Ms. Rabia Ahmad Ali wonders how only one year could change decades-old education systems and crucial pedagogical norms on such a large scale. She feels the current COVID-19 pandemic has affected our education system, teaching methodology and traditions as well as the learning processes to the core.
She is a Chemistry teacher at a private college system on Wahdat Road of Lahore. Till March last year, teaching a class used to be the most cherished activity for her. Due to her keen observation and curious nature, she would come to know about almost all necessary information about her students in the first two, three weeks of the start of a new class. She would recognise them by their names; she would be aware of their ways of studies, their behaviour in the classroom and their difficulties in learning some specific topics. All the information would help her throughout the next two or more years to manage the class in a better way. She would know very clearly which student should be treated in what manner, who should be paid more attention to help him/her bring a good name to the college in board exams, which students should be snubbed from time to time to save the class from their mischievous activities, and who should be encouraged to speak to build their confidence.
She would know beforehand which student would top the class in monthly tests or term exams. In case of not getting the desired and expected results, she would interview her brilliant students separately, and try to resolve their individual issues to prepare them for the board exams.
Sometimes, she would contact some parents by telephone to discuss their children’s problems, making herself a favourite teacher of almost all of her students.
But then the most dreaded novel coronavirus broke out. The pandemic took Pakistan, like almost all other countries of the world, by storm. In the second week of March 2020, the government announced the closing of all educational institutions across the country, in the wake of the epidemic.
During the next year, the government authorities, education ministry and departments, education institution administrations and teachers took unprecedented decisions. Online and virtual classes were launched, the government inaugurated a so-called tele-school, and even students of schools, colleges and universities were promoted to the next classes without any exam.
Most part of the year, regular classes remained suspended on one pretext or the other. Ms. Rabia Ahmad’s college started online classes and tests/exams for its students, to keep them engaged.
It was an altogether different learning environment: all students sitting at different places, in their homes, and the teacher sitting in a classroom alone, with the equipment needed for delivering a lecture. Ms. Rabia experimented with different methodologies to improve the learning process, and experienced the physical noises involved in the process. In the beginning, she asked all her students to keep their microphones on, to ensure that they get the feeling of attending a class. However, it proved to be a great stress on her nerves and a hindrance to the smooth functioning of the class. While all mics were on, she was hearing toddlers and minors crying in the background, some television channels presenting news programmes or dramas, in some cases mics catching voices from streets, vendors selling vegetables and fruit, or selling old household items, old newspapers (raddi) or iron and plastic waste. She could not bear with it for long, and advised her students to put their mics off after marking their attendance. Any student with some query was allowed to switch on the mic and ask a question meanwhile. But, in the situation, she would never know which student was listening to her lecture, and which not. Who was attentive, who was learning something, and who not?
Students were shared tests through the online system and on WhatsApp numbers, with directions to submit answer-sheets online, through email, or hard copies at the college reception. Many a time, she was surprised to receive the answer-sheets and solved papers. Those never showing any good performance in monthly tests and term exams had attempted the papers extraordinarily, with great skills, while her “brilliant” students had failed to come up to her expectations. When she called some of her students, they said they had solved their question papers with 100pc honesty, and thus poor performance.
What about those showing exceptionally good performance?
Ms. Rabia Ahmad Ali, and all her colleagues were really disappointed with the performance of their students when schools and colleges reopened after subsiding of the first wave of the virus. A large majority of them had returned to classes totally blank, after a six-month closure of educational institutions. A World Bank report suggested that learning poverty in the country had gone up to 79pc as a result of school closures due to the pandemic. A government higher secondary school teacher, Irfan Saleem, put the loss figures at over 90pc.
The Annual Status of Education Report 2018 (ASER-2018) had shocked the nation last year by disclosing that almost 50pc of Pakistani students enrolled in grade five cannot perform arithmetic and reading tasks, set for the second grade. Nearly 53pc of children cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of their primary school-level education. The poor learning outcomes are not only limited to public schools but also low-cost private schools. As a result, many students are years behind the appropriate learning level for their age group and have weak foundational concepts.
