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Lockdown time is that ‘Aahaa!’ moment to reform teaching and learning architecture

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*
The massive online teaching has arrived in big way finally in India! Thanks to the covid-lockdown, online teaching at most schools, colleges and universities are upped pan India. The Zoom, Outlook Teams, WatsApp, Skype, Classroom are some of the crucial teaching and learning tools. As teachers, while we are learning to teach, we are also teaching to learn.
If COVID is a big concern, then lockdown is equally a big concern. Since, as human race, we are not used to of being confined to one space for several days and nights. Imagine the side-effects of lockdown especially the physical and the psychological impacts on the youth and the children.
So, when there are thanksgiving taking rounds for the healthcare workers and local administrations (rightfully so) to prevent and cure the COVID; it is important to extend the thanksgiving to all the teachers who are working relentlessly in the lockdown to keep the youth and the children busy everyday with the teachings, assignments, exams, screaming, pampering, besides doing the administrative tasks of the courses and the institutions.
A particular mention for the women teachers, since they are super-loaded alongside with doing the domestic chores and especially with no respite or compromise on either of the fronts: The women teachers in this time are truly multi-tasking like Maa-Durga to keep everyone around healthy and happy within the boundaries of the built in the lockdown. Maa Tujhe Salaam!
I found that teaching and learning in this lockdown time is not much written. Dr Matthew Walz (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas) wrote a nice piece on April 2, 2020 on ‘Teaching On Covid Time’ comparing with reference to the war period in 1939 when England declared war on Germany just when the Michaelmas term (September-December) was about to start.
Events and disturbances like the covid-lockdown is one of its kind in most of our lives that we cannot ignore, however many believe that as far as teaching and learning are concerned the events and disturbances must not create new situation and things must go as normal. Since, humans’ desire to seek knowledge is continuum and is aggravated by the odds in the society hence, the life has never been normal. So, the question whether one should be dedicated to teaching and learning in the lockdown time may be pertinent but then one is ought to be dedicated other times too.
Prof Walz, pulls out an important reference (from CS Lewis’s of Oxford University sermon) on learning in war time and I quote: 
“…that there was wisdom therein pertinent to the present moment. Under normal circumstances, we are prone to lose sight of the ultimate reasons we do what we do as educators, and why we ask -- even demand -- that students learn. Those enduring grounds for learning that transcend the favorable or unfavorable circumstances in which education may take place, and both students and teachers do well to keep these essential reasons in mind…” I kind of agree and disagree given that though we are trying to teach and learn as everything is normal in the not so normal circumstances, importantly, may be because we are technologically so equipped to remote learning (even in usual circumstances), that the lockdown opportunities to teach and learn will be remembered for long time as a blessing in disguise for both the teachers and the students.

