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Need to ‘Flex it’ in Our Schools

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 By Roli S
One of the fundamental principles given in the NEP is seeking ‘flexibility in learning’. It backs learning in which students have the ability to choose their learning trajectories and programmes, and thereby choose their own paths in life according to their talents and interests; they are given freedom in how, what, when and where they learn. So, basically, it means the ability to customise one’s pace, place and mode of learning. Regarding pace, for example, students may take accelerated or fast paced programmes or engage in part-time learning to ensure they have more time to work on subjects and skills they are interested in. Learning can take place in a variety of settings, including the classroom, at home or via the Internet. Mode refers to the way that lessons are delivered by technology, typically through blended learning or technology-enhanced experiences. Now, in today’s COVID-19 affected environment, does not this principle of NEP hold much credibility and value?
The most fundamental structures in our schools are often inhibitors to progress: our schedules, our physical spaces, the class and group formations, and the composition of the teachers and staff – everything is so restricted in most of the traditional schools of our country. But flexible learning environments imply that the school adapts the use of resources such as staff, space and time to best support personalisation. It’s a combination of different structures, instructional strategies, and curricular approaches that allow a child to have access to what they need when they need it, to know what their next steps are in their learning, and to pursue areas of strength and interest.
To achieve personalisation and flexibility in our schools, we also have to provide flexible physical space – this means creating spaces for groups of different sizes in the school, small size escape rooms throughout the school so that smaller groups of students can work collaboratively for  activities like book readings and literature circles, math and science explorations, independent work, etc. A teacher might also call a group of students into a smaller space to re-teach a concept or provide a lesson that extends the current concept for students who have already grasped it. So, essentially, in a flexible environment schools don’t just have four walls, they have a bunch of walls that can open and close, so  space can be made to fit what is needed, rather than the space dictating what has to be done.
Besides the space, the flexibility also extends to the use of time. Middle school teachers must have the ability to flex their schedules. Teachers can reorganise and schedule their timetables in numerous ways to allow for different uses of the time. For example, they might revise the schedule, shortening class periods, to create a block of time for project work, etc. Students, with guidance from their teachers, identify what subjects they want support in, and sign up for specific classes to reinforce the learning during assigned block periods. Sometimes, this might be remediation of a concept taught earlier in the day. Other times, it will be an extension activity for students who have already grasped the concept from earlier in the day.
In a flexible environment of learning, student grouping is also very significant. Traditionally, students are grouped together for a specific class and section at a specific time at the beginning of the year, and that class grouping doesn’t change, but now we know that all students are unique, and so this model has its limitations. So, according to the new NEP, teachers must work closely together to plan for instructions based on student need. If a group of students needs extra time on a certain math concept, they are given that extra time during a flexible block, regardless of which math class they are scheduled in. Teachers examine students’ formative work on a regular basis to identify what learning they need next. Students are then grouped and regrouped in response to that data. The research affirms that using data to frequently adapt and modify student grouping is a key aspect of personalisation and flexible approach of learning.
These points bring us to the most crucial question, why has the NEP given so much importance to flexible learning? It is because, across the world, it has been found that that in a flexible environment, students are more likely to make connections between subject area and content skills than those not in a flexible learning environment. In a flexible learning environment, teachers more easily calibrate and adjust their language and methodology. Students build their ability to see the world as inter-connected, which we know it is. Additionally, using flexible grouping and time encourages students to further pursue their areas of strength and to get additional time and support in areas of challenge. Not only this, flexible learning environment increases teacher effectiveness because working closely with someone on a common goal enhances our lives. When teachers are working more collaboratively together, the benefits are substantial. Teachers learn from each other and get more regular feedback on their teaching practices. The teachers feel a sense of collective responsibility for all students’ learning.
So, in this COVID-19 season, when many a rethink and restructuring is taking place, it is imperative that all across India, from metropolitan cities to the remotest tribal region, teachers and other stake holders must be sensitised on the issue of flexibility in our school environment, if we wish to make NEP a success.
(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai)