Thursday, October 28, 2010

Are teachers villains or victims?

At some point or the other in their lives, almost everyone has held the view: 'If only teachers did their work better, so many problems would be solved...'  Schools would be so much better off, isn't it? Education would be great and our lives very different as a result; in fact, society itself would change, if only teachers did their work better.

People who think thus are, of course, only being 'nice'. Because there are any number of others who have less 'nice' ways of putting it. 'Bloody teachers, curse them, they don't work at all. They're never there in school, and when they're there they don't teach. And if they teach, they don't teach properly, beat children, and don't even know themselves what they're supposed to teach. All they're interested in is their salaries, and making money from the grants that flow to the school.'

In fact, this is unfortunately a very widely held view, especially among officials, supervisors, trainers and others who are in any way responsible for and towards teachers. Condemn them, point out all their flaws (exaggerate where it helps) and hold them accountable for all the ills of the education system. Teacher condemnation remains the starting point of many discussions related to improving education.

Anyone who spends time in school trying to implement what teachers are asked do on a daily basis soon finds that motivation has a way of evaporating rather rapidly. You're supposed to teach children of one class, but you find yourself teaching more than one class, of children at different ages, with huge variations among them.  Often, you don't know their language, and whatever you do, so many of them seem not to be getting it at all (partly also because they cannot attend regularly). Far from support, you get indifference (often derision) from those who are supposed to support you (head teachers, community representatives, supervisors, officials). Soon, if you happen to be from another area than your posting, you start trying to get yourself transferred.

Those 'above' them are not immune to exploiting teachers either - using their services to support their own administrative tasks, or even asking them to pay bribes for getting their travel allowance or even school grants (I came across a state where teachers used to be paid only Rs.400 as the TLM grant, with someone siphoning off Rs.100!).

But this doesn't mean teachers should absent themselves from school or beat children up, you would say. It's true, they shouldn't. It's just that it's so hard (and rare) to experience success as a teacher that it's not so surprising. Perhaps our system is victimizing teachers such that they're becoming villains? Or do you think they're only victims? Or are they really villains?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

'What We Learn Cannot Be Burnt - 'An Afghan Neo-Literate Woman

As we work in education, it often tends to get too 'sanitized' - as if it is not about real people in real situations, where education has a meaning that's almost impossible to comprehend. Here's a story from Afghanistan, from a programme called Learning for Life that sought to provide initial literacy and health awareness to enable women to become CHWs (community health workers, sorely needed in the country). This story was documented in June 2005, by Judie Schiffbauer, and shared by Katy Anis.

Each morning, six days a week, 40 year old Zeba Gul wraps a light gray shawl around her head and shoulders and leaves her family’s mud-walled compound in the Afghan village of BegToot.  She follows a path that winds through dusty alleyways and then along green fields to arrive at a two-story building constructed of unbaked brick made from mud and straw.  Inside, a set of narrow stairs leads to the Learning for Life classroom, where other women are already gathered.  Removing her shoes at the doorway, she enters and lowers herself to the mat-covered floor, tucking her long legs beneath her.  

In December 2004, when the LfL health-based literacy program began in BegToot, wind whipped snow against the classroom windows, but on this fine summer day, the windows are open to admit a pleasant breeze.  The room looks out over groves of mulberry trees, for which the village is named.  Tall, creviced mountains rise high in the distance, still bearing traces of winter snow.

But the 26 women in the class are not admiring the view.  Instead, each attends to Qotsia, their 21-year-old teacher, who stands beside a small blackboard at the front of the room.  One of millions of Afghans who fled the war-torn country, Qotsia grew up as a refugee in Iran, where she received 12 years of formal education.  Now she has returned to BegToot, and the women are grateful.

 Dressed and coifed in black, Qotsia begins to write with a piece of chalk.  Carefully demonstrating each stroke, she writes a word in Dari composed of several letters from the alphabet displayed on a poster on the wall.  The dark black letters on the poster are easy to see, but six months ago, no woman in the class could have named or written a single one.  Today, hands shoot up when Qotsea asks someone to spell out and then read what she has written.  One woman rises and comes forward:  k a r u m (worm).  “Very good, Pashtoon Jan!” says Qotsia.  Pashtoon Jan smiles as her fellow learners sound out the word, repeat it in unison, and write it in their notebooks:   k a r u m.  Worms are the topic of today’s lesson.  

