India faces massive challenge in pulling students out of academic regression, loss of learning due to COVID-19

If the country does not address the learning loss of the 260 million children that has happened during this year, the deficit will only accumulate

Anurag Behar February 19, 2021 12:41:20 IST
India faces massive challenge in pulling students out of academic regression, loss of learning due to COVID-19

Representational image. Reuters

The schools of India, which have over 260 million students, have been shut since March 2020. In some states now, the schools are being opened up for higher classes, but on the whole Indian schools have been shut for almost a year. During this period, two kinds of efforts have been made to continue with the education of children -- online education and classes held in mohallas in the open. In brief, neither of these efforts has been adequate to compensate for the shut schools.

Online education is fundamentally ineffective. Not only because the vast majority of our children do not have resources to access online education, but also because the intrinsic nature of education and the learning of children, is such that it requires teachers and students to be in close proximity with real social interaction. This is not the place to go into the details of the inefficacy of online education. However, the pandemic-driven enthusiasm for online education very quickly waned through last year, as the reality of its inefficacy hit home to all those involved with school education.

Realising the importance of continuing educational engagement with children, while also recognising the inefficacy of online classes, many state governments did a good job of trying to organise classes in the open, in the very neighbourhoods where children resided. Large numbers of government school teachers made this happen, with exemplary dedication. Such mohalla classes were not in any way increasing the risk of infection amongst those children, because the children were anyhow intermingling, given they were residing in the same neighbourhood.

Despite the best efforts of teachers and these state governments, given the significant operational difficulties, even in the best-organised situations the mohalla classes did not amount to more than 4-6 hours a week, versus 6-8 hours of classes per day when the schools are open. It is also worth noting that such mohalla classes were initiated only around November/December 2020. So, in effect, while such mohalla classes provided the much-needed engagement between the teachers and their students, from an educational perspective they too were inadequate.

The result of all this over the past year is that India’s children, with the exception of a very small minority who have significant resources and support at home, have lived through a year of lost learning.

The loss of learning is of two kinds. First, what they should have learnt during this period, that is, in 2020-21. Second, what they have forgotten from what they knew when the schools closed, which was, March 2020. The first kind of loss of learning is very obvious. If a child is currently in class IV and has not gone to any classes for the entire year, she has not achieved whatever was the learning goal for Class IV.

The second kind of loss of learning, let us call it academic regression, is not as obvious but once we pay attention to it, it is unsurprising. In essence, for example, that same Class IV child, not having gone to classes for the entire year, has actually lost touch with whatever she had learnt in class III. And therefore, she has forgotten much of that learning. This phenomenon of ‘academic regression’ is much researched in the context of similar forgetting of learning during summer vacations, often called “summer slide”.

So, as our schools begin to open up, we face an enormous challenge. We have to cover for what should have been taught in the past year and we have to cover for what children have forgotten from what they had learnt in the previous class.

To assess the extent and kind of academic regression among our children, we conducted a research study across 44 districts of the country. A rigorous assessment was done of a sample of 16,067 children, with the help of over 2,000 teachers and 400 of our own team members, to evaluate what they had forgotten from what they knew in March 2020. The conclusions of the study are unsurprisingly alarming.

Over 82 percent of children have forgotten foundational abilities in mathematics and over 92 percent have forgotten foundational abilities in language, which they knew in March 2020. "Foundational abilities" refers to the kind of abilities that are critical for all subsequent learning. For example, in mathematics, these include addition and subtraction, and in language the ability to read a paragraph and to narrate its gist.

India faces massive challenge in pulling students out of academic regression loss of learning due to COVID19

The details of the key conclusions of the study are in the graphic above.

India faces massive challenge in pulling students out of academic regression loss of learning due to COVID19

It is absolutely essential that we have a nation-wide systematic response to this loss of learning including the alarming academic regression.

To start with, this will require recognising and accepting this massive challenge. Since this problem has been created by an unprecedented pandemic and is not because of the omission or commission of any of the state governments, there should not be any defensiveness in this regard. Hearteningly, some states are confronting this issue head-on and openly.

To address this serious issue, teachers will have to be given enough time to compensate for the loss of learning. This will require extending the current session well into 2021, not having summer breaks, and reconfiguring the syllabus such that some of the less important content is dropped, while some of it is pushed out to the next year. Without adequate extra time, it is unrealistic to expect teachers and students to be able to deal with this challenge. Even with this extra time, teachers and students will require relevant support, for example, training and tools for the teachers to assess quickly the levels of academic regression student-by-student.

If we do not address the learning loss of our 260 million children that has happened during this year, the deficit will only accumulate. Also, this would affect disadvantaged children disproportionately more, widening and hardening the already existing inequities of our society. The challenge that the country faces requires nothing short of a massive nation-wide mission.

The author is the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, Chief Sustainability Officer of Wipro Limited and Vice Chancellor, Azim Premji University.

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