In the midst of the lockdown, it is only the clear skies and the chirping of birds that are lifting our spirits. Yet they are signalling that it was high time that we paid heed to Nature’s urgent message to the world. In these troubled times, we must remind ourselves that the “crowned” virus will be eventually vanquished. But meanwhile we must use this unexpected time on our hands to plan for the post-coronavirus world.
As school educators, it is expected of us to think of ways to make up for lost teaching and learning time. But what is even more important is to think of the changes that we can expect after life limps back to some semblance of normality. However, it is anticipated that the new “normal” will be very different from the one that we know. It’s true that the world has witnessed very fast changes in the recent past, but the changes that result from a sudden and widespread crisis will come at an accelerated speed and we realise that in order to survive, we need to shift gears, adjust and adapt with alacrity. Indeed, we will need to ride the wave.
Certain changes are perhaps here to stay. Will “socialising” take on a different complexion altogether? I know that many would have learnt to live with and by themselves and almost everyone will have learnt to make do with far fewer things. It is hoped that people will have learnt some lessons of hygiene. Incidentally, the “techies” of the world are already quite upbeat. They feel that the residual resistance to technology, especially in education, will now break down.
Many educational institutions have already taken to online classes. The free reading material, courses and resources that are on offer will probably habituate many more students and teachers to learning and teaching online. One development that I am desperately hoping for is that there will be a radical change in the way students will be assessed.
The International Baccalaureate showed the way first, by deciding to cancel the exams that are held every year in the month of May. The IB recognised that in the wake of the coronavirus attack, it was not possible to conduct examinations in so many countries. So wisely, instead of waiting, all their affiliated institutions were intimated of their decision and subsequently given a clear brief as to how the candidates would be assessed. The rigorous course work that the students had been doing throughout the year had already been evaluated. Most of the data had been submitted online so the final assessment would not be too difficult to arrive at. The only component missing would be the summative examination. The IGCSE examinations were cancelled next. I have been writing ad nauseum about the ineffectuality of “mass” board examinations where lakhs of students write exams on specified days. These exams are usually two to three hours long, depending on the level, and a great deal hinges on the results of this single examination. Only those of us who are in the field understand the kind of stress that is induced in students, teachers and parents by these exams, year after year. Normal life is stalled for a very long period and all available time and energy are devoted to exam preparations alone.
At the cost of repetition, I would like to mention that there is a vast industry around these board exams. Guidebooks, coaching institutions, private tutors, mock examinations (at a cost) and more flourish, only to enable students to answer stock questions and earn unrealistically high scores. All creativity, thinking skills and problem-solving abilities are killed effectively. I hasten to say that the curricula of the different boards are commendable -- it is only their transaction that becomes faulty and meaningless as most teachers gear their teaching with the written summative exam in mind. One fervently hopes that the coronavirus crisis will compel the powers that be to introduce radical reforms in examinations, where students can be properly, holistically and accurately assessed in a relatively stress-free manner, keeping individual differences in mind. Summative exams are important, but they should not be the only yardstick to measure our students’ academic proficiency. Mass examinations have been obsolete for a while, but sometimes a rude jolt is needed to recognise reality and do something about it.
I suspect that school life will never be the same again. Perhaps our students have learned to value the hours they used to spend together in classrooms or on the playing field. But nobody knows when it will be safe to allow such large gatherings again. Social distancing may be here to stay for a long time. In order to prevent crowding and exposure to the “viral residue”, attendance may not be made compulsory for all students every day of the week. School programmes will for a while involve smaller groups, and mega shows with huge audiences will have to be forgotten for some time to come. We will have to be careful about the way school canteens function, and we will have to take a call on continuing with contact sports. As Indians, we should be proud that the preferred mode of greeting is now the non-tactile “namaste”, but “touch” is extremely important for the human psyche – and especially for little children. How can we not hold a child’s hand or hug a tiny tot who needs to be comforted?
These are depressing thoughts, but we must believe in happier times. We can still look forward to socialising with one another in the real world -- not virtually, not “distantly” but closely, as we did previously. We must not let a dystopian world take over, and if the entire human race resolves to act together and not let mutual suspicion or heightened nationalism build walls between peoples, we can still hope for the joys of interaction to reign again.