Choice and accountability

Yasmin Jayathirtha

With schools and colleges closed, all young people have been left to their own devices and that of their parents. Those who are in villages have work to do on the farms and the space to play. Those who have access to devices and the Internet have the opportunities to explore their interest and continue their academic learning through the many tutorials. The hardest hit, perhaps, are those without access to technology, or space or support. The situation raises questions and because the students have been away from school for so long, the most important seems to be:

Will they go back willingly to class?
The pandemic online scenario seems to have brought into the mainstream, questions that were asked of alternate school spaces: What will students do if given a choice? When they cannot be monitored, how do we ensure that students are taking up the ownership of learning? How can we ensure the integrity of the testing process? If the integrity cannot be assured, how do you assess the learning? If the assessment is local, how do you compare and rank?

All these questions arise because the education system, all over the world, is structured to have the students in one space, with their peers, under the eyes of their teacher and studying a known quantum of material at a known time, tested at the same time, in the same way. Suddenly, this scenario has been shaken. Torn between the need for safeguarding children in the present and the need for safeguarding their future, the debate about opening schools is raging worldwide. As an aside, it is interesting that the ‘promise’ of technology delivering education seamlessly and effectively didn’t get fulfilled.

Schools need to open, not only because academic work has to happen, but also because children need contact with their peers and other adults and benefit from group learning. But they need to open safely and in a way that shutting down again if necessary does not disrupt the learning process. What would a safe school look like and what challenges would it bring?

It should have small groups that can be in a bubble, so that kids can play and interact both in the classroom and on the playground, but any positive case doesn’t mean that the whole school has to shut down. The group should have an anchor adult to see to their wellbeing and to be the bridge between them and the rest of the school. This means that a class of 30 should be split into 2-3 groups so that spacing can happen in the classrooms and it would be easy to monitor. It will increase teacher requirements so classes cannot be held the same way. Flipped classes would work very well; the students get the material, do the work independently and come into the class to share and discuss the assignment. This model can encompass activities too, both in science and social science. The activities can be done in school or at home and the results documented. Discussions in science would include what results were expected, why, what did everyone get, is there a difference, why? Social science activities would include surveys, local history, local landscapes and sharing here will show the variety in the world.

What are the challenges in such an approach? The material must be produced carefully so that it is comprehensible to the students, the activities must be interesting and possible so that they will be carried out properly and the questions during discussions must be such that they will elicit meaningful responses. Then we come to the crux of the challenge, the adults! Do we, the parents and teachers, believe that children can and will work well independently? Do we feel that if we are not constantly monitoring/guiding, they will do the least possible to get by? Do we trust our assessment systems to show if they are learning?

This is a reflection on us. Why do we work? Do we feel that if we had the choice, we would do nothing at all? Are our deadlines the only thing keeping us working? We, of course, recognize that artists, people with special talents, will work for the love of it – but we don’t consider ourselves artists. In this, we wrong ourselves and by extension the children. Left free, I am sure we will all look for meaningful work.

To get back to the questions asked at the beginning: How do we ensure that students take ownership of their learning? By giving it to them, not monitoring constantly, but also not just letting them get away with not doing the work. If it is in the younger classes, it is easier because their habits have not set and they work with enjoyment. With the older students, we have to demand because they have become used to working to our structure, and they have to learn to judge for themselves whether they are learning are not.

Children are not remote from the society they are living in. Unless they are from a very affluent background, they know all too soon that they have to earn their living. They also know that certain jobs are more valued socially than others. With all this they come prepared to work and learn, but sometimes the system does not give them the space to do it. The nightmare of parents is that their child gets addicted to the Internet and completely neglects school work. I think we have to ask the question why that is happening, in what way does the school work defeat the child? What support does s/he need to cope with the pace? Have we taught them that it is only by making mistakes (I don’t want to use the term failing here) that we learn; so it is necessary to make mistakes? This means that they don’t stick to only what they find easy or comfortable but take pride in challenging themselves. Have we made it clear to them that the knowledge gained is not important but the act of gaining the knowledge exercises their mind in different ways? So, the question is not, “Why do I need to learn history/ Kannada/ …, I will never use it later on.”The answer is clear: you are exercising your brain!

As a teacher, the challenge is to keep the skills that children must acquire firmly in my mind but never bring it to the present. I shouldn’t say, “You will need it later or it will come in the exam,” but encourage to work in the present. This will also help the students consider why something is difficult or boring. It will teach them to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, without putting values to them. The world of course does it but you need not. You find manipulating numbers difficult, you find remembering the letters of the alphabet difficult, you don’t like writing essays, you don’t bat well… doesn’t matter, do it anyway and try to improve. This gives the students resilience and stamina. What do they need from the adults around them? They need support when they doubt themselves, they need patience when they are struggling and they need not to be compared to others.

In a way, we are describing a student led learning rather than a system led one. And this brings us to the other questions asked at the start.

How do you hold students accountable in an environment of choice?
By giving them the freedom to make mistakes.

Does choice/control make them self-aware?
Yes, again by letting them take charge of their learning. This may also include assessment.

Do you give the students the freedom to choose?
This is very difficult, because as said earlier they are embedded in their groups and they don’t want to be non-conforming.

How do you scaffold students when making choices as they are new to the idea?
By giving them the freedom to make mistakes, by allowing them to change, by helping think through what they are looking for.

Will students opt to do nothing?
I once gave my class a free week, only stipulating that they must do the community chores and tell me what they did. They spent the first day hanging out together, but afterwards, one caught up on homework, one practised bowling, one did crafts, one read. Not school work, but not idleness. This has become a tradition in school and the pattern is the same. They do activities seriously and with a sense of leisure. Our challenge is to bring it to the classroom. A German university is offering idleness grants to do nothing and the thinking behind this is that we live in an era obsessed with measuring, ranking, doing and how do you get away from that?

All these questions are coming from an existing structure that we are familiar with. What happens if we change the structure? The pandemic is forcing us to consider the change, it cannot be schools as usual. How are we going to respond?

The task to change seems immense, and that also is a problem of a system based approach. If the changes are local, each school can manage it in the most suitable way. We can learn to trust the students when we learn to trust the teachers to do the best they can.

Additional reading material
• Schools without freedom – Krishna Kumar, The Hindu 14th August 2020
• A moment to trust the teacher – Krishna Kumar, The Hindu 28th May 2020
• The Ecosystem of Learning – M Yuvan, Vikalpsangam.org
• The Guardian view on ‘idleness grants’.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/01/the-guardian-view-on-idleness-grants-inspirational-thinking

The author has been involved with education all her life as a student and a teacher and now teacher educator. She enjoys chemistry hugely. She can be reached at [email protected].

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