To the left of the blackboard, a series of drawings depicts women busy with women’s chores:  one is cleaning vegetables; one is boiling water to be stored in an earthenware jar; another is feeding a sick baby; and one is washing a child’s dirty hands.  Now the women in this Level One literacy class are going to learn how worms and a child’s dirty hands are related. 

As one of six Community Health Workers enrolled in the class, Zeba Gul already knows a lot about worms.  Their life cycle and method of transmission were explained to her when BRAC, a REACH NGO-grantee, trained her as a CHW.  But until now, Zeba Gul has never known how to spell, read or write the names of the parasites-- roundworm, tapeworm, and pinworm—that sicken so many children and adults in the village. 

As Qotsia begins the lesson, Zeba Gul leans forward and points to a young woman sitting nearby: “That’s my daughter,” she whispers. “Because of this class, she is learning to read and write before her hair turns gray.”

Later, the class at an end and women lingering to talk, Zeba Gul told her story.  She was born in Paghman, but she has not always lived there.  When she was sixteen, she married and moved to Kabul with her husband to live with his family. Her daughter and several other children were born in the city.

“It was good,” says Zeba Gul.  “My husband had a small shop.  He worked hard.  In the morning, he opened the shop.  In the afternoon, he had a second job in a government building.”

Even during the dark days of war, the family chose not to leave Afghanistan for sanctuary in Pakistan or Iran.  “We stayed,” she says, remembering their struggles with a hint of pride in her voice.  “We were hard workers, and we stayed.” 

For a time after the Russians left, Zeba Gul thought the worst was behind them.  But peace did not last long.  “After that,” she said, “I wasn’t sure what the fighting was about; I know only that it did not stop.  So much fighting.”

When Zeba Gul explains that both the family’s shop and home were near Damazang in Karte Seh, the room grows very quiet.  Everyone knows that Karte Seh was virtually destroyed during the civil war.  “Ay, Khoda!” the women whisper, as Zeba Gul continues her story:

“One night, our shop was ablaze. How it burned!  And our house burned too.  Everything we had was swallowed in fire.  Oh, God.  What could we do?  We had nothing left!  So we returned to Paghman.  It was more than ten years ago.  Here, my husband is a farmer.  Thanks to Allah, he is alive.” 

Many of her listeners have been less fortunate, and the widows nod in agreement as Zeba Gul utters her prayer of gratitude.  The women in the room have known great sorrows, but it is resilience that binds them. 

“Now,” continues Zeba Gul, “I am a CHW.  And I am learning to read and write in this class.  See there: my daughter is also here! Faz l’Khoda--Give thanks to God.  What we learn cannot be burned.”  

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Case for Children's News Programmes

Imagine regular news programmes for children
While advertising and entertainment programmes have begun to cater to children's needs, for some reason news channels have ignored children altogether! Imagine a regular children's news programme, at a fixed time, presented in a lively way, as something for children to look forward to daily. It could be on radio and better still, on TV.

What such programmes could contain
While national and international events would figure in it, children's news would focus on the world as seen by children. Background information would make the news more accessible, along with activities that can be done at home or school. There might even be discussions and debates on issues that children have views and opinions on, along with scope to engage with the channel through phone calls / sms / email.

Newspapers too
And perhaps newspapers would follow with some space for children's news, based on what came on TV the previous night. This would not only enable greater understanding of the news itself, it would greatly boost higher order literacy (apart from newspaper circulation). This would also provide teachers with more current material for use in different classes across a range of subjects!

Many benefits
The immediate benefits for the channels themselves would be in terms of developing loyal viewers for the future (and perhaps an expanded revenue source through increased advertising range).

However, the longer term implications for children themselves, for society and the country would be enormous.

