The early years (defined globally as 0-8 years of age) are a critical stage of cognitive, motor, social and emotional development in the human life cycle. Research demonstrates that exposure to an enabling environment and access to appropriate inputs in early childhood is important to ensure that children have a strong foundation for their future.
Schools not only provide children with an opportunity to learn but also play a vital role in a child’s social, emotional and mental development. The attachments that one forms with peers and teachers allow children to learn from their experiences and grow into adulthood.
In India, the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to schools adopting an online mode of imparting education since mid-March. Ensuring the continuation of formal education during lockdown remains critical, especially as India already suffers from a learning crisis in the early years.
The National Achievement Survey of 2017 tells us that 1 in 3 students in Grade 3 cannot read small text with comprehension and that 1 in 2 students in Grade 3 cannot use math to solve daily life problems. The ASER report from 2018 further elaborates on how only 50% of children in Grade 5 in rural India could read a Grade 2 level text, and only 28% of children in Grade 5 could solve a division problem.
Adopting the virtual ‘avatar’ has served the immediate need to continue providing education. However, it has come at the heavy price of further leaving behind certain sections of our society. Can the country afford this discontinuity in early education and learning?
Recently, the Karnataka State Primary and Secondary Minister, S. Suresh Kumar, shared that a committee had been set up to frame guidelines on how to engage students at home to improve their knowledge till normalcy is restored. But one must not forget that not all parents can teach their children at home, for some students may be, using Amartya Sen’s words, the ‘first boys and girls, that is, the first in their family to receive an education.
Calls to ban online education in primary schools is an ‘elitist’ problem – how has the state facilitated the continuation of teaching in Anganwadis or remote villages and towns where ‘going online is not an option? What about children with disabilities – how has virtual teaching been adapted for those with visual or hearing impairments?
If one looks at the policy response during the pandemic, one is yet to receive any official announcement underlining the need for online educational services to recognise the struggle of children with disability. There is a need to enforce the implementation of existing accessibility laws and regulations, reduce the stigma surrounding those with special needs, and restructure the education system to improve accessibility.
It bears repeating that one size does not fit all. What works for one group of learners may not work for the other; what works in urban areas may not work in the rural. Furthermore, one must also recognise that learning and acquiring knowledge (of different forms, from various sources) cannot be restricted solely to classroom academic interactions.
Knowledge is generated in various forms, be it through writings, the medium of art, or lived experiences of people. Restricting oneself to mainstream knowledge taught within the walls of an educational institution has led to the disregard of local knowledge and lack of recognition of multiple mediums of learning.
If one recognises these multiple sources of knowledge and adopts more creative and artistic methods of learning, it can enable people to gain knowledge and learn through a medium that is best suited for them. Multiple mediums of learning can play an especially important role in primary education, where learning can be facilitated through innovative methods.
Given the uncertainty of the future on the one hand and the importance of education in the early age group, on the other, the drastic step of discontinuing primary education can come at a heavy price. Innovative, interactive methods of teaching and acknowledging multiple sites of knowledge are vital for inclusive, continuous learning — in early years and adulthood.