Reimagining education, learning and society...some ramblings

Schools, learning, teaching, universal access, textbooks and more ...Matters educational are tenuously holding centre stage in contemporary India where otherwise facetious debates on corruption, gender violence, caste and communal fracases, economic stimulus and likes, form the cynosure of public attention,   determined and defined mostly by hyperventilating TV news anchors and some by scholars and experts  in ed and op ed pages of leading dailies. But in their discourses, issues connected to education emerge often in terms of numbers: poor enrollment, high drop out rates or when lamenting the qualitative aspects; poor infrastructure, pitiable computing, reading and writing abilities, ( resulting mostly from) woeful teaching standards.

However such concerns appear very normalizing wherein other knowledge paradigms and possibilities of learning and teaching is barely taken cognizance of. So even when the tardy enforcement of RTE, viewed to be a progressive legislation to universalize education in India,  is seen with dismay by many, it is largely done so, perhaps unconsciously, as failure to enforce and 'democratize' a standardized vision of learning which also embeds certain dominantly accepted epistemes and knowledge systems.

Issues I have with studies and reports like  ASER and PROBE and the alarming inferences that many draw is the fact that learning and literacy are seen as a very formal attribute. One certainly cannot but concede that literacy is what makes abstraction possible and enhance the quality of perception, observation and is transformative. No one can really find fault with a processes that seeks to activate the abstraction capabilities, and scholars such as David Olson, Jack Goody and Walter Ong have argued  that it is literacy that sharpens if not shapes culture as well as cognition, and which separates 'primitive' from 'civilized' societies and that 'mastery of a written language affects not only the content of thought but also the process of thinking - how we classify, reason, remember.'(1)   But as Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole contend the impact of literacy is complex and localized and cannot be described in terms of 'generalized changes in cognitive abilities'.  In this even Paulo Freire, the icon for critical schooling and political empowerment of the oppressed masses who envisaged a 'praxological' 'dialogic' form of pedagogy attempting to 'liberate' one from 'magical' consciousness to critical ability, stressed the act of reading and the importance of writing. However orality does continue in Freire's thought even when he privileges writing, reading as facilitating abstraction, in his emphasis of dialogue.  

Dialogue is basically oral and in Freire's stress on reflexivity and praxis, he seeks to develop a sort of interior dialogue which links theory and action to social reality. When Freire suggests reading of the word has to be preceded by reading of the world, such an understanding is derived orally, '...even the spoken word flows from the reading of the world.' But since Freire's approach is democratic and egalitarian transformation through conscenciatization his goal, he adds that, '...we can say that reading the word is not just preceded by reading of the world but by certain form of writing it or rewriting it, that is, of transforming it by means of conscious practical work. For me this dynamic movement is central to the literacy process.' (2)

Consequently some argue that Freire and his followers failed to realize that literacy itself is often a colonizing process that reinforces a modern form of individualism. (3)  Further let us consider the study of Thomas Farrell who had asserted that many Black students-particularly those from inner-city  backgrounds- in the US have been socialized  in the purely oral cognitive patterns of Black English, which is essentially a spoken rather than written language. Consequently he observed that they lack control of the full  panoply of conjugations and coordinating and subordinating syntax that distinguish standard written English which form a necessary matrix  for abstract and analytic thought. Donald Lazere a scholar of literacy and media who tried using literature that black students could relate to like autobiography of Malcolm X or James Baldwin's 'Notes of a Native Son' in his advanced literature classes expecting that working-class Black students might better be able to relate to the subject matter was thwarted by their difficulties with the syntactic and intellectual complexities. These students leaned on readers (guides) in  to handle new vocabulary and allusions and clear exams. Further another scholar Lisa Delpit, also concludes from her experience teaching  Black inner-city children that  they dislike the current neglect of standard form and mechanics and want instruction in the  formal skills they need to progress in schooling. (4)  In India many Dalits too maintain a similar position who want to be 'equal participant' and seek 'empowerment' because the past for them means nothing - no worthwhile skills other than menial and extremely derogatory work and therefore memory of past is one of exploitation and oppression. In the present, a normative education (despite all the warts and problems) is certainly more liberating.  But needless to say such formal schooling does entrap us into regulative socio-politico regime which far from being liberating becomes another oppressive institution of modernity.