  • Children who have had the opportunity to engage with a world beyond their immediate environment would develop cognitively and socially (well exceeding the abysmal levels attained at present!) 
  • Focusing the programming at special groups (e.g. girls, or children with disabilities or the rural poor or those who need help to learn the state language - such as tribal children - or English) would dramatically increase learning opportunities for the marginalized and the disadvantaged.
  • Wide spread use of such programmes would also help harness the demographic dividend India has at the present.

If handled sensitively, this could help create a nation where plurality is cherished and the narrow confines of identity are not allowed to become a source of conflict.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

D for Discipline, D for Democracy!

The moment the word 'discipline' is mentioned in a gathering of teachers or educational functionaries (or even parents or community members), it acquires a special meaning, as in 'children have to be kept in discipline'. Here, the quintessential role of the teacher is that of the 'shepherd' (with stick and all), and children are seen as unruly sheep that have no mind of their own and need 'order' in their lives. I hope this sounds as dated in the reading as it does in the writing!

Perhaps this is more the case in Asian societies. Apart from most Indian states, I've found myself caught in this discussion  in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos... and there's an amazing unity of thought across these varying geographies and cultures! Children need to be guided and taught -- if their errors are not corrected as soon as the occur, it will be too late to correct them later on! (All this is said in a deep, sonorous tone to emphasize its seriousness.)

Interestingly, these are also cultures that teach you to respect your elders (whether they have any quality other than age or not!). In short, in societies where control has a role to play, 'discipline' comes to mean doing the will of the powerful (because they are adult, or older or richer or occupy a 'position'). These are also the same places where the guru or the master or the preceptor is venerated (i.e. given a status next to God herself).

This sits a little uneasily with the clamor for greater democracy in the classroom. Active / joyful learning is now advocated in most of the countries mentioned. In India, the recently enacted Right to Education actually mandates activity-based classrooms where children will construct their own knowledge. The National Curriculum Framework 2005 makes an eloquent plea for 'democracy in the classroom', where collaboration and partnership with children (rather than their 'sincerity and obedience') will be the hallmark of quality.

As you can guess, change is a long way coming. Despite the fact that democratic classrooms are 'Official Policy' backed by law, and nearly a decade and a half of yearly rounds of in-service teacher training emphasizing the virtue of active learning,  classroom teaching tends to remain teacher-directed, instruction-based, with asking questions and offering one's opinions being considered almost a sin on the part of children.

When reports last came in, thus, D for Discipline was clearly winning over D for Democracy!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

These teachers really need to learn how to teach - HELP!

These images capture the teachers' attempts to generate the appearance active learning without actually teaching in this way (on a daily, regular basis). At least this is my reading of the pictures. What do you think? Are these teachers really running active classrooms where children will learn well? And what would you do if you were on hand to help the teacher?

Image 1
Such large groups - is there any scope of getting any work done? 
And even the books cannot be opened fully. 
Surely this is 'whole-class' disguised as 'group-work'?

Image 2
What can these children do other than listening to the teacher? 
How can it be re-organized?
 And what kind of activities would be appropriate for this age group?

Image 3
This teacher has three different age groups and no real clue about 
what to do. What should he do? 
Suggestions desperately needed.

Image 4
These children have clearly never had any real engagement in learning. 
They are used to sitting like this for long durations, meekly doing nothing. 
What would you do if you were a
 CRC-BRC member visiting this school?

Image 5
This is the same school as in Image 4, only with a different and older group. 
Unfortunately this is a very, very common sight. 
If you had a hundred such schools in your block, 
what would you do?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Are You An 'Education Survivor'?

If you're reading this you obviously went through the education system. And maybe you are among those who are grateful that your school days were lovely. And that what you learnt is being put to use every day.

Or maybe not.

Conduct a group discussion with people (friends, colleagues, family members), around their school days. You will find a mix of smiles, frowns and giggles -- and the frowns will usually be about their experiences inside the classroom. Almost everyone has a story of how they were wrongly punished or discriminated against or didn't receive their just dues for something or the other. Around half the people will recall the oppression they felt at different times -- examinations, punishment being handed out, the subject/s they could make neither head nor tail of, the quiet acceptance by their families that they would be mediocre and their own realization that they would not be 'good enough' in a number of things.

