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Learning has to be dynamic and fast-paced: Meeta Sengupta

By Saswati Sarkar,

In this interview educationist Meeta Sengupta sheds light on the changing landscape of education and much more.

Students need to process knowledge at a very fast pace now, says Sengupta

Teaching and learning methods need to evolve in order to keep up with the ‘new normal’ of education. In this interview, educationist Meeta Sengupta, fellow of the RSA and the Salzburg Global Seminar, who currently designs interventions for education leadership and governance, talks about everything from the necessity of dynamic learning and changes in teaching methods to the role of parents in their child’s education.   

In the era of information technology, students need to process knowledge at a very fast pace. What changes are needed in teaching methods to help them do so?  
More than just information and technology, the real world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Look at the ravages of the coronavirus and how it has changed the pace of learning for all of us. Our new normal for learning cannot be solely dependent on static textbooks, except for the very basics, simplified for small children. There should be two key approaches to teaching and learning to help students keep pace with the speed of change. Firstly, it should be a top-down approach, where knowledge is converted to teaching by experts, and is disseminated via digital channels on a regular basis. This is the dynamic digital textbook, an approach that will have to be facilitated by teachers on the ground, even if it is curated by boards of study.  

The second key approach is grassroots, where teachers include learnings from the real world in their everyday teaching. For everything, they have to enable learning about what is real and now. Real, relevant and real time—these are what we need now.  

What is your idea of a dynamic digital textbook?  
A digital text book does not necessarily have to look like a regular textbook. A WhatsApp feed, a twitter chat are all micro learning mechanisms that are like chapters in a digital textbook. A video teaching technique demonstrating a scientific principle that goes viral is a live, popular chapter in a digital textbook. If schools accept and incorporate it, they remain relevant to students. If schools are not ready to embrace the change, we will need other curation and facilitation bodies, such as knowledge boards (not just examination boards), or the currently popular hackathon awards that even facilitate entry into higher education. This does not have to be digital at the point of use - everyone does not have the internet or electricity. In such cases, a district official can print and distribute weekly worksheets to all schools It might be difficult but it is the new normal which we have to keep up with.  

Do you think teachers need to be more creative about their improvisation skills in the era of online learning?   
Teachers have already worked very hard to adapt to the online medium, and sometimes they have made it harder for themselves in their attempt to replicate the formal physical classroom online. While learning remains formal, teachers must remember that one cannot copy and replicate from memory here. They must adapt, and yes, improvise to communicate better online.  

Online learning is a more democratic space and they will also have to use techniques that are more equitable, accessible, and seemingly easy-going while maintaining an invisible tight line on progress. Their best bet is to learn from popular YouTube channels, even the ones teaching make-up, home decoration and more. The communication there is superb, effortless and leads to great learning outcomes.  

The teacher training scenario in India needs to improve. What are the gaps that need to be filled?  
Teacher training has been addressed as first priority in the New Education Policy (NEP). This is called an idealistic document, because it represents the gap between reality and the current situation in most places. The changes suggested in training in the NEP are about equipping our teachers with not just the knowledge, but also the social and emotional skills for managing student growth (not just exam achievement). More investment in teachers both as domain specialists and with smarter teaching skills must be actioned at the earliest. Each teacher must produce a piece of action research once every three years. This not only facilitates active learning amongst teachers and keeps them contributing to their peer group, but also fosters a scientific mindset, having them focussed on the details of how each student is learning.  

Do you think institutionalised education and informal learning methods should co-exist in order to ensure the holistic development of children?  
Yes, they must. That’s why we emphasise play as a part of school activities and we must do more on that. This is because play embeds many more life and survival skills than traditional academic learning. Informal learning methods within learning systems (such as schools and colleges), and in informal settings are all useful. Knowing the difference between 'indoor voice' and 'outdoor voice', for example, is very important. Learning how to modulate behaviour in shared settings such as restaurants in contrast to family gatherings are also essential skills. Mathematics, chemistry and operations management skills learnt in kitchens can be as rigorous as those learnt in higher education. The choice here is to understand whether one is aiming for competence, excellence or certification.    

Do you think collaborative learning is necessary for students?  
Collaborative learning is one of the fastest and strongest learning tools that we have, and if managed well, it fosters diversity and equity too. In life, we often collaborate more than we compete. Even if we do compete, we do better as a team. If school is training for life, then we need to be trained in collaboration more than competition. More importantly, learning, is social, emotional and academic. Collaborative learning engages all three modes, improving learning outcomes.  

What changes are required in the school curricula to help students strengthen their core value system and imbibe essential skill sets?   
Currently, there is a sense of burden and confusion regarding life skills and value-based education. India either needs to upgrade its teacher competencies, or build better scaffolding structures to enable the learning of life skills. For example, a project and portfolio-based approach would work in a country of truthful people who do not outsource their projects whereas, a team project would work in a context where there is trust in participation and evaluation. For now, the best that can be done is to build intrinsic rewards for good habits into the events that are produced by schools.  

What role should parents play to help kids adapt to the changing requirements of the education system?  
A child's education is the responsibility of the teacher, parent and the student himself or herself. Each has a different role to play. Neither should a parent try to become a teacher (unless formally agreed or home schooled), nor should a teacher try to be a parent.  Parents need to learn to create free and safe spaces for learning by backing off and being invisibly supportive. They need to focus on the process not the outcomes. For example, to encourage early reading, they can leave one or more books lying around casually.  Having colour pencils and papers lying around on tables and in corners is also a good idea. Parents can involve children in in the kitchen and other chores. There is significant learning all around us if we make it visible, making our preachy voice completely inaudible.  This will keep learning fun, tricky and real.  

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