A malfunctioning system in need of repair

Published in The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/a-malfunctioning-system-in-need-of-repair/article6408307.ece

Rohit Dhankar

We may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself and then match the systemic efforts…

The unsatisfactory quality of elementary education has been a serious concern for India at the least for the last four decades. Many quality improvement programmes have been devised and implemented at State and national levels; but they all left the quality lower than they found it.

The access in terms of children attending the schools has certainly improved. But it is mainly due to increased awareness of parents and mushrooming private schools that cash in on the parental aspirations.

The BJP, in its election manifesto of 2014, has promised to “meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education” among other things.

Since then there are periodic announcements from HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding curriculum improvement and policy review to ‘reorient education’ to meet the aspirations of the people. However, if we really want to improve the quality of education for all, we may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself; and match the systemic efforts to achieve what we understand by it.

The notion of quality

The popular discourse regarding quality today revolves around reports of certain large-scale achievement tests in language and arithmetic like ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) and the world-wide PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for ranking; even though India does not participate in the PISA. These may indicate an important part of what needs to be achieved, but they also mislead efforts for improvement of quality in education. One, by narrowly focussing and therefore emaciating the very idea of quality; and, two, by creating an impression that one can improve scores in these tests by directly targeting such improvement. Education is a complex affair, the visible achievements often are the result of subterranean processes and belief systems operating in the system. Unless we pay attention to them, direct teaching-to-test may produce no substantial results.

In efforts to rethink quality we should note that, like everything else in education, quality also has a political dimension. Education systems are geared to larger social purposes. The definition of quality we will create for, say, turning India into ‘make-in-India’; whatever that might mean; may be very different from the one we create for ‘inclusive India’. There is no necessary contradiction between ‘make-in-India’ slogan and notion of ‘inclusive India’, but the emphasis does matter; and it is possible to forget the latter in the energetic pursuit of the first. The emphasis on inclusiveness in our education policy needs not only be safeguarded but also be deepened. The ‘make-in-India’ without inclusiveness is neither achievable nor worth striving for. This political orientation of education is an essential part of quality.

The second aspect of quality are the twin problems in our education system which have been lamented in virtually all committees/commissions reports and curricular documents since Independence — one, the plague of rote learning devoid of understanding; two, the disconnect between education and life.

The large-scale testing completely ignores both these aspects, and the noise created around the scores takes the attention away from the essence of education. Israel Scheffler, the well-known American philosopher of education while discussing teacher’s control over learning wrote: “It is where his control ends that his fondest hopes for education begin.” Our education, as it is implemented in the classrooms today, does not provide scope for creativity and independence.

The third, an essential aspect of pedagogy for meaningful education, is the child’s right to “meaning making” and confidence in the truth of what is learnt. This confidence cannot rest on the authority of the textbook or the teacher. It has to be cognitively earned by the child through constructing her own justifications for what she learns. In our zeal for teaching everything as fast as possible we bypass the creative processes of justification that makes confidence and relevance possible.

The fourth — our pedagogy has to learn to respect the child as a person. Corporeal punishment and insulting behaviour in the classroom are already punishable offences. But respect for the learner as a person goes beyond this. It is acceptance of her individuality and judgement. The child’s questioning, failure to understand in the classroom, scepticism and rejection of what we want her to believe, etc. all are part of her self; and the teacher has to engage with them with full respect for her cognitive and moral development.

Unless we see quality in this larger sense our attempts will bear little fruit.

Preparedness of the system

Is our education system prepared to take forward quality understood in this larger sense? No. We have to work towards this preparedness. Some of the most important aspects of this preparedness could be identified as below.

One, we need to create conviction in the political elite, administrative structure and education functionaries to look at education in a broader sense. And to ram the point home that better education is essential for both ‘inclusive India’ and well as for ‘make-in-India’.

We have to face the truth that as a society we do not exhibit concern for providing equal opportunity of good education to all. This would require a large-scale churning in society for consensus-building on this issue. The government, universities and apex institutions like NCERT and NCTE can take a lead in this; and substantial cooperation from media will be required.

Two, we have to recognise the inadequacy of our teaching force; both in terms of numbers and preparedness. Most of our teachers are unaware of curricular demands on them and see learning as the capability to repeat what is written in the textbook. This is because many of them are untrained and most of the trained ones have had very bad teacher education. This demands an immediate programme of in-service teacher education. Unfortunately in-service teacher education is totally discredited by the massive programmes like the District Primary Education Programme and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. We need to understand clearly the reasons why our attempts in the past failed. We should refrain from discarding the very idea of in-service teacher education based on our experience of lacklustre implementation of ill-conceptualised programmes in the past.

