Education in the time of corona and beyond: Reduce, reduce, reduce content

Thursday, 7 May 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Schools have sprung into action engaging their students remotely in any way they can. Schools with student populations with excellent to good internet connectivity have emailed study packs followed up by a few hours a day of interactive lessons using Microsoft Teams, Google classroom, Zoom or other software. Other schools, having student populations with medium levels of connectivity, with most families possessing a smartphone and some ability to pay for data, would choose WhatsApp or Viber, the lowest common forms of digital connectivity 

Schools in Sri Lanka closed early without completing the first term and it is unlikely that they will reopen for a second term anytime soon. The Government’s bravado in setting a date for opening schools has been forced to yield to reality by the pandemic and a little bit of nudging from civil society. 

Meanwhile, schools have sprung into action engaging their students remotely in any way they can. Schools with student populations with excellent to good internet connectivity have emailed study packs followed up by a few hours a day of interactive lessons using Microsoft Teams, Google classroom, Zoom or other software.

Other schools, having student populations with medium levels of connectivity, with most families possessing a smartphone and some ability to pay for data, would choose WhatsApp or Viber, the lowest common forms of digital connectivity. Typically, they would assign each class teacher to collect and distribute learning materials and send them over to the student through the parents’ smartphones, with parents receiving even up to 50 pages of material per child at a time.

Most other schools with student populations with little or no access to the internet or advanced mobile technology would somehow get a timetable for children, saying, for example, do Math on Monday p.m. and Sinhala on Monday a.m. and so on, and ask children to follow the textbook. A majority of the teachers have not been able to reach their students, in spite of their good faith efforts.

Understandably, there is much concern over the digital divide and the lack of communication lines to a larger percentage of the student population. However, considering that every child in Sri Lanka is given a free of charge textbook for every subject, and now we have lessons for students preparing for exams broadcast free over TV, I think it is more important to focus on what goes through the pipes than access to the pipes.

I would use families with mid-levels of connectivity as the case studies. What these students receive through their communication ‘pipes’ is essentially what they receive in class. What the teacher would put up on board in class now appear as PDF or JPEG files on parents’ smartphones. That is a lot of content, parents are finding out.

Therein lies the problem in our education. Quantity is mistaken for quality or relevance. Politicians come and go, each leaving in their wake new initiatives, solidified as more subjects, more content, more streams of study. There is nobody inside or outside the system, to say enough is enough.

The 13 years of education initiative of the past Government, the brainchild of Ranil Wickremesinghe, is one such. A very good idea but implemented as an add-on to the system, it is now orphaned under the present Government. The initiative added a new stream of vocational study in schools, new curricula, new textbooks, etc. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe when he was a young education minister was responsible for some coherent structural reforms during his tenure, including Colleges of Education, National Education Commission and the National Institute of Education. Ironically all these institutions were bypassed in his policymaking in later years. 

The 1997 education reforms under Chandrika Bandaranaike as Minister for education introduced changes that were significant in their depth and coherence. The basic pedagogical framework from that era continues to date. The primary curriculum is a good example. Unfortunately, many of the concepts have been distorted in their application and more and more content has been added on. As content is added to the curricula, the Examination Department rises to the occasion to expand the scope of the exams. For the vantage point of a teacher in a classroom, this means a large quantity of material that cannot be covered in the time available. 

A smart teacher would know how to extract and deliver the essence of the content, in-class, or remotely over the internet. Only the top 5% or so children may have such teachers. Most teachers would not know how to or ever imagine that they could think for themselves. They would barrage the children with material, in class, or remotely. So, the real issue is overloading of curricula with content and examinations that rise to test students on such content. This issue affects children across the board irrespective of ability to access schooling in this time of corona

The burden of education manifested

Corona has allowed the burden of education to reveal itself through pages of notes zipping across cyberspace and downloading into smartphones of harried parents. The quantity of information that children had to endure is now delivered to the parents. It’s time parents questioned why their children are learning to memorise and describe so many facts and more facts.

The Primary Level or Grades 1-5 is supposed to be a time for learning through play. According to teacher instructional guides, in Grade 1, all learning must be through play and activities until that component gradually decreases to about one-third in Grade 5, and the rest is taken up by desk work. A teacher of a child attending Grade 3 in a prominent school in Colombo sent about 50 pages of work per week over WhatsApp. Nineteen of those pages were on the subject of the environment. The themes under discussion were ‘Animals around us,’ ‘Our garden,’ and ‘The things we use’. There should be no set answers to these themes, but teachers are obliged to provide notes for children to take home. 

