Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What The Education System REALLY Exists For - Myth # 7

The Seven Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems – Myth # 7 of 7
The Seven Myths That Make Education Difficult To Improve

See Myth # 6 of 7 here.

Myth # 7 – The education system exists to improve education
Systems tend to lead double lives – at a conceptual level they might be brilliant, with wonderfully competent and committed people leading them. Yet at the ground level, what is in operation may be entirely different. Thus despite terrific policy and capability at policy/decision-making levels in the health sector, what common people might be heard saying is: “It is better to pay through your nose at a private clinic, than to die for free at the government hospital.”

For the people, the ‘system’ comprises of those representatives they meet at the district, block, cluster and village level, and occasionally those at the state levels. To understand the situation, try asking a group of educational administrators about the finer aspects of TA-DA rules and how they apply them, and you will find they can animatedly discuss them for about two hours. But raise the issue of why children are not learning (which is actually their real responsibility) and you will get a different response… (It’s true, isn’t it?)

This is what tends to happen to any system  (or even organization) over time – ultimately it’s own nuances, requirements, procedures, structures and powers (or power) become its main concerns, with the reason for its very existence slowly dimming in the memory of its functionaries. Thus: 
  • teachers/CRC-BRC must spend more time collecting data even at the cost of teaching or improving learning, or 
  • every school must follow the given framework for its School Development Plan (because the need to compile the plans at the block level is more important than the need for it to be appropriate for that school), or 
  • every HT must maintain records for the officials 'above' even if it means she will not have time to support her teachers in improving the classroom process. 

It is as if children, teachers, HTs, SMCs all exist to feed the machinery ‘above’ which has to ‘control’ them, and ‘give’ them resources (from mid-day meals to teachers to textbooks to in-service training, from which often a ‘cut’ may be taken), ‘allow’ them to take decisions such as which would be the most convenient time for most children to attend school, ‘monitor’ the work of teachers, ‘test’ the learning of students, and ‘grant’ the privilege of education.

What the RTE implies is that it is those who get their salaries because of children who are the real ‘beneficiaries’ – which includes all the administrators, supervisors, inspectors, monitors, institutions, departments, ministries.  It is they who are accountable to children and teachers, or would be if they really existed for education.

As mentioned, give them enough time and systems end up existing more to perpetuate themselves - and the status quo within - rather than the purpose for which they are created. Try making a change in the way things are organised within a system and you might find it responds with a kind of ferocious energy it fails to display when similar urgency is required in its primary objective. For instance, if it were declared that an educationist rather than an IAS officer will head the Department of Education, you will get a lot more activity in the system (to prevent that) than if you declared (as is well known) that most children are failing to attain grade level learning across the country. 

Finally, systems exist to preserve the hold of the powerful. Issues that affect the middle classes or those more privileged get inordinate attention in the system. Thus nursery school admissions in private schools in Delhi are a big issue, or the allocation for poor children in elite private schools is endlessly discussed, or the class 10 board exam being needed (by children from better off families)... but the death of a 100+ children in a mid-day-meal from a poor section of society, or the low levels of  service in deprived areas or chronically low learning levels despite much money being invested - fail to receive that kind of attention.

For those seeking to make a dent in the system, it would be healthier to have a more 'aware' notion of what the education system really exists for. The puny strategies we use to make things better are unlikely to serve as even pinpricks to the system.

The Big Myth that Educationists hold - about others: Myth # 6 of the 7 Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems –

 See Myth # 5 of 7 here.

Myth # 6 – Stakeholders are concerned about education (as educationists understand it)
Curriculum developers, educationists, policy makers, thinkers on education, many ‘NGO types’, reformers and other highly respected people often talk of the ‘aims of education’ – be it in terms of creating a more democratic society or a more evolved person etc. Somehow, those who are actually affected by education are unable to get this. For the masses at large, the purpose of education is to make life better, go up the social ladder by getting a job or being able to earn a stable livelihood. This is nothing to sneer at or term as a ‘wrong’ or ‘limited’ expectation. In fact, this is what millions of parents are slaving away for, sacrificing a bit every day so that their next generation may attain a better life. By looking down upon this view, by treating the situation as if ‘we are doing education to them’ instead of with and for them (or perhaps us), those who design education tend to marginalize the very people education is meant for.  They also end up with curriculum, textbooks and processes that do not build on the experiences that children from less privileged backgrounds bring, something that is an enormous resource being wasted, which then continues the cycle of marginalization.

Like parents, teachers too have their own idea of what they would like. Despite what is often said, most teachers do want to succeed – what they would like is some practical (not philosophical) advice on how to handle the really difficult situation they face – increasing diversity, the changing nature of student population as more and more ‘left out’ groups join school (in Delhi slums, migration is leading to 7-10 home languages in the classroom, including Punjabi and Odia which are not contiguous in the ‘normal’ world), changing curricular expectations they haven't had time or support to absorb.  Even after attaining the PTR norms mandated by the RTE, we are going to have well over 50% schools with around 80-100 children, with 2-3 teachers handling 5 classes – that is, a very large proportion of teachers already are and will continue to work in multi-grade settings in the foreseeable future (while curriculum, pedagogy and materials continue to assume a mono-grade situation). Given that we are still short of 14 lakh teachers (the number was reported to have come down to 10 lakh, but with increased enrolment, is up again, the situation being much worse at the secondary level), the effect is felt by the 56 lakh who are there.  As mentioned, educationists may want high levels of learning to be attained using their policies and curriculum, but teachers just want to survive the day and, if possible, succeed in generating some learning.

