Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I don't know

There is so great a store laid by what the teacher says that by logical extension, she is supposed to know it all. By common cultural consent, the three words absolutely blasphemous for a teacher to ever mouth are, “I don’t know.” The phrase is a real let-down to her students. There is the purest incredulity in their vexatious and spontaneous exclamation at her reluctant admission of ignorance, “Even Ma’am does not know!!”

Yes of course, the tribe of progressive pedagogues who are comfortable admitting they will have to check and get back, is growing. The majority however, still labour under the pressure to know with a dead certainty the apostrophe ‘s’ rule for instance. Leave alone their students; they have a phobia of admitting academic ambivalence to their colleagues as well. A teacher not sure of her facts is the equivalent of a cardinal not certain how to baptise a faithful.

Education in India is convulsing, going through a wringing of sorts; the field needs a cleansing fit desperately. While several crucial, policy related factors are beyond the immediate purview of the teachers, there is one factor they most definitely can and urgently need to reform. Attitude!

Students have transformed completely in their academic needs and expectations of the schools. They inhabit a world the current crop of teachers is partially in denial of. In this environment, charged with the urgency of technology and sensory overload, it would be negligent and criminal to hold on to the belief that admission of ignorance is a betrayal of knowledge?

A lot is afoot. Oxford University is setting out the red carpet for ISC and CBSE toppers. In an international comparative survey evaluating the performance of elementary education, India ranked 73rd rank out of a total of 74 nations, a whisker above Kyrgyztan.  My freshman daughter at Princeton University described the greatest challenge she faced at first as the acquisition of a most unfamiliar skill: thinking! While Kapil Sibal reworks educational reforms with a vengeance and Lovely Sweets goes from making ladoos to sprouting professional universities…we continue to pay what has been described as “the high cost of low educational performance.” http://www.pisa.oecd.org/searchResult/0,3400,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

At a seminar in school recently on, “Innovative Teaching Methods”, Prof. C. J. Daswani, Ph.D. Linguistics, Cornell University and former head of Non-Formal Education at the National Council on Educational Research and Training, New Delhi shared these gems with us: 
*Our job is to enlarge every child's unique universe of knowledge
*Innovation can be defined as any method that works
*Our students expect us to be their role models
*Arm yourselves with precise and exact information
*The text book is only a sample of what you need to teach in class
*A teacher who does not read every day is unsafe for her students

There are reasons I was struck by this presentation. Dr Daswani weighed every word he spoke, giving it the sanctity we do not, in the normal course of a day. He was 100% present in the class and he certainly had expectations of his audience!

I am the old guard, having studied Chemistry at Fergusson College, Pune even though I should have listened to my heart and pursued English Literature instead. It felt nice during the workshop to see an Indian ditch his traditional niceness for a change and make professional demands. I do believe we have not cultivated an academic culture yet that respects real awareness of knowledge and learning.

There is a growing feeling moreover that we are swinging the other extreme in our scramble to make learning child friendly. The question to ask therefore is, are our kids, beyond the high scores, able to comprehend, understand, evaluate, analyse and grow more competent for the real world?

Rather than the chaotic, confused, merry and misguided caravan that our education system is today, winding its  bumbling way through the maze that is the modern world, we need to put together our own educational Shinkansen, our national Bullet Train of learning and attitude. Not Kodama, nor Hikari but Nozomi, no less!

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