Therefore does it mean modes of cognition, perception and learning which are tied more to the concrete, specific and tangible have outlived their utility and relevance? I also ask this - Did not orality also nurture superior craft skills which more than the literate sections of the populace sustained us for thousands of years - fed us, clothed us and helped us survive wars, epidemics and hunger? help us make beautiful monuments, art and also brought about understanding of human body, physical world and more?

Schools as operationalized in certain formal space and time, even when enabled by a sensitivity to evolve a curriculum which is cognizant of the childs' social and cultural experience, resulting in a child centred, socially and culturally appropriate pedagogy and an inter-disciplinary and integrated curriculum, has its inherent limitations. These are particularly exacerbated in our age and time of super specialization and performance - where formal exhibition of knowledge in the abstract thru tests and examination - has become sine qua non to prove one's accomplishment and one's employment worth.

Indeed the point is our sense of shock, despair and lament at such poor 'showing', would perhaps not be so profound if it were that these school drop outs could still sustain themselves in work that ensures good living wages facilitating a life of dignity and self respect. The issue many perhaps worry about here is the fact that India does not have a well equipped labour force to work either in factories or in cubicles. In such a scheme of things, where manufacturing (mass produced in conveyor belt form) and services ( particularly IT enabled) which is predicted to contribute the most to GDP, and a high GDP and growth rate would then give us something to brag about, is being jeopardized.

In dealing with this anxiety and satisfying globally benchmarked and defined norms of literacy, education and learning, variables like pedagogy, teacher training, textbooks etc are reframed to make it relevant to the most deprived children and consciously tailored to seek their empowerment. But yet even accounting for few who do and will benefit from these well meaning interventions derived from critical theories of Habermas and Friere, it will in the end precisely do that i.e. enhance only a few.

Nevertheless let us look it matters this way...what if we have a an economy where agriculture and crafts can continue to provide for one's existence (beyond hand to mouth as it were) something which can be more environmentally sustainable, less competitive and ensures that we do not as a society sink to ribald consumerism?

An example will perhaps help to make my point with greater clarity. I know this carpenter whose services we have been availing for more than 10 years. He is a carpenter par excellence but (and I use but with a slant) a school drop out. The way he determines the quality of wood, is able to cut the wood with finesse, shape it into beautiful chairs, tables and cots is seen to be believed. It is evident that his craft displays an acute understanding of mathematical and geometric proportions, weight, mass along with a deep sense of aesthetics. Now his whole skill can be abstracted and presented in terms of non-figurative and theoretical  knowledge through formulas, axioms, theorems, hypothesis etc to students in classrooms. And if my carpenter friend was to be seated in the same classroom it is possible that he is at a complete loss (the key word is possible here...) but we cannot blame him (and the teacher as well or for that matter the curriculum) if he is at pains to understand the concept and even flunks all evaluative processes. On the other hand one may also claim that given the contextual and embedded learning in operation here, my carpenter can make the leap to abstract thinking and grasping. But my contention here is the tenuous nature of such abstraction .

One's credentials as someone who is learned need not be limited by abstracted abilities and skills exhibited through formalized learning spaces (schools/colleges) and its normative practices.  What is more important in my view is their politicization and equipping them with citizenship attributes. A Frierian vision of politicization and empowerment is not precluded because of  poor articulation in writing and deficient reading skills. In other words citizenship and criticality does not and need not hinge on formal literacy abilities. What if my carpenter friend also showed perceptible political consciousness, recognizing aspects of his work as being so fundamental to the material culture we have, takes pride in it but seeks adequate compensation that affords him a better quality of life? What if he says,' No! I dont have any regrets in being a carpenter and I wont insist that my children need the kind of education that will ensure them 'better' jobs as long as this job or any other which they are comfortable doing, emerges from skills and competencies they have proclivities for, arising organically from their socialization and exposure which 'formal schooling' enhances and nurtures it, rather than trying to impose something new on them. It should ensure a life of dignity and decency. Their work should not confine them to living in hovels with poor sanitation, power and deny them some creature comforts. (beyond mobile phones and TV!!!) So if carpentry, farming, garage work, masonary, etc, professions more fundamental to our existence than that of a IT code jockey, bank manager and even a doctor or an engineer, and can ensure us good quality of life, in what ways are we less important or our work less dignified or are we of any inferior intelligence?'

