Friday, December 31, 2010

Has Anyone Asked Teachers This Yet?

Over the last two decades, as the number of teachers has grown, so too has a certain attitude towards them. This comes up in different ways in the various interactions we have – during school visits, meetings at cluster or block level, workshops and training programmes for different groups of personnel, and informal interaction at all levels. Somehow, the discussion ends up at the teacher's door. And the following statement springs forth: 'Teacher is at the heart of the matter sir; only when teacher improves can anything improve.'

This is then followed by a long list of what teachers are not good at, including examples such as (this is a mild list!):
  • Teachers don't practice Quality Teaching
  • Are not able to 'go according to the level of children'
  • Don't make use of psychology (I assume this means something called 'child psychology')
  • Application is missing – teachers are not linking concepts to practical life.
  • They show a lack of Social Awareness
  • Don't go for innovative activities
  • Don't do voluntary service
  • Don’t give examples while teaching
  • Don't pin accountability for the task given (i.e. don't take responsibility themselves)
  • Fail to develop or revive the interest to teach
  • Are not flexible to change their mentality
  • Don't give individual attention to children
  • Are not patient
  • Don’t make use of case study
  • Don't take a friendly approach
  • Are poor listeners
  • Have no tolerance
  • Are partial
  • Reluctant
  • Lazy
  • Lack in adaptation, and don't update their knowledge
  • Are in a hurry to get the product rather than being bothered about the process
  • Expect more with little effort!

Believe it or not, this is an actual list produced by participants in a workshop (which also included teachers!) and is also typical of most parts of the country.

But when asked to name any strengths that teachers have, what you usually get are blank stares or a scrawny, reluctant list of maybe four points, such as:
  • Covers syllabus in time
  • Preparing children for getting marks.
  • Good in lecturing (encouraging rote learning)
  • Conducting special coaching for those falling behind

As you can see, no shortage of left-handed compliments here!

Typically, when asked if they've actually asked teachers what they're good at, or what they feel they're not good at, the people who make the above statements tend to draw a blank! However, when teachers themselves are asked what they're not good at, their statements include points such as these:
  • In trying to address the average student, I'm unable to take care of those who are falling behind
  • I find it difficult to make the subject interesting for some students
  • If parents can't help children with their homework, I find it difficult to help the child in class

Clearly, there's a perception mismatch between teachers and those tasked with appointing, deploying, orienting, developing, mentoring and monitoring teachers. It might be a little too much to ask, but the following seem clearly required;
  • There's a need to listen to teachers before coming to the kind of conclusions we have come to
  • In order to go beyond impressions, systematic observation and research are required
  • How about finding out the strengths teachers have and how to build on them
  • Finally, what is the system doing to make some of its own dire predictions about teachers become true?

Time, it seems, to make a course correction here.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Contesting Cribbing

If you're a person working to improve the educational system in a country like ours, here's something you'll recognize: whether it's journalists or academics, colleagues from NGOs or 'well-wishers' of children, everyone is pretty good at 'problem pointing'. They're really good at telling us exactly how BAD things are. Numerous articles, speeches, social media entries, research pieces, presentations, and even protests, copiously crib about a range of ills affecting education : how the system is dysfunctional, teachers are absent, accountability is missing, children aren't learning, process is dated, children are oppressed, administration is rigid, policies are rich but unimplemented, how the disadvantaged continue to get a raw deal right through... Recognize it? I do, for some of this is what I do as well!

But here's the rub - all this elaboration on what is wrong (some of it is serious research that is credible as well), how far has it helped find exactly what to do. That is, what to do which would help us get rid of the problems being pointed out. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the growing numbers of those who are able to detail their dissatisfaction at the continued limitations of our education system. It's just that I'm unable to learn enough from it to know what needs to be done.

Because when one gets down to the doing, a whole lot of other things unfold that you were not quite prepared for. Turns out dealing with diversity is not exactly easy, and most of the pat suggestions don't really hold in face of the actual ground realities. Turns out that poor (or even exploitative) governance is such an all-pervading reality that what we can do in / through education just pales in front of it (try sitting in a district education office for a day if you don't believe me). Turns out that our 'log frames', strategies, plans and spreadsheets capture something in our mind but all of it simply crumbles when the actual implementation takes place. It's often noticed that some of the best experts, especially those from the universities, are usually eager to help in the planning and the evaluation - but not the part that comes in between, i.e. the implementation!

So I've come to the unfortunate conclusion that a great proportion of those involved tend to complain mainly because it is the easiest thing to do. Just like many newspaper sections talk of potholes on the roads, delayed or poor services, or lack of facilities (usually in a self-righteous tone that includes phrases such as 'even 60 years after independence' - you get the picture). All this in the hope that saying what is wrong will somehow make it go away. As if it really does! 

Where does all this leave us? To my mind, it leaves us with a lot of cribbing all around us. Every day we continue to read, hear, powerpoint and wordprocess an overdose of shortcomings. Such solutions as are offered are usually: 
  • trite ('there should be accountability' - which is easy to say, of course) or 
  • platitudinous  ('teachers should be dedicated to their vocation') or 
  • superficial ('implement play way method!' - makes one's skin crawl) or 
  • autocratic ('strictly monitor these damned teachers, don't let them get away' ) or 
  • misguided ('pay teachers more / less if their students learn more / less' - you can see how this will favour the already advantaged, isn't it) or 
  • even desperate and daft ('put a web cam in every class').

I'm doing the same, of course, cribbing. But let me try to redeem myself by making a few (hopefully) concrete suggestions:

  • The first thing is to recognize the huge potential of all this cribbing. It represents an enormous and growing 'cognitive surplus' that can be put to better use to further what the 'cribber' is interested in - actual improvement.
  • Along the lines of wikipedia, bring out a collective, well-organised and evolving situational analysis to which people can keep contributing. This will help generate a more structured, well-rounded understanding that might increase the likelihood of finding effective strategies.This should include a critique of the kind of superficial solutions mentioned earlier, with case studies of the difficulties they landed in or the actual improvement they brought about. An analysis of serious efforts and the difficulties faced would help bring about a nuanced problematization.
  • Those involved in change efforts could find ways of identifying any 'cribber' who shows potential, and involve her/him in actual improvement processes - either the process would improve or the cribbing would be contained.
  • Publicize and set standards for the kind of writing that is deemed as being helpful. This is not easy at all - but the degree to which the social discourse on education is getting overwhelmed by this collective bemoaning (and the resultant diversion from / inability to actually address the issues) is now making it imperative that we find a way out. Any news channel / newspaper could initiate this by developing a policy paper on how to cover the social sector and then actually following it. Once an example is set, others would follow suit (simply because the initiating body would come out looking better, and therefore be likely to grab a bigger share of sensible eyeballs). 
You might feel that I've totally mis-read the situation, that we need more people to actually be pointing out what is going wrong. Well, point away - but that's no guarantee it will make the problem go away!