On respect in the classroom

If you are a teacher (of any sort) and teach young people, don’t be disheartened if the students in your class don’t respect you or listen to you or maintain discipline. Even great philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle has a tough time dealing with their students

Socrates grumbled that he don’t get no respect: his pupils “fail to rise when their elders enter the room. They chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, and tyrannize over their teachers.” Aristotle was similarly pissed off by his stu­dents’ attitude: “They regard themselves as omniscient and are positive in their assertions; this is, in fact, the reason for their carrying everything too far.”Their jokes left the philosopher unamused: “They are fond of laughter and conse­quently facetious, facetiousness being disciplined insolence.”

– Judith Harris The Nurture Assumption

That being said, the students are also very perceptive about the knowledge of the teachers, and know who is trying to be a cosmetic intellectual.

Cosmetic Intellectuals (+ IYI)

In the last few years, the very connotation of the term intellectual has seen a downward slope. Such are the times that we are living in that calling someone an “intellectual” has become more like an insult rather than a compliment: it means an idiot who doesn’t understand or see things clearly. Now as the title of the post suggests it is this meaning, not the other meaning intellectuals who know about cosmetics. Almost two decades back Alan Sokal wrote a book titled Intellectual Impostures, which described quite a few of them. In this book, Sokal exposed the posturing done by people of certain academic disciplines who were attacking science from a radical postmodernist perspective. What Sokal showed convincingly through his famous hoax, is that many of these disciplines are peddling out bullshit with no control over the meaning contained. Only the form was important not the meaning. And in the book, he takes it a step forward, showing that this was not an isolated case. He exposes the misuse of the technical terms (which often have precise and operational meanings) as loose metaphors or even worse completely neglecting the accepted meaning of those terms. The examples given are typical, and you cannot make sense of what is being written. You can read, but cannot understand. It makes no sensible meaning. At this point, you start to doubt your own intelligence and intellectual competence, perhaps you have not read enough to understand this complex piece of knowledge. It was after all written by an intellectual. Perhaps you are not aware of the meaning of the jargon or their context, hence you are not able to understand it. After all there are university departments and journals dedicated to such topics. Does it not legitimise such disciplines as academic and its proponents/followers as intellectuals? Sokal answered it empirically by testing if presented with nonsense whether it makes any difference to the discipline. You are not able to make sense of these texts because they are indeed nonsensical. To expect any semblance of logic and rationality in them is to expect too much.

Nassim Taleb has devised the term Intellectual Yet Idiots (the IYI in the title) in his Incerto series. He minces no words and takes no bullshit. Sokal appears very charitable in comparison. Taleb sets the bar even higher. Sokal made a point to attack mostly the postmodernists, but Taleb bells the cats who by some are even considered proper academics, for example, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. He considers entire disciplines as shams, which are otherwise considered academic, like economics, but has equal if not more disdain to several others also, for example, psychology and gender studies. Taleb has at times extreme views on several issues and he is not afraid to speak of his mind on matters that matter to him. His writings are arrogant, but his content is rigorous and mathematically sound.

they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence, hence fall into circularities—their main skill is a capacity to pass exams written by people like them, or to write papers read by people like them.

But there are people who are like IYIs, but don’t even have the depth of the content or knowledge of IYIs. They are wannabe IYIs, all form no conent. They are a level below IYIs. I term such people as cosmetic intellectuals (cosint). We have met them before: they are the envious mediocre and the ones who excel in meetings. The term cosmetic is used in two senses both as adjectives. The first sense is the Loreal/Lakme/Revlon fashion sense as given from the dictionary entry below:

cosmetic

  • relating to treatment intended to restore or improve a person’s appearance
  • affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance

It is the second sense that I mean in this post. It is rather the substance of these individuals that is only present in the appearance. And as we know appearance can be deceiving. Cosints appear intellectuals, but only in appearance, hence the term cosmetic. So how does one become a Cosint? Here is a non-exhaustive list that can be an indicator (learn here is not used in the deeper sense of the word, but more like as in rote-learn):

