Shifting Paradigm of Education in New Normal

We are locked in for several weeks now, following curves and chasing plateaus like our lives depend on it. Well, it does actually. The world is shaking in a half-knowledge of unprecedented disruption, and yet in its undying relentlessness, it’s all at the same time trying to find its #newnormal: how and how soon, we don’t know as yet.

All we know for now is that many things will not remain the same anymore. The world after Covid-19 will at its best have only a vague resemblance with the world we knew before. This pandemic will have lasting effects not just on our lives, lifestyles, careers or professional settings. Among other things the biggest wave of transformation will perhaps come in education sector.

Education system from this point in time is perhaps like that thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that was fixed up with great care and greater stakes, painted dreams and push sells like glue sticking pieces that would not seem made to fit. And now, all of a sudden, the puzzle has been locked up, box has been shaken up, and the pieces have simply come apart, much like the human ego. And what I am both concerned and hopeful about is: when it stops shaking anymore after all and we try to fix its pieces back in position, it will come together into a completely new picture after all.

I wonder what it would look like eventually, this thing called Education. Classrooms without walls? Personal agency over career, job, life? Free access to education across barriers of money, geography, politics?

Here is what comes to mind:

Education will get rid of its intermediaries

Not just the coaching classes or the commercial enterprises, not just exam suggestion rackets or backdoor admission trades by the name of career consultancies, but heck: even our parents maybe? A clear push first towards homeschooling but eventually towards a free-flow un-schooling model where we can follow our guts and our nose. Maybe the syllabus will be broadcasted by national television channels, and the sheer scalability of the system will warrant access that will cut through barriers of paying capacities, geographic boundaries, language barriers. The world for one will be more equal.

Education will perhaps be globalised, first, subject to local customisations. Will it lead to more political controllership? Depends. Can it be contained by overseeing boards put in place by bodies such as the United Nations? Maybe. Will it solve the longstanding concern around the accessibility of education? Heck, yes.

Classrooms without boundaries

My guess is, this will be the most remarkable effect, and it is not far-fetched anymore. But before we discuss about it, here’s a question: Let’s think, what do we study in class 9 for? No, not to quench curiosity, we all have been students, we know right? Right. To score a perfect 99.8 percentile in my 10th boards, and 12th, and so on. What for? So I can get admission in good colleges. What for? So I can get good degrees. What for, again? Lucrative career options, 8 digit job offers and so on. Now, we must realize that this entire premise banks on the assumption of “limited resources” – that there are only so many seats in a given college, university, Ivy league schools.

Now, what if online modality of education strikes a good hard blow at the root of that very assumption? What if, in the higher education space with the click of a mouse (Keypad, okay) I can attend a lecture from Harvard? What if with online modalities, I have access to study Development Economics with Abhijit Banerjee at MIT and Chemistry with Frances Arnold at Caltech, and create my own interdisciplinary approach to my personal goals in life in career?

To think of it, teachers and professors who in real life wouldn’t have as much a possibility of crossing paths in ten lifetimes will come in direct competition now, and what if only the best survives?

Shall we see monopolised education? Yes, likely.

Shall we see politicised education? We will wait and see.

Now of course, there will be some necessary customisation needs at the beginning. However, that could only be medium term at best, for as much the contents need to be adapted we would quickly adapt too. While our world views become globalised with “roti, kapda, makaan, internet” education modules will also perhaps customise based on student cohorts (accentuation, examples, applications). The twain shall meet somewhere and soon, I am guessing.

Education with purpose

In my mind, the current education regime has at its core three major reasons why it is structurally separated from a sense of personal purpose –

  1. Job expectations, that often expect replicas labeled with degrees
  2. Modalities: the very exam structure and scoring system, memorised, written expressions, unreal problems, score than solve, compete than collaborate
  3. An acute dearth of interdisciplinary fluidity.

Not to mention how early in lives we are required to make our minds about what we want to become, how that question sounds big but answers only with career choices, how that our minds aren’t quite our minds, and how careers are rank-ordered with status and therefore imply quality differences, and that we are brought up to obey not invent.

A couple of days back I came across an online column about Finland’s evolving education system which is now looking at getting rid of “school subjects” replacing that with a promising, in fact evocative, “phenomenon-based learning”.

Now, how much can that change our universe of education? The answer is: radically. Instead of treading the blurred gold-dusted footprints of some “Sharmaji ka beta” we’ll be on our own for our own good. We as individuals, even as children perhaps, will finally have agency. A say in what we want to learn, how, and when.

A word of caution here: School education till at least standard 5-6 may still need to be mandatory. No one loves grammar, everyone needs it eventually. Foundation building should be there. However, the exam system can still be reengineered for the better. We need to get solutions not scores, and we need to be more holistic – not miss running on tracks because of Maths test next day, not giving up on playing the flute, or not stopping by to take care of an injured stray dog on way to school because we are getting late? With the evolved system even as we work on fundamentals, we need to watch over. Teach wisdom of the body as much as we teach intelligence of the mind, teach empathy, harness the power of emotions. Protecting agency, exercise freedom of choice on inclinations, time and pace, with an overseeing control, maybe?

Will that fall on parenting? Perhaps.

Can there be a good incentive structure in place so children can learn out of love than discipline? Yes. A lot of work is already underway on such modalities.

Will screen-time exposure become a constant concern? Sadly, perhaps yes.

Personal agency over education, career and life

Finally, let’s think of the inside effects of the shifting paradigm in education. I hesitate here as to trying to talk of it brings me to a keyword which might sound a tad bit philosophical: Swadharma (True Nature)

What are we curious about? How do we want to be educated? When? How long?

Gaining agency over our own lives will perhaps begin with the “free choice” of education. Education, finally, will become a personal pursuit.

Will that cause lack of depth? Over-specialisation? Loss of perspective and context? Stuck with misplaced choices made early on, now shifting? We can only tell with time.

Will education move towards collaboration than competition as its measure? Will it pit us against our friends like before? Will education still be tested with scores? Likely not.

Will education continue to be overly focused on mental faculties than holistic, now that we know chalk from cheese better than before? Maybe not!

Will education include our feelings and not just our thoughts? Perhaps.

Will education help us become better just in jobs or in life? Well, I’m hopeful!

Fitting back the bigger picture

Coming to the common (ill-perceived?) goal of institutionalized education: careers.

Choice of education – what, when, how and how much – will now become goal-based and dream-based. We’ll grow tiny entrepreneurs all around us, and in our homes. Under such a regime, personal pursuits, personal branding and personal choices will become monarchs, perhaps, in a person’s lives (a welcome shift from “Sharmaji ka beta” syndrome.)

My belief is that this shift of paradigm in education will be adequately matched up on the outside, too. With walls of corporates melting down in the #newnormal and ‘work from home’ and ‘flexi work’ becoming the order of the day, with supplementary benefits such as insurance cover and physical space keeping becoming costlier at the same time, there is a likely shift to consultation and freelance based work arrangements. It has its own challenges, yes, but that’s for another day. For now in context of suitability of self-engineered career choices and career fittings, this seems to fall in line with each other.

All in all, as the world is still shaking up and finding its new equilibrium, we can safely say we are up for some interesting times in the space of Education. One big place seeing a looming paradigm shift.

And it makes me insanely hopeful: That, finally the time will come. Our lives that will change. Soon. There is a certain thrill to imagine a world of education with interdisciplinary possibilities, curiosity driven choices, passion based careers.

-Sinjini Sengupta (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 25-44 Years Age Group)

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