It's time to reimagine education and learning to do right by India's future: Shaheen Mistri

Many budget private schools have lost over 50 percent students permanently and let go of 50 percent teachers; learning loss is predicted to be in excess of four years; child marriage is up, so is obesity in children and eye issues. It's time to take these challenges to reimagine education for our children, the CEO of Teach for India writes

Published: Jan 13, 2022 04:48:36 PM IST
Updated: Jan 13, 2022 05:51:42 PM IST

The benefits of online learning can be many: Imagine a child in a small rural school listening to the great ideas of the world
Image: Indranil Mukherjee/ AFP

The past 600 days (and counting) have been among the most trying for India’s children. School closures have led to wide-ranging implications. Learning loss is predicted to be in excess of four years, mental anxiety, stress and isolation have sky-rocketed, and violence against children is up significantly.

Many budget private schools have lost over 50 percent of their students permanently and let go of 50 percent of their teachers. And online just hasn’t worked. For 60 percent of Indian children, it hasn’t worked because they don’t have access to hardware. For those that have, it hasn’t worked because kids don’t like learning online, and teachers, largely, have not been able to build connections online, adapt to online teaching or measure online learning.

The list goes on: Child marriage is up, child labour is up. Kids are more obese. They are developing eye issues with long hours staring at a screen. They are bored and want to play.

The long-term implications of this on our children are catastrophic. For many of them, this will affect the colleges they go to, the jobs they get, and their ability to socialise. Many of them look at us and how we’ve deprioritised education, wondering if education really is their fundamental right. Many of them wonder why, as adults, our lives are back to normal when only their lives are not.

In the midst of all of this, though, there lies great opportunity. For, the pandemic forced us to ask really important questions. What is education and why does it matter? Whose voices must we listen to as we take decisions for our children? Does the teacher who happens to be your class teacher need to be your only teacher? Do instructional hours in school equal learning or can you learn beyond? Does learning need to stop when the physical space of a school is restricted?

The answers to these questions hold within them a reimagined education. Education is not just academic content. The purpose of education is to unleash our greatest selves, our ability to unleash the potential of others and our commitment to act for a better world.

Imagine children coming to school thinking, “I come to school to change the world.” Imagine children knowing that learning can happen anywhere, at any time, from anyone. That, if you happen to be stuck in a class with a disinvested teacher, or with no teacher at all, you can still learn. This is a powerful equaliser.

Imagine a child in a small rural school listening to the great ideas of the world. Imagine children in India learning from children in Afghanistan, Peru or Portugal. Imagine what will happen if we involve children as our partners in everything to do with education. Imagine elevating their voices, asking them what they want to learn and how, seeking their support and guidance, working with them and not just for them. We’d have 260 million school-going children invested in not just their learning, but getting an excellent, equitable education to all children.

Making this happen will require a radical shift to a new blended form of learning, which is a blend of physical school and online. For this, we must ask ourselves what is best done online and what is best done in class, and rethink school based on our evolving answer.

Imagine this. A student wakes up and gets a prompt to exercise at home. There is then quiet reading time, maybe with your grandmother. Students then come together in person to really debate the reading they did. They spend time in class doing group work, learning the vital 21st century skills that will set them up to be equipped for this rapidly changing world.

At home, there’s time to do a project in the community or learn from helping out at home. Then there’s a one-on-one peer teaching session where kids are supporting each other. And in the evening, each child posts gratitude for something they received that day on a class WhatsApp group.

Blended learning holds this opportunity: Learning essentially gets seamlessly integrated into life. We learn from life and we learn for life. And all of our waking hours are opportunities to learn and connect that learning to the things that matter to us.

Moving to a blended world is not easy and will take time, commitment and resources. First, we must ensure all kids have access. A world where some kids have online access and others don’t just isn’t acceptable anymore. Schools need to think of tabs as being as critical as textbooks, and governments need to ensure no child gets left out of the digital world.

Kids are developing eye issues with long hours staring at a screen. They are bored and want to play
Image: Shutterstock

Shifting to this new paradigm will require us to make massive investments in retraining teachers. As we saw in the pandemic, online teaching is not about putting your video on and standing at a blackboard. That didn’t really work even in the physical world of too many rote-learning classrooms and it certainly doesn’t in the virtual world.

We’ll need to make real investments in teaching our teachers how to be comfortable and proficient online, teaching them how to engage children online, keep them safe online, execute lessons, build culture and measure learning online. Parents will need to become partners in this new world. They will need to be involved in countless ways to make this happen. And students will need to develop ownership of their learning for this to work and stretch their own idea of what school is and can be.

Making this happen will not just require a radical shift to a new blended form of learning; it will require us to elevate education as a national priority. We cannot educate our nation’s children if countries close schools last and open them first while India does the opposite. We cannot have a list of “essential services” and not include schools in them. We cannot be one of the world’s nations that spends the lowest on education. We must be fighting elections on education tickets. We must understand that our whole nation’s potential rests on how well our children learn. Above all, we must keep our children at the centre of our decisions.

If we elevate education’s worth and shift to this new blended form of education, the upside is fantastic. Every child will not just get the critical base of foundational numeracy and literacy but will take the steps towards their greatest potential. Every child will not just think of themselves but will learn to accept and respect and value others. And every child will be a changemaker not in the future but today, looking at the India around them and taking small, important steps to making India a place that is free of poverty and filled with love.  

The writer is the CEO of Teach for India, a not-for-profit that addresses educational inequity at scale

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(This story appears in the 14 January, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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