  1. Learn the buzzwords: Basically they rote learn the buzzwords or the jargon of the field that they are in. One doesn’t need to understand the deeper significance or meaning of such words, in many cases just knowing the words works. In the case of education, some of these are (non-comprehensive): constructivism, teaching-learning process, milieu, constructivist approaches, behaviorism, classroom setting, 21st-century skills, discovery method, inquiry method, student-centered, blended learning, assessments, holistic, organic, ethnography, pedagogy, curriculum, TLMs. ZPD, TPD, NCF, RTE, (the more complicated the acronyms, the better). More complicated it sounds the better. They learn by association that certain buzzwords have a positive value (for example, constructivism) and other a negative one (for example, behaviorism) in the social spaces where they usually operate in, for example, in education departments of universities and colleges. Not that the Cosints are aware of the deeper meaning of there concepts, still they make a point of using them whenever possible. They make a buzz using the buzzwords. If you ask them about Piaget, they know the very rudimentary stuff, anything deeper and they are like rabbits in front of flashlight. They may talk about p-values, 𝛘2 tests, 98.5 % statistical significances, but when asked will not be able to distinguish between dependent and independent variables.
  2. Learn the people: The CosInts are also aware of the names of the people in their trade. And they associate the name to a concept or of a classic work. They are good associating. For example, (bad) behaviorism with Burrhus F. Skinner or Watson, hence Skinner bad. Or Jean Piaget with constructivism and stages (good). Vygotsky: social constructivism, ZPD. Or John Dewey and his work. So they have a list of people and concepts. Gandhi: Nayi Taleem.  Macauley: brought the English academic slavery on India (bad).
  3. Learn the classics: They will know by heart all the titles of the relevant classics and some modern ones (you have to appear well-read after all). Here just remembering the names is enough. No one is going to ask you what was said in section 1.2 of Kothari Commission. Similarly, they will rote learn the names of all the books that you are supposed to have read, better still carry a copy of these books and show off in a class. Rote learn a few sentences, and spew it out like a magic trick in front of awestruck students. Items #1 through #3 don’t work very well when they have real intellectual in front of them. A person with a good understanding of basics will immediately discover the fishiness of the facade they put up. But that doesn’t matter most of the time, as we see in the next point.
  4. Know the (local) powerful and the famous: This is an absolute must to thrive with these limitations. Elaborated earlier.
  5. Learn the language aka Appear academic (literally not metaphorically): There is a stereotype of academic individuals. They will dress in a particular manner (FabIndia?, pyor cotton wonly, put a big Bindi, wear a Bongali kurta etc, carry ethnic items, conference bags (especially the international ones), even conference stationery), carry themselves in a particular manner, talk in a particular manner (academese). This is also true of wannabe CosInt who are still students, they learn to imitate as soon as they enter The Matrix. Somehow they will find ways of using names and concepts from #1 #2 #3 in their talk, even if they are not needed. Show off in front of the students, especially in front of the students. With little practice one can make an entire classroom full of students believe that you are indeed learned, very learned. Any untoward questions should be shooed off, or given so tangential an answer that students are more confused than they were earlier.
  6. Attend conferences, seminars and lectures: The primary purpose is network building and making sure that others register you as an academic. Also, make sure that you ask a question or better make a tangential comment after the seminar so that everyone notices you. Ask the question for the sake of asking the question (even especially if you don’t have any real questions). Sometimes the questions devolve into verbal diarrhea and don’t remain questions and don’t also have any meaning that can be derived from them (I don’t have a proper word to describe this state of affairs, but it is like those things which you know when you see it). But you have to open your mouth at these events, especially when you have nothing substantial/meaningful to say. This is how you get recognition. Over a decade of attending various conferences on education in India, I have come to realise that it is akin to a cartel. You go to any conference, you will see a fixed set of people who are common to these conferences. Many of these participants are the cosints (both the established and the wannabes). After spending some time in the system they become organisers of such conferences, seminars and lectures definitely get other CosInts to these conferences. These are physical citation rings, I call you to my conference you call me to yours. Year after year, I see the same patterns, so much so I can predict, like while watching a badly written and cliche movie, what is going to happen when they are around. That person has to ask a question and must use a particular buzzword. (I myself don’t ask or comment, unless I think I have something substantial to add. Perhaps they think in same manner, just that their definition of substantial is different than mine.) Also, see #5, use the terms in #1, #2 and #3. Make sure to make a personal connection with all the powerful and famous you find there, also see #4.
  7. Pedigree matters: Over the years, I have seen the same type of cosints coming from particular institutions. Just like you can predict certain traits of a dog when you know its breed, similarly one can predict certain traits of individuals coming from certain institutions. Almost without exception, one can do this, but certain institutions have a greater frequency of cosints. Perhaps because the teachers who are in those places are themselves IYI+cosints. Teaching strictly from a  prescribed curriculum and rote-learning the jargon: most students just repeat what they see and the cycle continues. Sometimes I think these are the very institutions that are responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country. They are filled to the brim with IYIs, who do not have any skin in the game and hence it doesn’t matter what they do. Also, being stamped as a product of certain institution gives you some credibility automatically, “She must be talking some sense, after all he is from DU/IIT/IIM/JNU/”
  8. Quantity not quality: Most of us are not going to create work which will be recognised the world over (Claude Shannon published very infrequently, but when he did it changed the world). Yet were are in publish or perish world. CosInts know this, so they publish a lot. It doesn’t matter what is the quality is (also #4 and #5 help a lot). They truly are environmentalists. They will recycle/reuse the same material with slight changes for different papers and conferences, and surprisingly they also get it there (also #4 and #5 help a lot). So, at times, you will find a publication list which even a toilet paper roll may not be able to contain. Pages after pages of publications! Taleb’s thoughts regarding this are somewhat reassuring, so is the Sokal’s hoax, that just when someone has publications (a lot of them) it is not automatic that they are meaningful.
  9. Empathisers and hypocrites: Cosints are excellent pseudo-emphatisers. They will find something to emphathise with. Maybe a class of people, a class of gender (dog only knows how many). Top of the list are marginalised, poor low socio-economic status, underprivileged, rural schools, government students, school teachers, etc. You get the picture.  They will use the buzz words in the context of these entities they emphathise with. Perhaps, once in their lifetimes, they might have visited those whom they want to give their empathy, but otherwise, it is just an abstract entity/concept.(I somehow can’t shake image of Arshad Warsi in MunnaBhai MBBS “Poor hungry people” while writing about this.) It is easier to work with abstract entities than with real ones, you don’t have to get your hands (or other body parts) dirty. The abstract teacher will do this, will behave in this way: they will write a 2000 word assignment on a terse subject. This is all good when designing things because abstract concepts don’t react in unwanted ways. But when things don’t go as planned in real world, teachers don’t react at all! The blame is on everyone else except the cosints. Perhaps they are too dumb to understand that it is they are at fault. Also, since they don’t have skin in the game, they will tell and advise whatever they have heard or think to be good, when it is implemented on others. For example, if you talk to people especially from villages, they will want to learn English as it is seen as the language which will give them upward mobility. But cosints, typically in IYI style, some researchers found that it is indeed the mother tongue which is better for students to learn, it should be implemented everywhere. The desires and hopes of those who will be learning be damned, they are too “uneducated” to understand what they need. It is the tyranny of fake experts at work here.

