While the pandemic and associated school closure has affected us in many ways, loss of learning among children is emerging among the most explicit and worrying aspects. This learning loss comprises two dimensions — one is the learning that has not happened due to school closures. To this loss of curricular learning is added the “forgetting” of what they already knew. This forgetting is not unusual — it is clearly seen after long holidays, and is generally made up during the first few weeks of schooling. However, when this loss is of foundational abilities like reading, writing and basic arithmetic, it deeply hinders further learning.
Loss of learning due to school closure during the pandemic has been seen the world over. Quantified in terms of months that children are “behind” their class, it varies from less than a month after 11 weeks of school closure to four years after 57 weeks of school closure. According to the report, “What’s next? Lessons on Education Recovery” by UNICEF, UNESCO, World Bank and OECD, among measures taken to alleviate this loss, 41 per cent of countries reported extending the academic year while 42 per cent reported prioritising certain curriculum areas or skills. Over two-thirds of countries reported implementing remedial measures to address learning gaps for primary and secondary school students when schools reopened.
Our primary schools have been closed for about 500 days, which translates to over 70 weeks of schooling. Given the amount of time schools have been closed, as we reopen now, we cannot start with the regular curriculum as if it is the beginning of a regular academic year. We need to think deeply about what should be done. This question is particularly moot for primary schools, where the foundations of later learning are established. To answer this question, it is necessary to examine how children learn in primary schools. Children learn not only through interaction in the classroom but also through observation, dialogue and exploration through unstructured experiences. Thus, given that we have to make up for over 70 weeks of school closure, we must not hurry children into the learning process. Not only the learning associated with the current class but relearning from the previous classes must be in focus.
The next question is — what is important to learn? The learning outcomes for each class have been clearly indicated by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which is the nodal academic institution for school education at the national level. These learning outcomes focus on the abilities children have to acquire as opposed to the content of textbooks. Thus, reading a poem is important, memorising the content of the poem is not important. Being able to add is important, not adding all the problems at the end of the chapter in the textbook. And language and mathematics are most important, since they enable the learning of other subjects. Thus, learning outcomes of specific subjects must be prioritised, and the curriculum reset for at least a couple of years.
When schools reopen, differences in the learning levels of children will be starker than before. A solution that is deceptively simple is that of placing children in groups according to their current learning levels. Termed ability grouping, it seems like the perfect solution, with children starting with similar sets of abilities and proceeding thereon. However, the approach of grouping students based on their abilities often results in “labelling”, adversely impacting their self-esteem and worth; research studies have found students in “low” ability groups have significantly lower self-esteem than low achievers in mixed ability classes, and are also likely to have behavioural problems. This approach also neglects to take into account the fact that children learn from each other. It is not unusual to have children at different levels in the same classroom. Some schools use this difference as a resource, using sets of teaching-learning materials that children use in groups under the guidance of teachers. As children attain pre-set learning milestones, they move onto the next level. This approach using peer learning benefits all.
When we examine the available data from various studies on the learning levels that our children are at, it is clear that at the primary level, the focus ought to be on foundational abilities. For instance, Azim Premji Foundation’s field study in January 2021 across 44 districts covering five states indicated that nearly three-fourths of the children in Class II have lost the ability to identify a word in print; in Class IV, for instance, a majority of them have lost the ability to express the gist of a poem while in Class VI more than half the children lost the ability to write their views on various events happening around them. The recently released SCHOOL survey carried out across 15 states shows that overall 42 per cent of children in urban areas and 48 per cent in rural areas are unable to read more than a few words. These studies indicate that most children across the primary grades have lost the basic abilities required to continue their learning journeys.
The curricular priorities will have to be set specific to the stages of schooling. If the priority at primary level is on recovery of foundational abilities in language and mathematics, the focus in middle school should be an integrated approach to achieving learning outcomes across subjects, while at the secondary and senior secondary level, core learning outcomes must be identified and mapped to textbooks; and for this level additional material could be developed, given that students at this stage are capable of some independent study.
As persons closest to learners, teachers must be given the autonomy and support to determine what children learn and when, within the broad contours of the curriculum. Changes in curriculum and the approach to teaching-learning would require orientation of teachers, and materials to support their work with children. This material must be attractive and meaningful, related to children’s context, while encouraging them to speak about visuals, read small pieces of text, respond to interesting questions, and perform simple exercises. This material must cover a range of abilities so the teacher can use similar resources for the entire class.
To track recovery from learning loss, periodic assessment would be necessary — this must be done in a non-threatening way, by the teacher through observation and interaction with her students. The stress of regular testing must not demotivate children from learning.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that school closure has resulted in more than learning loss. It has led to a disconnect from the processes of schooling. Children have experienced loss; some have entered the workforce while others have been given responsibilities within the household. The most important thing that must be done when schools reopen is to welcome them back — to listen to their stories, to give them time to settle back into routines, to involve them in activities that allow them to express themselves. Time and patience may help us find ways to compensate not only the learning loss but also to change our schools for the better.