been expressed that economic stress might lead to children dropping out of school, but this has not happened. Instead, the already-low proportion of not-enrolled children in the 6-14 age group has reduced to 1.6 per cent. Now, enrolling children is virtually a habit in every family. Even the proportion of not-in-school girls in the 15-16 group has fallen steeply, from 13.1 per cent in 2018 to 7.7 per cent in 2022. All this is counter to the fears that enrolment of girls would suffer as a result of the pandemic. The old way of not sending girls to school has changed in the last two decades. Sending all girls to school, irrespective of age has become the new norm.
A couple of decades ago, the three A’s of universal education were said to be Access, Attendance and Achievement. Given the enrollment figures, the issue of the first A is solved. The next A is attendance.
ASER has recorded broad regional patterns of attendance in India over the last decade and more. The southern and western states have always shown attendance figures of more than 80 per cent. In contrast, the attendance percentages in central and north-central states traditionally range from the mid-50s to 70. The percentages in the eastern states range from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. These patterns have not changed even though schools opened after two years of closure. The old habits continue.
The third A is Achievement. “Learning loss” that children may have suffered due to school closure was and is a big concern. But the data can be seen as a case of a glass half full or half empty.
Children who “entered” Standard I in July 2020 had no regular classes for at least one — and in many cases two — full years. If learning is assumed to only happen in school classrooms, no child in Standard III today should know reading or numeracy. However, the fact is that nationally, the proportion of children in Standard III who can read at least a Standard I level text in government schools has dropped “only” 7 percentage points to 30 per cent in 2022. In the case of arithmetic, there are only small changes at the all-India level in the proportion of children in Std III or higher who can do at least a subtraction sum. It is as though the school closures did not happen.
If broadly similar proportions of children gained reading and basic numeracy skills, whether schools were open or closed for two years, how did they learn? Who taught them?
It is reasonable to assume that some amount of learning will happen if there is someone willing to learn, someone willing to help, some material to learn from and some amount of engagement from the learner. ASER 2022 learned that nearly 70 per cent of children received help at home. In addition, teachers seem to have called, made home visits, or used digital devices to deliver materials and instruction where possible. And 40 per cent of the children were helped by private tutors.
Isolation of the home from the school is the old norm. Bringing them together is the new norm — the family, teacher, village and school work together to help children learn skills and gain knowledge. Could this type of hybrid home-schooling with technology assistance represent the model for the educational system or the schools of tomorrow?
In the old days, community and parents’ participation in children’s education was much talked about, but in practice, it usually meant occasionally attending committee meetings. In the post-pandemic era, the possibility of involving parents much more in the education of their children should be explored seriously. The National Education Policy of 2020 talks about involving communities and parents in the process of education. It will be good to build on the experiences during the period of school closures.
This period also broke down what could be called the digital barrier. The resistance to technology at all levels collapsed as the need to reach children became urgent. The pandemic accelerated teachers’ capability to access and use online resources/courses. But the digital solutions relied on sending messages, links and attachments for children to learn from. Textbooks and lessons remained dominant. In the urgency to keep the education system going, there was no room for experimentation with content and pedagogy. It is now time to experiment and improve upon the school model.
A hundred years ago, when the implementation of free and compulsory education was being experimented with in Baroda and Kolhapur, India’s literacy rate was around 11 per cent. The model of schools where illiterate-unschooled parents brought their children to the teacher, the sole educated person in the area, was perhaps the only workable model. It was also the model that existed in Western countries and was being exported to us. Today, more than 50 percent of mothers and 80 percent of fathers have more than five years of education, according to ASER 2022. The teachers are no longer the only educated persons in the village. Most parents have access to smartphones and it seems that they have actively participated in their children’s learning efforts during the pandemic.
The pandemic forced us to look at schooling differently and try different solutions. It was a period of extreme restrictions but it also offered freedom to try new ideas. Now that there are no restrictions, we need to persist with changing mindsets to try out new ideas that work and create new norms that are useful.
The writer is co-founder and CEO, Pratham