Cut to the present, and many of them (now quite successful in life) will also be saying : "Why did we learn all those things? And even what I studied in college, what am I doing with it now?"

These are the symptoms of the 'education survivor'. Are you one of them? Are there really as many of them around as my dire prediction indicates? Is it only our tendency to wallow in self-pity? Or just the usual, superficial user-critique of education? Finally, is school education really something like a dreadful disease (or at least a dreadful experience) which leaves behind 'survivors'?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Listening Workshops - Or the Simplest Step to Educational Reform

Is 'bottom up' change really possible?
If you are an educational functionary, by now you must be  fed up of hearing how planning and change have to be 'bottom up'. By which is usually meant that those who are 'under' you must somehow begin to contribute, own and implement a range of actions. And you inwardly wonder if this is ever going to happen!

It was during a discussion on precisely such views that the idea of a listening workshop emerged. Colleagues in the Institute of Educational Development (IED) in BRAC University, Bangladesh felt that a 'listening workshop' might help them understand teachers and grassroots functionaries better.

Listening workshop - a straightforward structure
It was agreed that before forming any views, it is critical to simply listen to teachers and head teachers. Hence a straightforward meeting / interaction / workshop was designed around the following three questions that would be asked of teachers and head teachers:

  • What do you really do? Exactly what does your work involve?
  • What do you like doing?
  • What do you find difficult or dislike doing?

It was also agreed that IED colleagues initiating the discussion would only listen, and not prompt or provide leading questions or offer any comment from their side. In other words, they really had to listen rather than talk!

So why is all this worth writing about? Because around ten such listen workshops were actually conducted, and most turned out to have  a very interesting pattern, followed by an unexpected twist.

What teachers felt
The listening workshops, it transpired, tended to proceed in the following stages.

  • Teachers found it really difficult to believe that anyone could come down from the capital only to listen to them! There had to be a 'hidden conspiracy' or an 'agenda' they were not aware of... It would take anywhere from 40-60 minutes to convince the participants that the intention really was to listen to them. (What do you think this tells us about the functionaries that teachers usually deal with?)
  • Once teachers believed the above, their initial reaction was that of giving vent to all their frustration and anger at 'you people who sit up there and form all kinds of views about us without ever visiting the field and observing the realities for yourself.'
  • Finally, teachers would pour their hearts out on the three questions given above.

The teachers' replies have of course begun to inform the work of the institute in many ways. However, it was the completely unanticipated outcome below that left everyone (cautiously) elated.

The unexpected 'reform'
In the case of a large number of teachers who participated, a few days after the listening workshop it was found that they were implementing many new pedagogical actions in their classrooms! In the entire discussion, at no point had they been asked to make any improvement in their classrooms. So it was not as if teachers did not know improved methods - a large number of in-service interactions had ensured that they had had exposure. It's just that they were not using them. But for some reason the listening workshops triggered a change process in the classrooms!

What do you think this tells us about teachers, about their motivations, and about the kind of relationships they experience? If you can bear the initial first hour, isn't holding a listening workshop the simplest way to initiate educational reform at the local level?

The Poor Make an Educational Choice

Though it had been around for a long time, in 2003-04, a disturbing trend began to be dramatically visible in the government school system: a large number of districts began to report a decrease in the number of children enrolled. However, this decrease was not due to any slowing down in the growth rate of child population. Nor was it because accurate data was now available in place of the earlier inflated numbers. And since the number of children reported to be out of school was not increasing either, what accounted for the children missing from government schools? Yes, you guessed it – they were shifting to the ever-spreading network of the low-fee private schools.

The number of districts reporting such decreased enrolment stood at 180 or nearly one-third the number of districts in the country. Nor was this confined to the so-called ‘backward’ states – for Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu also reported the phenomenon. In the year 2005-06, six new states reported districts with decreasing enrolment in government schools. And the situation hasn't really improved since.

