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Every cloud has a silver lining, and the corona virus has brought with it school closures. Now, that in itself might be a bit of a relief for those who have to go to school everyday, but not for long. Lessons must continue, schools must continue to engage, and learning loss must be arrested.

So, schools and universities, have gone online.

Some have scrambled, others have jumped on to the bandwagon, while the ancient ones are still wondering how. In all of this, are left the government schools, and the schools meant for the poorest of the poor, where electricity, internet and time are all scarce resources, as are internet compatible devices such as laptops and smartphones. For public education systems, the question is not just how, but also, how much.

For the ‘when’ has already been decided.

When Covid came, it crashed the timeline for the transition to online learning. We are all forced to up the remote learning game, now.

Conversations that have remained unheard for decades, or limited to specialist groups suddenly became mainstream. It would have been good to be able to say that the decades of work on edutech that had faded away because we could not generate the requisite returns to education now became the stuff of discussions in staff rooms, but sadly that is not the case. Faculty and teachers, across universities and colleges are focused on the immediacy of ‘delivering’ lessons using online technologies, and are largely – sadly – occupied with the operational aspects of going online.

In the rush, it is a bit of a mess. Which is a bit of a good thing. In fact, this messy fortnight in remote learning may have been the best thing to happen to education in the past century.  Only if we care to pay attention to it.

This forced break has done much more than keep students at home, with their learning process made visible to parents. It has exposed the fault lines in real learning. And has given us an opportunity to change, and do better. 

If we think that we should continue as we used to before seeing these cracks made obvious, then we can, of course, continue, as we were – on a wobbly foundation. But now that the cracks in the foundation are so shamefully visible, then, should we continue to ignore them?

Should it be business as usual for schools? Should we be trying to replicate the flaws of classroom teaching models in our remote learning? Or should we be using the remote learning opportunity to re-craft mainstream teaching?

The answer to this question will reveal the kind of educator you are – even to yourself.  

So much has been revealed in the first two weeks of online classes, across countries, across levels.

One, that learning is not equitable. Those with money, and privilege, could access learning, and proceeded to continue seamlessly. While the others were quietly left behind. And will continue to play catch up. We always knew that to be true, but it is shown up in the harsh light of the crisis, again. 

Two, that learning is not synchronous. I’ve been quoting myself for years  – “We may teach to a class, but Learning is by the Individual” (put that on my epitaph).
The rapid shift to online learning shows up the differential pace dramatically. So much so that teachers are taking 2-3 hours to deliver what used to be a 40 minute class. Yup, it takes that long, plus the reinforcement activities and the follow ups, gap fillers and more. Delivering a 40 minute lesson may have been teaching, it was never learning. 

Three, conventional pedagogies do not transfer well to new media. Do not try to replicate the classroom in your online teaching. It doesn’t work.

Well, conventional chalk and talk has never worked, unless supplemented,  and this is shown up even more in remote learning. Nor do ‘activities’ deliver beyond a small limit, unless they are done well. A demonstration in front of the class, and asking the class to repeat it, moving hastily on if a few laggards have not completed it was something one could get away with in physical classrooms. Even blame the students for being slow. In an online classroom, this difference is glaring. It was not just about the different ‘speeds’ of learning, nor was it about the much disproved Bloom’s typology of learners. It was much more – and now – we have to acknowledge that it cannot be replicated. Find new ways to teach well remotely (and not just online!) 

Four, Teachers are lifelong learners too – and if you are not, you are lost when things change. Oh, and things change all the time. Those who kept up with the new ways of learning are fairly comfortable now. Their worksheets continue to go out on whatsapp, their peer discussions are not interrupted. One more webinar platform is not daunting for them. But for those with a fixed notion of classroom teaching, those who could not or would not learn new ways as teachers, find themselves obsolete today. 

Five, the power hierarchy of the teacher learner relationship is redundant. Students can teach their teachers about technology, can troubleshoot solutions in the content, and in the process, as well as the all powerful teacher – and it works fine! The power pressure was never required, shared learning classrooms are so much more fun and engaging. It’s fine if learning operates in multiple directions! Being the boss of the space is not necessary to learning at all. Nor is it necessary to be right all the time – no shame in a teacher showing that they too don’t know stuff, can get it wrong – and can learn! Actually, that’s why you are there as a teacher, to demonstrate how to learn. 

Six, learning is social, indeed, even experiential. But more social. When we learn, it is the emotional component that is added to the learning experience that is more sticky than the content. Experiential learning experts will tell you that a play performed on say, Shivaji, or Lady Diana, will have given the students a deeper understanding of the issues that played out in history, than merely knowing the story. Teachers and school heads who have conducted online lessons report that student engagement is so much higher on the social aspects of the classes. They appreciate the care, the concern, and the real aspects of learning together much more than normal dry lectures. Even MOOCs had not cracked this, except to set up peer learning discussion groups. This has been showcased to us clearly, and we would be wise to heed this.

Social learning is not just about social chit chat. A core element of learning being social is to reach out in care, and to find problems and solutions together. To learn how to identify a question, to zone in to the real problem not just the apparent. To identify and research the question. To seek prior knowledge, whether local or not, whether documented or not. To verify, to experiment, to discuss, to solve. Learning as a social construct is about making the world a better place – which is what it should have been all along.

Seven, Structured Learning must be led. Unstructured learning must be led too. The debate between the progressives and the conservatives can be put to rest now – we have eliminated the classroom manager (or at least found a space where their classroom management competencies Neither discovery, nor exploration or experimentation are useful if they don’t build progression pathways.

