Thursday, October 21, 2021
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Pathashaala Parampara

While digital learning has made up for lockdown losses to some extent, nothing can quite replace actual human interaction, writes Nagesh Alai

The other day in the course of teaching basic English over a WhatsApp audio call to two young siblings aged 10 and 11, residing in a remote village in Haryana, courtesy an NGO’s outreach initiative, I happened to ask about their day school and if it had reopened. It had not and continued to remain closed for over 10 months. They wistfully said that they wish it would soon open so that they can meet their school friends and live the school life full of class bells, desks, bags, plays, class admonishments and punishments, fights, breaks, shared lunches and all that makes for a complete experience. Clearly, they were tired and bored and strained of the 9 to 4 virtual school over the past several months depriving them of the release of chats and smiles in the classrooms with their friends. Over the past several months, I have noticed their extraordinary glee and enthusiasm on receiving my call soon after their virtual school class ending at 4 pm. No tiredness or boredom, but sheer delight to have a one-on-one conversation with me to learn a new language. It is so heart-warming to see the two young children trying to monopolise the conversations with me and each trying to outdo the other in learning in a sisterly way. 

The soundbites are no different from some school teachers whom I happen to know. They too were missing out on the vim and vigour of physical interactions with chirpy and moody students and the fun and satisfaction of teaching and the thrill of setting papers and checking homework of students. They were finding the virtual classes enabling, but certainly not enthusing or energising. 

The virtual classroom works, but it deprives children of the holistic school experience
The virtual classroom works, but it deprives children of the holistic school experience

E-ducation has a field day

Given the compulsions of the lockdown and the uncertainties, almost every school worth its salt has put in place some sort of digital teaching so that the students don’t miss out on the learning and can progress to the next class. E-learning platforms like Educomp Solutions and BYJU’s are having a field day and making a song and dance about their enabling quotient. There are indeed several pros about digital education in terms of reach, penetration, content, engagement, etc. But, given the surfeit of existing social media platforms, the digital education platforms, while having their utility, will be adding to the digital clutter and social distancing of the real kind. 

The guru-shishya parampara in our culture over thousands of years involved a daily physical interaction between the teachers and the disciples, and ensured service, discipline, learning, debates and discussions. It enabled transfer of knowledge to successive generations via word of mouth, which can be called as ‘shruti’, essentially learning that have been heard and transmitted by gurus to shishyas in a continuous cycle of knowledge transmission (am intentionally leaving out the divine revelation context here). This system also ensured over time, that what is learnt is preserved in an understandable format giving rise to ‘smritis’ (essentially meaning that which is remembered) or texts written by various gurus. Little wonder that our scriptures and texts have lasted till today with definitive knowledge encompassing the cosmos, its source, the evolution, the humans, the animals, flora and fauna, elements of nature, religion, rituals, sciences, morality, roles and responsibilities, principle of business and warfare. You name it, they have it. The bank of knowledge is so deep and wide that a lifetime will not be enough for anybody to learn or understand it, live alone live it. 

The inveterate technology and infinite scientific discoveries are pushing the boundaries of human behaviour and interactions. Family and friends’ dinners are no longer about group conversations, but singular shutting out of everyone at the table, but the cell phone. Perversely, you can detach yourself from practically anyone, except the cell phone. The downing of the internet or the lack of charge to the cell will be worse than a catastrophe and we will all be paralysed of speech and action. Information is universal while original thinking is out. Wisdom is gone, knowledge is plenty. Silence has become golden, not in a spiritual sense, but because it is camouflaging ignorance. The art of small talk is gone and the era of the big yawn is in. 

If learning from home is prolonged much further, children may lose more than they gain
If learning from home is prolonged much further, children may lose more than they gain

 

Daily interaction needed

Coming back to where we started, the need of the hour is to ensure a daily interaction between teachers and students in brick-and-mortar schools at double quick speed, wherever possible or by turns, while taking enough precautions to ensure safety of teachers and students. The fight with the microbe seems to be a long-drawn-out affair, but with preventive vaccines getting discovered and used, the administrators need to look at out-of-the-box solutions. When solutions are being found for public places in the name of economy, why can’t solutions be found for the more fundamental need of the students. The formative years of children are crucial and their development and learning abilities at the formative stage is exponential and hence social and personal interactions cannot be kept at bay for uncertain lengths of time. Yes, humans, particularly young children are adoptive of ideas and adaptive to situations, but there is no gainsaying the fact that human interactions are indispensable in a holistic development of the children.

I had impromptu bought a few books for my two young students mentioned above, which they are discovering and learning to use slowly. They are super excited at the discovery journey and are very happy with the books. But, if I don’t call them at the appointed time every week (for whatever reason), they are super disappointed and in fact message me. It is nothing but hankering for that human interaction, the most primal need of humans. Unsaid therein is they are missing their school times. 

Both students and teachers are missing the enthusiasm and vigour of physical interactions
Both students and teachers are missing the enthusiasm and vigour of physical interactions

 

The charm of small-town life

At this stage, I can’t help but recall quite vividly and fondly my childhood annual sojourns by train (you had to book months in advance, get the benefit of school student concession and a whole lot of other rigmaroles) to our ‘native’ place down south during the summer school vacations in the 1960s and 1970s. Through the year, the only medium of exchange with relatives was post cards and letters (and the occasional trunk call, given that it used to cost an arm and leg to make one and that too after prior booking) which were eagerly awaited from the grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, cousins and all and sundry, given the distance induced separations from daily interactions. Receiving letters was an event in itself (the postman was one of the most important bell-ringers of those days) and greeted with much excitement and verve given that the content (it was always king, not just today) was an interesting amalgam of updates, milestones and gossip in the other side of the family in the other side of the country. Our school lives were indelible and exciting parts of our being, given the deep relationships and friendships forged with the classmates, notwithstanding all the homework, scolds and slaps of the teacher, tantrums, fights, punishments, compositions and everything else. This kept us all going through the year. But deep down, we all deeply missed seeing and talking and hugging our grandparents, our uncles and aunts and out cousins, being treated as VIPs from Bombay (as the maximum city was then known), served special food, outings, daily storytelling and so many other fun things. The irresistible small-town life, the tongas, the wayside sweetmeat shops, the charming individual houses, theatres with benches in the front, ‘goli-sodas’ were all firmly etched experiences to die for. And not to mention the indescribable happiness of lying down for a nap with your head on the lap of your grandfather or grandmother or aunt as they tousle our hairs gently and caress us to sleep. 

Let us get back that touch and feel back into our lives. Children will lose much more if the LFH (learn from home) is prolonged. My fear is that learning itself may become obsolete and that indeed is terrifying. Technology can only do so much. E learning can only do so much. Let us not make our future generation mere mean machines, but warm social creatures. Get back our schools, get back our teachers, get back our children. Get back to LAS (learn at school). For brick and mortar lay the real foundation to make the tiny feet take that giant leap.

Nagesh Alai
Nagesh Alai is a management consultant, an independent director on company boards, and cofounder of a B2B enterprise tech startup. He retired in 2016 as the Group Chairman of FCB Ulka Group and Vice Chairman FCB Worldwide. Elder care and education are causes close to his heart.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Good morning, Nagesh,
    Well written as usual. Home bound activities are not only affecting children but adults as well. Loneliness is going to be the next big challenge for Indians like it is already for citizens in many developed countries. Not a comforting thought. We all need to come out and travel freely across the cities. Hope this isolation for everyone will end soon. Best. Kartik.

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