Re-imagining Education in India: Lessons learnt from Covid 19

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

In India 320 million (32 crore) students have been affected by one of the most draconian  lockdown in history. Schools shut down and the Indian Government was quick to recommend a shift to ‘online teaching’,  failing to take into cognizance India’s huge digital divide and its embedded gender and class divides.

According to the 75th National Sample Survey 2017-18, only 23.8% of Indian households had internet access. In rural households, home to 70% of India’s population, this is further reduced to 14.9%; even in urban households, only 42% have access. Breaking these down further, it becomes clear that women have even less access, girls access being negligible. The female internet users’ population is half that of male internet users, and the bias is more evident in rural India. Only 16% of adult women have access to a smartphone and mobile internet in India compared to 36% of adult men. Furthermore, most teachers are ill-equipped for online teaching.

Study Hall Educational Foundation’s response 

Our organization has a direct outreach of 7974 students, and over 100,000 indirectly through their teachers. Most are on the wrong side of the digital divide, and the majority are girls. Since schools closed mid-March, SHEF has managed to contact only 58% of our students from poorer communities. Of these, 56% have access to a smartphone and internet, while 44% have basic phones. Contrastingly, we successfully contacted 99% of our students from middle-class families, 100% of whom have internet access. Even in our small sample, the digital divide is clear.

The crisis has also highlighted class divides, as poorer populations face additional problems. Because we’ve always taken a holistic approach to education, with a focus on life outcomes rather than only learning outcomes, and because most of our students’ lives are always in a state of semi-crisis, SHEF is better prepared to respond than other schools. Continuing with the same approach, we are connecting with students by every means possible.

This crisis has been a test of our organization’s and its leadership’s skill, agility, resilience, and commitment to care. A testament to the holistic approach and culture of care we have constructed for over 3 decades, it is our awareness of class, gender and caste inequalities, and our history of responding to these in an inclusive manner have enabled us to bridge the digital divide to the best of our abilities and to care enough to reach ALL our students.

Lessons Learnt

While lamentable, the disruption to education systems worldwide has valuable lessons to offer and provides a unique opportunity to reimagine education, the curriculum and its content, pedagogy, and systems. Throughout this period, we are keeping track of the new lessons we are learning, especially those we want to adopt permanently as an organization and as educators, even post-Covid19.

Curriculum: In recognition of what educators have been saying since Dewey, Tagore, Krishnamurti, and Paulo Freire, we must reconsider what we teach and how we teach it. 

Our current model of education gives disproportionate emphasis to mere information transfer, the assessment of said transfer, and workforce preparation. However, decontextualised academic learning with little relevance to students’ lives and no effort to develop a critical socio-political consciousness or understanding of democratic values is severely limited. 

Curricula must be grounded in students’ needs and lived realities and enable their understanding of the social and political structures that frame their lives. Education must help children ask and answer the question, “Who am I and what is my relationship to the universe and others in it?” Moreover, lessons of equality should have a pride of place in the official curriculum. The crisis has highlighted India’s inequalities like never before, demanding our attention.

Pedagogy: New curricula implies new pedagogy. Teachers have struggled, and many failed, to rise up to the challenge of teaching differently, of communicating differently with their students. This has been highlighted yet again during the current lockdown as the government seeks to shift to online teaching. However, a whole new world of possibilities can open up if teachers can learn to embrace new pedagogies. 

Teachers themselves must become more imaginative thinkers, knowledge seekers, and knowledge creators – true constructivists and problem-posing teachers. They must cultivate critical, creative and flexible thinking, resilience, empathy, inclusive thinking, multi-perspectival thinking, and imaginative solution seeking in students. Technology affords many opportunities to teach differently, encouraging self-learning, providing opportunities to learn from diverse resources, and allowing customized learning for diverse needs. 

This, of course, requires new training, which necessitates an overhaul of teacher training programs as well as the curricula and pedagogies in these institutes.

The Digital Divide: If we truly wish to achieve universal quality education, the digital divide (and embedded gender divide) must be urgently addressed. We must ensure that digital capabilities, the required infrastructure, and connectivity reach the remotest villages and poorest communities. Public schools should be fully equipped with digital resources and equipment. Remote places need to be connected even more urgently than urban areas. Access to technology and the internet is an urgent requirement in the information age, and should no longer be considered a luxury. It is the new literacy of the age…and with this we can leapfrog into the future.