The educationist has reasons to explain the outcome of the ASER survey and the WB report, showing an increase in learning poverty in Pakistani schools. “The education process, especially at the primary level, needs completion of a triangle comprising student, teacher and parents. All three fortify efforts of each other for the successful learning of students in an ideal situation. But regrettably, the triangle remains incomplete in more than 90pc cases in government schools, and so is the case with the learning process,” Irfan Saleem says. In most cases, adds the educationist, parents of government school students are uneducated themselves and they do not give importance to education and learning of their children.
In a large number of cases, they send their children to schools to get rid of them for a few hours, and they have no interest in what they study in schools and how much they learn or gain knowledge, believes the senior teacher on the basis of his experience in the field. However, he adds, the case of those studying in private schools may be different. After paying heavy fees, parents of children studying in private schools mostly keep an eye on them; they keep asking their children as well as their teachers about the learning situation and their grades, the educationist says. He admits that in some cases, teachers in government schools also show slackness in imparting education to their students.
The WB report, “Learning Losses in Pakistan due to COVID-19 School Closures”, however, says that the estimates are not cast in stone, and in collaboration with the government, the development partners can influence the numbers by taking appropriate action, particularly now that schools have reopened.
The report suggests the measures, among others, to ensure that dropouts do not materialise, and organise an enrolment drive and leverage cash transfers to encourage enrolment or re-enrolment of children.
According to the report, an estimated 930,000 additional children are expected to drop out from both primary and secondary education. Given that 22 million are already out of school, it represents an increase of almost 4.2pc. Pakistan is a country where dropouts are the highest due to the COVID-19 crisis in relative terms.
The estimate is based on the observed income elasticity of education for various socio-economic quintiles and on the June 2020 growth estimates for Pakistan which were estimated to be minus 4.4pc. Income elasticity in Pakistan is high for two main reasons: high poverty levels, which lead families to push their children into labour or marriage from an early age; and the cost of private schooling in which 38pc of school-going children aged six to 10 were enrolled before the crisis.
On the dropout issue, however, Irfan Saleem, as well as Ms. Nyla Shabbir, a senior teacher at a famous private school branch, seemed satisfied. The government schoolteacher said the dropout loss was almost negligible, while the class 9th in-charge at the Wahdat Road Lahore branch of a big private school system said that 100pc students had rejoined classes after educational institutions reopened.
Ms. Nyla Shabbir’s estimates about learning losses among students of their school were quite different from Mr. Irfan Saleem’s. She told Cutting Edge by telephone that the tests conducted by them soon after the return of students showed that overall 50pc students had suffered learning losses, and 30pc were the worst cases.
She said special arrangements had been made to keep the students engaged in studies during the COVID-19 lockdown days. All class in-charges and teachers had formed WhatsApp groups of their students. They were informed about their lecture timing and online tests on a daily basis through WhatsApp and text messages, and in many cases calls were also made to parents of the students for an uninterrupted learning process. Parents were requested to submit tests of their children, conducted online, to school offices on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The tests were assessed by the teachers concerned, and the results were shared with the parents through WhatsApp and text messages on their cell-phones. “This was a real hard task, but it produced good results and their learning losses were curtailed to a large extent,” says Ms. Nyla with satisfaction.
The WB report, however, appreciated the efforts of Pakistan for minimising learning losses of students through the internet and launch of a television channel for imparting lessons to students through distance or remote learning methods. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan has put in place an impressive infrastructure to support remote learning, added the report.
The 2020 Human Capital Index showed that Pakistan had improved its Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling from 4.8 years to 5.1 years over the last few years. But the gains may have been lost already. The report estimated that school closures during the pandemic will result in a loss of between 0.3 and 0.8 years of learning-adjusted schooling. “We expect that the four months of school closures during the pandemic could reduce learning adjusted years of schooling for Pakistan back to 4.8 years,” added the report.
“If we quantify the loss of learning in terms of labour market returns, the average student will face a reduction between $193 and $445 in yearly earnings once he or she enters the labour market, which represents between 2.8pc and 6.6pc of annual income.
“Aggregated for all students in Pakistan and projected 20 years into the future when all graduates have entered the labour market, this would cost the Pakistan economy between $67 billion and $155bn in GDP at Net Present Value,” said the report.