Tying up in knots...

... Struggles to redeem social sciences

Can one ‘train’ ‘trainers’ and render them as experts to help teachers teach social sciences better? In effect can it be taught in ways to help students find meaning and relevance in the world they socialize in? Can the elusive quality of citizenship informed by public reason be provided - social sciences’ raison d'etre, something which it is currently failing to do? We all believe it is feasible and an intense teacher training program will deliver the needful. But in my view and experience the teacher training program today by government, NGOs and other for profits have been able to crack no more than a fissure on this hardened nut of social science education and there are barely any possibilities of criticality germinating. Meaningful learning in social sciences and their morphing into critical citizens still remains elusive.

Image result for teachers in government schools

Indeed the focus as such has always been on what will work for students learning and understanding of social sciences. The NCF 2005 and several studies have repeatedly suggested to factor in child's socialization - which is of course demographic specific - to help them relate to their pasts (history), the nature of power and formation of state and governance for security, welfare and development ( politics) and climate, flora and fauna ( geography). Thus for such enabling of pedagogies the nature of the discipline itself need recalibration in sync with the epistemological rejig of social science disciplines in recent years. The textbooks released by NCERT in 2006-7 reflected these changes where history is much more than dates, names and conquests to themes of economy, culture, beliefs and social structure. In the Eklavya textbooks nearly 70% of the chapters in their ‘civics’ section, deal with matters of livelihoods, development and not so much on the organisation and structure of governance. The overall approach was thematic not just to accord with cognitive aspects of a child's learning - which learns best in social context - but also because epistemologically it is now well established that to understand how human cultures have evolved and operates, requires deeper, conceptual and thematic understanding of society. Therefore matters as supposedly mundane and routine as dress, food, arts, sports, religious practices, symbols etc and not just matters of formal governance or economics are deeply enmeshed and intertwined in ways that requires rigorous studies. So mere recording of data, facts and simple narration of social, political and economic processes to be merely memorized and recorded do not make social sciences which are as meaningless to adults as they are to children. Only a larger structural and relational understanding between different facets of society gives meaning and relevance to the social sciences.

However while such homilies are being served, how actually do teachers take to such approaches? And what are the impediments - are these those emerging from just teachers attitudes and indifference, lack of opportunities to enhance their understanding and capacities or is there something else? Similarly for those who train teachers for facilitating such pedagogies - those who are part of NGOs in particular who assist both government and private school educators - do they help teachers optimally and if not what hinders their interventions?

My association with a leading NGO in the field of education for a few years and interfacing with some others has given me some insights to tentatively respond to the above posers. I cannot claim any objectivity here and my insights are bound to raise several more questions and possibly the hackles of some in the voluntary sector. However these views also arise from my intimate observation, practice and experience of teaching middle school students as well my academic grounding in history and sociology. Further as a teacher educator trying to train those ‘field workers’ (and not just teachers) who are supposed to empower teachers with better understanding and practice of social science teaching, would I imagine make my subjective views still credible even if there are disagreements. Also these views are made in the context of social sciences - mostly dealing with history and politics. However some of the remarks can also be generalized to include other subjects too. I also contend that while there are differences in these organizations, but by and large the discourse that informs their thinking and practices are common with variations not being very dramatically different. Therefore some of the generalizations I make could still pass muster.

Overdetermined by the milieu...factors affecting teachers and teaching

To respond to the first concern - even when teachers are exposed to better teaching practices and better understanding of social science epistemology, their pedagogy does not ‘improve’ in majority of cases. The reasons are many:

a. The attitude of a sizeable number of teachers ensconced in certain comfort zones using chalk-talk methods, notes narration, exclusive dependence on textbooks and teaching to test. To state a truism a teachers authority in India emerges more from factors of status and role traditionally ordained and inherited, than from their ability to teach credibly, dialogically and experientially. For teaching the latter way is lot of hard work - updating their knowledge base, figuring on different methodologies for different topics and also employing varying methods to reach out in a very learning diverse class.  These challenges are of a kind which is quite dissimilar and different from the routine challenges that even a monologic teaching entails. Indeed with teaching also becoming more administrative and clerical, the teacher ends up having twin challenges to surmount. To expect any professional then to change their practices in such a context in fact becomes unrealistic.

Inane social science textbooks and the debates...

Sharing some thoughts on the ‘new’ social science textbooks recently released in Karnataka, the debates on which are hardly substantive and key questions continue to escape our attention.