The private schools that children migrate to come under the ‘unrecognized’ category, hence few government records are available on their numbers or growth. However, it is apparent that the increase in their numbers is astonishing. A World Bank study estimated that 28% of the rural population in the area studied had access to private schools in their own villages, and nearly half the private schools were established after 2000. Studies in Punjab showed that around 27% children studied in such schools and a similar picture obtained in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. 

This large-scale exodus has been occurring at a time when the government is spending an unprecedented amount of money and effort on education. Since 2000, tens of thousands of new schools have been opened in underserved areas and the infrastructure of existing schools boosted. Around 8.5 lakh teachers have been appointed and around 87% teachers in place provided 20 days of in-service training every year over the last few years.

Despite such efforts, anybody with any means whatever is choosing to walk across to a (usually) nearby school and pay for what they consider good education. This is in a context where education is available free in government schools, along with other incentives such as free textbooks and mid-day meals.

Like mobile phones, private education is no more the preserve of the elite. Surveys have found that 20% students in such schools are first-generation school-goers, with another 14% having parents with four (or less) years of education. Visits to such schools in the poorer regions of a state like UP put all doubts to rest. Without fail, it is the poor who are sending their children to schools that charge fees in the range of Rs. 30-100 a month. Schools manage this by paying teachers Rs. 1000-1200 per month – well below the minimum wage for unskilled labour. It is usually the educated unemployed who take this up as a means to gain experience while being on the lookout for other jobs. Therefore, teacher turnover is high, but there is a continuous stream of cheap labour available. The result is a commercially viable venture that provides subsistence level education.

In the meantime, who remains in the government system? For those hovering around the poverty line or below, there is no other recourse. Over 80% of SC and ST children in school are in government schools, which also have a higher proportion of girls and children with disabilities. In a telling comment, it is common for families with meagre resources to educate their sons in private schools and daughters in government schools. Indeed children are often enrolled in the government schools (for entitlements such as mid-day meals or uniforms) but actually attend the nearby private schools (for education)!

Unfortunately, the exodus of the more powerful and influential families has led to a greatly reduced sense of accountability in government schools. Those who are ‘left behind’ are usually the more disadvantaged groups, already disempowered due to economic and social reasons. Teachers, school heads and education officials tend to feel that it is almost ‘pointless’ to serve ‘these people’. In fact, a common refrain across the country is to complain of the ‘poor stuff we get to teach’ (and by 'poor stuff' they mean children!). There is an increasing tendency to blame the poor for not being able to support their wards at home or provide educational resource and the like. What is forgotten in all this is that education is not a favour being done to the poor – it is their right!

This is perhaps one of the reasons why the dramatic increase in inputs into the education system has not led to outcomes in terms of children’s learning levels, which continue to remain abysmal. Surveys by the NCERT and the NGO sector have repeatedly brought out how only half the children seem to learn half of what they should! During field visits to government schools, it is very common to come across children sitting unattended in class, with the teacher either absent or simply not teaching. Often, of course, the teacher has more than one class to handle and is therefore unable to teach. However, it is the sheer lack of concern for children that strikes any observer the most.

Many take the view that the expanding number of private schools is contributing to universalisation of elementary education in the country. While that is certainly true to an extent, a greater impact seems to be that in leading to reduced accountability, private schools are also contributing to a reduction in the government’s ability to universalise education in its own schools.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Over-aged -- and loving it! -- Part 1

It's difficult, but imagine for a moment that you're an 11-year-old who wasn't able to attend school. When you were very young, you can remember, your parents moved from place to place, working on construction sites. A few years ago, they got work back in your village as a canal made agriculture more possible. And you yourself started off being an assistant cattle-herder. Now, though, you've graduated to full cattle-herder, with knowledge of all the grazing areas, the watering places, the dangers to look out for (that unexpected ditch into which all the young cattle are always falling) and the idiosyncrasies of owners who don't always pay on time. As you saw children going to the nearby school carrying weird little bags or screaming insults at you, you wondered what they did holed up the whole day in that building. Even the cattle seemed to be more free than they.

Then one day, the newly appointed teacher organised a meeting with all community members and explained to them something called 'Right to Education'. Basically, this meant that your parents decided you should go to school. No one asked you. Your father only said, 'Now work is more regular here, we can manage.' So off to school you were dispatched. Being alone with a hundred cattle in the nearby jungle (with the possibility of that nasty jackal) seemed so much less fearful than entering that stark building, all yellow and white with blue things written on it here and there.

