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Learning gaps: an emerging crisis in post-covid school learning systems

By G. Balasubramanian

One of the most discussed topics in school platforms across the world is the ‘Learning gaps’ among the school going children in the post-covid scenario. “Learning gap” is usually defined as the gap that exists between -what a student is expected to achieve during a given course of study or in a standard, and what he really has achieved during that time. Learning gaps have existed over several centuries for several reasons. A number of factors contribute to the emergence of the learning gaps. Oftentimes, learning gaps may also arise from unequal opportunities and these ‘opportunity gaps’ do lead to undesirable results in social equity. The reasons that contribute to the learning gaps have changed from time to time depending on the social, cultural, and financial conditions of a community. There are occasions when learning gaps are forced on a community due to extraneous reasons consequent to natural calamities in each geography. One of the major drawbacks in bridging the gap is the lack of speed with which it needs to be tackled. Any delay in remedying the situation may result in demotivating the affected community, furthering the quantum of the learning gap, sometimes derailing the intent of learning itself.

In the current scenario with educational institutions playing the ‘hide and seek’ game with their learners over the last two years, there is an unmistakable evidence and acknowledgement of the learning gap among the learners. Fears are also expressed over its possible impact on the school dropout rates and extensive demotivation of the learners with meaningful achievements in their learning curve.

The fact that there in a lack of continuity in school learning is causing concern among all the stakeholders including the educators and educational administrators. The impact of covid caused problems not only in formal school delivery systems but also on the online classrooms. Several other social disconnects and inadequacies have also contributed to the learning gaps. Its impact on the social and learning psyche of the school cohort is indeed an area for research. In general, we may consider the following as the major factors that contributed to this scenario.

1. Missing School Routine

The disruption of the school routine has negatively impacted the daily routine of the students. Their continued interest in learning, the patterns that were established in their brain and life systems have been disturbed. The climate of learning that was provided through the school infrastructure and the opportunities for personal interactions with teachers and peers do not remain anymore in the same pattern.

The regulated entries to schools and several restrictions put in place through Standard Operating Procedures have created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and insecurity. All these have threatened the comfort levels for learning adding avoidable stress to the learners. This learning stress is a powerful trigger to the learning gap.

2. Newer patterns of pedagogical deliveries

The free school interactions have been replaced by online classrooms with remote relationship. The access, the bonding and the emotional connects with teachers have become minimal. All these have led to several questions relating to the authenticity of learning. With insufficient controls and lack of reliability, the online classrooms have been more a ceremony or a procedure to be ticked off or complied with as a part of an executive direction. (Of course, several exceptions do exist.) The new methods adopted by the teachers in pedagogy have not necessarily been learner friendly. A larger number of students appear to be facing problems with Wi-Fi, hardware and other problems of connectivity thus suffering from opportunity gaps in learning. Opportunity gaps are indeed social triggers for learning gap and school dropout.

3. Lack of emotional content in learning

Learning is essentially a neural connect according to neurocognitive psychologists. Enrichment and empowerment of the neural networks is said to be facilitated by “emotionally competent stimuli” In the current school dynamics, there is no adequate emotional content either in the transaction of curriculum or in the personal relationships between the learner and the teacher. With more thrust on ‘completion of syllabi’ and ‘preparing the learner for a final assessment’ the transaction has become highly formal and impersonal. This has resulted in inferior quality of pedagogy and the hunger for knowledge-based learning is visibly absent. This is subscribing to the learning gap.

4. Absence of peer interaction /collaborative learning

In a formal school system, learning is adequately scaffolded and enriched by peer interactions. These provide direction and enrichment to the quality of learning through informal modes. Freedom to question, freedom to argue, alternate thinking strategies, experiential learning supports, and play way methods support highly personalized learning in a joyful environment. Learning is stress free and is developed through cordiality and emotional interactions. Fear of authority and fear of reprimand do not find place in such engaging learning situations. In the current scenario with the learners keeping distances, learners denied effective social interactions such collaborative and interactive approaches that support connectivism in learning are deprived. This does contribute significantly to learning gaps.

5. Inadequate opportunities for experiential learning

In a formal school environment, periodic opportunities do exist to seek resources for experiential learning through several gateways. The school laboratories, the school resource centers, the school libraries and other learning inputs like interpretations facilitated by e-packages, smart boards are not available currently. There is no correlation between the knowledge and concurrent skills that need to be learnt and applied. Though online learning does provide visual experiences in terms of e-tours, e-demonstrations, online maps, and a few other learning supports, the post-covid classrooms and the online systems have neither adequately used them nor have had the time to plan out strategies that could find place in their delivery systems. The focus of current pedagogy is more at the cognitive level than those that relate to affective and psychomotor domains.

6. Missing School fitness programs/Physical activities

With a lot of thrust on maintaining social distancing, many educational institutions (though by necessity) have given a safe send off to the Physical education activities in schools. In many places there are specific orders against conduct of such activities in school campus. Unfortunately, some of these conditions also extend to the areas of their domicile. Hence many children are deprived of body-mind balance and positive energy supports that could arise through fitness activities, games etc., Though some of these could be compensated by personal engagement with yoga and meditation at home, there appears to be no adequate engagement with them in the current domestic environment

7. Absence of co-scholastic activities

The co-scholastic activities in schools did provide a platform for a lot of informal learning. They helped to support art, aesthetic sense, histrionic talents, and other cultural inputs to enhance and empower holistic learning among the learners. In the absence of co-scholastic activities, the universe of informal learning has been crippled. Further the opportunities available for extended learning, relating the formal learning inputs to external informal learning opportunities has been reduced. The missed opportunities are likely to have long term effects on the learning psyche and the learning profile if they are not adequately compensated sooner than later.

In the absence of competitive platforms available to the learners in several fronts, both at the personal level and group level, the acknowledgement and celebration of their performances at the societal level in the school community, the opportunities for identification and nurturing of the talents is reduced. The awards/rewards based on merits is absconding from the event tables. Such absence of acknowledgements and rewards have in many cases demotivated them, reduced their active engagement with rewarding talent deliveries.

Other factors contributing to the learning gaps include the family stress due to changing life-work balance paradigm shifts. With several families impacted by the health crisis, financial challenges, loss of jobs and reduced income sources, the families have experienced acute stress, and this had direct impact on their wards. This added to the learning stress of the learners. This has led many learners to perform below their norms and standards. Even learners with established learning routines have found reasons to justify their lowered performances and dissipation of concentrations. In some cases, it has also resulted in lowering their self-esteem.

Learning gaps measure up to low knowledge acquisition, inadequate opportunities for critical and creative thinking, skill inadequacies, depleting social consciousness, lower emotional intelligence, reduced achievement needs, lack of enterprise and the like. Schools and educational support systems would do well to work on bridging the learning gaps through articulate informal support systems so that these gaps do not continue to persist and leave long term effects on the individuals and the society. The responsibility of bridging the learning gaps through design may not be the exclusive responsibility of the schools but it might call for a community approach as it is a factor for social health and for nurturing the learners as competent and contributive citizens for the future.