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.

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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.

b. Further to graft such experiential learning strategies based on contemporary historiography or understanding of governance without corresponding changes in textbooks and other reforms in curriculum, hardly incentivizes more inclusivist teaching methods. The state bureaucracy is a leviathan where its processes, protocols and methods of control and supervision dominates. It is more interested in teachers administrative competence than pedagogic or curricular. Further as I have pointed in my earlier essays, notwithstanding a well researched textbook on history and politics by NCERT, the other aspects of curriculum - like evaluation with its excessive focus on marks and performance, still continues in all its meaninglessness to obviate more experiential and constructivist teaching.

c. Thirdly in relation to the above, teaching and teacher education have been reduced to a deintellectualizing practice seen to be the lowest hanging fruit of white collar and professional employment that one can seek. It is a job perceived by a very colonial and medievalist ethic and intellectual demands viz. of authority, submission and knowledge by rote and memorization. An analogy with a police constable's job can well be made where its occupation profile too as commonly perceived and practiced precludes aspects of probity, trust and helpfulness. Ironical though it is, when these two professions are actually so foundational to society's development (not in the least akin to law and medicine too) and its future. But in an transitioning economy and societies like ours from agrarian to industrial, for a vast majority of folks in villages with poor educational foundations (existing forms of schooling and graduate education which are so abysmal with poor content grasp informed by no normative concerns either - interrogating this pathetic state requires a separate note by itself) to become teachers and police constables provides the easiest way to step into a new economy. Possibility of transitioning to middle class status emerges but still with trappings of power - more in the case of a constable -  that both these professionals are seen to carry in a largely feudal-rural social setup still dominant in India. In contrast to law or medicine the entry and qualifying bar for teaching have been set so low where poor quality graduates from substandard arts and science colleges across India puts paid to possibilities of engendering good teaching professionals. BeD colleges too while being so many provide dubious exposure and training, notwithstanding attempts at its reforms based on Justice Verma commission report and recommendations of National curriculum framework for teacher education. (NCFTE) Government policies seeking to provide quick, disembodied literacy to vast mass of people, have led to such trivialization of teaching profession, emasculating it off its intellectual and normative import. And since governments are elected on the promise of jobs, provisioning for employment as teachers in state schools becomes a political imperative as it contends the largely agrarian constituency from where most teachers emerge. Further privatization of school education too has done little to alter this discourse and practice. If anything privatization has further dis-empowered teachers and made the profession more precarious.

The tyranny of audit…'managementization’ of trainers’ curricular space

Coming to the quality and nature of teacher trainers, at least my experience has been one of disquiet where all factors highlighted above regarding teachers also comes into play to certain degree. And then the knowledge frames informed from corporate practices imperils and vitiates the curricular spaces of voluntary interventions, where the latter's execution, effect and meaning are judged increasingly by quantitative and measurable criteria. The anxieties such norms bring into play even further distort and corrupt matters for effective and meaningful interventions.

Firstly, there is woeful lack of post graduates and even research scholars available in tune with contemporary trends in social science research. Let's recall that changes in epistemic character of history, sociology and politics which have made social sciences more concrete, relevant and empowering with unique insights into the dynamics of contemporary society and polity, have totally elided most of Indian universities. Thus the pool available from where one can fish appropriate scholars and students to work with teachers is very limited. For to reiterate the point, taking the example of the two finest textbooks in history and politics, Eklavya and NCERT, both have appeared in the context of hermeneutical, phenomenological and new historicist influence which goes beyond the problems with both positivist and Marxist approach in social sciences. Therefore to enable teachers to understand the why's and how's of textbook requires experts who can convincingly explain so. It is only out of fair understanding of such epistemic matters will it be possible to be both better teachers and trainers. Indeed good pedagogy is ultimately congruent upon such grasp and helps to nail down matters to the socio-economic and cultural factors that shape our past and present. Mere focus on individuals, use of linear narratives and the ultra empiricism of disembodied data impersonating as facts and knowledge does not what social sciences make. Of course if we take a more instrumental and discrete view of knowledge and teaching, then probably trainers and teachers ignorant of such epistemic matters is probably acceptable. However we then ignore the chief insight and recommendation of NCF regarding both content and form that shape the curriculum.