What are the children in there going to say? Your mother made you have your bath and put on the other pair of clothes, so no one would say you smell -- but the beloved odour of cows isn't going away from you and your clothes anytime soon. There are some green-painted metal play things on small play ground. The smell of food being cooked mingles with the smell of something else (it's paper and chalk and sweat, though you don't know it yet). Your heart is in your mouth as you step onto the ramp climbing up to the school. The teacher comes out and is looking at you -- and you're doing your best not to run away. Away, back to the beloved forest, with the hundred cattle who know you so well.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Top Ten Confusions in Education

Trying to improve the quality of education - be it in a school or a cluster or an entire system - can be full of 'land-mines' exploding unexpectedly, leaving you with confusion all around you. Here are the top ten 'confusion' land-mines:

  • It is only when I teach that children will learn, isn't it?
  • Don't we have to guide children and show them the way?
  • I'm not biased, am I?
  • Can all children really learn?
  • We can't teach different children different things in the same classroom, can we?
  • If only the teachers started working, wouldn't all problems of school education be solved?
  • If I turned out OK, how can there be much wrong with the education system?
  • If children start thinking by themselves and 'constructing' their own knowledge, what is the role of (and the need for) the teacher?
  • If we don't discipline children and correct their 'errors', won't they turn out bad?
  • Isn't the curriculum the same as the textbook that has to be 'covered'?
  • In-service teacher training workshops can transform teachers, isn't it?
  • Testing is the best and the only way to find out if children have learnt anything, isn't it?
  • If one's education doesn't help one get a job, what good is it?
  • Researchers and academics know best about classroom processes, don't they?

Actually the list is longer than ten - pick out your own top ten! (You can include ones that are not here)

Also, who's the one confused? You, or the others? And is there anything that can be done?

Missing the Aim(s) of Education!

Or the Adventures of a Curriculum Developer

It's a perennial struggle to define what we really want out of education. That is, it is a struggle for those who are vested with the responsibility of developing the curriculum, materials, evaluation and the like. For others, such as parents, things are reasonably clear. Which is where part of the problem lies.

The common man, or the consumer, or the parents of children who come to a majority of our schools, have no doubt at all that the purpose of education is to prepare children so that they can get a job (and be a worry off their heads). Many others – such as owners of private schools – boast that they get hundred percent results in the various examinations. Implying that the purpose of education is to get children to pass through examinations with flying colours (and what the purpose of the examinations is of course well known to all!)

And if you ask teachers in government schools, the ones who actually teach and are considered 'sincere', they will usually come out with statements such as: 'to develop a citizen, for all round development, someone with values, someone who can be called an educated person.'

But when it comes to developing the curriculum we are somehow so reluctant to agree with these commonly held perceptions. We want something better, higher, more durable (our own approximation of the Olympics motto?) 'To produce someone who has a deep sense of values' is one of the most common aspirations. But what kind of values? And what to do about the fact that values are so relative (e.g. in certain situations, you actually get a medal for killing a man!). What is needed in order to be able to exercise values appropriately in a contextual and relative manner? And is that more a cognitive rather than ethical function (e.g. identifying options, weighing them against each other on various criteria, etc.)?

'Education should develop the right kind of sanskars / culture in the student' is the next most popular choice. But whose culture are we talking about? A teacher trying to teach children how to use a handkerchief to blow their nose was left aghast when they reacted with amused horror as he put his handkerchief back into his pocket – they said they always threw things away after blowing their nose with rather than putting them back into their pocket! In a context as diverse as ours where the good manners of one group are easily the bad manners of others would we not end up simply extending the social control of dominant cultural group/s?

Unable to resolve this we move to discussing: what kind of society do we want to see? What would we consider a developed society? Where everyone has a job and the per capita income is high (back to jobs as the most important criterion?).  Slowly the discussion moves to recognizing the diversity in society and the need for each group / person to respect the 'other' and cherish, even celebrate this diversity. The need for a dynamic society that is able to overcome the divides of caste and class, race and gender is emphasized. A society where collaboration is valued and practiced, where resources are more equitably distributed and opportunity is available to each person to better his or her lot is portrayed as the desired one.