Of course, truth be told my carpenter nurses a deep sense of inferiority and neither does he exhibit such critical and politically edifying thoughts. He certainly does not want his sons (and even daughters thankfully) to have anything to do with carpentry and dreams of his kids becoming good techies and engineers working in false roofed, glass fronted A/C buildings.  But in my view my carpenter is a victim of double whammy - stigmatized as failure by education and lacking political and citizenship consciousness. This despite the brilliance he brings forth to his work which adds so much value to so many people. Tragic indeed. But if we lived in a world where one's intelligence, survival did not depend on such economic externalities and warped by skewed social values, would my carpenter be facing this crisis? This is precisely what Gandhi feared and sought a more organic and integrated school model not divorced from work as he argued in his Nai Talim. This dovetailed well into the non-industrial and non-urban vision he had for India based on his visceral understanding of modernity and its pathologies engendered by commerce, consumption and competition.

At certain levels such a perspective may appear elitist and Brahmanical. I have already dwelled on this aspect and would not repeat myself. (5)


As a teachers I think we need to understand the larger context elucidated above and work towards using pedagogies that can still overcome these structural constraints. Now this is not easy and I dont think I myself succeeded in much measure in this direction. I was teaching in a school catering to middle classes and had to do the needful to put them on an aspirational path. Also the training programmes offered by these schools with its obsession on performance never helped me to understand issues in the manner I'm increasingly begin to look at. As teachers we were given to, rather than subject to accountability and therefore lots of training on appropriate teaching methods, child centred teaching, multiple intelligences and blah blah we were inflicted upon.  Regarding these I recently came across this blog  by Subir Shukla. As Subir says over the last two decades, there has been an explosion of 'pedagogies'...(and government, NGOs etc) have all come up with what they consider 'sure fire' methods of teaching...(to make) classroom processes...interesting, 'joyful' activities will be conducted, teaching learning material and 'learning ladders' will be used, and so on.

What Subir says next is more significant, 'At the heart of it all though, is the basic tenet that if the teacher really cares for his children, he will find a way. All these pedagogies begin to have meaning only if the teacher is interested in children and finds delight in helping them learn. Now most of our training programmes, materials and pedagogical models might claim to be make teaching more effective, but they don't necessarily generate that emotional commitment to children and their learning that is a prerequisite to successful classroom processes.' (6)

Teaching; is certainly a profession of 'care'. 'Care' is an important attribute of few other professions like of doctors as well. But this quality is now being supplanted by making calls of 'professionalism' in which more than the quality of 'care', a very fuzzy attribute and quality, more measurable, quantitative and scientific are seen to be more vital in defining one as a professional teacher.  The anxiety today appears to be more to enable pedagogies as scientific, measurable and predictable just like in other domains of commerce and production. In the latter fields such instrumentalist and managementized frames of understanding are seen as sacrosanct, legitimate and best suited for ensuring 'quality deliverables'.

To prove a discipline as credible, to make our claims as more scientific and effective, we are told to look for 'models' which could be scaled and replicated to have greater reach and help India 'develop' and more particularly the poor of India 'develop'. Embedded in this discourse is a notion of public good...'helping' people to wean themselves away from their traditional socio-economic milieu which has kept them in grips of hunger and deprivation. In itself one cannot dispute this argument but as alluded in my earlier part of  my post, there is nothing intrinsically limited in certain traditional professions and can still more than provide for ones dignified existence. That they have indeed been rendered ineffectual is related to macro changes in political economy and the the super structural changes in values and outlooks that looks at certain knowledges', ways of doing things, as anachronisms and primitive. In this the contemporary notion of 'public good' becomes normative. 

