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Run The Race

Run The Race

Amidst the pandemic, classes went on. Theories of Achievement and tests of personality, statistical formulations and derivations of mathematical computations, analytical descriptions of Hamlet and cultural heritage of the medieval world, end-product of mixing two compounds and even dissection of frogs and its anatomy. All this online... with expressions on students’ faces almost near invisible and with little possibility of looking into their eyes to gauge their status of comprehension.

Paramount priority: Syllabus Completion! For a short time span, in this unanticipated situation, in the whirlwind of grappling to understand the pandemic, this approach can be construed as 'normal' as no one could now define the 'normal'.

But as the reality is seeping in, that nothing that was previously normal is going to come back soon, or probably ever, defining ‘the normal’ itself is in dilemma!

No sudden evolutionary change has taken place in the homosapien, though all external reality has taken a sudden shift. No change in the needs of the ‘being’ - the physical, or the cognitive, or the emotional, or the spiritual – the composite whole. The thirst for intimately touching each of these ‘beings’ has only increased, if at all any change has emerged, in this sudden total lockdown of previously rushing past them. The young vibrant generation got suddenly confined to isolation with family in the limited physical space of home and quarantined from face-to-face affective-socializing engagement space outside of home.

With no prior mental preparation, schools and colleges closing all of a sudden, teachers and students rushed to transform their learning-thinking process. As the severity of the situation dawned, new cognitive frameworks were called for, not just from the Education Department Heads across the globe but from within the audio-visuo-spatial apparatus of our own heads. The sudden call for online classes sent teachers and students into disarray. It brought forth the issues of accessibility to gadgets - smart phones and laptops; of technology - internet connectivity and online platform privacy; of pedagogy – live lectures, power points, videos, voice recordings, written e-resources. After all was in place, mind you, put in place by the privileged for the privileged, education began in full jest. Rather, educators wished to believe so.

Does it matter if some got neglected? Does it matter if one working as domestic help had only one family phone (fortunate if it’s a smartphone) to be shared by three children simultaneously for regular online live-classes? Does it matter if one room was being shared by a family of five, if not more, with no tables, no chairs, just a couple of mats on the floor for sitting and sleeping, cooking and eating? Does it matter if one is precariously balancing resources between buying food for sustaining the body and paying for internet connectivity for acquiring knowledge as one wakes up to loss of parental income? A tug-of-war between the survival needs of the present moment and the hope of a backup for survival in the future - does it matter which of the two wins? 

Priorities of the educational system are too far above and far-fetched to stoop down to the plights of individual students. What mattered was the planning of schedules and the completion of prescribed syllabus before closing the academic session. Learning the art of overlooking the life threatening pandemic-induced lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, and lack of spontaneity in teacher-student interactions during online classes set the pace for timely submission of assignments, assessments and uploading of results. Objective evaluations superseded subjective states of performance. All evaluations updated on online platforms for all to see. Satisfied. Finished. Virtual learning and teaching were not to be taken as virtual; they were truly real and absolutely ‘normal’. Those who thought this was ‘not normal’ were under some sort of illusionary effect and affect.

Suicides abounded. A fourteen year old, a mother of two – both could not buy smartphones for online classes – one for herself and the other for her children. Three less in the run for graduating from school does not matter. Promotions of the rest on the way, either already declared or soon to be declared. All who got results can be happy. Those who could not match up to the challenges of the time, too bad. Now, can the Education system be accused of failure? Absolutely not! We have educated the best… the privileged!

Educated? What is this education worth? Leaving your classmates behind for factors beyond anyone's control? Is this the outcome the youngsters wanted? Did the system engage to know what they think and how they feel in this world scenario? Were they asked what more they want to be educated about during the pandemic? In fact, the cord in them has struck strong enough to make it sound loud outside of themselves, and for them to hear each other’s inner painful melodies of the sudden uncertainties of life and death, of embarrassments of lack of facilities, of struggles for basic survival, of handling adult responsibilities, as well as of managing feelings of guilt when finding themselves in privileged situations vis-a-vis their friends. Graduating in education urgently demands altered paths scaffolding those drowning in new realities. With scales on their eyes and wax in their ears, the adult educators are taking too long to see the distress and hear the plea.

