Plugged into a homogenising global consumerist culture underpinned by technology, childhood today is different from what it was even a decade ago. What do these changes mean to the teacher and the classroom dynamics? Some veteran educators speak...

Twenty-five years ago, in a pre-liberalised economy, the vistas of childhood differed significantly from today's landscape. Without access to multiple television channels, video games, the Internet, glitzy malls stocked with the latest trends and gizmos, entertainment for children usually meant playing outdoors, fantasy or board games or watching the sole national channel. As parents were less harried, time spent with children was uninterrupted by beeping BlackBerrys.

New dangers

However, today's youngsters are born into an India that readily embraces consumerism with all its accompanying trappings. Besides being surfeited by a plethora of toys and gadgets, the average middle-class child is tethered to a global network that tends to homogenise childhood. From Pokemon to Ben 10, different facets of childhood are readily packaged and marketed. Even the old-fashioned book has been overtaken by the marketing blitzkrieg, thus making Harry Potter a larger than life phenomenon. Technology has also made inroads into the classroom with smart boards, PPT presentations and laptops. As childhood has undergone tumultuous shifts, the dynamics of classroom life have been altered. Teachers cannot rely on plain chalk-and-talk anymore but have to keep pace with a generation raised on a multimedia diet. Veteran teachers and educators with at least two decades of experience from across the country share their views on how the demands of an emerging economy have impacted their profession.

The use of technology in the classroom has indeed facilitated both teaching and learning. According to Lakshmi Raman (name changed), a teacher from Chennai, abstract concepts are easier to convey with multimedia. Classes also tend to be more interactive as students are eager to engage with technology. Furthermore, Shylaja Ramakrishnan of Mamta Modern School, New Delhi, believes that technology has aided children with learning differences. Malathi Gopal, a retired teacher from Bengaluru, opines that technology opens up a universe of information and teachers don't have to be constrained by prescribed textbooks. Teachers also feel that children are more tech-savvy, have greater exposure and are better informed in domains that interest them.

However, Malathi Gopal adds a caveat to the boons of technology: “On the flip side, technology has reduced the ability of children to think on their own and be creative.” Besides completing assignments mechanically using cut-and-paste options, children also have diminishing attention spans. According to Rosabel David of Akshayah School, Chennai, children engage in “diverse activities outside school” and as a result are unable to focus on academics. As children move seamlessly from their PSPs, Facebook, ipods and cell phones, they engage in what MIT professor Sherry Turkle describes as “continual partial attention”. Usha Prabhakar from Palakkad attests that “Technology has so fast forwarded children's lives that traditional methods are not acceptable anymore.” Suma Kumar (name changed), a state government school teacher, adds that earlier the auditory mode was prevalent in teaching, while today education has to be more visual to capture student interest. One of the baneful effects of television is an overreliance on the visual medium while other channels are selectively neglected. The fact that children are used to getting information at the click of a mouse also erodes their ability to be patient and mull over problems. Shyamla Gopinath, a teacher from Bengaluru, feels that students “look for easy and quick solutions”.

How has the consumer culture impacted education? From clothes, toys, food to activities, children are besotted with choice. Psychology professor Sheena Iyengar finds that too much choice not only overwhelms but also leaves us less satisfied. Thus, teachers have to contend with a generation of children who have more but are less easy to please. As schools charging exorbitant fees and offering enticing facilities are cropping up in all the metros, many parents feel that education itself has become commercialised.

More choices

However, Pritam Benjamin, an education consultant from Bengaluru, argues that there is a greater variety of educational options in cities in terms of “courses and approaches to learning”. While earlier we only had Montessori schools, we now have institutions that adopt the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences or offer programmes for gifted children and those with learning difficulties.

Teachers also feel that parental attitudes towards education have undergone a shift. According to Uma Ramesh, Sulochana Pratap Singh and Rajalakshmi from TVS Matriculation School, Madurai, “Parents of today expect real magic to take place in kids”. They want their wards “to acquire multiple talents and skills to match the demand in the market place”. Shylaja Ramakrishnan believes that parents are bereft of time and “this, in turn, instils a sense of guilt in them, which they try to assuage by pampering the whims of the child”. Sophia Varkey of ALG School and The Learning Nest, Coimbatore, feels that many parents focus only on “short term, immediate gains” for their wards.

Still the same

Unfortunately, one facet of Indian education that has not changed in a quarter century is our narrow and unidimensional focus on marks. Both students and teachers are under duress to achieve stellar results on examinations, often at the cost of truly educating our children. In addition, syllabi for various subjects continue to remain dreary and uninspiring. Students continue to cram information to score marks without engaging actively and meaningfully with content. Malathi Gopal feels that even after Environmental Education was introduced as a compulsory subject, we have not managed to cultivate a green conscience in children.

Finally and fortunately, another aspect of education that has remained unchanged is the pivotal role of teachers. No technology or innovation can replace the humanistic goals that our teachers tirelessly try to impart to our children. Despite flickering attention spans, meagre pay packages and increasing workloads, our teachers continue to mould generation after generation.

Happy Teachers' Day!

What makes an exemplary teacher?

In a study on creativity, psychologist Csikszentmihalyi finds that while a “school itself rarely gets mentioned as a source of inspiration, individual teachers often awaken, sustain, or direct a child's interest”. Teachers who kindle a spark in their students, first and foremost, notice them as individuals, believe in their abilities and genuinely care about their charges. Further, these teachers challenge students without making lessons too boring or frustrating. Another study by Marica Gentry and colleagues indicates that a teacher's enthusiasm, ability to give concrete feedback and knowledge of a subject are essential for motivating students. Most importantly, an exemplary teacher coaxes the high-performers to straddle great heights while also encouraging those who struggle to maximise their potential. Finally, an outstanding teacher leads by example. As the American psychiatrist Karl Menninger says, “What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.”

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