Safe and yet learning

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By Tensing Rodrigues

How do we keep our children safe and yet learning? The question becomes more relevant after spending about four months in an experiment called online learning. Unfortunately we do not have any hard evidence of the learning that has happened or not happened during the four months. Lessons/ chapters covered? Well, there will be no significant deficiency on that count. From experience I can tell you that is the easier part of the process.

Often, in the XI– XII classes if the students were too distracted, I would close the book and stop the lecture and announce that chapter so and so is done. The students had no problem. Frankly, they did not need me to complete the chapter; they had a text book. In the exams they could not be questioned on a single word that was not printed in the book. My going to the class was justified only by teaching them what was not there in the book and which would not be asked in the exam; to teach them how to use what is part of the curriculum, after they finish the exam and step into the real world.

Today, it is even better; the schools are even more redundant. There is a big school, virtually free, with no rigid timings, which you can attend from home, called … yes Google. All that you need is a reasonably good smart phone and a data connection. And students have been frequenting that school since long before the COVID and lockdown.

The online classes are for them a child’s play– something like a class five student sitting in a KG II class. Well, they might have never learnt about Akbar the king but why do they need to? They know everything about Jodhaa Akbar. No wonder a reputed city school had to close down the online classes briefly when it found out that a reverse flow of knowledge was happening!

It is in this context that I ask, what have the students learned during the four months?  No it is not about an educational audit. It is about certain basic approach to education or should I say a certain basic attitude to education. Before I get to the nitty-gritty of it, let me tell you something that has always tragically amused me; so that you understand what I exactly mean by ‘a certain basic attitude.’

I have not kept track in the last few decades; but before that, every time the teachers’ salary scales were raised, an increase in the teachers workload would follow – more time to be spent in the class, more students in each class.

Let me confess it was not always so. There was a time when most of the schools were private, hardly funded by the government. I went to one such school. If I remember right, initially we were only about 25 students in each class. The principal of the school was the owner of the school. He had to balance the income and expenses of the school. He must have worked it out that he needed 25 students to run the school more than that would defeat his purpose of starting the school. I can say with confidence that I learnt in that school; learnt in the real sense of the term.

That is the point I want to make. We need to begin with the learning, and then count the cost of delivering that learning. Not the other way round; not fix how much we want to spend on education, and then deliver what comes in that money. Say I have fifty rupees; I can get five jilebis in that amount; so let me give one tenth of a jilebi to each of the fifty students. What have I achieved? I have fed jilebis to fifty students. Yes, fed jilebis?

You may feel that I have digressed from my topic of learning in post-COVID season. No; I have not. If you have a class of 24, and each of them comes to the class three days a week, how many students will there be in a class on a given day? Just twelve. Can you not accommodate 12 students in a class in a COVID-safe manner? Coming to class only three times a week? Do they really need to come into the class more often than that? There is much more that they can learn elsewhere – on the ground, in the library, under a tree, well, even at home. 

I know there is a problem with this arrangement; we will need the double number of teachers. It will cost more. That brings us to where we began– if we want to give one jilebi to each student we will have to spend on fifty jilebis.  Can this country afford to buy fifty jilebis for the future of the nation?

The author is an investment consultant. Readers can send their comments and queries to [email protected]