Complex philosophical ideas of education or argument on different theoretical perspectives have not much relevance in the present scenario. Let's just pick the universally available definition from google. The definition from Oxford Languages Dictionary is simple - first, "the process of receiving and giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university”, and the second, “an enlightening experience”. Systematic instruction is provided very well in what we have been offering to our students through online platforms over the past three months.

Can “an enlightening experience” be capsuled into or be an outcome of pure systematic instruction? Enlightenment would imply a metacognitive approach to life situations which would be incomplete if relied on its single component - ‘systematic instructions’. Insisting and restricting modern education to systematic instruction within the confines of the structure of an academic course has led to hindering the human potential from fullness of enlightenment. Isn’t that what we see manifested in different incidents across the turmoiled world today? With the aim of education focused on only implementation of systematic instructions, as was done presently through online classes, if continued for long, educators will become facilitators in creating minds that are prisoners of ‘objective’ realities. Ideally, the lived ‘subjective’ experiences of the pupil integrated with that of the teacher are the indispensable deposits that further augment metacognitive knowledge.

As a teacher who took classes and attended meetings on zoom, without dwelling on fluctuating internet connectivity and associated issues, I would like to focus on what I missed in my classes. It was practically impossible to gauge the body language and expressions of a screen-class strength of nearly 40 at a given moment (the remaining 20% of actual-class strength could not connect virtually due to connectivity issues) and their responses were too far spaced. The interaction, if I may call it so, was mostly a monologue. In order to fill the communication gap, I felt a dire need to connect with each of the nearly 100 students under my direct tutelage individually through the mode of phone calls.

Within the space of personal phone connect, their amazing expressiveness revealed, I quote, “undefinable mental barriers in a virtual setting” requiring “careful filtering of doubts with focus on clarifying only the very important ones” and their “unacceptability of this as a substitute for the interactive presence of the two, teacher-students, in real physical space”.  Sitting in the confines of home, despite their daily sleep cycle being completely disrupted and the additional unanticipated home chores, most students successfully suppressed their thoughts of future uncertainties and applied on themselves self-regulatory motivational and learning strategies garnered before the pandemic to meet their present academic goals.

This young generation has suddenly matured skipping many years. Their carefree lives went for a toss. Concerns that could take a lifetime to comprehend gripped their minds within a span of days.  Education worthy of its call had begun, the wick of enlightenment got ignited. From their 24X7 time spent inside home, they understood family dynamics listening  to parental conversations, closing of the gap between the ideal and possible expectations from family members, clarity of unfounded misunderstandings, value of togetherness, coping with anxieties for stranded members, accepting duties and risks of frontline-working parents, coping with the death of a loved one, and the list can go on, and can even move onto enumerating instances that one would not like to highlight within the realm of education. Great learnings from within home! But education did not stop there.

Just looking out of the window of their homes, education climbed greater heights, covering wider spaces. The fast-moving, traffic-jammed, horn-sounding roads came to a total emptiness and eerie silence. Then into their visual fields came the next shock – the unprecedented migrant-movement, with their plight of hunger, fatigue and helplessness written across faces, while the youngster stood watching confused, guilt-ridden, in a state of ‘helpless to help’. Even cyclones, torrential rains and locust attacks took their tests either directly or remotely on their sensitive minds. Shifting sands of reality from within the self and from there in the out! Lessons with no previous match!

But insistence on examinations, if not offline then definitely online, being still enforced by inflexible adult minds, creators and moulders of systematic instructions. Assignments on “theories of personality” and “theories of achievement” had to be submitted during a stipulated time. Results of examinations have to be uploaded for declaration on a stipulated date. Period!

The pandemic-perspectives have yet to be evolved.  But you, you youngster, run the race... So, run!

(Dr Joan Antony is an Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi)

(Published on 15th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 25)