Traditional Schooling Leaves Learning to Chance

Radhika Iyengar
May 21, 2020


Education these days is left to many chances. Households must have the Internet. Homes must have a spare laptop for the child to work on. In other places, you must at least own a smartphone. Parents must be ready to multitask as co-teachers and facilitators. With everything going online now,  you must have a smooth Internet connection. Very few lucky people have these chances. Now more than ever we must look towards un-conventional pathways for learning. Education must go on. 

There is a rush in the education community to create new online platforms and content in the hope that teachers and students will use them.  The technology naysayers are also trying to see which tech “lite” solutions can help the large proportion of students who are at home. Just so we understand the magnitude, UNESCO statistics say that 70% of the world’s student population is out-of-school, affecting 1,213,390,181 students[1]. One hundred and fifty eight countries are facing closures along with schools being impacted. 

At home in Millburn, New Jersey, I have dusted my old laptop and have given it to my 2nd grader. Being a screen time averse mom, I had to grudgingly allow a screen time from 9am to 3pm for my 8-year-old. At 9 am, three laptops open-up simultaneously: my husband’s, my daughter's, and mine. By noon, two of these have fought over the homework that has not been done, followed by tears and finally some sweet dessert to remediate the situation. Invariably, some software couldn't be downloaded, or the daughter went from one prescribed YouTube link to seeing all the YouTube links that appeared one after another. Math homework takes time, not because of the mathematics problem set itself, but because it takes a while to work on the computer and slowly type each key. Online classes and remote learning is the new normal, at least for now. Over the weeks, we have settled down a bit, and our teacher has started talking to us everyday, which has helped a lot. 

I am grateful to the Millburn, New Jersey public school system, and the Principal and teachers who quickly adapted to the situation and provided learning opportunities for their students. Meetings with the school Principal and everyday interaction with the teachers has helped us move forward together. Lesson plans appear on Google classroom sharp at 8:30 am followed by an online meeting with the teacher at 9:30 am. The best part about the 9:30 am meeting is that our teacher shows up with her cat Shantili. Shantili likes to watch the students and move her tail. At 11 am we have another check-in from the teacher who helps to resolve any questions that the students have. The teacher starts giving instructions by saying “look here, at the screen, sit tall and pay attention”, while I marvel at her capacity to teach so many kids at the same time. I have managed to see my child’s teacher more times during this pandemic than I have seen her in the earlier months. I have also become more involved with my child’s education goals than ever before. I find it a relief to see my child’s teacher appearing calm and composed and wonder to myself, how can she be so calm with so many kids? As we know, parental and child mental health improves when we see a real-face interacting with us rather than cartoons. When Mr. D does his Gym class, I also join to do some downward dogs and reach up for the sky-high. We cannot forget the importance of human interaction in this crisis. Technology for us has worked because of the school teachers’ face to face interaction and Verizon’s reliability in accommodating  the high internet demand in my house. 

Meanwhile, my child’s education is not just the responsibility of her teacher alone. During this lockdown, many avenues of education have opened up for us. Gardener moms are zooming (wait is that a word already) to show how eco-friendly our yard can become. My kids and I have sown sunflower seeds and tomatoes, thanks to the efforts of two moms who dropped them outside our house. We have learned how to pen down our thoughts in a poem with the help from a mom who is a local poet (and much more). We have also learned how to be  creative writers and become active advocates for the environment. We have become  good public speakers using the skills of an MIT and Harvard graduate, who luckily belongs to our community. We have become more knowledgeable about microplastics because of a Millburn middle school student who shared his microplastics research with us. Our community members landed up in a podcast with the State of the Planet[2]. Some moms have offered to conduct yoga sessions on Zoom,  others are showing-off their  Bollywood dance moves, and some have even offered their senior year kid’s time to make younger ones learn piano. Four moms got together to set up a mini-circulating library for ten children within the community.  Two Millburn moms recruited 20 plus other mothers to cook food for the frontline health workers. Their children made beautiful cards each time a tray went to the hospital.  This is a great way for children to learn empathy. One mom has started Indian folktale story sessions on Zoom. I, too,  have used Pratham’s[3]distance learning program to learn about early childhood activities with my 4-year-old.  I am using my time to make my kids learn Hindi, their mother tongue, thanks to the  advice I heard on a new (and much recommended) podcast series-The Parent Scoop[4].  So much learning is happening, but it has not followed a linear path. 

In my forthcoming article with Prospects, UNESCO[5], I focus on the community’s social capital. The social capital has been an under-utilized resource that has been put to use to create educational pathways in Millburn, New Jersey. Each community member has his or her own expertise. Every family has  something unique to offer. These resources are under-utilized and often forgotten. It is time to re-invigorate this system. This can be achieved  informally through technology or by mobilizing the local community. Or,  it can be done more systematically, at the Federal level as discussed by Susan Dynarski in The New York Times.[6]   She talks about how the Federal Government should tap into the unused energy of volunteers,  who could be unemployed college students and graduates, by giving them some stipend and asking them to assist teachers or teach online classes during summer. This is a terrific plan that not only urges the youth to look at teaching avenues but also helps to divert their attention to a project that is much needed nationwide. Professor Dynarski is very clear that this should be done by the Government and not conducted on a small scale. I have seen a similar educational program in Nigeria, where students undertake a service project for one year before joining college after their last year in school. This one year field-based learning is embedded in the education system itself. Some of them opt to teach in a rural school and understand up-close the challenges and needs of the community. This is an excellent way to educate yourself about your own country. Currently, Columbia University students and staff have mobilized a tutoring service for children of essential workers. Some version of this could continue post COVID-19. The United States has an international service program called Peace Corps, products of which I always find impressive. Instead of making it an internationally oriented program, the United States could use this and other programs  like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to co-teach their peers. 

Let us use this time during the pandemic not only to see which technology or which content helps to make children learn, but also to see how human resources and untapped potential can be used to make education seamless from the schools to the communities.   


 Many thanks to Jahnavi Bhatt for her assistance in this article. 






[5]Iyengar, Radhika & Shin, Haein (2020) A community-based program approach to tackle environmental education and COVID-19: A case-study from Millburn, New Jersey. Forthcoming, Prospects, UNESCO