Once we go through this news report which laments the quality of the revised textbooks, (Click here) it only goes to show how notions of quality are linked to very simplistic and shallow external attributes in popular educational discourses. For if the textbooks were not bad enough, so are the criticisms against them much of it being puerile. Spelling mistakes, missing pages seem to be the biggest drawback highlighted and more dismal is the criticism of absence of few names of persons and places, both Kannada and national. And while a big deal is being made of some ‘factual’ errors, the more important issue of nature of knowledge and models of historical inquiry that are so problematic in these textbooks remain unquestioned. Information masquerades as knowledge and both the textbook makers and its alleged critics are actually celebrating an acontextual mode of cognition and knowledge and are no more than shadow-boxing here. Further teachers are seen to be irrelevant as important mediators of textbook knowledge. Tragically, if the teachers quoted in the story are anything to go by (also commonly observed in my own experience), teachers themselves are absolving and undermining their own worth and ability where pedagogy is limited to a view and practice of mere transfer of information from textbooks to students. Hence the possibility of teachers bringing in their own understanding and correcting lapses in textbooks hardly seem important.

In any case, right from the beginning nothing substantial was expected from the social science textbooks. For the worthy committee formed in Karnataka to re-look into the state textbooks had earlier itself asserted that the state textbooks were already on par with Ncert, a claim which can barely stand scrutiny. The supposedly new textbooks ergo is the same old wine in the same old bottle and only a bit more tasteless pulp added in terms of information which rather than stimulating either teachers or students will only dull them further.

The other main worry is how come a matter to be solely decided by a curricular and pedagogic body like DSERTs' or SCERTs' (which in most -though not all- cases have failed to produce textbooks of curricular and pedagogic quality and worth similar to what Eklavya or NCERT have done. Exceptions can also include Kerala and Telengana textbooks which have much to commend for itself here.) make way for chauvinistic linguists and its representative bodies who by default will have the tendency to assert an un-negotiated, uniform and homogenous linguistic and cultural identity and smudge polychromatic variations obtained in regional cultures into a dull monochrome.

Attempts at resolving epistemic and pedagogical dilemmas in social sciences

History and other allied social science disciplines are basically abstract and amorphous knowledge enterprises. While making it too empirical and tangible often means presenting society blanched, and leveling out much its complexities and emptying the various socio-cultural and economic processes at play. Presenting society in such encapsulated, discrete, atomistic form has its takers too and our flawed school textbooks set off such takes on society, its past and present on impressionable minds, something majority of us are unable to shake off.

On the other hand attempting to make social sciences more holistic, embodied is not simply a matter of method but more fundamentally an understanding of the kind of knowledge frames required to understand society. Thus here matters of ontology and epistemology also need to be grappled with. In such a sense then philosophy and social theory play an important role in giving direction and unraveling its constitutive elements - let it be history, politics or sociology. This further implies another aspect - social science is grounded in concepts. Concepts like class, community, gender, power etc become central in comprehending society in its details, complexities and nuance.

So then we have a Catch 22 situation - while social science being abstract is a problem but it's only in its abstractness that it becomes relevant and meaningful. And when attempted to render social sciences as nothing more than information, facts, which are best taken cognizance of through mere memorization, questions of its relevance and utility naturally arises.(But let us also not assume that the physical sciences and mathematics are any less abstract. In fact deductive and inductive methods that define much of inquiry based research is an abstract process despite certain levels of empiricism and universal applicability that the sciences may claim to its credit.) So how do we settle this quandary for teachers much less for kids?

As some way of responding to such a situation, I over the last year and more and being a member of Azim Premji Foundation have come out with some activities catering to middle school curriculum which while seeking to concretize certain key aspects of historical and sociological understanding does not undermine certain abstract and complex nature of inquiry that is a key to understanding of history in its nuanced import.

While it is difficult to explain all the activities for mere verbalization may not capture its full essence, I will highlight three which I (and along with my dear colleague Shankar whose excellent felicity with paper, shears, scissors and adhesive enabled these ideas to be put into concrete shape.) think deal with abstract but key understanding necessary for better appreciation of history. These activities contrived into some sort of game are more like templates that can be used to explain several other ideas and concepts, both in sciences as well, And in such a sense I cannot by any stretch claim originality of form but maybe I could merely make proclamations, with some immodesty, of innovation where some staid and worn out forms are used to put across content which help in rendering history less particularistic and discrete. So the content here could include understanding of social stratification, ideology, state, revenue systems, popular culture and more, which are essentially concepts that help to veer the discipline away from a pedagogic process where merely recalling and memorization some atomized facts are seen as history's default attribute.