Restrictions during lockdown, closure of schools, social distancing, and above all the miserable feeling of being socially adrift, the pandemic has upended the lives of children in 2020! It has pushed children into a state of confusion and compelled them to adapt to unexpected changes in terms of navigating virtual spaces for learning. The pandemic not only transpired daily routines but also affected conventional ways of teaching and learning. With the shift from classroom teaching to online, the pandemic has changed almost all aspects of human life across the globe; our children need to learn the changed worldview in the wake of the crisis. The education sector is facing novel challenges and pressing questions about the multiple dimensions of school as a system. Combating challenges and answering questions will lead the existing education system to evolve in the near future in terms of quality and access.
Plight of the pandemic: acceptance of the ‘new normal’
School closures have presented a huge challenge to both children and parents. Parents are struggling hard to keep children engaged and are putting strenuous efforts to make their ‘stay-at-home’ meaningful and productive.
An online survey conducted between 25 – 30 May, 2020 reported on children’s experiences during the lockdown. The survey was completed online by parents of children aged between 3 and 15 years from diverse backgrounds. The report presents evidence that the average daily time spent by children between 11 and 15 on screen is approximately 4 to 8 hours, while in the case of younger children (3 to 10 years) it is 2 to 5 hours. According to new guidelines on physical activity issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) for 3 to 5-year-olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended. For children aged above 6 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than two hours. Some Indian states such as Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have banned online classes for primary children considering the increased strain and impact on the health of young children due to additional screen time. The recently released guidlines by the central government also advices against online classes for primary children. Parents are also concerned about how effective learning can be in virtual spaces. Hence, schools need to be mindful while designing virtual learning spaces in a manner that ensures children’s safety and well-being.
The survey reports that a large percentage of children have been missing social interaction with their peers and friends during the lockdown which is invariably affecting their mental and emotional state, resulting in increased irritability, restlessness, anxiety and stress. Research in the field of behavioural psychology has established the correlation between excess screen time and its impact on children’s behavioural patterns. Now the question arises what is the way out, in the current scenario, to ensure that children learn and their socio-emotional well-being is maintained as well.
Shift from ‘what’ to ‘how’ of learning
The giant questions schools are grappling with are, how to ensure effective and quality learning spaces remotely? What are the ways to ensure that children don’t have to spend many hours before computers or on phones to attend classes in virtual spaces? How to reach children with limited or no access to devices and stable internet connectivity? What are the appropriate and feasible ways to assess children’s learning? If we want our children to thrive in our complicated world, we need to teach them how to think, says educator Biran Oshrio. The online learning revolution in the era of the pandemic can be turned into opportunities for schools to pause and re-imagine the agenda of schooling and goals of learning. This is the time to transform the age-old pattern of schooling children from focusing on ‘content transfer’ to ‘developing learning skills’, such as curiosity, questioning, inquiry, investigation, observation, drawing conclusions, making inferences, reasoning, cohesive thinking making interconnections based on empirical data and evidences including basic numeracy and linguistic skills. As learning using virtual spaces demands motivated learners, it is essential to design learning tasks that give opportunities to children to explore their own thinking style and find their own independent ways of engaging with the task.
Fighting against the odds
Teachers are bound to explore newer processes and more dynamic modes of engagement for learning remotely. They are supposed to upskill their technological understanding along with designing learning experiences in virtual spaces overnight.
Embracing the change, educators now need to re-think what exactly they aim for children to learn and why it is important for them to learn. They need to deep dive into the ‘what and why’ aspects that will lead them to an the idea about ‘how’ the processes can be designed to maximize reach. Can there be a shift in their focus from just covering the syllabus to creating a learning environment that supports the child to gain the tools of learning? This is the phase where schools need to build a partnership with parents and the community. Communication with the parents is vital to build the bridge of trust and strengthening the partnership to support the child’s learning. Schools should conduct awareness sessions inviting health experts to help parents become aware of how they can support their children during online classes, about physical health care and especially making parents and children aware about eye care measures, about diets rich in vitamin-A, suggesting affordable diet options and regular exercise for the whole body, adding fun elements in terms of Zumba, yoga and aerobics to reduce the stress level.
How to create meaningful and safer virtual learning spaces
We need to keep some key aspects in mind while designing the structure of virtual learning; for instance, teaching should be based on learning outcomes and not be solely driven by content/syllabus completion. Remote learning should be planned both in synchronous and asynchronous ways. This will help reduce the screen time in one stretch, deal with the challenge of non-availability of devices if there are siblings at home, poor/unstable network connectivity issues and also give autonomy to the children to choose the pace, space and timing.
Creating collaborative spaces of learning
As social distancing is the new norm, children are missing interacting with their friends and peers. Physical spaces of social interaction have been replaced by virtual meetings. Social interaction is not only crucial for the cognitive development of children, it also supports social-emotional learning of the children in terms of knowing about self, social awareness, building positive relationships, taking responsible actions and making mindful decisions. Teachers need to design their learning plans integrating the elements across the curricular subjects and ensure children are learning in groups. For instance, collecting news clippings or discussing with parents on how the local government is ensuring the safety of people during the pandemic. Groups can discuss based on collection of information followed by preparing a report. The activity provides opportunity for collaborative learning, listening to each other’s ideas, methods of collecting information, discussion and consolidating the relevant points in report form based on facts. Such activities can help in developing a scientific attitude, understanding social issues, analytic skills and language development in terms of expressing ideas verbally and in the written form.
Ensuring children’s social-emotional well-being
Adults have greater responsibility than ever before in ensuring the social and emotional well-being of children. The quality of their current experiences will determine how they will respond to complex challenges in future. Children are exploring and experiencing the world with their parents, teachers, peers and other community people they come in contact with. The nature of conversations, media exposure and varied experiences will be the determining factors in making and shaping their internal patterns of response towards diverse situations which invariably they will face in the future. If their experiences are based on fear, hatred and anxiety, their responses will reflect a similar pattern of behaviour while dealing with challenges and circumstances. On the contrary, if they are calm, practicing kindness, and learning how to embrace change, they will evolve with a positive attitude. Children are remarkably perceptive and absorptive. They observe closely and their minds process what their environment has to offer them. So, it is up to parents and teachers to determine the legacy they would like to handover to the children. Ask children to share their fears and worries, discuss probable solutions in collaboration. Teach them life skills in real unprecedented context that life is the whole gamut of experiences of all the good and not so good, it is our attitude that helps us to navigate the incredible journey called life! Online classes can surely create spaces to accommodate children’s voices and choices. Giving children the support they are seeking from their teachers, peers or parents will build confidence in them and instill the feeling of safety. This will help them accept the situation, give them the assurance that there are people around to support them and give them the courage to act in any situation, be it dealing with a math problem, learning about historical events or even life situations in general, children must learn.
This transitional phase necessitates schools to own a greater responsibility to a resilient model of educating children. Educating children to embrace change! In these testing times, homes and schools need to be compassionate and nurture children with utmost care and sensitivity while designing meaningful learning experiences and addressing their socio-emotional needs to get them ready to bounce back stronger. The shift from content-driven learning to competency-based learning is the need of the hour in order to develop children as independent and life-long learners. This is the opportune phase to bring about the much needed transformation by redefining the purpose of education and processes of learning.
The author is the Principal of The Aarambh school, Raipur. She has earned her masters in Life Science, Social Work and Education. Her interests lie in educational psychology and nature & pedagogy of science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.