So what are the qualities needed in the children emerging from our schools in order that this vision come close to reality. Now a little more concrete set of indicators emerges – self-confidence, autonomy, decision-making ability, the ability to accept one's own shortcomings and confront / improve them, a more scientific attitude that helps them question given conclusions and arrive at their own inferences, and so on.

So how would this impact the subjects we are teaching? Here again we run into difficulties – since, despite our best efforts, we continue to be the prisoners of our past. The kind of ideas that come up are: include a lesson on self-confidence and one on self-dependence as well, have guidance and counselling, do scouts and guides' activities, and the like. As if a lesson in self-confidence or the description of a great person's life will help attain self-dependence!

When this is explored further, the true import of some of these 'small indicators' begins to sink in. To ensure that children develop self-confidence, for example, they need to experience challenges as well as successes, repeatedly.  This will generate the necessary self-belief. Clearly, then, instead of simply teaching in the regular way and appreciating the child's efforts, the teacher instead needs to challenge the child – by introducing tasks of which some part children can do, along with others that they would find difficult. Then it would be important to ask children to plan it by themselves, share and justify their plan to a larger set of friends and finally implementing it on their own. The experience of this implementation needs to be discussed so that lessons may be drawn for the next time. It is repeated experiences of this kind that lead to self-confidence.

For each of the changes / developments we want in our children, identifying its implications is a harrowing task. Not only is it difficult to know what to do so that the desired outcomes happen (e.g. how do you 'teach' to accept one's limitations and also go beyond them?), the emerging discussion tends to doubly challenge long-held notions and deep-rooted practice. (Such as supporting children as they learn on their own rather than teaching them as we are used to.) And if these are the qualities we desire in our children, we are really left wondering why it is that we should be teaching things such as physics or chemistry or past participle and geometric progression.

As we progress further in defining the aims of education, we seem to be moving further away from 'education' itself as we know it and into something that is still quite undefined and yet to be evolved. Somehow even as we define the aims, we seem to be missing them.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Using Performance Standards to Improve Teacher Effectiveness

Here are some of the key principles that emerged from the ADEPTS experience over the last few years. ADEPTS (or Advancement of Educational Performance through Teacher Support) is an approach or a way of working, based on the use of performance standards. [More details and the standards themselves can be shared with those interested! In the meantime, here are some of the insights that emerged – feedback and your views are welcome.]
  1. The most important way to generate teacher motivation is to enable them to experience success in the classroom. Hence a set of minimum enabling conditions being in place make a huge difference. 
  2. Teachers change when they experience the standards, rather than simply being told about them – towards this, the in-service courses themselves need to incorporate the standards expected of teachers. (A few of the states have begun this process of improving their own inputs to teachers.)
  3. There is a sequence in which teachers learn (and indeed institutions and systems learn). It is also better to avoid overcrowding expectations. It would therefore be best to plan improvement in terms of stages of teacher development, broken down into three-month phases, each of which has a very limited number of indicators to be attained (4-8). As teachers attain one set of indicators, this motivates them as well as prepares them for the next, higher order, set. The support institutions, too, learn along with the teachers and grow phase-wise in turn.
  4. Standards and indicators can tend to be vague! It is important to convert them into concrete steps that can actually be implemented by teachers. Thus, if an indicator agreed upon is ‘children ask questions freely, without fear’ there is a need to make clear exactly what the teacher needs to do for this to happen. Hence, as part of the roll out, all teams need to detail the concrete steps involved in converting the expectations into actionable steps.
  5. Implementer choice and partnering with teachers is more likely to yield results than passing on a set of instructions. In sub-district meetings, teachers should get to choose the indicators they want to attain (from a given list of potential indicators for that stage, though) and identify / develop the steps needed to attain these. Their performance will be assessed against the indicators chosen by them. If possible, peer assessment will be introduced.
  6. ‘Target setting’ in terms of the degree of improvement in performance can now be practiced. Teachers and their resource persons can use the standards document to fix the degree of change they seek to bring about over, say, a year or six months. They can then assess their progress against this. As this was not possible earlier, improvement efforts tended to lose their way very soon.
  7. Taking a ‘low-interference’ approach helps – that is, there is no pressure on the system to change curriculum or textbooks or introduce new model of teaching. It is more a case of ‘doing the same as before, but a little differently’; this reduces systemic stress and enables rapid implementation.

