by Mame Omar Diop and Tarush Jain
To read the published version in the Education Times click here
In no time, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the Indian society to a painful halt. To be fair, the more prosperous societies across the west are also facing a similar crisis. Social distancing has become an imperative in this fight against a mighty, invisible enemy. In a country with cultural norms and economic systems like ours, this is indeed a massive inconvenience not only socially but also economically. At the same time, the success of such a step depends not only on an individual but also all those around him. A tiny act of error or adventurism by a single individual can prove to be severe for scores of people. The question then is whether the Indian society is prepared for such discipline and empathy. More importantly, this will not be the last such crisis where one’s welfare will depend on the person next door. Tough questions need to be asked of our current institutions and systems. Amongst the most crucial of these is India’s education system.
An aggregate shock
As per a research conducted by Brainwiz, across India, the last two academic years have witnessed some unfortunate disruptions. For instance, since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, schools across Jammu and Kashmir lost over 60 working days. Extreme weather conditions and pollution levels forced a loss of 120 days across states such as Delhi, Puducherry, Punjab and West Bengal. Furthermore, political rallies and bandhs accounted for over 30 lost days. Yet, as one might notice, all these events, or ‘shocks’ were largely local in nature. A student in Karnataka was not too affected by the lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir. Even as students did not attend school in Delhi due to air pollution, students in Nagaland did not face any such issues. Furthermore, students across different states could have hardly made a difference to mitigate the hardships of other affected students. However, something is fundamentally different about the COVID-19 crisis.
The key difference between the current crisis and the other aforementioned crises is the former’s aggregate nature. The crisis, for instance, has impacted (or has the potential to impact) Madhya Pradesh as much as Punjab. There are no safe havens. The last such ‘aggregate’ shock that comes to mind in the Indian context is demonetisation. Yet, in that case, we knew that an active government was working behind the scenes to ameliorate concerns at the earliest possible. However, in the current scenario, the government is depending on social awareness as much as the society is banking on the government’s preparedness. On the bright side, that also means that as a community, we broadly know what is to be done to ensure that one’s neighbour does not contract the disease, or that a young student does not infect an older relative. As a citizenry though, are we mentally conditioned to face such challenges? Is the Indian education system promoting a value system that promotes compassion, empathy and discipline aimed at public welfare? To our mind, the sad answer to both these questions might well be negative. In such a case then, is there a case for an alternate approach to education to instil the intent to act selflessly in the interest of the society at large?
The case for Education for Sustainable Development
In November 2019, the 40th UNESCO General Conference adopted the new global framework on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD for 2030) for the period of 2020-2030. The global framework for implementation of ESD is the follow up to the Global Action Programme on ESD (GAP, 2015-2019). ESD for 2030 aims to build a more just and sustainable world through strengthening ESD and contributing to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The framework will focus on integrating ESD and the 17 SDGs into policies, learning environments, capacity building of educators, empowerment and mobilisation of youth, and local level action. Furthermore, UNESCO also plans to host a ‘UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development’, after the world recovers from this ongoing crisis. The Conference will raise awareness of these challenges, highlight the crucial role of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as a key enabler for the successful achievement of all SDGs, and create momentum for strengthening ESD in policy and practice.
ESD is aimed at internalising the unintended effects of one’s actions on others. By introducing subjects such as gender studies and environmental sustainability, education systems across the world are trying to ingrain among their students these concepts at a very young age. Through multidisciplinary, inter-disciplinary and multidimensional approaches, the overall objective of the exercise hinges around the idea of translating academic concepts into relatable real-life challenges and finding their solutions. ESD’s focus on often ignored soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership and communication equip students with the right toolkit to deal with these challenges. These assertions are also backed by evidence. Evidence from across the world suggests that ESD curricula help students develop a deeper understanding of real-life challenges that the global community is facing. These include but are not limited to- climate change, socio-economic inequality, gender bias and peace-building. Through such a holistic approach, ESD seems to have not only developed virtues such as empathy and compassion, but is also correlated with better grades and a wider range of future academic and professional opportunities for students. It is, therefore, not surprising that UNESCO is pursuing this objective very rigorously and is working with policy-makers and educational institutions across the world to scale these efforts up. However, a lot still remains to be done.
As much as we may want to wish, the COVID-19 crisis will not be the last such aggregate shock. By not focusing on skills aimed at sustainable cohabitation, we have already produced several generations of adults who may not be psychologically equipped to deal with such challenges. Our best hope, in such a case, is to begin as soon as possible and churn out the next generation of community leaders who can think not only for themselves but also for those around them. COVID-19 might just be a trailer for several such challenges that await us.
(Mame Omar DIOP is the chief of Education Sector at UNESCO New Delhi Office and Tarush Jain, TEDx speaker and founder, Brainwiz )