Secondly even if an organisation seeks to recruit such dodgy members, then there has to be some strong, systematic exposure program initially very intensive and continuous and then later at frequent intervals. But in my experience some organisations get totally caught in the righteousness of their otherwise well meaning vision, become overly anxious to cover lot of ground and prove their worthiness, sincerity of their promise and credentials to funders and stakeholders, all in shortest time possible. As a result they seem to be unmindful of the academic and intellectual weaknesses of their own members and get bogged down more with quantitative aspects like frequency of interactions with teachers through different modes like workshops. Therefore neither is there too much care in recruitment (and even when there seemingly is a foolproof process of entrance exams and several rounds of interviews) and nor is there willingness to nurture and train members patiently in sustained fashion. It is seen to be time consuming and expensive to train members. The anxiety is one of reach, get as many teachers for sessions and have as many of these sessions even as trainers themselves are not upto scratch and their grasp of the discipline suspect if not dubious. In such a scenario the trainers end up doing more running around advertising these workshops, (‘mobilize’ is often a more polite euphemism) than spending adequate time preparing for them. The preparatory meetings for workshop sessions are many but mostly bogged down with matters of communication, participation and logistics. Importantly neither is a culture of erudition, reading encouraged within organisations. Thus trainers are often overcome by a mistaken sense of worth and competence. It is assumed that it is not as much how they are contributing to the subjects value and worth as much as how effectively they get teachers to participate in their ‘events’ and how many such programs they organise. The work and worth of the trainer is subsumed more under the works’ ‘physicality’, its quantitative and therefore measurable rubric and what in sociology we call ‘performativity’. Indeed such educators and trainers become unmoored from academic, curricular and intellectual concerns and more wedded to marketing, PR and event management exercise.

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Thirdly while being critical of the absence of sustained academic and content component I'm not in the least ignoring the importance of the legwork, trust building and the several other operational aspects that eventually shapes such outreach and are naturally required. Work to be meaningful, effective in domains like teaching, law or medicine ultimately cannot but have its management and even clerical component. The challenges and work of teachers is sui generis and requires not just repeated interaction with teachers but also observing schools and classrooms for considerable period of time to tailor an intervention meaningfully and effectively. Also another important component in such programs is securing the approval of the educational bureaucracy to ease the execution of such training programs. And these educational bureaucrats like BEOs, BRPs, DEOs are notorious for their fixation with protocols and often do not brook any third party's intervention of teacher empowerment. To coax and cajole them to acquiesce for teacher training requires tremendous perseverance, patience and diplomatic acumen. For a continuous teacher training program, dealing with the educational bureaucracy - even if we are looking at private schools, which too are equally obsessed with quantitative matters of performance and of management - needs to be a constant endeavour which is not pleasant. The kind of interpersonal and persuasive skills required cannot be made light off. Further neither am I suggesting such teacher trainers and educators as complete ignoramuses. One cannot but have some measure of understanding - though that understanding itself is questionable and whether it can really be seen as understanding beyond its informational merit and some simplistic analysis - to pull such sessions off with some credibility. Otherwise why would many teachers show up, often repeatedly for such training programs? Also in context of the appalling insights that reports like ASER offer i.e. lack of basic reading, writing and arithmetic, if some 50% of students in class VII can distinguish between Ashoka and Akbar as belonging to distinct time periods, this itself is an achievement...No? Nobody is expecting the class VII student to know what kingship is conceptually and even if both Ashoka and Akbar were kings, did it mean the same to be a monarch in middle of third century BCE and later in 16th century CE? To this extent guess teachers, thanks to intervention by such trainers, have enabled some respectable teaching and learning. Further I come across several trainers taking trouble to read adequately and go the extra mile for teacher training sessions. 

