Teaching – Year 3


This isn’t how it was supposed to be! Two years of teaching sociology and economics to senior secondary students was to end this year. The students have graduated and most of them are looking forward to the university now. I thought I have had enough of those everyday realizations of my ineffectiveness in classroom and that constant fear of not doing enough to help the kids with their subjects. In the school administration’s view though, it was a satisfactory performance. Personally, teaching has been a great experience for me as well. I have certainly lived some of the most satisfying days of my life in these two years at Poorna. But I have remained conflicted about my ability to teach and whether I should continue doing this.

I visited the school last month after it reopened for the new academic year since I hadn’t returned the library books and not said a good-bye to the teachers. It was not easy. I had gotten used to the football sessions with middle school kids during lunch time. I was addicted to watching the five year olds figuring out stories from illustrated books. It was exciting to be with the high school kids and help them figure out concepts. All of this as well as sharing the anxiety of board exams with the students I taught! It was great to be a part of this school where I was learning (more than teaching) every single day. So, I knew I was vulnerable to even a slight insistence by the principal to continue teaching.

At the university, the master’s program I am pursuing has entered a slightly easier phase. The classroom load is less and the lectures to attend also few. More importantly, on work front I have a year’s contract with an agency to work on their India projects. Both these parts of my daily routine seemed clear enough to commit to another year of school when the principal pitched the idea of teaching sociology to students opting for O level. To take decisions so quick is unusual for me. However, I was sure that being at Poorna has been responsible for one of the most concentrated phase of learning of my life. I agreed!

Tomorrow, I begin the third year of my teaching attempt. I am a rookie and likely to remain so for long. I am reminded of all those books I read which inspired me to consider being a part of a school. Over four years back I read Hemraj Bhatt’s (a teacher in government primary school) The Diary of a School Teacher . Hemraj’s diary was a daily chronicle of sincere efforts of a teacher trying to make learning better in the little school that he was a part of, in a nondescript town in Uttarakhand. His challenges, how he dealt with them, the children who attended that school and their social contexts, the satisfying moments and little successes that came along… all of these made a lasting impression. Hemraj’s diary is probably the first book that made me  interested in the idea of teaching and in a school at that.

Though I like reading about education and expositions on it, I do not think that they can inspire many to give teaching a shot. Those dense writings by Dewey, Krishnamurti and Friere are helpful for sure. But it needs popular writings – honest, sincere and direct from the classrooms to get people closer to the excitement and satisfaction of teaching. This is why Hemraj Bhatt’s diary and John Holt’s How Children Fail made such an impression on me. Besides these, writings from people at the university I attended – Rohit Dhankar and Anurag Behar  kept me hooked to the reflexive process of teaching and learning. I owe it to all of them.

As I start the new academic year, I feel that I have been lucky enough to get this opportunity to be a part of a school and am slightly unnerved at the thought of the responsibility that comes along with it – to help learners on their path to knowledge. It carries a kind of responsibility that I haven’t been very good at shouldering. On the other side of this thought, lies an excitement to explore, experiment and figure out the world around us with an energetic bunch of students and teachers at Poorna all over again!



Freedom of a real education


It has been a month since I left my teaching job at school. Since, this move was to make more time for other things I was doing, instead of a sense of relief, a constant sense of loss has prevailed over the last several weeks as I finished classes and bid farewell to the kids and colleagues at school. In the two years as a high school teacher, I tried making sense of what education might mean in our lives and what is it that differentiates the proverbial ‘real’ education from the other varieties. The reality bit of this other kind of education professed by some, I have not quite known. I remember listening with serious attention when this Prof of Education at the former university whenever he spoke of purpose of education and what is wrong with the current system in India. I have figured this for sure – that simple it may seem, it is not easy to think about this area of human existence and daily life. If it was, we wouldn’t have so many grownups thinking that something was wrong with the education they received in school and at the university. I find the number of such people increasing around me.

