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OP-ED: The zombie generation

  • Published at 12:53 am September 8th, 2020
classroom
UNSPLASH

The pandemic has completely disrupted pedagogy and early signs are extremely concerning

A plethora of circulars and notifications originating from our daughter’s school inundated the generation of parents over February, March, and April of this year. They make for fascinating reading and bear testimony to the manner in which the institution of the school as we traditionally know it has been compelled to cease its operation, step by step, brick by brick. 

The initial dialogue in February tentatively recognized King Corona for the scourge that it eventually turned out to be, when the school administration requested children with symptoms of cough and cold to remain at home and advised all concerned to frequently wash their hands, use hand sanitizers, and wear the soon-to-be ubiquitous face mask.

A gradual loss of optimism

This first wave of communication also informed the by-now alert and frightened parent audience that the school premises were equipped with a sufficient number of hand sanitizers and that cleanliness and hygiene were of paramount consideration. However, it was noted, the message of extreme caution would in parallel need to be disseminated to all members and staff of the respective households.

A sub-set of directives communicated the inevitable but nevertheless disappointing news of cancellation of all group and outstation activities and try-outs for various sporting disciplines. School, it was declared, would close on March 9, only to reopen after the spring break. 

At this juncture, one could still discern the last smudge of desperate optimism that tinged the air. On March 13, husband and wife were invited for a special Zoom session with the new team of class teachers, organized with each couple at a pre-allocated time. Replacing the end-of-semester melee represented by the parent-teacher meeting, this was the watershed, the final unavoidable recognition that our lives had indeed significantly changed, and perhaps permanently so. 

It was only logical, therefore, that the expected anticipation, pomp, and festivity attached to Orientation 2020-21 would also go online, packaged as it were in a PowerPoint presentation and, with supporting documents, sent as a zip folder to every eager couple. This would form the basis of discussion for the next Zoom meeting organized with the class teachers at the end of March.

The communications of doom were punctuated with “stay well” messages providing copious guidance on how to ameliorate the condition of siege and, in a nutshell, the regimen and routine that could be adopted to make the best of a bad situation. 

But along with the tone of warmth and caring, there must also be instilled the fear of discipline with the threat of punishment. And so it was that circular number one, dated April 12, 2020, sternly declared that there would be “absolutely no tolerance in our system for disruptive or unruly behaviour.” 

By this time, the Zoom call had already fallen victim to the intrusions of the intelligently mischievous, and the transition to Microsoft Teams was fully underway, with circular number two declaring that the migration to Microsoft Teams would commence on April 20. 

Circular number three dated April 19, 2020 was devoted to the topic of money, a subject close to every working parent’s heart. After great deliberation, the administration arrived at the decision to keep the amount of school fees unchanged, that the quarterly invoice would be rationalized, and that the invoice amount could be made good by each household through the payment every month of an amount entirely of the family’s choosing.

A strange sensation

Who would have imagined that the consideration payable for the holistic school experience could be reduced to the equated monthly installment like any other fast-moving commodity? The thought leaves one with a strange sensation.

The snapshots of school-parent communication, in their own fashion, track the reality and progression of the pandemic, from a reluctant and tentative awareness of the virus to the full acceptance that our lives have been transformed beyond belief. And, in the wake of the circulars, directives, notifications, and clarifications, a unique form of pedagogy was introduced with great fanfare.

Thus, the morning of April 4, 2020 dawned to reveal Tiya Basu, 12 years of age, recently promoted to Class 7, reluctant scholar, even more reluctant executor of the homework assignment, sitting ramrod straight before a laptop in the process of firing up the latest cutting-edge innovation of communication technology, the Zoom call.

Prim, proper, scrubbed behind the ears, and sporting the green colour of her school house, our daughter was poised for the new session, albeit from a remote location, with audio and video on. This was therefore the new age, the beginning of the change imposed on a frantic world in the science and technique of education. The days ahead would bear witness to its efficacy.

The initial weeks were a delightful novelty, with children learning to navigate the versatile application and familiarizing themselves with the new art of remote interaction in a meaningful and effective manner. Assignments were explained, chapters read, and homework executed with a certain dogged earnestness. 

There was a spring in the step, a willingness to wake up in time every morning, aware of the positive challenge that had to be confronted head on. Our daughter rose to the occasion. Dear reader, this was the experience of the first month. However, five months hence, and we are presented with a completely different picture.

An unbearable drudgery

The apple of our eye is in the throes of an unimaginable lassitude. She is lackadaisical, uninterested and, frankly, has ceased to care. “What’s the point of studying so much if they won’t have any tests?” is the constant refrain. Admirable attitude and sentiment, but a question which must unfortunately remain rhetorical for now. 