There are schools that are saying that this phase is temporary, so we do not need to spend this time in “content”, let us not worry about assessments and exams right now – let the students work on simple projects, value education and self reflection. They do not know how right they have it – but not because this is a temporary blip in learning. But because this is what we should have been learning anyway! This should always have been at the core of personal growth, and this certainly needs to be led via structured processes, or it will end up as daydreaming.

Eight, We don’t all need to commute, and then lock ourselves into compounds with security gadgets and walls and wires in order to learn. At least not everyday. The kind of schools that tie us into rigid routines may be useful for intense training for a specific purpose, but are not essential at all for normal learning that enables student growth. We can do it differently too, uncaged.

If the physical distancing regulations need to be extended, schools will certainly find a way to bring students in for a little bit in staggered lots. Various models of sharing common spaces will emerge, as will flexibility in the way we use the boxes we call classrooms. Maybe this is not a blip, this is the stretch and the flexibility that we needed for learning to step out of the zoo.

Nine, We can actually manage without tests and assessments. But we cannot manage without formative testing as a support structure for teachers. Testing and assessments are not ‘judgements’, they are merely feedback on what to do next. The purpose of testing is to tell you that you are good at this, and maybe need to work harder at that. The test results just ask you – is this what you want to do? Is this how you want to do things? Do you want to pursue what comes easily to you? Or do you want to work on what is hard for you? It gives information for choices.

It is not a judgement of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you are as a student. It’s not a statement that condemns you to a trajectory or path. Even though we have used it — abused the testing system really. From a feedback tool, it became the gavel that crushed us.

But we did not need it. Even before this crisis,  many corporates had already decided that they did not need college certificates to recruit, just as many colleges had decided that they do not need scores to decide their admits, the rest of the world may soon join in the realisation that the old structures and goals of schools are redundant in the new world. Even this year, so many realise, that their businesses, universities, and schools will survive just fine without the monster power tool we call assessments. The crisis has revealed the redundancy of testing. 

Assessments and certification matter less than performance at the point of need.

Ten, our unkindness in education stands exposed. While there are many wonderful schools and teachers, even the best of them will admit that there are days that we lose patience, that we bully, harry, provoke, trigger – and even almost attack our students to elicit the performance that we require them to deliver. The teaching and learning system is not kind. There are entire swathes of schools where bullying is acceptable as a pedagogy – we all know of them (and of course it is never us! Right.)

The quick shift to online and remote learning has exposed how difficult it is for us to be kind when we face our students online. If our students are not fortunate enough to be online, it is even harder – most of us have just sat ourselves back down and called it a holiday. There is the rare case of a village teacher who phones each student everyday, and delivers the same lesson twenty times over – thus maintaining distance, and demonstrating empathy, kindness and care.

Our pedagogies were designed on the foundation of kindness and care, our practices devolved to less than that. Now, when observed online by parents, and others, when our online sessions are being recorded, we realise the need to be constantly kind – and if we are honest, this effort is exhausting. We are not used to being kind, and this shift has revealed it.

Even for something as simple as kindness, when face to face with a  paradigm shift, we are lost, and don’t know how to respond.

And eleven, the biggest reveal here is that – maybe – we don’t need schools at all.

Is This Temporary?
For a while, you say? Things will be back to normal soon, you say? We can all go back to the way we were?
Sure, if the way we were was good enough for you. And we know it wasn’t. If it was, the world would have been a better place with all the education delivered over the past few decades. And yet, here we are with hate, with waste, with destruction, with poor thinking skills, and here we are with our inability to change over to a better praxis and paradigm.

And yes, in a way you are right. Things will go back to the old normal, if the crisis is short term. If the blip is temporary. We will forget the lessons we learnt, just as we accuse our students of forgetting the lessons we taught them in their wonderful schooling with us.

It is easy for educators to forget, to climb a high horse, and rule from there, because, simply because it worked so far. There is no other way to ‘manage’ such complexity, such a results driven competitive eco system. It is tough to hold everything together, and deliver to the needs and ambitions of students, parents, and of course the school management and owners. Privately, every excellent school leader and teacher will acknowledge that the race to win comes at a cost. But it is the only race they can see, and the blinkers must be kept on, to win.Schools are a power system, and no one gives up their power, indeed their livelihood easily. No reason for it either, if they deliver true value going forward. 

But, what if – This is not temporary? What if – We need to work differently? What if – The old ways do not work for the new world? What if – we realise that people don’t need the old structures any more? What if – this is the end of schools, as we know it?

Just, that the racetrack was wiped away.

And see what we found?

The Redundancy of Schools

I see dismissive hands, but I also see a ray of hope. We know we will always need teachers, we will always need a social hub, that we will always need curated content, and that we will always need a way to support doing better and better – we will also need to both survive and shine.

But will we need a school to do this? Not necessarily.

Teachers can operate without schools. Content curation does not require schools. We can learn from home, and community spaces, don’t need schools for that. The local government can provide adequate sports and exercise facilities. Assessments can be administered via software, we don’t need schools for that. As for pastoral care, and personal growth, students can sign up with counsellors and advisors, as many do already. Tution classes had already revealed the redundancy of schools, the shift to technology just proves it again. The hegemony of schools rests upon infrastructure, and exam administration – both of which are easily disintermediated. 

This is a wake up call to schools. 

This is an opportunity to get it right – for schools, and educators. I shall be very disappointed, as an educator, if we go back to the old normal. We have the opportunity to undo the errors of the past, the terrible practices that were blamed on the ‘system’. Now the system is on hold, and it is obvious to everybody that it can operate differently.

We just demonstrated it.

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