              Friday, October 01, 2010

              Is Education for Girls Different from Education for Boys?

              If we were to educate only girls, would we develop an education different from the one that prevails now? And would it be different from an education created only for boys?

              Before you lynch me for raising blasphemous ideas and restricting girls to things such as reproductive health and sewing/knitting, let me explain. If we were to look at education only from the boys' point of view, we would find that everything we wanted is probably already there. But that is not the case when it comes to girls. Surely, education for both boys and girls would be much better off if the girls' perspective, experience and world view were, in fact, included.

              Think, for a moment, of recipes, and how they would be wonderful material for learning mathematics (interesting, isn't it?). Or the kind of abilities girls have with fine motor skills and patterns. Or multi-tasking. Or giving value to emotions and relationships. Or being able to share rather than dominate. Or how to make use of meager resources. Or a range of other things which I'm sure you can list (endlessly). Are we not depriving ourselves in not exploring this? There is no doubt that, on the whole, education is much the poorer from having been defined by the male perspective. Which then applies to the world itself as well.

              Cure or Prevention: the Health Education Dilemma

              There is no doubt that educating children on health issues is absolutely important. But the moment we begin this, a major problem crops up. What should the thrust of health education be in a context like ours? It's not as simple as it appears.

              If we were to talk of prevention, we find ourselves making invalid assumptions. For instance, we start with 'washing hands with soap regularly prevents disease'. But the problem is, say a huge proportion of children and the community, 'there is not enough water even to drink, how do we wash hands with soap?' Next we say, 'you must eat green leafy vegetables'. However, the response: 'hey, there isn't enough food to eat in the first place, let alone leafy vegetables'. The list is endless. The bottom-line: poverty is at least as important a health issue as lack of health education.

              On the other hand, emphasizing prevention has its own limitations. For example, when discussing scabies it is common to find the use of neem being advocated. Though neem is commonly available, it is not exactly always useful in all cases of scabies. Medical advice should be sought rather than relying only on such suggestions. As they say, it can be dangerous to be armed with half-baked information.

              So what do we do? Not talk about health at all?

              No, we do need to educate our children on health. But the emphasis has to be on educate rather than merely plying them with information. In concrete terms this implies helping children perceive the causal links between different factors in their immediate environment and their health. How the body works, what it is affected by and how it responds to different factors, and how our own actions (individually and collectively) impact upon it -- these are some of the components of what contemporary health education should be like.

              This would naturally require scope for exploration, projects and activities. The pedagogy involved should help children arrive at their own conclusions, especially in terms of actions they could take. Here's an example of what might be a good health education activity (for grade 3 students, assisted by their teacher):

              Take two small plates -- put a little dal water in one, and a little sweet tea in the other. Set these plates in the sun and let the fluids dry. After a while, touch both of them with your fingers - one of them feels sticky and the other doesn't. Why do you think this is so?
              Next, take a knife (let your teacher do this!). Cut a cucumber and feel the knife edge carefully. Now cut a piece of jaggery and feel the edge again (carefully!). Which item left a more sticky knife edge? Why?
              So when we eat, which items are more likely to continue sticking to our teeth? And what will happen if they remain there (discuss with your teacher)? So what do we need to do? 

              That's it. There's no need really to give a long lecture of oral hygiene, full of facts and figures and information on exactly how to hold the brush etc. etc. All that sounds so platitudinous that children instinctively 'switch off' (as do adults when lectured!). The intention is that by helping children arrive at their own conclusions, we increase their stake in taking appropriate health-related action. And hence the increased chance that the understanding will actually translate into behavior!