While she has mastered the ability to remain seated hour after hour in front of the laptop, the rate and level of intellectual absorption is debatable. True, to sit for an extended period of time is the ability of a mere handful. But in the present context of a pupil developing critical cognitive faculties, to what end? 

The energy of the child is expended in just about managing to sit through the classes of the day, and little else. The concept of school appears to have become equated with an unbearable drudgery, and she sits with glazed eyes before the screen, counting the minutes when she will be done for the day. 

Complex and technical subjects such as mathematics and chemistry, which require that crucial proximity of the brick and mortar classroom and “Teacher Ma’am” for their unique music to be communicated, fall by the wayside as children go through the motion of feigned attention, listening to their teachers but hearing very little.

The advent of her working day has been timed to split-second perfection. If Tiya’s classes are scheduled to begin at half past eight, then she will be up, albeit after five cajoling attempts by nervous parents to wake her, with a minute to spare, brush her hair back from her eyes, run to the laptop, and sit mutely for the roll call.

She has by now perfected the art of the most unnecessary multitasking while classes are underway: Flipping through her smartphone (why did we purchase the damned gadget?), applying nail polish or fake nails (by now the last vestiges of discipline have been shed), and every so often making slime (a gooey obsession of a year ago that we hoped had been outgrown and forgotten).

What is the correct approach?

Studies, therefore, are furthest from the mind. Semi-apocryphal stories of mischief abound in our circle of friends, presumably of boys mastering the workings of the program and actually expelling the teacher from her own virtual classroom. Wherever the truth may lie, this is testimony to the singular loss of interest in the world of academia by a generation of young minds.

A billion parents around the globe, especially of children in middle school and below, are of the view that this cadre of pupils should be simply promoted to the next class and the “academic year” be brought to an unceremonious end. 

The other billion would suggest that rather than outright cancellation, we go through the motions of the academic year because any intellectual activity, however sparse, is better than nothing, and that the academic discipline and rigour compelled to be learned afresh, to whatever extent, is better than none at all. The abiding fear of the latter school of thought is that no activity could lead to complete atrophy. There is merit in both.

A rolling stone gathers no moss, and even gently running water keeps the green patina of algae at bay. If the scholastic wheels are not kept turning, at whatever speed, we could be in danger of further stunting a generation of children already hamstrung by the limitations brought upon by King Corona. 

Depending upon how effective and strict the lockdown has been in different countries, a child’s sphere of operations and life has been accordingly circumscribed. But, the regional and geographical variations notwithstanding, it is safe to presume that the children of today have tangibly suffered, both academically as well as physically.

The human child must be the most adaptable living organism to have been created through a combination of divinity and nature. The universal fear in the adult population across the world was that of the hitherto-unknown ability of their children to cope with the living hell that has visited humanity and which, so far, has shown little or no indication of its departure from our lives. But, thankfully, the little ones cope and, I dare say, optimize.

The forgotten front-line soldiers

On the occasion of Teacher’s Day, celebrated each year on September 5, let us remember and appreciate the gargantuan efforts of millions of teachers around the world, the forgotten cadre of front-line soldiers whose sole mission is to prepare their wards and equip them with the skills required for their later life. 

Dwell a moment on the enormous transformation wrought in their existence, the sweat and toil involved in reimagining and reinventing themselves from the traditional role of classroom instructor to an expert communicator of the holistic academic experience aided by the latest technology. 

The level of energy, engagement, and perseverance that they have consistently -- despite repeated entreaties -- displayed in the face of blank screens, muted microphones, and a classroom of students paralyzed by apathy must be lauded. 

The always-present “School Ma’am” has been compelled to assume a new avatar to assist her endeavours in the mode, manner, and method of imparting education to restless and soporific minds. This, to my mind, is the single greatest miracle of the remote age in which we find ourselves.

One can assume that the picture painted of reluctant learning plays itself out with variation in every family in every corner of the world. Parents and children experience the same set of challenges and hopes, regardless of physical location or their station in life. 

Whether tacit or expressed, this is a journey whose destination must be identified through the coordinated exertions of the family and the class teacher. The challenges notwithstanding, we are in a state of transition, and there is a universal acceptance that this new order of education is not only here to stay, but is also durable. 

We have achieved stability in technology, with the wholesale transition from Zoom to Microsoft Teams which appears to be more a result of a vindictive world determined to do away with the benefits afforded by a program owned by a Chinese company rather than due to any notions of a lack of information security.

Syllabuses have been cut back and every other imaginable convenience has been introduced to help the youngster get through, and eventually become comfortable with a radically new method of learning.

This is a time of learning and upheaval, and some time is required till we are settled in the new order. 

But a new order it is, and circumstances have attributed to it a lengthy future. As concerned parents and bewildered children, we will do well to make this “new normal” our own. 

Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in Gurgaon, India, and is a freelance contributor.

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