While the nation has rightly praised health care workers for their efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about whether teachers deserve any praise for helping children get through such harrowing times with some sanity. When education was declared a nonessential service, teachers understood that schooling as conducted, in times when the body and mind were free is not valued. Education will have to be reimagined for a different world, a world with changed priorities.
Lockdown-schooling is really an oxymoron – a word that has no place in the lexicon of schooling. Teachers never lock children down. Education has always been about setting the caged bird free, to fly like Jonathan Livingston and reach heights not yet thought of. So teachers, dedicated foot soldiers that they are, especially those with access to a computer or smartphone, have put in silent hard work to rebuild the breakdown that has occurred alongside the lockdown. So what if the school building is not accessible, efforts have been to ensure that communication channels remain open and that children can ask the difficult questions that the times have raised in their minds.
Lockdown schooling is no substitute for education. That needs to be acknowledged upfront since much has been made of online courses. The term education covers a large time frame starting from birth – some may argue even before birth – to well into adulthood. There is a world of difference between a three-year-old and a twenty-year-old. The needs and demands of little children, teenagers, young adults and mature individuals vary depending on which point of the timeline they are on. So while a Zoom session may work well to acquire a quick diploma in Artificial Intelligence for a 25-year-old, it will not work for a five-year-old.
The present-day scenario induced by the outbreak of the coronavirus, where one is shut inside limited space and faced with a screen, is one where the individual increasingly finds that the world outside his screen has no relevance. The outside world and its problems such as migrants starving and dying on roads are distant happenings.
An individual increasingly becomes concerned only with his or her self. Social relations, and even familial relationships, start to slip and predominately one begins to deal with a blinkered existence where there is only I, me and mine. This self-centredness is further underlined when teachers themselves start to widen the divide between the haves and have-nots by concentrating on online classes and leaving out those who are not able to access even audio formats.
Youth is a period where the memories that make us are built and where the synapses of the brain are wired, not just by the many movements of every part of the body, but also by the awakening of the various senses. Youth is the period when a human being, born into a world of a billion people, sees and understands one’s role as a social animal and one’s role in the interrelated scheme of things.
An education, therefore, places an individual, first and foremost, as a social animal with the related traits of empathy, critical thinking, creativity and physical fitness. Secondly, youth is the age for developing a quality intrinsic to growing up: independence. Independence requires informed decision making rooted within a shared value system and an understanding of the other. This is what an online education cannot do and, more relevantly, is not looking to do.
The nationwide lockdown has asked us to align ourselves with those things we always considered important. It has asked us, to not lose sight of the sense of community that is born in coming together in school or the skill of working as a team that comes from sports like kabbadi or football, or conflict resolution that is learnt as children resolve a fight during a break.
These are qualities that have always been crucial to education. These are what differentiate an online education from offline schooling. As the lockdown eases and we look to opening schools again we need to consider how we can keep these core objectives in focus. Numbers is what most Indian schools have in common. If social distancing needs to be maintained after the easing of the lockdown, how should schools manage the transportation of children and full classrooms? Will we need to do an odd-even routine to take us through the year, with some classes coming on one day and others on another day? Will we need to stop all large gatherings like morning assemblies, annual days and sports meets? Will Physical Education classes themselves be off-limits? And if all of these are forbidden, will we be left with an empty shell of schooling or will we do better with the smaller numbers?
Perspective is core to finding solutions. In all modern Indian stories, there are those whom the story has left out. In this story, left out of schooling during the lockdown, are those who do not have an internet connection or a smartphone. Left out are those who have no homes and are on the road and who do not have food and shelter let alone access to schooling of any kind.
These are the people who look out for each other, who do not pollute the environment and who are creative in answering the problems that face them. Perspective is what will help us understand that character building is at the heart of education not academics, air conditioners or hand sanitizer.
Annie Koshi is Principal of St. Mary’s School in Safdarjung Enclave.