    He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests… When plebeians do something that makes sense to themselves, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated.” (SITG Taleb)

    Now one would naturally want to know under what conditions that research was done? was there any ideological bias of the researchers? whether it is applicable in as diverse a country as India? What do we do of local “dialects”? But they don’t do any of this. Instead, they will attack anyone who raises these doubts, especially in #6. They want to work only with the government schools: poor kids, poor teachers no infrastructure. But ask them where their own children study: they do in private schools! But their medium must be their mother tongue right? No way, it is completely English medium, they even learn Hindi in English. But at least the state board? No CBSE, or still better ICSE. Thus we see the hypocrisy of the cosint, when they have the skin in the game. But do they see it themselves? Perhaps not, hence they don’t feel any conflict in what they do.

So we see that IYI /cosint are not what they seem or consider themselves. Over the last decade or so, with the rise of the right across the world is indicating to everyone that something is wrong when cosints tell us what to do. The tyranny of pseudo-experts has to go.  But why it has come to that the “intellectuals” who are supposed to be the cream of the human civilisation, the thinkers, the ideators, so why the downfall? Let us first look at the meaning of the term, so as to be not wrong about that:

 The intellectual person is one who applies critical thinking and reason in either a professional or a personal capacity, and so has authority in the public sphere of their society; the term intellectual identifies three types of person, one who:

  1. is erudite, and develops abstract ideas and theories;
  2. a professional who produces cultural capital, as in philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, law, medicine, science; and
  3. an artist who writes, composes, paints and so on.

Intellectual (emphasis mine)

Now, see in the light of the above definition, it indeed seems that it must be requiring someone to be intelligent and/or well-cultured individual. So why the change in the tones now? The reasons are that the actual intellectual class has degraded and cosints have replaced them, also too much theory and no connect with the real world has made them live in a simulacrum which is inhabited and endorsed by other cosints. And as we have seen above it is a perpetuating cycle, running especially in the universities (remember Taleb’s qualification). They theorize and jargonise (remember the buzzwords) simple concepts so much that no one who has got that special glossary will understand it). And cosints think it is how things should be. They write papers in education, supposedly for the betterment of the classroom teaching by the teachers, in such a manner that if you give it to a teacher, they will not be able to make any sense of it, leave alone finding something useful. Why? Because other cosints/IYI demand it! If you don’t write a paper in a prescribed format it is rejected, if it doesnt have enough statistics it is rejected, if it doesn’t give enough jargon in the form of theoretical review, and back scratching in the form of citations it is rejected. So what good are such papers which don’t lead to practice? And why should the teachers listen to you if you don’t have anything meaningful to tell them or something they don’t know already?

The noun to describe them:

sciolist – (noun) – One who engages in pretentious display of superficial knowledge.

School as a manufacturing process

Over most of this century, school has been conceived as a manufacturing process in which raw materials (youngsters) are operated upon by the educational process (machinery), some for a longer period than others, and turned into finished products. Youngsters learn in lockstep or not at all (frequently not at all) in an assembly line of workers (teachers) who run the instructional machinery. A curriculum of mostly factual knowledge is poured into the products to the degree they can absorb it, using mostly expository teaching methods. The bosses (school administrators) tell the workers how to make the products under rigid work rules that give them little or no stake in the process.
– (Rubba, et al. Science Education in the United States: Editors Reflections. 1991)

Science Education and Textbooks

What are the worst possible ways of approaching the textbooks for teaching science? In his book Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science pedagogue Michael Matthews quotes (p. 51) Kenealy in this matter. Many of the textbooks of science would fall in this categorisation. The emphasis lays squarely on the content part, and that too memorized testing of it.