Systems: Improving the education system requires a bilateral approach involving (1) a complete reform of the public school system, including a substantial increase in the education budget (currently just 0.5% of India’s nominal GDP), and (2) decentralizing the system and cultivating communities’ sense of ownership over schools. (3) Building a healthy partnership with privately run schools, which are increasing in number as a default response to the poor quality of public schools. 

The government must provide a high-quality public school education so that faith in public schools is restored. However, the quality of public schools can’t be improved unless the quality of teaching is improved, which involves adequate staffing, rationalizing their distribution, upgrading their in-service training, equipping them with technology skills and infrastructure, training them to redefine their role as facilitators and enablers, holding them accountable, motivating them, and building a culture of care in the department that will filter down to the schools. Teachers must also receive continual professional development and upskilling.

Additionally, communities must have a sense of ownership over these schools and be fully involved in running and maintaining them. Hiring local teachers (with adequate caste and female representation) would go a long way to achieving this. Belonging to the community themselves, they will feel accountable to the children’s families and be understanding of and sensitive to the ground realities and needs of their students.

Democratized Learning: Schools are just one of the many types of learning spaces available, and professional teachers just one of many types of educators. Educating our children must be a collective effort and a democratic one – of the people, by the people, and for the people. The current top-down model needs to be replaced with a community-based model that empowers communities from the bottom up. 

For example, community-based centers may be run by local volunteers and teachers who facilitate education with the support of technology and resources. Again, these volunteers and teachers need not be professional teachers or domain experts. They can just as easily be educated, unemployed youth who are trained to facilitate. The current crisis has brought this to the forefront, as parents with internet access are using all the resources they can find to teach their children. Technology itself enables access to a wide range of teachers, so to speak, including domain experts, practitioners, and changemakers. 

Furthermore, these community-based centers can also act as hubs of discussion and the collective exploration of local issues and solutions, with special focus on gender and caste.

Policy directions

  1. Urgent curricular and pedagogical reform. Curricula, pedagogies, and teacher training must be in alignment with the 21st century and focus on resilience, critical thinking, creative problem solving, developing the entrepreneurial imagination, and multi-perspectival thinking. They must develop a critical social and political consciousness, democratic values of equality, liberty and fraternity, social and emotional learning of empathy, and concern beyond ourselves – including our communities, our country, our world and everyone and everything in it. An urgent focus on our relationship with the environment becomes particularly important at this time.  Innovative educators and education NGOs across the country have developed curricula and pedagogies to this end and they should be included in this reform movement.  They have tried and tested, shovel ready solutions to offer.
  2. Address inequalities. The recent crisis has highlighted the cruelty of unequal living conditions more starkly than ever, particularly by the countless images of migrant labourers struggling to get home so that they could ‘stay at home’. Poverty impacts all of us and cannot be ignored. 
  3. Focus on technology for teaching and learning. Teachers must be adequately trained and prepared for online teaching. The government should pool together curricular materials, pedagogies, and capabilities of the numerous organizations around the country and be advised by them to create a new curriculum and new materials that are available to all.
  4. Address the digital divide and embedded gender divide. If we are serious about universal education, we must provide connectivity, devices, and digital literacy for everyone. It has proven to be a necessity during this crisis.

In short, we must free learning from archaic, rigid, formal structures - free it from a disproportionate emphasis on cognitive development and information transfer. Let’s democratize education and expand the idea of what learning is and where it can take place! Let children see that learning does not only take place in schools or books. Set free a plethora of diverse teaching resources – including teachers – that they can freely access! Rather than confining them in tight bonds of tests and exams - often limited and not the only modes of assessment - let’s find less oppressive ways of assessing our children’s learning. Let’s get everyone involved in helping India’s children learn. And let’s broaden, widen and deepen the idea of what learning is! The goal of education, after all, is not simply to know but to live, and living needs much more than what is being taught in schools. Learning and teaching must become as whole and dynamic as life itself, and continue as long as life itself.