Dealing with first generation school-goers

IN THEIR HANDS: “Various implicit and explicit beliefs of the teachers have a direct bearing on how they play their roles.” Picture shows a classroom in Madurai. Photo: G. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: G_Moorthy

Let’s consider an issue that teachers in our government schools grapple with every day. Every class across the country has a significant proportion of children who are first generation school-goers. They come from severely disadvantaged families. The support at home for such children for education is very different and usually lesser than that for children who come from lower middle class families. As can be expected, this is only part of the difference; the overall socio-economic opportunities are vastly different for such children, which also have significant educational implications.

Education of these first generation school-goers is a complex of challenges. It requires substantially higher commitment and lot more work, and it’s the responsibility of the teachers to make this education happen. The same teachers also experience the relative ease of education with middle class children. It’s not surprising that a sentiment that one can often sense amongst many (certainly not all) teachers is “why do we have to have these children in school?” The sentiment is shared by many officials at various levels within the education system. The grudgingly accepted response to that sentiment is: it is the policy i.e. it’s an order from above.

‘Policy’ from above

That all children must get education, that no child can be refused admission in a government school, and that special measures must be taken to get disadvantaged children in to schools have been “policy” in some way or the other for decades. These policies and their details have become sharper and tighter over time, culminating in the Right to Education Act of 2009. So I haven’t yet met a teacher or official who doesn’t know the policy commitment to inclusion. Most also agree with the general intent of the policy, that all children must get education, and that for the disadvantaged it is even more important.

However, this general acceptance of inclusion amongst teachers is everyday weakened by the complexity they personally encounter in the classrooms when dealing with the very children, who are in the schools because of these policies of inclusion. Often there is something deeper also at work, feeding the disquiet on this matter. Various implicit and explicit beliefs of the teachers have a direct bearing on how they play their roles, and on this matter. Here are some examples of these beliefs: not all children can learn, knowledge is the natural preserve of certain castes, those in poverty are lazy and irresponsible. It’s not that all teachers have such beliefs, but unsurprisingly such negative beliefs are quite common, given the nature of our society. The order from above i.e. the policies, have to get the teachers to act appropriately for these disadvantaged children, tackling the complex of challenges and often in the face of negative forces of deeply held beliefs. This must happen day after day. How effective can an external order be, in this conflicted and demanding human situation?

All practice in education involves commitments, assumptions and goals that demand philosophical scrutiny. The absence of such scrutiny has a direct implication on the effectiveness of the practitioner

It’s easy to guess, if one doesn’t already know, that it is not effective. However, if the answer to that basic question “why must we have these children in school?” had been searched for rigorously by the teachers, then it would have been an altogether different situation. Such a search would have led some to the same notion of the just and the good, which is at the roots of the commitment to inclusion, and thus a deep conviction, would energise them. Some may have reached elsewhere, but even they would be so much better informed about the rationale for the policy, and thus better informed in their actions. This process of search, of examination and clarification, would be similarly and equally useful when applied to the beliefs of the teachers. All this would be more likely if the overall education system were to not rely only on the force of policy, but encourage and support such inquiry.

Are such processes really necessary? Isn’t it just enough to give an adequate explanation for the policy and its intent?

Effectiveness changes substantially when the people involved in anything, understand why they are doing what they are doing, and develop conviction about reasons and purposes. Education is just about the most complex of all intentional social processes, it’s a humanistic social endeavour. Therefore, it’s entirely dependent on the capacities, dispositions, beliefs and relationships of those involved, most significantly of the teachers. So, such a process of building understanding and convictions through deep personal examination and inquiry is absolutely fundamental to the effectiveness of education.

While I have gone in to some detail on this particular matter of “why do we have to have these children in schools?” education poses many more such basic questions every day to the practitioner. Let’s take a few more: what do we want our children to learn and why, should basic existing social norms be questioned, what are good values and how are they developed, what does it mean when we say that a child understands, what are our basic assumptions about human beings, what is the use of knowledge etc. All these questions need equally rigorous, critical and systematic inquiry.

Philosophy of education

These kinds of basic issues along with the related process of critical examination and systematic inquiry, is philosophy of education. I avoided that phrase “philosophy of education” in the beginning, apprehensive that it immediately suggests an endeavour, confined to the hallowed precincts of the academy or the deep mind of a wise person in repose. Given the processes of learning, the nature of education and its purposes, philosophy and practice are inseparable. All practice in education involves commitments, assumptions and goals that demand philosophical scrutiny. The absence of such scrutiny has a direct implication on the effectiveness of the practitioner. Philosophy is absolutely essential in the practice of good education. That is why India needs people in education to be able to philosophise rigorously about education, even if we don’t use that heavy sounding word.

(Anurag Behar is Vice Chancellor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.)

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Printable version | Jan 12, 2022 8:51:01 PM |

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