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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

Is schooling the only way to learn? A COVID teaching moment


Ashwin Mahesh

Jul 16, 2020


Classes, black-boards and chalk, white-boards and pens, examinations ... a lot of familiar things in the world of learning have come to a grinding halt since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. For a few weeks, we hoped this disruption would be short, but as the lockdown has gone on for months, we have been forced to imagine an altogether different way of doing things.

Three things have been thrown up plainly by the new reality. The most critical of these is the vast gulf between those who learn in public schools and those who learn in private schools. The second is a conversation about the difference between schooling and learning, which we earlier believed to be the same. And the third is the role of examinations.

For the longest time, we pretended that incomplete investments in public education could still somehow produce reasonable outcomes for the masses. We told ourselves that a school without a toilet for girls is still useful in a limited way, a classroom with a leaky ceiling can still be used if one sat in a different corner of it, a school with regularly absent teachers is still doing some good on the days the teacher does come. And so on.

The outcomes from such deceit were always in plain sight. Very low graduation rates, certification without meaningful learning even for those who did pass, and large-scale joblessness for the youth. These facts should have moved us to act long ago, but the political system is comfortable with large-scale illiteracy, so things festered. And by equating inputs to outcomes, we kept up a pretense.

Covid has nailed all that to the mast. Now the only inputs that matter are a network connection, a computer in every student's home, and an instructor familiar with digital facilitation of learning. There is nothing else that matters. Either the schools provide this, or they're not schools. End of fairy tale.

And by and large, public schools aren't providing this. They simply cannot. There is no way that decades of under-investment in public education can be wished away in a summer of lockdown. The switch to online learning is simply not an option, because that world itself doesn't exist in public education. All that governments can do now is watch helplessly, and the public can see this.

This is despite some slice of luck. Education departments throughout the country should thank their lucky charms that the pandemic appeared on the scene just as the school calendar was winding down. This allowed governments to simply let things slide into the summer holidays. If Covid had debuted in August or January, the swa-ha moment would have been instant.

Let's turn to examinations next. The conventional way of conducting them has been ruled out by Covid, and the digital alternative is not an option for more than half the students. The only option left seems to be to delay exams first, and when even that proves insufficient, to cancel them altogether. But if exams can be cancelled, one might ask whether we ever needed them in the first place.

Our education system never focused on learning as an opportunity to be given to all children, and instead relied on exclusion through examinations to mask its limited offering to only a few. Instead of asking how all young people can be educated for 16-20 years, we set up various exams along the way, and told ourselves that those who didn't pass don't have merit. It's utterly unfair.

Merit is often nothing more than the accumulation of past opportunities in families. Excluding the poor through the logic of merit ignores the history that has made them poor. Instead, anyone who wants to learn should be able to, and we should figure out how to make that happen.

Governments love exams - they are the lever and trap that keep us from questioning the system's poor quality. You can't get to high school or college without clearing exams, and you can't get jobs without going to college. Sarkar has set this up in a way that the threat of losing out has become the reason we have lost out so much!

Fortunately, employers already know this is a charade, and are increasingly rejecting it. Most employers would rather hire someone whose work they are familiar with than someone whose marks sheet they've briefly seen and have no confidence in. And an escape route from this can be built, through apprenticeships. By creating the learn-on-the-job environment, we can improve the learning in schools and colleges too. More on that later.

Between the twin scams of poor public education on the input side and certification without learning on the output side, more and more people are asking, 'is schooling the only way to learn?' Covid has forced us to confront this, but there is always the risk that once the pandemic passes we'll go back to ignoring it. Remember, the state has a vested interest in the status quo, and the market isn't a full solution for all children. Society will have to tackle this question.

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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

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