And what kind of school would children want? Exercises on this have been few and far between. Most of the time children end up having to manage with whatever ‘we’ give out – from mid-day meals to ‘child-friendly elements’ to colourful books or whatever else. It is in the nature of children to find interest in whatever is made available, which is why there is a tendency to assume we have an idea of what they need. But engaging with them on the issue might reveal a lot more. For instance, talking with secondary school girls in a remote area in UP, we were discussing the need for toilets – but the girls said, “We can manage without the toilets, but what we can’t accept is that we are forced to choose Home Science and are not offered Mathematics.” This is surely something the authorities are not working on.

Simply listening to stakeholders might be a good idea. It would be revealing and educative for 'experts', helping reduce their arrogance and bringing their relationship with the stakeholders on a somewhat more equal footing.

What would you say if an expert approached you? And if you are an expert, how would you approach the stakeholder?

Tomorrow, Myth # 7 of 7

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Seven Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems – Myth # 5 of 7

The Seven Myths That Make Education Difficult To Improve

See Myth # 4 of 7 here.

Myth # 5 – Teachers can improve by following instructions given to them by their seniors
This is an extension of the previous myth, except it operates between officials/supervisors  and teachers. The notion is that the teacher is merely a cog in the wheel, lower down in the hierarchy, and the best way to get him to improve is to make him comply with instructions from above.  Apart from the fact that the instructions from above often tend to be problematic, it is also true that many of them don’t get implemented at all. At best, teachers can be made to comply with rules such as coming on time, or turning in a certain amount of work – but they can’t be made to like children, or smile at them, or feel like coming to work every day and radiating this enthusiasm to students and colleagues. That is only possible if the system seeks a partnership with teachers, treats them as fellow stakeholders and engages with them on a more equal footing.

As the experience of RTE shows, instructions, rules and even laws that make lack of compliance justiciable – are insufficient to bring about the required change. They are simply the wrong instrument for the purpose. (I’ve written about coercive and generative power elsewhere.)

 So what is the way in which teachers change?

Tomorrow, Myth # 6 of 7

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Seven Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems – Myth # 4 of 7

The Seven Myths That Make Education Difficult To Improve

See Myth # 3 of 7 here.

Myth # 4 – Students learn mainly by listening to the teacher.
Listening is seriously valued – you must listen to your elders, pay attention to your teachers… as if major wisdom is dangling on their lips and will be lost if not caught by the ears that very instant. Now that you can not only look up information but actually hear lectures on all conceivable topics on the internet, this is one notion that is already past its sell-by date. In fact, it should never even have been available in the ‘sell’ category. Ultimately, it is what we reflect on, try out, adapt and work into our own understanding that emerges as learning, something the ‘constructivist’ thrust of the current NCF keeps emphasizing. By continuing to practice ‘listening-to-teacher-explaining’ as the core pedagogy, we ensure our students don’t get around to learning in the manner and at the level they are capable of.

One reason why this continues to prevail is due to the notion that teacher must ‘control’ the class – and the class can be controlled only if the teacher has something to offer that can be held back at will – namely, explanation-giving talk. By treating themselves as the ‘source’ of learning, adults in general, and teachers in particular, manage to hold themselves in a position of power vis-à-vis children, choosing what and when to offer – and emaciate children (mentally). All this talk of ‘developing our human resource’ and the ‘demographic dividend’ will bear fruit only if adults seriously make an effort to give up this kind of ‘power’.

In many ways, therefore, this myth is a bigger blockage than you might anticipate, since it operates to defeat the purpose of our efforts after we have succeeded in bringing the teacher and the student into school for a duration that is long enough to enable learning. This is the hole in the bucket, or one big explanation of the continuing low levels of learning across the board.

Unfortunately, it is proving really difficult to deal with. Despite the enormous amount of resources and effort spent on teacher development, practice continues to revert to the listening mode. Part of the reason may be cultural - after all the concept of the guru 'giving' his knowledge to the disciple orally is three thousand years old, runs in our blood and makes it difficult for us to believe that teaching can be anything else. 

One of the ways to address this might therefore be societally - it is only when parents, communities, society itself start expecting teachers to something different that it might happen...

What do you think?

Tomorrow, Myth # 5 of 7

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Seven Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems – Myth # 3 of 7

The Seven Myths That Make Education Difficult To Improve

See Myth # 2 of 7 here.

Myth # 3 – There is one form of knowledge and it belongs to the ‘educated classes’
What do they know – after all, they’re only poor people. And real knowledge is that which is written in books and taught in universities, which of course they don’t have access to, isn’t it?

By now I’m sure you’re well aware of the vast variety and depth of knowledges that non-literate people bring – only it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and is sentenced to remain marginalized and often die out.  By not respecting the knowledge heritage the vast majority of our students bring, we certainly deprive them of the one strength that can be used to learn ‘school’ knowledge – but we also lose out on the great contribution the diverse community knowledge heritage could make to the country. (I’ve written on this elsewhere in this blog hence not elaborating it further.)

Tomorrow, Myth # 4 of 7