Kenealy characterizes the worst science texts as ones which “attempt to spraypaint their readers with an enormous amount of ‘scientific facts,’ and then test the readers’ memory recall.” He goes on to observe that:

Reading such a book is much like confronting a psychology experiment which is testing recall of a random list of nonsense words. In fact, the experience is often worse than that, because the book is a presentation that purports to make sense, but is missing so many key elements needed to understand how human beings could ever reason to such bizarre things, that the reader often blames herself or himself and feels “stupid,” and that science is only for special people who can think “that way” … such books and courses have lost a sense of coherence, a sense of plot, a sense of building to a climax, a sense of resolution. (Kenealy 1989, p. 215)

What kind of pedagogical imagination and theories will lead to the textbooks which have a complete emphasis on the “facts of science”? This pedagogical imagination also intimately linked to the kind of assessments that we will be using to test the “learning”. Now if we are satisfied by assessing our children by their ability to recall definitions and facts and derivations and being able to reproduce them in writing (handwriting) in a limited time then this is the kind of syllabus that we will end up with. Is it a wonder if students are found to be full of misconceptions or don’t even have basic ideas about science, its nature and methods being correct? What is surprising, at least for me, that even in such a situation learning still happens! Students still get some ideas right if not all.

A curriculum which does not see a point in assessing concepts has no right to lament at students not being able to understand them or lacking conceptual understanding. As Position Paper on Teaching of Science in NCF 2005 remarks

‘What is not assessed at the Board examination is never taught’

So, if the assessment is not at a conceptual level why should the students ever spend their time on understanding concepts? What good will it bring them in a system where a single mark can decide your future?

 

Sharing knowledge and learning collaboratively at schools

(This article was written for a college magazine.)

We have a vision for a better society in which the values of sharing and collaborating knowledge and technical know-how form an integral part. There are two aspects to this issue. One is why it should be done, and given the current social structure how it can be done. Though the why question is as important as the how one in this article we will try to focus more on how it can be done with aid of proper technology and what are the possible implications of this intervention to the citizens of the future.

The current education system does little to promote and impart the ideas of sharing knowledge with peers to the students who will be the future citizens. In our educational system it is more like each-one-for-oneself; if you help your peers you will be at a loss in the future. Another aspect is that the educational system by its nature is consumerist. By consumerist we mean that the schools system treat the students more like consumers, who are then passively fed in what has already been produced by others. There is no or little scope left for students to produce or construct anything meaningful. So the platform/technology which will address these issues should have the following qualities:

  • It should be based on principles of Free Software (see http://gnu.org/education).
  • It should allow for collaboration / sharing of knowledge.
  • It should allow for active, meaningful and collaborative production / construction contexts, through which students will learn.
  • It should give immediate feedback to the student, not the delayed one (year end) which the current school system has. This is essential as it makes children reflective about the work that they are doing.

Learning in the context of constructing some tangible thing is a philosophy of education proposed by Seymour Papert, called constructionism. Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. A closely related term that you might have heard is that of constructivism, but there are differences though.

The potential for transforming classrooms in a revolutionary way is present in the constructionist way of learning, which the existing CBTs (computer based tutorials) do not challenge but reinforce. The advances in technology have made it possible now to implement constructionist ways of learning to masses. So where are the examples of this?

The Sugar learning platform  is just one such example which is specifically developed keeping in mind the above considerations. But the idea of constructionist learning is not limited only to using computers. displayed. The very idea of the platform is centered around the idea of constructionism. Though initially developed for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project, now it can run on almost all computers. Learning in an environment where sharing knowledge is an inherent principle rather than an added externality provides the students with a whole new way of learning. Each activity on Sugar is designed keeping in mind the collaborative, construction context and immediate feedback principles.

The Sugar platform provides construction contexts from different areas to learn collaboratively like language, mathematics, science, drawing, music, games, programming, photography, audio and video recording among other things. For each of this activity can be done collaboratively by the students and can be shared with others. This also provides students to make meaningful connections between different concepts. In this context we have seen a strong urge in the children to share the knowledge and activities that they have with others, but in the current school system there is no or little provision for this. Sharing of activities provides context for feedback from peers, which in turn is fruitful in improving learning. Thus we see that the tools and time is ripe for changing our perspective towards education for a more inclusive and better society, whose core values are sharing of knowledge and collaboration.

There are pilot projects of Sugar running at many places across India, one is the Khairat Project which is running successfully for past 4 years at a primary tribal school of first generation learners near Mumbai, another one is at Merces School near Panaji in state of Goa.

Science, a humanistic approach

Science is an adventure of the whole human race to learn to live in and perhaps to love the universe in which they are. To be a part of it is to understand, to understand oneself, to begin to feel that there is a capacity within man far beyond what he felt he had, of an infinite extension of human possibilities . . .
I propose that science be taught at whatever level, from the lowest to the highest, in the humanistic way. It should be taught with a certain historical understanding , with a certain philosophical understanding , with a social understanding and a human understanding in the sense of the biography, the nature of the people who made this construction, the triumphs, the trials, the tribulations.

I. I. RABI
Nobel Laureate in Physics

via Project Physics Course, Unit 4 Light and Electromagnetism Preface

Do see the Project Physics Course which has come in Public Domain hosted at the Internet Archive, thanks to F.  James Rutherford.

Experiment in The Classroom

“The experiment is already on, Sir! It is my personal experience that the story is a wonderful magic pill that helps to establish rapport between the pupils and the teachers. Those very boys who were not prepared to listen to me on the first day and who had unnerved me with shouts and catcalls, have become quiet since I started telling them a story. They now have a sort of affection for me. They listen to me and sit as I ask them to. I don’t have to shout at them to keep them quiet. And they don’t leave the school even after it is over!”

via| Diwaswapna

Hope that every classroom would be like that, where the children like to come and don’t like to go home…

Examinations: Students, Teachers and the System

We think of exams as simple troublesome exchanges with students:

Glance at some of the uses of examinations:

  • Measure students' knowledge of facts, principles, definitions, 
    experimental methods, etc
  • Measure students' understanding of the field studied
  • Show students what they have learnt
  • Show teacher what students have learnt
  • Provide students with landmarks in their studies
  • Provide students with landmarks in their studies and check 
    their progress
  • Make comparisons among students, or among teachers, 
    or among schools
  • Act as prognostic test to direct students to careers
  • Act as diagnostic test for placing students in fast 
    or slow programs
  • Act as an incentive to encourage study
  • Encourage study by promoting competition among students
  • Certify necessary level for later jobs
  • Certify a general educational background for later jobs
  • Act as test of general intelligence for jobs
  • Award's, scholarships, prizes etc.

There is no need to read all that list; I post it only as a warning against trying to do too many different things at once. These many uses are the variables in examining business, and unless we separate the variables, or at least think about separating them, our business will continue to suffer from confusion and damage.

There are two more aspects of great importance well known but seldom mentioned. First the effect of examination on teachers and their teaching –

coercive if imposed from the outside; guiding if adopted sensibly. That is how to change a whole teaching program to new aims and methods – institute new examinations. It can affect a teacher strongly.

It can also be the way to wreck a new program – keep the old exams, or try to correlate students’ progress with success in old exams.

Second: tremendous effect on students.

Examinations tell them our real aims, at least so they believe. If we stress clear understanding and aim at growing knowledge of physics, we may completely sabotage our teaching by a final examination that asks for numbers to be put in memorized formulas. However loud our sermons, however intriguing the experiments, students will be judged by that exam – and so will next years students who hear about it.

From:

Examinations: Powerful Agents for Good or Ill in Teaching | Eric M. Rogers | Am. J. Phys. 37, 954 (1969)

Though here the real power players the bureaucrats and (highly) qualified PhDs in education or otherwise who decide what is to be taught and how it is evaluated in the classroom. They are “coercive” as Rogers points out and teachers, the meek dictators (after Krishna Kumar), are the point of contact with the students and have to face the heat from all the sides. They are more like foot soldiers most of whom have no idea of what they are doing, why they are doing; while generals in their cozy rooms, are planning how to strike the enemy (is the enemy the students or their lack of (interest in ) education, I still wonder).  In other words most of them don’t have an birds-eye-view of system that they are a focal part of.

Or as Morris Kline puts it:

A couple of years of desperate but fruitless efforts caused Peter to sit back and think. He had projected himself and his own values and he had failed. He was not reaching his students. The liberal arts students saw no value in mathematics. The mathematics majors pursued mathematics because, like Peter, they were pleased to get correct answers to problems. But there was no genuine interest in the subject. Those students who would use mathematics in some profession or career insisted on being shown immediately how the material could be useful to them. A mere assurance that they would need it did not suffice. And so Peter began to wonder whether the subject matter prescribed in the syllabi was really suitable. Perhaps, unintentionally, he was wasting his students’ time.

Peter decided to investigate the value of the material he had been asked to teach. His first recourse was to check with his colleagues, who had taught from five to twenty-five or more years. But they knew no more than Peter about what physical scientists, social scientists, engineers, and high school and elementary school teachers really ought to learn. Like himself, they merely followed syllabi – and no one knew who had written the syllabi.

Peter’s next recourse was to examine the textbooks in the field. Surely professors in other institutions had overcome the problems he faced. His first glance through publishers’ catalogues cheered him. He saw titles such as Mathematics for Liberal Arts, Mathematics for Biologists, Calculus for Social Scientists, and Applied Mathematics for Engineers. He eagerly secured copies. But the texts proved to be a crushing disappointment. Only the authors’ and publishers names seemed to differentiate them. The contents were about the same, whether the authors in their prefaces or the publishers in their advertising literature professed to address liberal arts students, prospective engineers, students of business, or prospective teachers. Motivation and use of the mathematics were entirely ignored. It was evident that these authors had no idea of what anyone did with mathematics.

From: A Critique Of Undergrduate Education. (Commonly Known As: Why The Professor Can’t Teach?) | Morris Kline

Both of the works are about 50 years old, but they still reflect the educational system as of now.

Cram, don’t think

The message from 15 years of education in my country – first at a top-notch school and then at one of the best known colleges in India – was:

Facts are more important than thought and imagination; that it’s more important to know the answers than think critically; that exams are more important than knowledge itself. Some may say that in college the majority of us chose the convenient way out and they are right.Our system of education, even at the undergraduate level, does not encourage us – in fact, gives us every opportunity not to think independently, critically, creatively or analytically.

via The Hindu

Mahatma Phooley’s Thoughts on Education

In this post I will reproduce the letter written by Joteerao Phooley (मराठी: जोतीराव फुले ) (in the modern times his name is written as Phule instead of Phooley as he himself wrote) one of the great reformers in India. The letter was written to the Hunter Education Commission for “opinion as to the system and personnel employed in the lower schools of the Educational Department” in 1882. Though the suggestions were largely ignored by the commission they give us an insight to the state of education and its possible remedies during that era. But when one reads the letter, one can relate immediately to the present state of education in the country, all the possible issues that one will think of are covered: the overarching presence of divisions in the society (caste, religion, gender), teacher training or rather lack of it, textbooks, syllabus, scholarships for the needy, school drop-outs, school inspections, school management, structure of fees, distance learning, privatisation of education etc.

This reminds of of a quote from Seymour Papert in Children’s Machine: Rethink of School in Age of Computers which suits very well what I am going to describe.

Imagine a party of time travelers from an earlier century, among them one group of surgeons and another of school- teachers, each group eager to see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years into the future. Imagine the bewilderment of the surgeons finding themselves in the operating room of a modern hospital. Although they would know that an operation of some sort was being performed, and might even be able to guess at the target organ, they would in almost all cases be unable to figure out what the surgeon was trying to accomplish or what was the purpose of the many strange devices he and the surgical staff were employing. The rituals of antisepsis and anesthesia, the beeping electronics, and even the bright lights, all so familiar to television audiences, would be utterly unfamiliar to them.

The time-traveling teachers would respond very differently to a modern elementary school classroom. They might be puzzled by a few strange objects. They might notice that some standard techniques had changed and would likely disagree among themselves about whether the changes they saw were for the better or the worse but they would fully see the point of most of what was being attempted and could quite easily take over the class. I use this parable to provide a rough-and-ready measure of the unevennes progress across the broad front of historical change. In the wake of the startling growth of science and technology in our recent past, some areas of human activity have undergone megachange. Telecommunications, entertainment, and transportation, as well as medicine, are among them. School is a notable example of an area that has not. One cannot say that there has been no change at all in the way we dish out education to our students. Of course there has; the parable gives me a way of pointing out what most of us know about our system of schooling: Yes, it has changed, but not in ways that have substantially altered its nature. The parable sets up the question: Why, through a period when so much human activity has been revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change in the way we help our children learn? (emphasis mine)

In this letter one gets a window in the past, regarding the practices of education in that era. It is as if we are time-travelling to the past, and we can indeed relate to most of things that Phooley says. If one were to write a diagnosis and possible solutions for the problems of education present in India, many of the sentences from the letter can be taken as they are, and they will fit in the current scenario. This letter presents shows that Phooley had a deep understanding of the educational system that he was trying so hard to reform. The educational experience that Phooley had was wide ranging, as he started the first indigenous school for girls, then went on to open the first “an indigenous mixed school for the lower classes, especially the Mahars and Mangs”, along with these he was “also been a teacher for some years in a mission female boarding school.”

In the first part of the letter he quotes extensively from Slavery (मराठी: गुलामगिरी). And sets a stage upon which the systemic way in which “Brahmin thraldom” is in place. I do not know if he is talking about Marx when he says:

A well-informed English writer states that our income is derived, not from surplus pro ts, but from capital; not from luxuries, but from the poorest necessaries. It is the product of sin and tears.

He questions the policy of the Government

Upon what grounds is it asserted that the best way to advance the moral and intellectual welfare of the people is to raise the standard of instruction among the higher classes?

And at times becomes very dramatic to describe the dire situation at hand!

I sincerely hope that Government will ere long see the error of their ways, trust less to writers or men who look through highclass spectacles, and take the glory into their own hands of emancipating my Shudra brethren from the trammels of bondage which the Brahmins have woven around them like the coils of a serpent.

The next section is in particular about the state of primary education in Bombay Presidency. Joteerao has hold of relevant statistics in this regard. He laments the absence of schools for the lower classes in general and identifies in general the cause of misery as the general lack of education.

A good deal of their poverty, their want of self-reliance, their entire dependence upon the learned and intelligent classes, is attributable to this deplorable state of education among thepeasantry.

About village he says that

In villages also most of the cultivating classes hold aloof owing to extreme poverty, and also because they require their children to tend cattle and look after their fields.

And makes a recommendation that:

… primary education of the masses should be made compulsory up to a certain age, say at least 12 years.

Citing statistics he says:

Under the promise of the Queen’s Proclamation I beg to urge that Mahars, Mangs, and other lower classes, where their number is large enough, should have separate schools for them, as they are not allowed to attend the other schools owing to caste prejudices.

As regarding the actual suggestions that he makes for the Commission, are worthy to take note of:

With regard to the few Government primary schools that exist in the Presidency, I beg to observe that the primary education imparted in them is not at all placed on a satisfactory or sound basis. The system is imperfect in so far as it does not prove practical, and useful in the future career of the pupils.

Further he has particular suggestions regarding the remodelling of the system. First of all he talks about the almost complete occupation of teacher’s posts by Brahmins and that too untrained ones. These issues particularly relate to teacher professional development. I do not know anything about the colleges for training teachers which were present then. Also he suggests the minimum salary for the teachers “To secure a better class of teachers and to improve their position,”

As to the actual content which is to be taught to the students he is very practical.

The course of instruction should consist of reading, writing Modi and Balbodh and accounts, and a rudimentary knowledge of, general history, general geography, and grammar, also an elementary
knowledge of agriculture and a few lessons on moral duties and sanitation.

And for the villages he says (a studio approach to education!)

The studies in the village schools might be fewer than those in larger villages and towns, but not the less practical. In connection with lessons in agriculture, a small model farm, where practical instruction to the pupils can be given, would be a decided advantage and, if really eciently managed, would be productive of the greatest good to the country.

The textbooks which are lamented about in almost all educational surveys find a mention here:

The text-book in use, both in the primary and Anglo-vernacular schools, require revision and recasting as much as they are not practical or progressive in their scope. Lessons on technical education and morality, sanitation and agriculture, and some useful arts,. should be interspersed among them in progressive series.

As regards to the fees paid by the students he suggests that: “fees in the primary schools should be as 1 to 2 from the children of cess-payers and non-cess payers.” And on important note he also advises on placing a quality control over the schools by inspection, but at the same time mentioning “advisability of visiting these schools at other times and without any intimation being given.” It seems the schools then as they are now are only dressed up when they are being inspected. Also he says

No reliance can be placed on the district or village officers owing to the multifarious duties devolving on them, as they seldom find time to visit them, and when they do, their examination is necessarily very super ficial and imperfect.

Further he says that the number of primary schools need to be increased and provides ways in which these schools can be funded. Though he is very much for the municipalities providing the funding for the schools, but he is totally against the management being transferred to them.

The Municipalities in large towns should be asked to contribute whole share of the expenses incurred on primary schools within the municipal area. But in no case ought the management of the same to be entirely made over to them, They should be under the supervision of the Educational Department.

Also he is particular about the handling of funds as regards to primary education.

The administration of the funds for primary education should ordinarily be in the hands of the Director of Public Instruction.

In the next section he describes the state of Indigenous Schools in the Bombay Presidency.

Indigenous schools exist a good deal in cities, towns and some large villages, especially where there is a Brahmin population. From the latest reports of Public Instruction in this presidency, it is found that there are 1,049 indigenous schools with about 27,694 pupils in them.

And this is what he has to say as regards to the content in these schools

They are conducted on the old village system. The boys are generally taught the multiplication table by heart, a little Modi writing and reading, and, to recite a few religious pieces.

And is particularly harsh on the quality of teachers in these schools:

The teachers, as a rule, are not capable of effecting any improvements, as they are not initiated in the art of teaching. … The teachers generally come from the dregs of Brahminical society. Their qualifi cations hardly go beyond reading and writing Marathi very indi fferently, and casting accounts up to the rule of three or so. They set, up as teachers as the last resource of getting a livelihood. Their failure or unfi tness in other callings of life obliges them to open schools.

This we can say is true for many teachers in our own era. There are a very few who will choose to become teachers, usually it is the last choice, when all other choices are gone. And further Phooley adds for the training of the teachers:

No arrangements exist in the country to train up teachers for indigenous schools. The indigenous schools could not be turned to any good account, unless the present teachers are replaced by men from the training colleges and by those who pass the 6th standard in the vernaculars. The present teachers will willingly accept State aid but money thus spent will be thrown away.

The next section he describes the state of Higher Education in his times.

The cry over the whole country has been for some time past that Government have amply provided for higher education, whereas that of the masses has been neglected. To some extent this cry is justified, although the classes directly benefitted by the higher education may not readily admit it. But for all this no well-wisher of his country would desire that Government should, at the present time, withdraw its aid from higher education. All that they would wish is, that as one class of the body politic has been neglected, its advancement should form as anxious a concern as that of the other.

About the general education in India he says:

Education in India is still in its infancy. Any withdrawal of State aid from higher education cannot but be injurious to the spread of education generally.

He furthers this by adding that the withdrawal may be partial.

A taste for education among the higher and wealthy classes, such as the Brahmins and Purbhoos, especially those classes who live by the pen, has been created, and a gradual withdrawal of State aid may be possible so far as these classes are concerned; but in the middle and lower classes, among whom higher education has made no perceptible progress, such a withdrawal would be a great hardship. In the event of such withdrawal, boys will be obliged to have recourse to inefficient and sectarian schools much against their wish, and the cause of education cannot but suffer.

Phooley also has concerns regarding privatisation of education, which we are facing now.

Nor could any part of such education be entrusted to private agency. For a long time to come the entire educational machinery, both ministerial and executive, must be in the hands of Government. Both the higher and primary education require all the fostering care and attention which Government can bestow on it.The withdrawal of Government from schools or colleges would not only tend to check the spread of education, but would seriously endanger that spirit of neutrality which has all along been the aim of Government to foster, owing to the different nationalities and religious creeds prevalent in India. This withdrawal may, to a certain extent, create a spirit of self-reliance for local purposes in the higher and wealthy classes, but the cause of education would be so far injured that the spirit of self-reliance would take years to remedy that evil.

He says that the Government schools are much superior to the private ones, one does not know whether this claim will hold in the current times, though for Higher Education this may be generally true as to get admitted to Government run colleges and institutions is much harder than private ones. But whether the reason is same for that one does not know, comparing the salaries that are paid in international schools as opposed to the Government schools the balance is upturned.

The superiority of Government schools is mainly owing to the richly paid staff of teachers and professors
which it is not possible for a private schools to maintain.

The content of what is taught in these schools is again brought under scanner as in the case of primary education:

The character of instruction given in the Government higher schools, is not at all practical, or such as is required for the necessities of ordinary life. It is only good to turn out so many clerks and schoolmasters.

And one wouldn’t agree more with what he says about the matriculation exam:

The Matriculation examination unduly engrosses the attention of the teachers and pupils, and the course of studies prescribed has no practical element in it, so as to fit the pupil for his future career in independent life.

Also he is very much for printing of textbooks by the Government, which will encourage “private studies”, thus opening up possibilities for distance education and lead to “diffusion of knowledge in country”:

The higher education should be so arranged as to be within easy reach of all, and the books on the subjects for the Matriculation examination should be published in the Government Gazette, as is done in Madras and Bengal. Such a course will encourage private studies and secure larger diffusion of knowledge in the country. It is a boon to the people that the Bombay University recognises private studies in the case of those presenting for the entrance examination. I hope, the University authorities will be pleased to extend the same boon to higher examinations. If private studies were recognised by the University in granting the degrees of B.A., M.A. &c., many young men will devote their time to private studies.

Further he has to say regarding the scholarships being granted to the students

The system of Government scholarships, at present followed in the Government schools, is also defective, as much as it gives undue encouragement to those classes only, who have already acquired a taste for education to the detriment of the other classes. The system might, be so arranged that some of these scholarships should be awarded to such classes amongst whom education has made no progress.

On this issue he further adds:

The system of awarding them by competition, although abstractedly equitable, does not tend to the spread of education among other classes.

In the final section he mentions the state in which “educated natives” are left who are not able to find public service, as most of the education that they are imparted with is “not of a technical or practical nature”.

The present number of educated men is very small in relation to the country at large, and we trust that the day may notbe far distant when we shall have the present number multiplied a hundred-fold and all betaking themselves to useful and remunerative occupations and not be looking after service.

Also in the last lines of the letter he recommends the spread of female education.

In conclusion, I beg to request the Education Commission to be kind enough to sanction measures for the spread of female primary education on a more liberal scale.

Thus the letter ends and Phooley states his status as:

Merchant and Cultivator and
Municipal Commissioner

To read the letter in retrospect about 130 years later, one cannot but help to relate to the status quo in many aspects of education in general which Phooley describes, thus reminding one of the time-travellers of Papert. One theme which runs through the entire letter is that the people who are already on the higher class of the society, are the ones who benefit most from the educational reforms, and this is detrimental to diffusion of knowledge in all strata of the society. As regards to the content of what is actually taught in schools, absence of practical knowledge, quality and quantity of teachers, prospective jobs, the quality of textbooks one would recommend almost the same things even today.

The complete letter is reproduced below. A PDF version of the letter is available here.

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