My take on this COVID-lockdown teaching and learning

I’m keeping myself occupied in this lockdown time with guiding eight thesis students in architecture and planning besides curating a thesis pedagogy for a school with first batch students. This is in addition to conducting a design studio and like many teachers doing the daily domestic chores, reading writing and yes, a bit of involvement with the acquaintances, who are financially challenged. And yet, like many may be, I’m left with times to think, rethink, and not think at all. Certain events in this process motivated to write this article, more so since not much is written on teaching and learning.
I asked a thesis student an update and involvement with the poor people of a neighbourhood who are part of the thesis study. The response was, “I don’t know, and I’m not involved with any activities with them”. Then, I asked a bunch of thesis students their social (meant philanthropy but asked social) involvement in this lockdown time.
The responses in a not-so-excited tone were that they are busy completing their thesis except one response of feeding stray dogs. With the days passing in the lockdown, the students seem to be in dilemma to share whether they are enjoying being rested and being busy with the thesis; and at the same they are challenged taking remote learning for thesis and otherwise. So, asking whether anyone is involved in social activities came as a resounding smack on my face.
I learn that several youths may be short of clues/ideas for participation in social-environmental philanthropy. Blame it to the architectural-planning education that implicitly focusses on serving the elitism. Then, there are discussions among the peer groups more about the teachings, keeping the students busy to produce work, prepare for assignments and exams; and less about the intent and content of the lessons and learning to be expected besides, no discussion on the state of the governance of the lockdown time.
And then, the institutional structure too are doing their large bit to ensure smooth functioning of technology for cross-communications and other logistical needs including checks and balances on the teachers and the students to ensure that teaching and learning continues as much as like the normal circumstances, in fact more to make the unusual e-learning time reaches closer to the usual physical time at the institute. This is great and calls for applaud to everyone’s efforts!
Hmmn! switch off and switch on! I believe, there is a problem with the pretention that this is a normal circumstance and we must continue teaching and learning the same way as we did before the COVID-lockdown. As Aristotle asserts in his magnum opus, the "Metaphysics": “All men by nature desire to know.”
So yes, in the lockdown time or anytime learning should be pursued; however, provided one doesn’t have other needs or duties that ought to take precedence. I really wish that we the teachers and the students took cognizance of the situation to realize whether we need to continue with the business (teaching-learning) as usual or we are needed or had other duties towards the society. And if possible, calibrate the teaching-learning towards making them more meaningful to the needs of the society now and even for future.
I say this because when the discussions take place with the teachers about the course content, assignments, attendance, exam and with the students about the theses like, underwater architecture, youth center, habitat center, architecture of death, and etc. I’m constantly reminded of the chaos and the crisis situation the society is currently going through.
Though my involvement is honest with them despite a feeling that such things are not so important at this moment, the question and the concern that the teaching-learning is not going right, and that architecture/planning can offer more to the society hovers in my mind (not now only, otherwise also). Especially, going a bit deeper with the thoughts and the facts that time immemorial teachers have been the key reformers and students have been the key rebels of any society, there is this desire that we must make use of this golden opportunity to bring meaningful change the way we and the people at large perceive architecture.
The phrase that, when shit happens, turn it into fertiliser is the analogy to this austere moment to discuss and debate the current pedagogical directions in the architecture/planning education and the reforms required for the profession to result in making cities/habitats more ecologically sustainable, socially inclusive and economically just with culturally diverse and politically democratic.
While the Council of Architecture (COA), the apex governmental body of the architecture fraternity, did send a memorandum on the do’s and don’ts in architecture education in the lockdown time, the instructions are more logistical (and rightfully required). In extension to that, it is wish and suggestion the COA capitalizes this time by initiating this urgent philosophical discourse among the teachers and students besides bringing along the practicing architects.
As many from the field must have realized that architecture, on the one hand, is a non-essential to be stacked in the lockdown time and, on the other hand, a crucial essential where we are locked in. Most of us are locked in tight spaces in the flats designed by well know architects which are ironically neither sustainable nor so liveable built environments.
We must realize that the architecture of the towns and cities needs to be bettered, as also aimed in the earlier millennium development goals and now the sustainable development goals, where most of the goals are in/directly linked to the our habitation. The lockdown time is that golden opportunity for retrospection as a fraternity and introspection as part of it, towards a more meaningful pedagogical direction to the architectural/planning education and profession for building Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG-11) in its true sense.
We need not pretend that missing some weeks of education will be a fag resulting in a national catastrophe. Absolutely not! I do appreciate the efforts made by the teachers and the students in this co-learning process and the facilitation of it by the institutional mechanism and governance.
We will not lose any skills if classes are a bit more relaxed, semester a bit longer with no assignments and exams, if job starts a bit later
Looking at all the efforts, I believe more that the lockdown came as that ‘moment’ in everyone’s lives to retrospect and introspect some crucial aspects of learning-loving-living, that the conventional education could have stayed for a while. We will not lose any skills if the classes are a bit more relaxed, semester a bit longer with no assignments and exams, if the job starts a bit later for the graduates, and for that if the teachers/professional earn a bit lesser too.
So why are we doing this to ourselves? Are we willing to realise this special moment as not normal? Why are we reluctant to retrospect and introspect a bit for ourselves and for the society, especially the way we are in social-economic-cultural-political-ecological distancing(s) already and those are heightening every day? 
Are we willing to relook at the buildings and cities we design and rethink innovative ways to revitalise the social-economic-cultural-political-ecological and then invest our emotional and educational energies in building a more caring and a compassionate society around us? It is understandable that pushing ourselves to remain normal as we perceive normalcy and also to not get stressed of this time is necessary.
However, education at large has been enslaving and that it is not normal too! For example, the architectural education fantasies a world of carnivalesque and promotes a narcissist approach to building and city designs where every teacher and student aspire rather live in the pretention of building timeless architecture.
The realisation that innovations emerge from crisis and that timeless architecture is mostly a resultant of governance decision, needs time for retrospection as well as introspection. We shall take a pause to acknowledge that we are going through a special time, probably once in our life and therefore, we need not pretend that everything is normal and carryout the daily chores of teaching-learning (and even domestic) as normal.
I write this article keeping architecture/planning profession and pedagogy in focus, but the matter of the fact is that this lockdown is that austere moment in all our lives, when we must get bored to the extent to figure out what do we like to do the most. I bet that if we can take time out to figure out what we like to do, our lives will be more meaningful and will in turn become more meaningful to the society we live in.
If I could, I would really wish the teachers to take a step back first, to complete all the pending tasks they have in mind and then, use the remaining time to bring all their learning together and develop a pedagogical direction for the future growth of their as well as the teachings, one that brings science and society together, one that teaches us to design to live with nature and that makes us more concerned for people as well as cities.
So what, if the buildings we design are not the most beautiful or has one or two windows/doors more or even less. So, what, if we do not get that name, fame and bank balance; we do not have that office, that signature building that world will be intimidated with (no building is perfect, so appreciation is always subjective).
Let the architecture/planning education, teach first to be concerned, caring and compassionate, then learn a lot of common sense to remain close to nature (build less even if earn less), relearn to have a conscience to build sustainable habitats, and unlearn to be exclusive for appeasement of the some and reclusive for others. 
Let us prevent or prolong the death of architecture that is ongoing in the so called ‘normal’ time. Let the post lockdown architecture/planning profession and pedagogy emerge as more ecologically sustainable, socially humane, and economically sufficient and importantly, let it be more inclusive of class, communal, color and creed. 
To do so, while learning from the masters’ works shall remain pertinent, we ought to learn from the mistakes too. Let architecture reemerge as a science that is based on common sense used more sensibly and sensitively instead of superficially and superfluously, with a lot more conscience for a sustainable human habitat.
On the one hand, it overwhelms to find that the always unsung heroes, the teachers working persistently to achieve the planned curriculum in the stipulated time; on the other hand, it is ostentatious to not really explore the alternate possibilities of teaching-learning. So, if the teachers and students are acquiring new skills of interacting online on the subject matter, they are also identifying the issues in remote learning and realising the importance of the brick and bones and the interdependence in the physical form of institution.
Hopefully, in the post lockdown they will enjoy being at the institution more than ever. Hope these virtues and the skills are going to remain in our memories for long time! Also hope that the fraternity engages in good science with conscience!
This article is written so that the students realise the importance of teachers in their lives; and the teachers realise the big role they have in shaping the future of the society than the buildings; and the institutions realise that risks are crucial for innovations and this not a normal time be dealt with trust thrusted upon the teachers and the students.
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*Entrepreneur, researcher, educator and keen political observer, Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is interested in learning and sharing. She is with the Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad, as partner, and recently joined the Amity University Chhattisgarh, Raipur as professor

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