One time, a child who wrote that pets in the home include a duck and a turtle got wrong for the answers. They belong in the category of animals found outside, according to past examination papers, but the child indeed has a turtle and duck for pets in her house. This is how the examination drives the teaching even in the primary grades.

The scholarship examination was initiated as a general intelligence test, but the Department of Examinations was obliged to add a second paper testing material in the curriculum because it was felt that teachers were not covering the curriculum. This new paper has led to an explosion in rote learning. Past papers have replaced teacher guides. 

In a survey that LIRNEasia did in partnership with the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL), we found that during the last 20 years, on the topic of animals around us, Paper II contained one or more questions each year referring to 15 characteristics of 90+ animals in total.

Taken one by one, all questions seem reasonable facts a child might know, but how would you prepare a child for a competitive examination where you have no idea which characteristic of which animal would be in the question paper next year? When even a loss of a single mark would determine whether you get the school of your choice or not, parents and teachers will use the past papers to get students to remember as much about as many animals. 

If not for Paper II, the teacher doing remote learning would have simply instructed the student and the guiding parent to, say, “Use the time at home to observe animals in the house and outside the house, note their features, eating habits, etc., and make notes in a journal.” Instead, the teacher sends the set of notes that she would have put on the blackboard in a regular class for students to copy. It lists animals we keep as pets, animals found around the house, and animals that live outside of the house. The teacher’s guide instructs teachers to allow children to explore and learn. But what gets taught is what gets measured. The results of the Grade 5 scholarship exam is the measure.

In junior secondary or Grade 6-9, the 30 hours children spend in school are divided over 13 subjects. Of these, Language, Math, Science, English, History, and Religion are subjects that become the core for the GCE O/L exam. Besides these, the students get to experience other seven areas of study consisting of – Second Language, Aesthetics, Geography, Civics, Health, and physical education, Practical ad Technical skills, and Information Technology. The last four are life skills that should be learned through experiences, but they are reduced to attributes of good citizenship, good health, etc. that students are required to remember and describe when examined.

In GCE O/L or Grades 10-11, Sri Lanka, studies have shown that our children spend more school time than students in other countries to prepare for exams. This is because those who draw up curricula have added content into the curriculum without giving thought to the length of time it would realistically take to teach the content.

In Grades 11-13, the number of subjects per student is limited to three but teachers barely manage to ‘cover’ the syllabus, even after speeding through the material. Here we need to do more studies to compare the workload of our students with students in aspirational peer countries.

Corona as the jolt we needed for change

The liberation from schooling and school timetable in this time of corona give an opportunity for experimentation. School curricula comprise core subjects where acquisition of a body of knowledge is critical for moving onto the next level of education. Language, Mathematics, and Science are three such core subjects. Other subjects like History or Geography are easier to pick up mid-stream if core subjects and accompanying cognitive abilities are well developed. Then there is a third set of ‘subjects’ which deal with the socio-emotional and practical skills of the child.

The content in curricula for Grade 1-9 have much to do with the socio-emotional development and the practical skills of the child. The environment subject in Grade 1-5, and Citizenship, Health, and Practical Skills subjects in Grade 6-9 are some of those. These are actually not subjects to be taught during a prescribed time limit and tested and marked off. These are life skills that students should slowly absorb, reflect on what they have learned, and absorb more, through everyday practices. Currently, they are subjects where mastery is shown through written tests. How do we make the transition from subjects to be aced to experiences?

EFSL is working with a few select teachers to test the idea that all these subjects and even History, Geography, Religion, and Aesthetics can be integrated to be learned by students as experiences recorded in journals and portfolios. From time to time he/she would consult the teacher of material in the textbook, to complement what he/she is learning through his own observations. This approach has been tried elsewhere, including Finland. The objective of the research is to gather enough evidence of the feasibility of doing so to advocate the abolishing of exams for these subjects and imparting them as experiences.

This is just one example of a possible change. Harried parents, if they are fortunate to have more education and resources than the average parent, should not be running around trying to procure printers to deal with the material received, as some parents indicated on social media. They should instead stop to think about the content and have a discussion with the school.

Corona is a vicious pandemic, but its cause is specific and the response needed is specific. Rote learning is a malaise or a general condition. It is embedded in modern education systems. Life is competitive and objective criteria of performance like examination results are essential for the life outside of school. But designing good exams are expensive and demands a higher capability than we have presently. Asking students to describe is easier than asking them to show how they know, for example. 

Exams requiring description and solving familiar problems can be aced by rote learning and drilling. So, children learn by rote learning from those who have learned rote from teachers who were rote learners themselves. Corona could be the opportunity, but it could worsen the malaise. Early signs are for worsening. If we act now, we can still turn corona into an opportunity for change.

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