Covid-19: a historic opportunity to redefine the Indian school system – analysis
Respected Dr. Ramesh Pokhariyal ‘Nishank’ ji,
I am writing to you not only as Delhi’s Minister of Education, but also as a concerned citizen and parent for the future of millions of children in our country. After a prolonged closure of schools due to coronavirus disease (Covid-19), it is encouraging to know that the Ministry of Human Resources Development is developing basic guidelines for reopening schools. Delhi Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal said some time ago that “we need to learn to live with the crown” and the reopening of schools with reasonable precautions is a positive step in that direction.
While the pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for humanity, it also offers a unique opportunity to reimagine our schools. In the new post-crown way of life, we have to think again about the role of our schools. We can transform schools from being simple executors of district direction or headquarters instructions to playing a central role in our society. And, it would be a historic mistake if we miss this opportunity by not entrusting our schools with a bigger and bolder role in preparing children for a better life and not just for the lessons in their textbooks.
In this regard, this is what I would like to suggest. First, we must assure all children, regardless of age and social class, that they are important to us and that they all have the same right to the physical and intellectual space of their respective schools. The clamor of online teaching or that older children get to school first and not younger ones should rest. Online teaching can only complement learning at school, not replace it. Similarly, being aware of ensuring equitable access for all children, secondary school students should not have priority over primary school children. Learning at all stages is important, whether preparing for board exams or learning to read and write.
Here, I envision two different approaches for children of different age groups.
To learn to live with the virus, what better place than school to learn that lesson and what better grades than the first grades, from kindergarten to class 8. Children in this age group (with reasonable distance and supervisory standards) supportive) are among the least likely to be infected and this should be communicated to the parents. Parents should be trusted and should not be rushed or forced to send their children to school. Furthermore, the emphasis for children between the ages of three and 14 should be on laying the foundation for lifelong learning. The focus should focus exclusively on the child’s happiness, supporting responsible behavior (without preaching) and developing fundamental learning skills rather than simply completing the remaining curriculum. The goal should be that our children “learn to learn”. The only thing a teacher should be held accountable for is making sure every child stays connected to school and enjoying the new teaching-learning format.
For middle and high school grades, my suggestion is that the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) be requested to eliminate mastery of curriculum-oriented exams and memorization of a child’s academic life. To begin, NCERT must reduce the program of study by at least 30% in all grades and subjects. Let there be more depth in learning and understanding rather than spreading the curriculum far and wide. Similarly, CBSE should move away from the single high-risk exam in class 10 and 12 towards a continuous assessment and examination model at any time.
In this context, I have another suggestion about redefining our approach to teacher training. We cannot expect a fundamental change in education and testing unless our teachers are prepared for it. This would imply international training with exposure to innovative practices worldwide. In addition to training, the emphasis must also be on research so that new teaching-learning techniques can be understood and implemented at the school level. We can learn a lot from Singapore’s teacher education model and from the International Baccalaureate (IB) board’s approach to assessment.
With a broad framework in place, we must allow schools to reimagine their role, taking into account their context and resources, and propose their reopening plan in consultation with their main stakeholders. In the process of learning to live with the coronavirus, there will be major changes in schools around the world. It is up to us to decide whether to reorganize our schools based on the needs of our society and the learnings from our nation’s great history or whether we expect other countries or other societies to do something and then copy and paste those solutions here. In my opinion, we must take decisive action now to put the school at the center of the community. I am fully aware that this is not easy, and schools will require a lot of support, but like children, our schools, education systems, and policy makers like us also need to learn, grow, and be responsible.
I hope you will consider my suggestions and together we will return a better and more supportive school to all of our children.
Manish Sisodia is Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Education.
The opinions expressed are personal.
(This is a shortened version of your letter to the Union HRD on June 5)