In the first eight years of life, trillions of brain-cell pathways are developed through interaction, play and learning, in society, homes, and school, completing more than 90% of brain development. This crucial development period covers the relationship between language and mathematics, social and emotional development, decision-making, physical development, self-management, and relationship skills. When early development doesn’t occur, skills like paying attention or getting along with others are weakened, sometimes permanently.
India’s New Education Policy, NEP 2020, embeds global research and best practice, recognising foundational schooling as age 3-8 years, or PreK to Class 3, a curricular and pedagogical framework of 5+3+3+4, and much else. The 2025 goal of achieving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) is aggressive but wonderfully recognises Class 3 as the inflection point by which children must “learn to read” so that they can “read to learn” thereafter, because “children who fall behind by Class 3, stay behind”. Our traditional pedagogical focus of a 10+2 exam model ignores early education and reading scores at 8 years are poor. The execution challenges of NEP’s vision are now compounded by Covid-19’s disruption of learning.
Schools, parents and governments must do seven things till we get back to physical school. First, schools must communicate with parents, bringing them to appreciate the importance of routines, positive attitudes, required online access and learning spaces, and their indispensible role without which no online learning will work. Second, teachers must focus on FLN learning outcomes, delivering these live, without letting the online tools or apps dictate teaching. Third, they must bring in the child’s context at home into the learning instead of trying to replicate the face-to-face school experience, because young kids learn from the environment. Fourth, teachers and parents must create online or safe physical groups around learning and play, because young kids learn socially. Fifth, schools must establish learning platforms that allow teachers to gather learning, assess and give feedback in varied ways, through observation, writing, drawing and videos of children’s perceptions in addition to formal assessments of 3R’s. Sixth, upskill teachers with the abundance of free global online resources because a virtuous cycle of planning, teaching and assessment means greater mastery. Seventh, policy makers need to support innovation; invasive, prescriptive and constantly changing regulations on fees and online learning must stop at a logical, well informed place, because generating distrust between families and schools when they need to work together or creating stress on an already overworked system is counter productive.
The global adoption of online learning has been sudden, delightful and challenging. Today online schools create equity for many thousands of children in geographically isolated areas. But given the lack of universal access in India, schools must restart. With every passing day that preschools and primary schools remain shut, for many children the critical developmental window is closing. That has the potential to set them back in ways that will last a lifetime. If the purpose of public policy is to promote well-being, let’s not forget the lifetime well-being of our youngest. Data suggests that the lowest infection rates are among children, and the old and infirm must be protected. Globally, preschools are the first to restart because older children can learn online more easily. In India, preschools and primary schools were the first to close and must now be the first to open. And until that happens strong teacher-parent partnership must ensure learning continuity, so the crucial first eight years don’t become a learning gap that will be a painful lifelong wound of Covid-19.
(The author is an educationist)