Schools without freedom

If a house needs repairs, and the repairs are delayed for a long time, the house develops a force to haunt its inhabitants during adversity. This analogy applies to the state of children’s education. Decisions pertaining to it are dependent on structures designed to overlook local factors. These structures were forged to ensure total compliance, no matter how vast the system became and how diverse remained the demands served by it. Decentralisation was routinely favoured, but it did not touch the core aspects of education as a system.

Craving for a modest amount of autonomy unites principals and teachers from across the sharply divided segments of our vast network of schools. For those serving in government-run schools, there is no provision in the rule book for freedom on any count that matters. Since British days, the bureaucracy views school functionaries with the deepest suspicion, both in their capacities and integrity. No matter how senior you are, your job is to silently follow the orders and circulars issued by the directorate and the examination board.

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In private schools, you notice additional players who keep principals and teachers under a fat thumb. For school owners and managers, the professional knowledge and experience of the principal and the teachers count for little. Management committees and parents generally support the regimented approach of directorates and Boards. Endorsement of school-based capacity-building has been in fashion, but the reality has taken the opposite direction. All major processes that affect life at school have stayed firmly under centralised exercise of authority, and exam boards have tightened their grip further.

COVID-19 chaos

Now arrives the novel coronavirus pandemic. The virus has spread across the country, but its impact in different regions is uneven. The metro cities have been affected far more than others, but it is now reported to be spreading in many district towns. No specific data are publicly available on villages. India has over six lakh villages. No single picture can cover their diverse geography and economics. Health standards and facilities differ, and so does the impact of COVID-19. Why the virus has not affected the rural hinterland as much as it has affected cities is far from clear. Many experts think that the uneven spread is merely a matter of poor reporting from villages. They smile if you tell them that many Panchayats are actively guarding their territories. It is not surprising that the awareness and resilience demonstrated by many villages is largely ignored in the media. It is an example of the general bias that pervades urban perception in all spheres of life.

No separate consideration of village needs seems possible in the current crisis. That is why all schools, urban and rural, have stayed closed since the last week of March. Cooked mid-day meals served to children at school have been replaced in many States by the distribution of grain and money to their children. If village schools had some autonomy, many would have found local conditions good enough to allow children to come for their meals and spend some time studying. Decisions regarding the daily time span and class size might have been taken in accordance with distancing norms by schools’ heads and teachers.

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Learning outdoors

Not all learning has to occur in the classroom. Ideologues of minimalism are arguing that foundational literacy and numeracy are what we need to focus on in order to improve quality. A new coinage is ‘learning loss’ which supposedly occurred in April and May due to the lockdown. Online teaching was mooted to compensate for this loss. Smartphones and laptops are new, but the idea that children’s basic educational needs are literacy and numeracy is certainly quite obsolete. Child psychology has generated sufficient evidence to say that in its formative stages the human mind needs opportunities to observe natural phenomenon, represent it in different forms and analyse it. Village schools are in a far better position to do so than city schools.

The monsoon creates great opportunities for noticing, recording and examining nature. Egrets and other large birds tread at leisurely paces in wet paddy fields, looking for food. They are a joy to watch and sketch in their different postures. Ants come out of their subterraneous homes when the rainwater floods them. Butterflies migrate in this season. These are just examples; there are a hundred things to observe in plants and trees.

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Village teachers can bring great energy into their pedagogy by encouraging children to spend time outdoors for assigned observation. If some children have acquired a smartphone to receive online instruction, they can visually record what they notice. Observation and reflection are good for promoting numeracy and literacy too. In fact, mathematics is learnt best when you are excited about something and find it worth counting. The same is true of writing and reading.

But we live in a time when learning outcomes are pre-defined and their attainment needs to be clerically proved, with tests. The search for technical fixes is not new, nor is the cult of controlling teachers and children. The hope that communications technology can improve pedagogic quality sustained interest in the radio, then in television and the Internet. I can recall some wonderful colleagues who dedicated their lives to educational technology. One was Dr. Vijaya Mulay who never tired of reminding officials that the real success of technology comes when it motivates and enables people to solve their own problems. For her, the danger of educational technology leading to centralised decision-making was as great as the attraction that it would bring life into the classrooms. The idea of cracking a general whip on our vast school population during a pandemic would have horrified her. The daily images of hapless children peering into a tiny screen are distressing indeed. Some of the poorer States are toying with a software that will tell the teacher what to do next for improving a child’s performance on a test. Ideas like that appeal to officials and others who have been led to believe that our core problem has to do with teachers.

Curiously enough, technology enthusiasts have seldom spoken about the absence of basic learning equipment in our schools. Something as small and simple as a magnifying glass is alien to our primary schools. Aren’t these also a part of educational technology? Great expenditure is made on purchasing technology for schools, but it does not cover binoculars or microscopes. There is a way to make sense of this. If watching egrets in a paddy field is not worth the time it will take, why should schools have binoculars? An experience that might expand or deepen a child’s interest and understanding does not count as learning whereas the ability to crack a test item does. All this fits in the larger picture, but it signifies a colossal loss of national imagination and talent. The system has failed to retain the momentum and gains that accrued to it from modest reforms because autonomy and professional competence were denied to teachers. If our schools fail to nurture a free, thoughtful mind among the young, one reason is that schools themselves have no freedom. And if pandemic compulsions guide broader decisions, teachers’ bondage will get worse.

Krishna Kumar is a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training

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Printable version | May 15, 2022 5:52:32 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/schools-without-freedom/article32347399.ece