The pandemic has exposed India’s ambivalence about scientific knowledge. While masking and distancing constitute scientific wisdom, we see mass disregard of these in festivals and polls. The pandemic has exposed another ambivalence — about beliefs on the purpose and processes of education. Education experts’ views have sharply contrasted with fears of bureaucrats and politicians. While experts insist on “opening schools first and closing them last”, and prioritising younger children’s schooling, governments have kept schools closed for too long, and then prioritised high schools.
Experts argue that the harm from school closure is maximum for younger children, in terms of loss of foundational learning, malnutrition, difficulties in resuming socialisation processes, whereas the harm from opening the schools is negligible, as they are the least vulnerable to the virus. Yet, the governments have focused on transitioning children from school to higher education through board examinations, even through farcical mass passing of students.
The gap between educators and political leadership, the latter mostly reflecting dominant perspectives, is a legacy crisis. For instance, educators are unequivocal that the medium of instruction must be children’s home language, yet governments eagerly open English medium primary schools, responding to parental desires that their children learn English to aspire for white-collar jobs. Low-cost, low-quality private ‘English medium’ schools flourish, though the children cannot learn in an unfamiliar language, especially given the lack of support at home for English.
Educators emphasise that holistic and diverse curricular experiences are indispensable to quality education. Yet, as they become older, students see with dismay, their games and art classes being taken over by their Mathematics or Science teachers! Completing syllabus is usually the teachers’ most important achievement, since testing memorisation through examinations, is believed to evidence ‘learning’, irrespective of conceptual understanding.
Jerome Bruner coined the term ‘folk pedagogies’ to signify popular beliefs about learning, derived from ‘folk psychologies’ which refers to peoples’ “common sense” understanding of the world.
Folk psychologies and folk pedagogies impact educational processes and systems and are powerful obstacles to achieving educational aims. Middle classes’ 'common sense' beliefs about the aims of education — of primarily enabling the student to acquire a job with a good salary, explain the popularity of engineering and medicine professions. However, as a formal human project, education aims to build an equitable and just society. Philosophers of education suggest education must aim to develop individuals who can together build a world of peace and prosperity, in harmony with all creation.
The vested interests promoting legacy folk pedagogies benefiting from them include India’s coaching industry, which pushes students to cram and crack competitive examinations, and private schools’ lobbies that corrupt governments to be lax on their regulation. Corporate-controlled media create an impression that government schools are universally dysfunctional. Though like private schools, the government school system is hugely stratified, ranging from highly sought-after Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas run by the central government with adequate resource support, to state government schools, systemically starved of basic infrastructure and support. Educators seeking higher investment in public education, such as state government schools serving underprivileged children, are ignored.
Earlier, ignoring educational expertise harmed education. During Covid times, it has proved lethal. As governments are opening schools, there are no clear directions to teachers on what to teach and how to teach. A student, now in grade 9, has mostly not attended grade 8 and has forgotten most of what was learnt in grade 7 or before. A teacher familiar with the class 9 textbook will teach that, but she will be unfamiliar with grade 6 or 7 lessons. This will be incomprehensible, and younger children will suffer the most. Development economist Jean Dreze observed during his study of Jharkhand school closures, that a ten-year-old who has forgotten basic Hindi alphabets will join grade 4 and get an English textbook that is completely beyond any comprehension. Unless the teacher begins with a foundational home language programme, the learner is likely to drop out of school, or simply be promoted across grades, gaining little comprehension.
The National Coalition on the Education Emergency recommends clear instructions for teachers to not focus on grade-level teaching, and begin with socio-emotional learning. Special measures will be needed for children from marginalised groups who had nil educational opportunities last year. Their schools will need additional teachers, teaching assistants, counsellors etc.
All this will go against the folk psychology that children from marginalised groups cannot and need not be educated, that they can and must, continue the subordinate socio-economic roles of their forefathers, in service of the upper strata of the society. Like others, this folk psychology too can be addressed only by education, following the critical pedagogy processes popularised by Paulo Friere, to ‘conscientize’ people from both groups.
(The writer is Director, IT for Change and a member of the National Coalition on the Education Emergency)