While the school and the life-changing opportunity that it gave me is still a long piece being written in my head, I continue to dive into writings on education. This has been no less thrilling. Also, it sits in such a contrast with my experience at the university I am attending lately. If one wants to understand what is wrong with higher education in this country, this university would be a fitting place to do an ethnographic study. The tyranny of unconscious, hard-headed and impervious professors is unleashed daily on the sponge like minds who are processing their first experiences of a place of higher learning and forms of intellectual inquiry. Their sense of the world is being formed by these professors. This repeatedly foregrounds the question – what is real education? For an academia which has a scorn for Humanities, this question, shall remain beyond the grasp, forever perhaps!

We are led to believe that pursuit of knowledge is what education is about. Skills is what it is about. A skill with which one can make a living and satisfy the wants of life with the money earned through that skill. This is what it is about. Indeed, but this is half the truth. I am glad to discover that there are thoughts beyond this myopia. Among the thinkers that I have been reading on purpose, significance, role and forms of education, I was surprised to find David Foster Wallace delving into this subject in a remarkable commencement speech.

As I read Wallace’s speech I could help but see the simple, yet valuable insight that he is driving all so lightly and that too through a college address. I can trust it to come only after long years of experience… because that is just what it takes to see things this way! He tackles the role of subjectivity in perspectives on life with an unseen clarity. Wallace says –

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Freedom of real education is to decide for yourself what you think has meaning in life and what doesn’t. Last year, in class with high school students, I remember insisting to the students that – you decide what you want to do and what should be your grades in the board exams. It doesn’t matter what I expect or what your parents expect. Unconsciously and in a cruder form I was walking along this thought of freedom. I wanted to let students know that they are free to decide.

On the kinds of freedom, he goes on –

the kind (of freedom) that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Personally, this real freedom he mentions has been difficult for me to be mindful of and practice. Every once in a while, it becomes so natural to join the race for better jobs, higher salaries, more things to make life better and similar such things that are regarded as natural and justifiable pursuits. Nothing short of amazing that we sometimes point complaining fingers at it and sleep, only to wake up and do the same. Wallace is affirming the same difficulty in a stronger tone as he concludes with this –

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

Every few weeks I sort of lose the plot and begin getting worked up about the little things that demand attention and time. Then, readings likes these bring it all back and sort of insist that the daily is important, but larger picture of what is the meaning of all the pursuits that we fill life with, is necessary.

What is alternative education?

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A few weeks back, a university professor in course of a conversation asked what “alternative education” means. She hazarded a guess – that it is about educating those who are differently-able.

I figured she was hard at work making sense of the word “alternative” beginning with the typical process of ascribing “mainstream” or perhaps “normal” (in this context) to people with accepted and proven ability to learn, process information and get good scores in exams. Then, moving outwards, assumed “alternative” as a word for provisioning and servicing needs of those who are outside of this normal. I wasn’t surprised. In over two years as a teacher in an alternative school, this was very familiar. That is a whole lot of myth which goes along with it.

The word “alternative” in alternative education stands for non-conventional approach to learning, teaching and education on the whole. This stands as opposed to the ways in which school as an institution in the society has developed and perfected a form of processing children through standardized processes. For instance, transacting the curriculum decided at the beginning of an academic year in a timed manner through the year. In this, the teaching part proceeds at its own speed irrespective of the ability of the learner to understand the ideas which are relayed by the teacher. Also, the learner may not be able to related to the contents of the curriculum and the thought-process that it brings along. Yet, the instruction stands applied to all the learners in the classroom.

There are wide-ranging views on what alternative education means and how does one approach it. At Poorna, I find that the alternative component is about the practice of education – how the school and its teachers approach the process of education and translate it into daily processes in school as well as daily actions that the teachers take in their classrooms. Take for instance, the practice of morning assembly which is common in schools across the country. It is a daily practice across thousands of schools where kids sing hymns, religious prayers or may be a couple of nationalistic songs and the national anthem at the end of it. All through, the kids are expected to stand in queues, follow a certain order and present themselves according to a set form of behaviour. This institutionalizes the behaviour of observing queues, knowing the national anthem and instill a certain regimentation. At Poorna, this is not practiced. Even the fact that meeting every morning is a must, is also done away with. Assembly time is a simple affair meant for all the children in the school to gather together. No queues. No order. Everyone takes whatever space they’d like to. No organization according to classes and separate queues for boys and girls. It is just free flowing gathering. The national anthem is not sung everyday. Neither is there a set of songs/hymns to be sung from a prayer book. The children are free to perform a play or a skit (in which their teachers help them) or play some music, do a  book review perhaps or observe a two minutes silence and disperse. I have seen this way of meeting work great in terms of children gathering by themselves, deciding what to discuss and then drive the entire meeting on their own with equal participation from teachers.

The other very necessary part of alternative education is non-coercive learning as a necessary aspect of school’s approach to education. This can be difficult to realize in full spirit and I have seen schools as well as teachers practice this in varying degrees. The idea is not to force a lesson on a student if he is not ready for it or is not inclined to learn it. Neither the school as a system nor the teacher in the classroom force the child to learn anything that he is not up for. This is a fuzzy space where the teacher and the school has to determine boundaries for themselves and operate within that. From my experience teaching economics and sociology to the senior secondary students I know that this is hard to practice. I face a fair deal of resistance from students while discussing concepts in economics. This is where, it matters that the teacher knows that non-coercion is a necessary condition but that he must now improvise or work around the challenge of getting the students interested in the topic by some other way where the students have the space to not feel forced or compelled to read that topic. It is a slow and hard process as I realized.

In the past year, I volunteered to teach several different age groups of children. Here is another alternative idea – children are grouped according to their age. There is no concept of classes or standards in an alternative setup. Working with different age groups I see that a learner-centered and learner-driven approach helps tremendously in building confidence in children. This works very well until the 14-15 age group, as I see. After that the students take up senior school board exams and then move towards senior school certificate exam. This is where keeping the spirit of learner-driven approach becomes difficult because now there is a rigid curriculum in place and that it needs to be transacted within the time period determined by the board of education. This is where the teaching process in the classroom moves beyond the control of the teacher and the school. The control is taken over by the board of education which applies a set of standardized methods and processes that the school program must follow.

This post was meant to highlight only a couple of ways in which alternative education operates. A longer post must be written about the effects of such an approach on the learners. There is very pressing need in the society for such experiments in education which break away from the standardized format of imparting education. This is because it is a fairly acknowledged fact by now in India that the mainstream form of education as practiced in schools is straight-jacketing the children where they are processed in a manner that they become the feed-stock for the industry to make use. Such a negative view was taken by Marx and further developed by Althusser, which I think does seem to be an appropriate critique of school learning in India.

Meanwhile, last week during school assembly (which happens at the end of the day not in the morning and thrice a week only) saw a splendid flute recital accompanied by tabla by two kids. It is one of the finest live performance I have witnessed. This is also an instance where alternative approach to education helps in bringing out and working with what the child possesses, not what he ought to have as skills or qualities!

The kid playing tabla has had rather serious learning disabilities. But I was struck by his skills in music. It was a sight… pure joy to watch him play those notes on tabla. I now believe that they children are capable of achieving any thing that they set themselves upon. It is adults who come in the way with their own apprehensions and doubts. The kid playing flute was stirring the afternoon breeze! His name is as lyrical as his music – Malhar.

It was one of those days at school when I have come back changed, in a very fundamental way! A part of me turns a die-hard believer in human potential and in the pursuit of alternative approaches to education.

Masquerades in alternative thinking: The case of education

Government Primary School, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Photo: Arun Sivaramakrishnan)

Government Primary School, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Photo: Arun Sivaramakrishnan)

What is ‘alternative’ about alternative education? This is where I begin. Education is not my area of expertise but I have been a teacher and experienced what it is to teach. That is where I draw my understanding from. I explore the meaning and practice of it from my own experience in tutoring seventh and eighth graders, from Deepti  Mehrotra’s account on Origins of Alternative Education in India: A Continuing Journey and Sarada  Balagopalan’s Understanding Educational Innovation in India: The Case of Eklavya.

There are significant sociological concerns with the way alternative education is practiced in India and in its assertion as the way forward for education. Its claims are large and the practical effect meager.  For instance, Deepti Mehrotra asserts in her paper that, “Alternatives to this kind of education might not constitute a cohesive movement, but inherent in them is a powerful critique of such a system, and the potential for social transformation.” Serving the role of a powerful criticism and then suggesting that it can bring about a social transformation does imply that the ideas need to operate within the realm of mainstream education. Or is a social transformation possessing a completely new education system will emerge which would have displaced mainstream education? The idea appears to be farfetched. The paper does not engage with the question of what should be the vision and specific goals of education from a philosophical perspective. It merely seeks to engage with the idea of alternative education as claimed and as practiced.

