The COVID-19 Effect: Learning Loss In Early Childhood And How To Mitigate It

The ‘learning loss’ is real.

Multiple early education experts have sounded the alarm, saying the gap in learning caused due to school closures can impact an entire generation of children. In India, around 320 million students have been affected by COVID-19 school closures, and the numbers show no signs of abating. This situation is compounded by the fact that India had already noticed signs of learning poverty among our children. The ASER 2019 report shows only 16.2% of children could read Std I text while in Std I, and this number improved to 50.8% of children in Std III. This puts children’s ability to read at least two years behind where the current curriculum expects them to be at their age.

Why A Learning Loss In The Early Years Is Especially Worrying

Cognitive psychology suggests that without practice, children are most susceptible to forgetting facts and procedural skills (Cooper & Sweller, 1987). A WHO research paper shows a poor start in life can lead to poor health, nutrition, and inadequate learning, resulting in low adult earnings as well as social tensions. Because of this shaky start, affected people are estimated to lose about a quarter of their average yearly income, while their country may lose up to twice their current GDP expenditure on health and education. These consequences impact not only present, but also future generations.

Types Of Learning Loss

According to the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, Anurag Behar, learning loss is of two kinds:

a) What children should have learnt during the period when schools were closed (e.g., in 2020-2021).
b) What children have already forgotten from their previous year (e.g., until March 2020) of learning, which we can term ‘academic regression.’ This phase is similar to children’s experience during the summer vacations when they forget parts of the previous year’s learning.

Graphical representation of learning loss as per a study conducted by the Azim Premji University.
Azim Premji University conducted a study in January 2021, spanning 16067 children in 1137 public schools in 44 districts across 5 states, from grades 2-6.

Experts warn that these effects will only compound over time. For early learners who are missing out on learning during the most crucial period — 85% of the brain’s development happens in the early years before the age of eight — this loss will negatively impact their future.

How Edtech Helped During This Crisis

India has always been invested in early childhood education; we are the proud flag bearers of one of the most extensive ECCE programs in the world – the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). We have taken further measures to increase the focus on early education with our National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.

As a nation, we recognised the need for urgent intervention and have taken (and continue to take) steps towards mitigating learning loss. Educational initiatives by several nonprofits, learning institutions, and edtech organisations followed announcements of public-private partnerships by various state governments.

Teachers’ Ability To Use Technology Rose: The mayhem caused by school closures led to a nationwide crisis. However, educators across India rose to the challenge, valiantly fighting to deliver education to their students. Since in-person learning was not a possibility, educators used innovative modes of delivery, like loudspeakers, WhatsApp, and more. (Read their efforts, in The Inspiring Educators Innovating Teaching-Learning During This Health Crisis) While striving to figure out a way to teach despite school closures, multiple educators have reported a rise in their technology-based knowledge and ability.

Opinion About Using Technology In Education Has Changed: The scale tipped towards a more positive outlook, say educational experts. A significant portion of this change came from the outreach and support given to traditional learning by multiple edtech organisations and the Government itself. The Centre emphasised digital techniques and tools to help teachers navigate teaching and learning during this crisis. The increased usage of technology has given educators a better understanding of how to leverage online learning for better outcomes in their classrooms and learning centres.

Online Instruction Took Hold: With little to no contact between children and their teachers, online instruction was one of the few ways educators approached the crisis. Fueled (at least in part) by increased access to digital devices, online learning emerged as a strong alternative to traditional learning. To withstand tech-equity issues, problems of internet access, and the dizzying array of approaches to online instruction across states and schools, governments partnered with the private sector, boosting access to educational technology programs and digital learning.

Square Panda India Recommends

The ripple effects of learning loss will take significant time to overcome. Strong policies backed by innovative edtech interventions across multiple levels are crucial to promote, protect, and strengthen children’s development, reaching even the most vulnerable sections of society. Only then can we truly diminish the learning loss due to Covid. 

Our projects in Chhattisgarh, Mumbai, Pune, and Uttar Pradesh demonstrate that effective early learning programs and teacher training programs can make a difference. Our partnerships with several state governments hinge on the fact that a child’s brain will already be majorly developed, and the foundations for success at school and in later life will be in place. On the backs of our expertise and research in ECCE, we recommend these key points to reduce the learning loss.

  • Embrace Public-Private Partnerships: Even before the pandemic, a report by Redseer and Omidyar Network India estimated that by 2022, the K-12 edtech market in India will be worth USD 1.7 billion. With education moving online due to school closures, this figure looks set to change. Successful examples of public-private partnerships in commercial infrastructure, transport, energy, communication, etc., serve as an inspiration for adopting this model in education too. Partnerships and wide-scale collaborations with educationally inclined companies, foundations, and governments can bring in the necessary innovation and help the government ensure speedy NEP 2020 execution, to mitigate the effects of COVID-induced learning loss.
  • Train Educators: A key factor to ensure the learning loss does not have far-reaching effects is educator empowerment via training. Teachers, Anganwadi workers, and other educators are at the heart of early childhood education. Simply put, we need to upskill our educators to recognise and work around the learning loss their students’ exhibit, using appropriate 21st century skills.

For example, India needs initiatives like the kind Square Panda India has designed, which holistically develop competencies in ECCE, understanding of brain development, technical know-how, and classroom management in educators to help them impact the early learning landscape across India.

  • Use Digital Tools Effectively: Education-led technology is an effective tool to overcome the effects of the pandemic on our children’s education. The NEP 2020 recognises this, emphasising, “Technology-based education platforms, such as DIKSHA/SWAYAM, will be better integrated across school and higher education,(…).” A combination of digital and physical learning can upgrade existing outreach programs and build future-ready skills in children while addressing the learning gap.
  • Motivate Children To Grow: Applying labels and sorting children as per their learning loss will only add stigma and shake these young learners’ confidence, say experts. Using assessments and diagnostic tools should be used wisely to guide individual student needs and not simply to judge or rank these children, teachers, and schools. States and regions need to identify which areas, and subsequently, which children need more support, and rise to the occasion by honouring the needs of children without segregating them from their peers. Only then can we usher in a better, fairer era of education in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Our world as we know it has changed, and how we impart learning to children has to change accordingly. The pandemic has highlighted multiple areas of improvement in the early learning landscape in India. How we bridge the learning gap will decide our children’s future and the future of India.

What have been your young learners’ experiences with learning loss during the pandemic? Comment below.

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Written by Square Panda India
Empowering children with the power of literacy and languages, Square Panda India provides an adaptive, multisensory, phonics learning platform to early learners everywhere.