When schools re-open: break the stranglehold

Rohit Dhankar

Subir Shukla (a well-known educational consultant and old friend) asked a question on the twitter: “With schools opening after the summer break, what would you like to see teachers/schools NOT do? And what SHOULD they do?” This is a quick response to this question. Since this response is ‘quick’ and I do not have much time, it will sound to be somewhat forthright and impatient, but that is only because of lack of time, believe me. 😊

This is what, to start with at the first sight, the schools/teachers and the system should do, it includes both NOT as well as SHOIULD do:

  1. Stop harping on ill-defined ideas like learning-loss and learning recovery
  2. Pay attention to learning that helps development of mind, stop worrying about coming at par with class
  3. Restructure the school
  4. Restructure, not reduce, the curriculum
  5. Ban quick-fix doctors from education system

A little explanation of all these recommendations seems to be in order, therefore, attempted below.

1. Stop harping on ill-defined ideas like learning-loss and learning recovery

Both concepts (learning-loss and learning recovery) are ill defined and unhelpful. Learning-loss can be understood (i) as loss of time and opportunity for learning, (ii) children forgetting what they had learned before the schools closed.

Forgetting some of what children have already learnt is part and parcel of education process, it happens all the time. Revision may be necessary even in the normal course of school. Now since the unavailability of school was much longer therefor this forgetting of concepts, procedures, habits, and information may be much more. But one, children’s minds had not stopped making sense of their lives, therefore, have been maturing normally, all other things being equal. Thus, they will have greater capability to make sense of what they earlier learned only half understood. And two, what they had actually learnt will leave a trace of familiarity in their minds, that will help remembering and understanding it better quickly now. Third, conceptual understanding grows in our minds unknown to us. The mind keeps making connections with what we have learnt with our total repertoire of conceptual wealth. This process never stops. Therefore, together with forgetting of some factual bits of information this enriching of conceptual connections should also have happened. Because of these three factors in the hands of a good, hardworking teacher who knows his job, it should not be a huge problem.

The loss of time and opportunity is real and can not be done away, but this is a loss only if one is deeply given to intense competition. What a child C should have learnt at age x, if she learns at age x+1 or 2, what is the big harm? It becomes disturbing only when you compare this child with other children of her age who have gone far ahead, and this fact will put this child in a disadvantage in comparison to other children of her age with better opportunities. This is a chronic problem of Indian education with or without closing of school for long time. The opportunities and cultural capital distribution is extremely unequal. Yes, this closure of school will aggravate it, but if one forgets about competing and focuses on the development of child’s mind, it may not seem such a big issue. I know more than ten people who entered school late, passed their secondary 2 or 3 years after other children of their age and are very successful and good people today.

2. Pay attention to learning that helps development of mind, stop worrying about coming at par with class

Not all mugging up and collection of disconnected bits of information helps development of mind. Only that learning which integrates with the well-established conceptual structures, becomes ready part of the thinking processes, acquires internal justification due to logical connections, and used in decision making helps. The mugged-up bits only form a burden on the mind and make it incapable of justification, certainly, clear thinking and sound judgment for which one may be able to take a stand and act upon it boldly. 

The army of the so-called school management experts, accelerated learning experts and quick-fix doctors simply regurgitate half digested words and their actions on the ground have been consistently unsuccessful in last at the least 40 years. Sorry to say this so bluntly, but I often doubt if their words have any meanings in their own heads or are just empty sounds to produce a favorable response from the audience.

Quick-fix methods of bringing children at par will not help in development of mind and conviction. Rigorous conceptual understanding with adequate time and self-exertion are the necessary ingredients for that. Therefore, abandon ‘quick-fix’ and ‘bringing at par’ attempts which are ways of squandering scarce resources by people who know very little of education. Start patiently from the solid foundation of understanding, skills and habits children have and built patiently on that. The creation will turn out to be more beautiful, more strong and immensely more valuable to the children individually, and to us all socially.

3. Restructure the school

What I have said above brings us to the question: then how shall we proceed in order to give adequate time and opportunity to learn and exert herself to each child? They have lost time and now have to cover the syllabus in a short time to come at par with their class, so what can be done?

This line of thinking is illogical, straight jacketed and closes options for devising thoughtful workable solutions. Therefore, dismantle the structure of the school, at the least for three years, as a measure of finding emergency solutions. Abolish classes, grades or standards; whatever you call them. Let children learn from where they are and with their own pace, but demand hard-work, rigor and give adequate guidance.

After dismantling grades have a thoughtful assessment of children’s abilities (come out of the infatuation with this false goddess called ‘learning’) in language, mathematics, making sense of the world, necessary school subjects, clear thinking, use of memory, self-confidence and habits of applying themselves to a task. This could be spread over a week. On the basis of this assessment re-reorganize the school in vertical learning groups where children can progress with their own pace, help each other and can learn to learn on with their own efforts. Forget about pass-fail and examinations and start keeping detailed and meticulous progress records.

4. Restructure, not reduce, the curriculum

Reducing the curriculum to come up to the age-appropriate class is nothing more than a scheme of free distribution of certificates. What helps in life and makes one capable to finding one’s place in the society is not a piece of paper but the capabilities one develops and growth of mind, that is reason, repertoire of conceptual knowledge, convictions, self-confidence and habits of working hard. After dismantling the stifling structure of the school one can organize the curriculum in a learning and development-curve rather than steps (classes) to be used for pass-fail. A thoughtful teacher having an idea of epistemic and temporal priorities of concepts and conceptual structures can easily reorganize the existing curriculum in a developmental curve on which children can progress with ease.

Those who are interested in details of how such a school and curriculum can be organized can read here https://rohitdhankar.com/2017/03/25/beyond-the-oxymoronic-idea-of-no-detention-policy/

5. Ban quick-fix doctors from education system

The system and teachers will exert themselves to find good, appropriate and workable ways of tackling the problem only if the easier, more or less effortless, but unproductive ways are not available. There is a virtual army of foundations, expert NGOs, newly created consultancies and so on which all claim to have found fool-proof quick method to solve entrenched educational problems. They usually hire any Tom, Dick and Harry; train them either on the job or in about two and a half days; declare them to be experts; and let them loose on the poor teachers and schools. These non-serious (I am resisting the urge to call them charlatans, please note, am not calling them so) people should be rigorously examined and be allowed only if they have something of value to offer. Otherwise banned.

If we do not have clarity of mind or resources or courage to take such tough measures, we are just making pretentious noises and our children will continue to suffer.


27th June 2022

Rohit Dhankar

Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Secretary, Digantar, Jaipur.

The views expressed here are entirely mine (Rohit), neither of my organizations endorses or is responsible for them.

2 Responses to When schools re-open: break the stranglehold

  1. Seema Siroji says:

    I completely agree. 1 to 4 are long due but 5th point is need of hour. It is difficult to do and reason why these quick fix solutions are mushrooming because there is no standard, expectation from governance. Those who are delivering quick fix design solutions considering their own convinience , so called expertise, without expertise and most time “opportunity to scale impact” .


  2. rdhankar says:

    Thanks Seema ji. But you seem to be agreeing in point 5 as well, :), yes, difficult, agreed. Particularly because the system lacks the expertise.


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