The stated vision of the mainstream schools and alternative schools is not very divergent. Without a doubt that the form and action that mainstream schools adopt towards realizing these educational goals are of deep concern. Mainstream education in its present form has often had damaging effects on children’s development and also builds up further potential of creating an individual deficient in several vital facilities of life which constitute the experience of living – appreciation of arts, nature, sensitivity, self-consciousness and similar values. However, the ideas advanced as alternative education are merely different pedagogical approach towards a broader vision of education that is similar to that of mainstream education. I contend that the ideas labeled as ‘alternative’ with respect to school education do not suggest a different or another way of thinking about education itself but are about means and approaches to delivery of education in its present form.  If what is proposed by alternative education proposes to be alternative then the practice of education children for a few years on a free form curriculum and then making them appear for the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) examination can be read as a merging with mainstream education. Contrast this with Mehrotra’s observation on examinations, “Children pursue rigid, examination-oriented syllabi and compete with one another in a relentless race to perform. Camaraderie, cooperation, fun and a love for learning are, unfortunately, casualties.” An alternative education system which aims at letting children explore on their own, self-learn and only facilitate learning (vs. teaching) also submits to the urge of certification. This in true spirit is not alternative, perhaps a divergent way of arriving at the same outcome.

The other question is that of the social transformation claims that alternative education makes. How does it aim to achieve this transformation when choice of alternative education is made either by the poor sections of the society or by the upper sections who are positioned enough to support their children in pursuing non-conventional career option. The ‘middle’ section is missing. This must be examined closely because this section is critical for the aimed transformation.

When the question of alternative is framed from another perspective – of that of educational innovation, it gets relevant and consistent with its meaning. Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) and later Eklavya, an NGO which worked in improving science teaching in government schools in Madhya Pradesh embody a true sense of being an alternative in a sense that it can achieve social transformation starting from school education. Sample this diary entry by a school teacher, Hemraj Bhat, who kept a record of his experience as a teacher in a government primary school. Here is a teacher who is questioning, improvising, innovation and genuinely trying to achieve all that alternative education proposes and this, by being within the larger mainstream framework –

“We play a game of words through this paper. Today some boys listed Gulab Jamun in the category of flowers. Similarly some boys thought that Chameli was the name of a place and many listed butterfly as a bird. When such situations arise, they provide a good atmosphere for discussion. Many children thought ‘Rabri’ was rubber and said it is something we put in our hair. Some boys said ‘Rabri’ is an eraser. All children associated cream with cream rolls and put it in the list of eatables. In local language ‘Makri’ is called ‘makra’. The children could not understand that ‘Makra’ and ‘Makri’ was the same thing. They can differentiate between animals and birds but cannot understand the difference between  animals and insects. That is why they put butterflies and moths in the list of birds and lizards, cockroaches and snakes under animals. So this activity creates an atmosphere for discussing language, our environment and science etc., all at the same time. I have only realised this now. When I prepared the assignment, my objective was merely to develop the reading skills of children.”

The thought advanced here is that innovations in mainstream education hope to achieve the same outcome as that of alternative education. That alternative schools finally subject their students to one or the other type of examination, assessment and certification goes against the grain of alternative behaviour. Such claim to exclusivity and divergent practice by alternative education does not qualify as another possible ‘thought’.  Much of what is claimed by alternative education is being practiced and successfully in the mainstream schools as well. A school teacher when asked his role in the classroom while teaching Eklavya textbooks replies, “Our role while teaching the Eklavya books was like that of a colleague or helper. For instance, if a group were working on a given experiment, we would sit with them and assist them.”

So, while the claim that alternative education is about a wide range of alternative possibilities in education stands valid, the same cannot be said of it as a radical new thought. Examining this claim is pertinent to the current debates in education because first, this claim problematize mainstream and public education in a non-constructive manner. Second, this could lead to rise of a certain elite variety of education at one end and a lesser variety of schools for the poor at the other end, without actually having done anything radical after all!