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Reimagining freedom in classrooms – An observational account by Sriram Valluri – Team Mantra

It’s been almost 2.5 years since we started living with the Corona Virus and the uncertainty that it brings. During this time, many perspectives, habits, ideologies, methodologies, and even lifestyles have seen evolution in most of our lives. A densely populated and constantly busy country like ours would have never imagined a day when everything would come to a pause and this rush that keeps us going would be slowed down by nature. Businesses shut down, schools and colleges closed, offices locked, conditional transport and likewise have become the new normal in this country. Despite every challenge, the only beam of light that kept us all going forward was the possibility of doing most of the things “Online”. Various platforms on the internet created a possibility of keeping things up and running. Businesses, education, software, banking, financial transactions, charity everything was possible through the internet.

Education sector is one of the many industries which utilized the full potential and application of the internet amidst COVID times. Students all over the country are stuck to their computers and mobile phones. Almost everyone is operating from home or the comfort of their own space. All these events made me think of a greater idea which connects to Ivan Illich’s book ‘Deschooling Society”, Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s “Ideology of True Education” and John Holt’s “Freedom of learning”.

Let me share my experience that I had with some children recently.

When I was working with the TSWREIS (Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational institutions Society) in Hyderabad, we started Village Learning Circles (VLCs) for the remotely located children, who cannot travel to the schools due to lockdown. Most of their learning happened through online mode. I visited a few VLCs to observe their learning there. Whenever I meet children there, I often asked, which mode of study they like the best – Offline or Online. And surprisingly I’ve got in response, an almost equal interest for both the modes of learning. But most children expressed a natural affinity towards offline mode of learning.

And when I asked a 6th grade student from Hanamkonda district, why she liked offline better, she replied with honesty and innocence – “we miss our friends, games, and fun at school. It is boring to sit in front of the laptop or mobile phone for hours.” That instantly came across as a valid reason. There were also instances where children said that they really liked online classes better, as they get to google whatever doubts they have and easily understand concepts through various sources from the internet.

This made me think of the subtle distinction between how children experience offline learning versus online learning. Let us consider a typical scene from a typical classroom. Students who are seated at the back benches don’t reach out to their teacher for support many times. In many cases they might not even request the teacher to step aside from the black board to take notes. Similarly, the teacher’s reach to all students in a classroom is more often than not an uneven attempt. Now, why this happens could be explained with a wide range of analysis from student motivation to teacher’s instructional skills. On the contrary, when we consider an online class, children seem to be shouting out their teacher’s name until she responds to them. They call out “ma’am can’t hear you, ma’am you are on mute, shanti ma’am please repeat, Kishore sir board is not visible”.

What creates opportunity, confidence and participation in online mode of learning is yet unclear but nevertheless, very evident.

I saw children having the freedom to switch off their camera and mic in online classes, which mostly allowed children to do whatever they wanted to do. A few slept, few were playing games. A fraction of them were listening but mentally not present and the remaining were listening with full concentration.

One major distinction we can see in the same scenario offline is the infamous – “pindrop silence effect” – an effect that blurs all the objective understanding we have of a classroom. Who is listening, who wants to go out and play, who wants to take a nap can be left to the discretion of the teacher or an observer of the classroom. What gets shed in an online classroom is also this false sense of respect in the case of “pin drop silence effect”. Now let me talk about an alternative world, our philosophers, educationists and great minds debated could be and should be built.

I was driven to imagine a space free from the tag of offline or online. A space that comes with sensible freedom. A learning space driven by a deeper sense of learning anchored in curiosity, an authentic sense of respect, power with accountability, and ownership unparalleled. A space where rules are formed with observations and not by instructions, a space where disciplinary structures are co-created and not dictated, a space where knowledge drives great ideas. To understand the statements a bit, let’s look at an example.

You’ve bought a new carrom board for your 4 year old kid. The kid is very excited to start playing and does not know even a bit about the game. Now as a teacher or parent we know the rules of the game, but the kid doesn’t. So the kid doesn’t want to follow rules, like keeping the striker between the two lines, not putting hands on the board etc… The kid wants to strike it from anywhere on the board, but we instruct them not to stray away from the rules and structures of the game. We hold their hands and make them play our way, which trims down their learning interest and curiosity to explore the game, and the same thing happens when we try to educate a child. The space for his/her exploration is being contained. Now for the same example, if the kid is allowed to play however he wants and we play by following all the rules, slowly with observation the kid starts to imitate or understand the intent of keeping the striker in between the lines and striking. We unknowingly try to hold their hands, spoon feed them and feel like we are giving them freedom and space, but is it the freedom that the child is wanting, or are we stuck in the loops of our definition of freedom and nurturing? That’s a deep question to think of, but indeed a very important one.

And that is the stage where we need to step out as a teacher and be a facilitator, where we should create a path for our children to explore curiosity in learning. If we look closely, questions are always created with innate intelligence, questions don’t require prerequisite skills or knowledge components. They can be thought of on the spot, but answers are developed through building upon previous knowledge. Knowledge has a past. Creativity doesn’t.

Probably the most important contribution we as parents or teachers (facilitators) can make to a child (learner) is to ensure that the past (knowledge) does not suppress the present (creativity). It is to ensure that the limitations of knowledge don’t invalidate the freedom of creativity.

And once we bring all of these aspects into the bigger picture, we may not see education within the lens of offline versus online mode of schooling, rather look at any space as a learning space with the freedom which a child desires for, while learning. This keeps the approach of the child towards their facilitators authentic and respectful whether it is a “ pin drop silence – offline class” or “ Unmute yourself and speak – online class”

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