In such a circumstance therefore, education, curriculum, pedagogies too are supposed to measure up to new scientific knowledges' which further are to be executed through managementized notions of deliverables and quality controls replete with benchmarks,rubrics, flow charts, lesson plans ...the works. 

While such process and performance determined world of commerce, service and manufacturing with its humungous capital outlays is seen to ensure healthy bottomlines, the same performativity criterias are assumed to have equally significant importance in pedagogy and education. But in all this pan global glib talk and noise, the quality of care, which in effect is the most important determinant in facilitating some learning, is all but lost.

To reiterate as a teacher, it is not so much whether I have followed the SOPs, ticked all the boxes, finished lessons on time and have 100% of my students secure 90% (if not 100%) marks to prove my success as a teacher. The quality of learning is not best measured by such quantitative, performative criterias but determined more in situ thru the feeling of belonging, enhanced self worth and sense of accomplishment and empowerment. These are the non-tangibles only to be experienced and not always reduced to linguistic and logico-mathematical abilities to be formally displayed and abstracted and further awarded some numbers and grades. (Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, much bandied about by every school worth its salt has been subverted by being incorporated into the discourse of progressive and child centred schooling and its understated possibilities for deschooling been blunted) 

Initially as a social science teacher in the school where I was employed,  there were number of workshops on TQMs, empathetic teaching, child centred teaching etc...which I thought could give me a sense of self worth and help me to flaunt my 'professionalism' where I could keep my own with the more fancied management and IT professionals. But i found that ultimately it was for me to figure out what works and what could not work in ensuring empathetic learning. Though initially fact for quite some years, I too was frustrated with poor academic performances (viz in exams and tests) but later and particularly now when I have quit ( or maybe just taken a break) from teaching my readings for research and reflections on my past teaching experience, compels me to arrive to the sober and less dramatic conclusion that the best 'performance' by many of these students was seen more in the day to day interactions with me, their peers and others in their social world. Their way of looking at films, events, listening to music, observing people's behaviour was certainly facilitated by more the unstructured interactions (the so called deviations, digressions from the lesson and importantly the lesson plan), where I rambled on films, books, sports and somehow tie everything back to the lesson/chapter. All of these were in-effect to bring forward the importance of criticality and the social and political quality of our existence. I'm stating all the above from my experience as a social science teacher for nearly 13 years without any qualification to teach (and I refuse to 'qualify' myself as one) but where 
i. my ability to deliver did not depend upon certain sanctioned, scientific and glamourized methods 
ii. where the learning by many of my students was not exhibited again thru sanctioned and approved foras of tests and exams.

The irony is even in such disciplines as medicine which hinges on quality of 'care', is being robbed off it to be replaced by such allegedly management and scientific knowledge. Schools, hospitals, hotels as we are all seeing is increasingly being run over and overrun by management grads and gurus where teachers, doctors, cooks and 'house keeper' have to play second fiddle to these suave and glib honchos. The formers knowledge and competencies, understanding which cannot be verbalized and articulated in 'scientific' ways are forced to make ways for more rigorous, quantifiable, replicable and 'concrete' ways. The latter alone are seen to define a profession.

Modernity as we have it then predicates on such an education system and institutionalized nature of work. To conclude it was Ivan llich  who went on to  insist that, in a  highly professionalized and commoditized  media culture,  all  aspects of  life either promote themselves as educative or increasingly demand some element of training... under such conditions, the 'being' possessing wisdom—homo sapiens—becomes reduced to homo educandus, the  being in  need of education. Then,  in  an  age when  the computer becomes the “root metaphor” of existence, this reduction then becomes further processed and networked into the cybernetic reality of homo programmandus. (7) In the process both learning and care, shorn off its accretions, are its causalities.