Education: Cosmetic reforms not enough

By Patricia Mukhim

On August 3, Dr Sonali Nag, Professor of Psychology and Education and Education Fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford University, gave an oration at Martin Luther Christian University on the theme, “The Learning Continuum: Home, School and Beyond.” Listening to Sonali speak and based on the kind of research work from different countries, one realises that in India and closer home in Meghalaya we still have a long way to go as far as understanding what ‘teaching’ means and how a child brings learning from the home (what the child has already learnt) and combines that with school learning and then takes back learning to the home and society she belongs to. Learning happens throughout a person’s life and not just when the person is in a school, college or university. Perhaps our problem is that we are only concerned with learning within the confines of a school, college, university and believe there’s no learning beyond those. Sonali emphasized that new learning stands on the foundation of prior learning inasmuch as new learning also stands on the barriers of old learning.
Cogitating on education in a state with so many poor people and with poverty just spiraling is a conundrum. The latest poverty figures provided by NITI Aayog shows Meghalaya standing at 32.67 %. Imagine the education that can happen in such homes where the parents have to make choices on whether they can spare money for the education of their children by compromising on the quality of food for instance, or giving up some other need. And there are far too many such homes in our country. Whereas in urban elite households a lot of learning has happened at the pre-school level through interaction with a host of relatives at home or in a gated society for instance, no thought is given to the rural child from a poor background. It’s not as if that child is not learning anything but is what that child has already learnt at home being captured and built on when that child enters school?
Sonali also spoke on what exactly our education system captures or does not capture. Indeed over decades we have seen that tests and exams only capture what is memorised. There is little leeway to capture comprehension and the other intangibles of a child’s learning. We will agree that the examination system in India assesses learning by rote but does not bring out the hidden facets in the child which could have been built and improved upon. Hence the Oxford Professor says she does not believe in marking a child zero because she does not believe anyone deserves a zero and nor does she believe in anyone scoring 100 % for what exactly is being assessed is the key point. Examinations are intended to map the mind but are the tests designed in India really capable of mind-mapping?
Prof Sonali Nag touched on a key point that we in this country have not given adequate attention to and that is teachers’ training. Sure, we have the B Ed course and Montessori or primary teachers’ training but as someone who has completed the B Ed course, I would say that there’s very little in the B Ed curriculum that really sharpens our teaching skills. In fact, even today I can only recall what a Psychology teacher taught us. I recall being told that Education boils down to this – “The teacher teaches JOHN English.” The critical factor here is the child; not the subject; not the teacher. But in a class of 40-45 students where is the time to really give undivided attention to John or any other child that needs special attention?
I completed B Ed in 1988 and until then we had not learnt what Dyslexia is. In fact, I had some students who just could not spell correctly. One of them would write ‘hte” instead of ‘the’ and garble up her spellings and I would wonder why this child could not place the alphabets in the right order. It was only many years later when I took an avid interest in understanding autism and other learning disabilities that I learnt what Dyslexia is all about. Imagine a Dyslexic child in a class where the teacher would punish her for not being able to spell words correctly! How awful is that! Yet that has happened and continues to happen in many of our schools.
In the B Ed course there was much stress on how to deal with ‘gifted’ and ‘backward’ kids but that’s one hell of a generalisation. What if we are neither of the two categories and we are ‘backward’ in what the system has spawned to be the opposite of ‘gifted’ and we are somewhere in between but we are good at something that the teacher or the system has not discovered yet? Isn’t that one reason why we have so many drop-outs? Those who don’t fit into a category are forced to drop out of the system completely or are pushed to take up some trade. But the intrinsic intelligence that has perhaps not been discovered yet lies dormant simply because someone, somewhere designed a system that measures only a limited idea of intelligence, will remain buried forever. What a loss of a genius!
For the large section of our underprivileged kids there is no one at home that they can test their questions against or engage with on the lessons they learnt at school on a particular day. Our education system takes for granted that all kids get help at home and if parental help is not available then kids can take the help of a private tutor. The second option is for urban parents that can afford tuition, not poor kids who don’t have elder siblings to answer their questions, because parents are illiterate.
Prof Sonali Nag pointed out very correctly that illiteracy and malnutrition are the worst forms of deprivation. In low-income countries like India where there is low professional development of teachers and no one to teach kids at home, education is fraught with grave uncertainties and consequences and then we wonder why poverty replicates itself many times over.
In Meghalaya there has not been adequate research on why there are such poor outcomes from education (not that there has been adequate investment) and such disparities in the quality of education between the urban centres and rural outback and between government funded institutions and private schools. Prof Sonali Nag pointed out that 23.5% of rural households in India had no adults above the age of 25 who are literate and more than 1/5 of the rest had not completed primary school. The statistics would be the same or worse for Meghalaya.
Despite the poor educational outcomes as published regularly in the ASER Education Report which shows that about 50% students from class 5 and 25% students from class 8 cannot read a simple text which has a difficulty of class 2 level, the State has not bothered to conduct a study on where the problem lies. Is it the teacher? Or the teaching method? The ASER report also says students cannot read letters, words, or a simple paragraph or a textbook story of the lower level class. Such reports don’t seem to bother governments that are more interested in completing a 5-year tenure. The bureaucracy too is busy completing its day to day tasks to be able to give due attention to these educational deficits.
Meanwhile, Meghalaya’s educational indicators continue to dip and there is no attempt to evaluate the teachers. It is this permanency of tenure of teachers that ails education in Meghalaya. I know this will not go down too well with the teaching fraternity but facts have to be stated upfront. The problem with education is the lack of continuous evaluation of teachers to assess the learning outcomes of children in their class or subject. Too often students are labelled “weak” in mathematics but it would take the principal to sit in the Maths teacher’s class to understand whether the students that don’t understand Maths are incapable of dealing with numbers or is it the teacher’s method that is faulty.
There is so much that is wanting in our education system because there is a push to reward conformity and to punish non-conformists. Why do we fail to understand that a large number of students don’t conform because they are wired differently? When will we ever learn?

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