Commodity fetishism of the intangibles

There are two issues here. Going back to the example of Ashoka and Akbar we certainly need to have teachers who can distinguish changing nature of monarchy and state in India beyond just empirically establishing such a atomistic fact. (The Eklavya textbooks explore this change beautifully in all its simplicity without losing the rigor.) But neither do teachers and more tragically in my experience nor do many of the trainers, have insights or inclination to engage with such questions. Usually they are happy stopping with discrete ‘facts’ and engendering a disembodied pedagogic process. This is shocking. Such empirical and fragmented approach can still lead to edifying performance in exams and showcasing some artistically done chart work as projects which can be presented in fairs and melas. The second issue is when aspects of management and operations starts to overdetermine the basic intent and purpose of such engagements which as such cannot but be content, curriculum and pedagogy driven. I further see a few things happening - slowly and steadily teacher empowerment methods being guided by adhocism, discreteness and atomistic mindset. Secondly, as a consequence, the organisations culture expects and judges the trainers more by performative criteria than academic, which further disincentivizes a more holistic approach informed by deeper understanding of society - its pasts, politics, economy and culture. Thirdly given the enormity of the problem of poor teaching and learning particularly in government schools, many organisations strongly feel the need to scale their interventions. This results in my opinion, inadvertently perhaps, the ‘commodification of intervention’. Basically the zeitgeist of our times is instrumentalism, functionalism and behaviorism. If things cannot be validated with data - numbers, percentages, frequency then it appears our interventions become meaningless. Like a corporate product or services firm, matters of delivery, targets, numbers, percentages, reach etc so overwhelm us. What sells, what can be scaled and replicated alone is seen to matter. The ‘truth’ of their effectiveness is validated not just by numbers but bigger numbers. And numbers have greater objectivity and credibility than say select ethnographic accounts which can be subjective and therefore suspect?

This also determines the 'quality' attribute of the organization's intervention. The packaging of such interventions appear more significant than its constituting parts. In one organization I was briefly associated with, it is mandated that workshops have a clearly enunciated plan by the day and hours in black and white where each aspect are discretely presented much like the lesson plans teachers are burdened with carrying excruciating details. A well packaged capsule of information, concepts and themes, very disembodied but yet seemingly valid across context of time and space - to be distributed and consumed by trainers, teachers and students appears to be the key factor for what is seen to be a foolproof process of ensuring learning effectiveness, 'discoveries' and ensuring 'product/service quality'.  I won't be surprised if some time soon many of these training organizations claim ISO, Demmings and Sigma certification of quality and pride in their TQM approach to their interventions. 
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In contrast aspects like reading, discussion and debate appears very elitist, armchair, time consuming and not seen as ‘practical’. So naturally in these days of ultra-empiricism, action and performance -factors constitutive of work by default - involves disdain for the cerebral. The ‘field’ of our work becomes literal rather than symbolic or metaphorical and therefore excludes aspects that is not literal. I came across this organisation which was trying to boast their reach and scale at minimum cost to boot!

If these don't serve as examples of corporatization of social intervention what else does? Voluntary organisations are quite happy in deskilling and intensifying trainers work just like what is happening to teachers and teaching itself. In fact they are more interested in having ‘workers’ than ‘scholars’! The Gramscian idea of nurturing organic intellectuals where they would become the pivot for social and political transformation have but been jettisoned. The idea is to morph teachers into one. Alas...! Even their trainers are barely one - other than being sincere and honest, which is hardly the issue here - without much clue about political economy and how schools are structurally implicated in it.

The ironies are many - when organisations still maintain that to recognise learning and teaching purely by quantitative criteria of marks or classes taken is misplaced. Further even as they are critical of clericalization of teaching and the unhealthy process of teachers getting more into administrative matters, the organizations' attempt to reform teaching in the same administrative and management an attempt, is way so contradictory and farcical indeed. Such ironies where behaviourism epistemes are so dominant are often lost on such organisations.

In effect the paradox of both teachers and teacher educators and trainers sharing a similar problematic work profile should not be too startling. I would recommend, for whatever it's worth, a humbler approach based on decentralisation and executing matters depending upon capacities of its members scholarly and academic profile. Second if required clearly separating domains of work where those more interested in logistics and management functions kept separate from those who see the need for more scholarly and curricular character shaping their interventions. Saddling folks with latter competencies with more managerial task beyond certain minimum is to demotivate and insult them. I came across so much alienation among a few such members who were so exposed and skilled for a more content rich and constructivist scaffolding for teachers but being constantly harassed to be 'working' and 'being in the field'. Worse such attitude is seen as elitist, bourgeois and brahmanical! 

Given several such constraints, organisations need not feel insignificant if unable to scale or reach. Less megalomania based on ground realities and a very long term view will be sobering.