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OP-ED: Prioritizing student voices to reopen schools

  • Published at 08:22 pm May 18th, 2021

Why we need to put student voices back at the centre

The prolonged closure of schools can reverse our success in improved enrolment rate and reduced dropout rate. According to a report by Unicef, 10 million child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice.

Musharraf Hossain, a teacher from Ukhiya Primary Government School, revealed that students from his school have dropped out to contribute financially to their reduced family income. Subsequently, research conducted by “Save our Society” in the year 2020, under the University of Rajshahi, reported that 86.4% of students have lost motivation and 64.2% have lost touch with their studies.

Be it economic, social, or mental health-related issues, losing students from the formal education system is the biggest challenge ahead of us. Hence, the urgency in reopening the schools with all safety precautions is paramount. Although the government has outlined some guidelines on safety measures, the possibility of reopening schools still remains bleak with the resurgence of the second wave of the pandemic.

Other than the safety protocols of reopening schools, day-to-day operations and the design of new normal teaching-learning remains vague. It is clear that the schools will have to do much more than assemble students to impart lectures and conduct exams. We have to re-imagine learning in schools, and for that, it is crucial to understand the student perspectives and their needs.

So, we asked what makes students want to go back to school in a written survey conducted on 53 students ranging from grade 3 to grade 7 of Alokito Hridoy School, located in Tangail, Mirzapur. These students briefly recorded their thoughts, then sent digital snapshots of their writings.

Jannat Aktar, a grade 6 student, wrote: “I miss playing in the field with my friends and listening to stories in between classes from my teachers. The happy memories with all my friends and teachers make me want to run back to school.”

The other 52 students wrote in a similar tone about how they miss their bonds with their peers, teachers, and caregivers, and the fun, play, and laughter they experienced in and around the school premises. In the current schooling system, friends, bonds, and play are auxiliary to exams, routines, and subjects.

However, we can prioritize student voices by making these the central elements of school. 

Game-based learning

Often, the term game-based learning is associated with digital games. However, even low-cost, no-cost local, popular games like “borof pani” and “kumir tor jole nemechi” can be used by maintaining hygiene and distance to teach literacy and numeracy skills. Continuous assessment to identify learning needs can also be done using such games.

According to Keesee (2012): “Educational games are games explicitly designed with an educational purpose, meant to teach people about certain subjects, expand concepts, reinforce development, understand historical events or cultures, or assist learners in acquiring a skill while playing; game types include board (for example, pure strategy and rolling dice), or, card (playing cards).”

These games do not require any prerequisite skills and can instantly instill a joyful environment, motivate students, enhance passionate engagement and social skills, and improve learning outcomes. By making learning and fun analogous in post-pandemic schools, we will be making it easier for students to recover from the learning loss.

Playful learning installations

Games should not be limited to classrooms. What if the routes paving to schools, bus stops near schools, and other public spaces had colourful, inviting, playful installations teaching kids numeracy skills or basic science concepts? Children wouldn’t just be excited to go back to school, but they would learn special skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity as a bonus.

Dr Kathy Hirsh-Pasek from the Brookings Institute talks about utilizing 80% of students’ waking hours when they are not in school by organically engaging students with playful learning landscapes built upon the foundation of learning sciences. She draws attention to the significance of changing the attitude of guardians towards play by supporting and facilitating play through quality interactions with their children.

Such meaningful social exchanges with guardians can significantly change their mindset towards learning through games, impact learning loss positively, improve school readiness, and foster curiosity. Hirsh-Pasek further recommends that installing playful installations in free spaces in our communities near schools can motivate students while supporting their learning recovery. 

Well-being curriculum

Many students suffer from the trauma of losing a loved one or coping with the pandemic. This overall emotional distress can prevent students from coming back to school. Several types of research have shown a direct link between higher levels of anxiety and demotivation with student dropout and poor cognitive performance.

By integrating a social-emotional well-being curriculum into our schools, we can help students better control their emotions and relationships, reduce anxiety, and regain a sense of belonging.

A great example can be the “happiness curriculum” implemented for over 800,000 students in Delhi, with proven success. Its four key areas first focus on improving self-awareness and mindfulness. Second: Critical thinking to evaluate one’s behaviours, attitudes, and thoughts, and think beyond stereotypes. Third: Social-emotional skills to regulate emotions, cope with anxiety and stress, build lasting bonds, and demonstrate empathy. Fourth: Promote a confident and pleasant personality by balancing self-reflection with self-confidence.

A study (Wang et al, 2016) conducted in rural China reveals that among 7,495 students with a 24% student dropout rate due to learning anxiety, incorporating the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program reduced dropout by 1.6% and decreased learning anxiety by 2.3%.

The outcome of the study based in developing countries such as China is likely to hold for Bangladesh. Instead of SEL programs being something on the side, we must place it at the core of our post-pandemic schools.

Repositioning student voices at the centre is key to reimagining a post-pandemic education system. If we want to bring them back to school, instead of brushing off their ideas as childish, it is crucial to study and understand their deeper drives, needs, and motivations. To reopen schools, we must not forget to engage all stakeholders -- students, teachers, guardians, experts, and policy-makers to build back better.

Azwa Nayeem is an educator and a social entrepreneur working in education.

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