Contrary to alarmist headlines in mainstream media proclaiming steep learning loss experienced by children in elementary (class I-VIII) education in rural India, careful reading of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 suggests the opposite. Although because schools in India were ill-advisedly shuttered for 82 weeks to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic — the longest education lockdown of any major country worldwide — children did experience some learning loss, the damage they have suffered is not as severe as forecast.
According to ASER 2022, in 2018 prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, 50.5 percent of class V children across government and private rural primaries were able to successfully read and comprehend class II textbooks — a pathetic indictment of the quality of education being dispensed in the country’s elementary education system, but that’s another story. Subsequent to schools reopening after the lockdown was lifted in late 2021, the percentage of class V children who can read and understand class II texts is 42.8 percent, indicating slippage but not disaster. Likewise, the percentage of class III children who can manage two-digit subtraction sums fell from 28.2 percent in 2018 to 25.9 in 2022, and who could manage three-digit division sums from 27.9 percent to 25.6, from bad to worse, but not by much.
A clear lesson of the over-long pandemic lockdown is the resilience and enthusiasm for learning that India’s school children have demonstrated. By utilising household smart phones and television — 93.3 percent of households nationwide own a smart phone, and 67.8 percent own a television set — enlisting the help of family elders and through peer learning, relatively underprivileged rural children have averted disastrous learning loss. Relatively privileged urban children are likely to have suffered even less learning decline. Moreover, all children have become better acquainted with new digital learning technologies.
Demonstrated capability of school children countrywide to continue to learn despite schools being under tight lockdown, is a clear signal that traditional classroom pedagogies need to change. Clearly in-school children must be given greater opportunity to self-learn through exploration, discovery and experience with teachers transforming from sage-on-stage to guides-by-the-side of children. In the early years of the new millennium, Prof. Sugata Mitra’s computer-in-the-wall experiment demonstrated that given access to new digital technologies, even poorest children learn quickly through experimentation and experience. Minimal damage suffered by way of learning loss despite the extended pandemic-induced lockdown of schools as testified by ASER 2022, is further proof that children must be given opportunities to learn differently, viz, through challenge-and-response, peer-to-peer and digital pedagogies.
This important lesson derived from the longest lockdown of education institutions worldwide, must not be lost.