Interview: Prof. Krishna Kumar

Professor Krishna Kumar: ‘Our system does not care for the child’s comfort’

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Professor Krishna Kumar, former director, NCERT. Photo: Meera Srinivasan

Interview with Professor Krishna Kumar, educationist and former director, NCERT.

By now, it has been established beyond doubt that the lockdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resultant closures of schools, have had a devastating effect on children’s education. At least two studies have revealed the disastrous impact of prolonged school closures on the mental and physical well-being of children. According to UNICEF, 80 per cent children in the age group of 14 to 18 years reported lower levels of learning during the pandemic. Professor Krishna Kumar, eminent educationist and Padma Shri awardee who served as the Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) from 2004 to 2010, spoke to Frontline on some of these issues and the way forward. Excerpts from the interview:

Digital classrooms have not fared as well as they were expected to by the ruling dispensation, and the divide in Indian education has been exposed as never before. What, according to you, might be the consequences of this divide?

The continuous closure of schools for such a long time does indeed pose a problem, both in terms of seeking an explanation and making choices to deal with the fallout. There has been little attempt to plot the geography of the pandemic. It spread in different regions, and within those regions, at varying pace and levels of impact. In mid 2020, there were reports from several regions that the impact of the coronavirus was far greater in urban locations than in rural areas. A more decentralised system of education than what we have might have allowed local or school-level decisions to be taken, at least at that stage of the pandemic.

A similar point can be made about midday meals. It’s hard to understand why they were simply stopped, causing obvious disruption of something as basic as regular intake of food. Anyhow, the questions that face schools now have to do with resumption of teaching and other activities. Many teachers are aware that online learning could hardly serve as a substitute for regular teaching even under the best of circumstances. In many parts of the country, it’s now clear that access to online teaching was very limited, and not just because of problems of connectivity. Enthusiasts of online teaching seldom distinguish between the experience that a desktop or a laptop might provide to a child as opposed to a smartphone. This is not a small distinction, and dependence on a smartphone for receiving lessons is extremely problematic if we see this problem from the perspective of children for whom the absence of a laptop or desktop at home is one of the many deprivals in their life.

Also read: Out-of-school generation

As a society, we opted for a myth that online learning is the same irrespective of the instrument on which it is received. Now that schools are reopening, it will be totally wrong to assume that children who have been dependent on a smartphone can be treated on a par with those who were able to use a better receiver. Indeed, this is simply one of the many grave indicators of the difficulty that the idea of a fixed curriculum will present to schools after they reopen.

Principals and teachers will have to put their heads together to figure out how to draw up a sensible curriculum for the coming months—a curriculum that does not stress on performance in tests to find out where a child is or isn’t. It has to be a curriculum that gives the teacher substantial freedom to pick and choose items in the syllabus or the textbooks that she considers more important than others and for which she may decide to devote more time.

I realise that this is a very difficult condition to impose, for example, in a Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV), where week-to-week coverage of the set syllabus is ensured across the country. This tendency is not confined to KVs, and it’s pretty deadly in the demand it imposes for drilling and seeking parroted collective answers simply to engineer the impression in the classroom that everybody is on the same page or knows the same amount of information.

Learning loss

Why is the prolonged absence of a physical school from the lives of children a problem? What about skills like reading, writing, and intellectual capacities such as comprehension in listening or reading mode?

This question reminds us of the fallacy involved in the term “learning loss”. The idea of loss and gain, although understandably popular in our times, is not suitable for making sense of children’s development in reading, writing, or listening with comprehension. Children acquire these capacities and gradually refine them over a long period of time. It’s not a good idea to expect that their progress in these areas can be monitored with vast, crudely designed surveys.

Coming to the post-pandemic situation, a decline in children’s retention of reading and other capacities should hardly surprise anyone. We must remember that a capacity once acquired will resurface and gradually gain strength if the need for it arises at a comfortable pace. And that’s where the problem lies, namely, that our system simply does not care for the child’s comfort, and very few among teachers recognise that as the topmost priority in organising their lessons.

Also read: Locked out: Emergency report on school education

The aftermath of the pandemic, therefore, does pose a very serious problem, and my fear is that a vast number of children who have already suffered a lot—academically, emotionally, and nutritionally—will experience more suffering on account of the pressure they will face to “catch up” with the mindlessly imposed norm of what they ought to be able to do and know.

Several children, especially from marginalised sections, have had to drop out of school owing to the lockdowns. How does that affect the future of children, families and indeed societies?

There is no doubt that the progress made over the last two decades under the auspices of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act has suffered a setback. Recovering from this setback calls for significantly enhanced financial investment and coordination between the States and the Centre. The problem is likely to be most acute in the Hindi belt, although several other States will also show high dropout rates if objective research is carried out to capture the full picture.

With scientists predicting a third COVID-19 wave, which might primarily affect children, what are the immediate steps that need to be taken to safeguard children’s education? Would you say the fallout of keeping schools shut for long is far more dangerous than reopening the schools and risking infection?

You should pose this question to members of the scientific and medical communities. As for the rest of us, it goes without saying that school safety is a permanent issue in India and it has taken on an added, extremely sensitive dimension on account of COVID-19.

Given the massive mental and physical health cost of the pandemic, is there something different that teachers need to do in classrooms and in terms of evaluation of students?

Yes, the experience of this period is likely to have had an unsettling implication for a vast proportion of children, especially adolescents. I also expect many teachers to have found the responsibility of relentless online teaching exhausting and stressful. In addition, primary level teachers in several regions were deputed to perform non-teaching duties at airports, on roadsides, public parks and vaccination centres, and at the same time were expected to maintain online touch with the children. The whole situation was extraordinarily callous and demeaning.

Therefore, when schools reopen, healing is required for children as well as for their teachers. The stress of continuous online engagement was equally felt by private schoolteachers and their counterparts in government institutions.

Also read: Education in the time of pandemic

As for children, returning to the set syllabus and assuming that we will from now onwards do what we used to do earlier are untenable ideas. The curriculum for this year needs to be worked out afresh with the involvement of subject experts and teachers, taking into account the different levels of engagement that children might offer.

Aesthetic experience is known to have healing effects. Arts such as music, painting, theatre and dance hold a marginal position in our school system. It’s very important that these arts receive additional resources and regular space in the coming months in all types of schools at every stage.

I realise that this idea will face resistance because the common instinct will be to push children to compensate for lost time under the pressure of super coaching in classrooms. This will be altogether wrong and counter-productive as far as intellectual and emotional balance is concerned.

And what about the evaluation system?

It’s the hardest rock waiting to be dented for more than a century. Although claims have been made about cracks in it, the problem of sustaining any genuine effort to reform the exam system and improve the quality of classroom testing remains. And I seriously doubt that the situation created by COVID-19 can be seen as providing an opportunity for long-resisted reforms.

This is likely to be a time to cope, and if the system is able to keep teachers’ morale high for teaching and responding to children’s diverse needs at the individual level, that will be more than enough to achieve in the impending period. If the students who have left the system altogether are traced and brought back, and reintegrated into the system, that, too, will be a monumental achievement.

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