Reflections on Schooling

Radhika Menon (Managing Editor) and Sandhya Rao (Senior Editor), Tulika Publishers
in The Hindu Business Line. This article is a report on a conference hosted by Digantar, where Radhika Menon and Sandhya Rao of Tulika Publishers presented a paper on Creating and Using Bilingual Books.

"When I was young,” says storyteller L. Narayan, “ I read the story of the fox and the grapes and I always thought the fox was a fool. Today I realize that the grapes are sour! Every day, the story means something to me!” He was talking about the importance of storytelling in bridging the distance between reality and the classroom.

For the last three years, a small group of young people has been helping build bridges by providing a platform for the sharing of ideas and experiences on issues related to education, specifically schooling, to provide a space, as volunteers Jayashree Ashok and Anita Satish pointed out, for “free exchange of ideas and experiences, to share diverse methodologies and pedagogies, and encourage dialogue, discussion and debate”.

Such and many other voices were heard at the birdsong-filled venue on the outskirts of Jaipur this February (10th to 12th) courtesy Digantar, an organization working on developing suitable ways of educating children in a multicultural, democratic society. Participants represented organisations working in such diverse areas as maths teaching and learning, storytelling, education for rural development, natural learning processes, approaches to conflict resolution, radio for learning, inclusive education, dual language publishing and working with children of the slums.

Alongside the questions of dropout rates, inflexible curriculum, information overload and so on, emerged creative ways in which so many are engaging with issues and addressing them in often harsh, hostile circumstances. In his keynote address, Prof. Krishna Kumar, Director, NCERT, acknowledged these initiatives being undertaken by those “working on the cutting edges of education, in spaces where the system doesn’t work”.

And the system does not work in many parts of India, in the hearts of cities and towns as well as in far-flung rural landscapes where school can be simply four fragile walls without a roof and only sometimes visited by a teacher. Admission to which is often the major aspiration of parents. Where children are drilled into absorbing items of information that have no relevance to the lives they lead. Indeed, items of information that negate their very existence. And after several years, if they survive the system, it imposes upon them one slim thread of opportunity to prove their success, the ubiquitous public exam. In the words of a participant, “it is a system of constant elimination”: Fifth class fail. Eighth class fail. Tenth class fail.

Of course, this is the worst case scenario. But when the worst case represents the most-often case . . . this, largely, was the theme of the deliberations in Jaipur. “In a situation where nearly 80% of children between 10 and 12 years drop out of school and are branded failures, it is better they never get into the mainstream system. They make naturally vibrant children into failures for life,” said Shivani Taneja of Muskaan, an organization working among children in Bhopal’s slums. The point that school is increasingly becoming a place where children measure their failures rather than their successes was raised also by Kumar and Rohit Dhankar of Digantar.

However, a ‘10th class fail’ in Pabal, a village some 70 km from Pune, Maharashtra, has designed a geodisic dome, an earthquake resistant dwelling, and another has invented the MechBull, a mini tractor suited to the specific needs of his community. Thanks to Vignyan Ashram which has developed a vocational Introduction to Basic Technology (IBT) course that combines multiskilled training with community support and services. The idea is that students, after the training, remain to work within the community instead of migrating to cities and towns. This programme grew out of the same questions and concerns: Shiksha ke baad kya? After education, what?

The question that Kumar and his 350-strong National Curriculum Framework Review team have been deliberating upon is, broadly speaking: What kind of education? In an impassioned, logical, reflective speech, Kumar offered the example of a child in Alwar, for instance, typically growing up “learning in school about a world in which Alwar doesn’t exist”. Or a child being taught “a lesson on nutrition that completely illegitimises what the poor eat”.

How can we create a curriculum, he and many others asked, that is inclusive, in which the child matters not the subject? Kumar offered the thought that this could be done through social deliberation and a humane pedagogic process, and by creating a curriculum that takes cognizance of heritage, arts, crafts, and the realities that make up a child’s world. He spoke also of the need to make school a place of trust, of affection, where knowledge is sifted, clarified, and leads to understanding.

When facts are twisted, they grow into misinformation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding. Popular perceptions are shaped by media, education and political groups stressed Dr Ram Puniyani in a brilliant bilingual (simultaneously in Hindi and in English) exposition of the rise of communal violence in India. He spoke of the deliberate divide and rule project of the British that found its way into their accounting of ‘history’ and continues to impact upon our lives today: “Uncritical accounts of the courtiers mixed with their own vested interests ensured that Hindus started hating the rule of Muslim kings and in turn the Muslims. The ‘content’ part of history teaching was greatly influenced by this communal viewpoint. And in Pakistan, the process works the other way, to glorify the Muslim kings and denigrate the Hindu kings with similar effect.”

How can the curriculum help shape the ‘critical’, ‘discriminating’ mind? By offering a child-centred approach in school; by recognizing the needs of the individual while working with the demands of a group; by creating and making available reading and learning materials that relate to children’s lives; by making available to children books in which they find themselves and other worlds in their own languages; by making it possible to learn English, the language of power, through books and effective, innovative teaching methods; through programmes that enhance self-worth, not kill initiative and curiosity. Most importantly, by creating a liberal space in schools that encourage dissent and listening, where identities are inclusive not exclusive.

And don’t forget the teacher, said Rohit Dhankar. “The teacher is the main custodian of curriculum, whether that curriculum is in the teacher’s head, has been put together by the school or has been prescribed by the State. The main dialogue is not with the State but with the child.”

‘Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they have been born in another time,’ goes a Hebrew saying. Its philosophy is substantiated by Narayan’s story and gives The Learning Network a much-needed and meaningful space.