The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Where the child is without fear

Listening faces aren’t always listening ears, and teachers aren’t in classrooms only to present information but to help children grow, says Brendan McCarthaigh

In the classroom and loving it. Post-modern teaching tecniques must focus on taking the child forward, not burdening him with facts to regurgitate on his examination answer-script, feel experts

Close to April 14th, I was looking at the contributions of Aashirvad Vidyalaya, on BB Ganguly Street — the children’s handwritten, gem-clipped newspaper on their school notice-board — on someone clearly very dear to these poor, immigrant Hindi-speaking waifs — the great Dr Ambedkar, one of the writers of our Constitution. They sketched, wrote poems, and did a drama illustrating the marginalisation of this hero from less than a century ago. Our kids, too, are marginalised, partly for the same reasons as him, mostly from poverty.

Some of our girls and boys live under plastic sheets on the street, others under various city overhangs. They know what poverty means. Among other things, they know it means that their chances of getting into a prestigious school, less still an English-medium one, are nil. The reality is that not many of you who read this article are likely to be closely involved with kids like these, or to have been one of them. But all of you have some sort of stake in education. Every one is aware that something is rotten in the state of education. Let’s check out some ideas, and the whys about implementation — and non-implementation — of these ideas.

Blame is not the name of the game. Updating is. For the post-modern child, and the post-modern methods available to that child, in the process of equipping her/him for the country and the world she/he must do something to repair. And one of the first symptoms of that post-modernist trend is that our young people are no longer open to elders or achievers as authorities. “That’s your opinion, it isn’t mine”. Subjects like the sciences — mere facts, no problem. But anything interpretative, like history, social studies, literature, and specially value education — forget about authority.

Traditionally, and in places still, the teacher holds forth on the data specified by the syllabus. In most senior classes, questioning is not much encouraged, partly because syllabi are huge and must get covered if those golden-apple percentages are to be garnered. But look at what happens to many teachers. Power takes root. Having the knowledge, I have power over you. If you want my knowledge, certain unwritten prescriptions must be followed. Listen. Believe what you have heard. Repeat it in exams. You will be rewarded proportionately. That makes sure that I, the teacher, am respected.

I recall a college essay I had to do. The professor asked us to tease out the “To be or not to be” speech. He had analysed it as referring to Hamlet’s own suicide. I chose to analyse it as referring to Hamlet’s murder of the king.

The professor gave me a zero. So much does this take hold, that not only are many teachers loathe for the student to have an alternative answer, but they even resent that the student should acquire the knowledge from any other source than the teacher herself/himself.

Today’s youngster is used to packaged stuff, with frequent breaks. She/he is not used to prolonged concentration. Listening faces do not confirm listening ears. Some teachers deliberately confuse students so that ‘private’ tuitions might be requested. But that is a passing immorality; I refer to the well-meant fears of some teachers that if they are not actually lecturing, they are not teaching. They forget that the object of the exercise is less that they present knowledge than that the children learn — and grow.

And so, they resist methods of pedagogy that emphasise research, discussion, arrival-points, checking out of alternative resources and presenting interim conclusions. As one very nice lady put it to us when we were about to demonstrate the approach: “Oh, but then I shan’t be teaching, only observing! That’s not what I want to do!” Nice she was, but the fact was that the power inherent in being the sole source of required knowledge had – as power tends to do — corrupted her understanding of her profession.

Imagine the growth that happens when your 10-year-olds can go to books of knowledge and find out things for themselves. Imagine the joy of sharing that with a group of friends, who are then moved to comment, criticise, embellish and develop the data. Imagine then, that this team of youngsters is invited to organise its discoveries into a presentation. It could be as small as discovering perimeters of rectangular shapes can be stated in a formula. It could be something as large as what the rationale was behind Ambedkar’s marginalisation, as our Aashirvad Vidyalaya kids did.

Last week, I was substituting for a colleague, and the girls and boys had simply been told to “get on with it”. It was fascinating to observe that after an initial five minutes of messing about, not only did they “get on with it”, but they globulated into groups, explored the issue (in social studies) that had been proposed, argued about it while jotting down points that they struggled to verbalise accurately and completely ignored my existence.

Shaping this is what we are promoting. We are arguing for much more fluid pedagogy, especially examination systems, because, of course, there must be some sort of professional evaluation. We have planned this system, ‘Where the child is without fear’, and seen it devoured with gratitude in Delhi, where they asked us to present a workshop in defence of these structures, and where they then experimented. Tried it out with 10,000 children, each child’s progress graphed in detail. They have written their delight and congratulations to us, and asked us to do it in more schools. These were — every one of them — drop-out children from the regular system we have been talking about. Overcome by a combination of boredom and fear, they had simply quit. Now, they are back in the classroom, and loving it.

As recently as the last week of April, The Guardian reported that the British government has been officially informed that the examination system is damaging the children. In our NGO, Serve, we could not but smile. We are saving children the suffering they must currently face several times a year — some unto suicide — and then emerge into the marketplace demoralised, incompetent, and fear-ridden to the extent that mum and dad have to still hold their hand through college and even university. Growth' Nil.

We need to respect the post-modernity of our children, to develop our understanding of EQ as comfortably as of IQ, of Left Brain-Right Brain phenomena, and of alternative methods of evaluations. At higher levels, we need to respect the gift that each of these is, rather than retreat to our medieval towers proclaiming Heresy! If not, perhaps we are party to the decreasing respect in which our proud profession is held.

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