Three, we need urgently to sort out the mess that is pre-service teacher education today. The debate on this issue has to go beyond duration of B.Ed. courses and who can and cannot teach there in. We have to reconceptualise teacher education which is coherent with our vision of education and educational quality. At the moment there is a wide gap.

Four, at present we have reasonably good curriculum framework. However, it is already about 9 years old and there is no harm in reviewing it. But that review process should neither be motivated by political agendas like bringing in unfounded and ill- understood ancient cultural elements nor by aligning school curricula with higher education and research needs. Every educationist worth his salt understands that rationale of school curriculum rests on building foundations of being human and participation in democratic life. If it is geared to preparing people for IITs, IIMs and goalposts defined by IITs elementary education will lose relevance in life of most of our children and will also fail to reach those very goalposts.

Five, we need a massive programme for education functionaries right from headmasters to the State-level administrators to understand education, educational reform and build conviction that the government can actually do it.

And finally, we should free education from the whims of the all-knowing demigods called IAS officers. We urgently need Indian Education Services. It could be started with select academics and IAS officers, but finally has to become an independent cadre geared to educational needs of the country.

One understands that the above analysis points to massive changes. But then we have an old, malfunctioning system to repair; no one should imagine that it can be done by mere slogans or cosmetic changes.

6 Responses to A malfunctioning system in need of repair

  1. Anonymous says:

    mobile – smart phone, laptop, tablet -pc can change education and education system; need to think in this direction also —-regards


  2. rdhankar says:

    sure they can. in which direction? in what areas? at what cost? may be some of the questions one needs to explore.


  3. Deependra Baghel says:

    When a Philosopher proposes a change in the system , he/she has to negotiate on a different plain which is also other than the epistemic. And this is where Sociology of Education comes into being supplementing the fundamental inherent lack embedded in the epistemic totalitarianism And the analogy of the system is drawn from the mechanical engineering which also represents the age old positivist conception. And it is being premised on the assumption that as if system is autonomous of its own making ,it has autonomous will and if good conscience prevails , it can auto correct itself. Therefore Educational discursive decisions are functions of the political will and given the level of consultancy , political will can add to the systemic efficacy.
    There is a an inherent lack in this perspective for it does not take into account the politics of resources for the provisioning of the public education system . And the whole conception of public education system is being portrayed as if ;it is homogeneous and is integral to the Educational discourse. And here it becomes most deluding for it denies to take into account the Educational stratification engineered in the public education system , manufacturing Educational en-equality providing for the hierarchical layers in the Educational system. Educational quality has been incessantly compromised on account of poor allocation of the resources for the poor. So it is quite self -evident that egalitarian Education has suffered for the discrimination of the politics of resources has prevailed in the Educational system . So it is indeed necessary to broaden the perspective to reflect on as how Economy dictates the politics. And understanding of mutual relation of politics and economy will render us the fecund insights to dwell at the preference forv policies of Human development and the Economic growth. But conscious or the un- conscious neglect of the perspective of the political economy will not only narrow down the focus but will also completely blur the realistic representation of the Educational system . For assuming agency to be completely autonomous of its own endeavors without being effected by structure is not only politically incorrect but sociological imagination too wont be able to accommodate such doxa. So to give rigor to your arguments , it is necessary for you to reflect on the poor resource provisioning of the Education rather than merely advising the political masters. For political masters too are governed by the similar structures and their gratification by the paradigms of the neo -liberalism is not a lesser known fact.
    Deependra Baghel


    • Shankar says:

      Mr. Baghel. While reading your comment one (in my case a student of sociology) is only left with a sense of confusion over what is it that you are responding to. It is definitely not the article that is posted above and published in ‘The Hindu’ that your response seems to address. Rather, you seem to be inferring and passing a judgement that philosophy and philosophers are too constraint with their obsession with epistemology to understand the problem of education. You further appear to make a case for sociology of education over limitation of philosophy (of education?). One wonders what was the need for it here. However, there must be one in your mind at least. It hardly matters if is none in my head! Anyway,one may ask directly if you are suggesting that a philosopher is unable to understand the problem of education because he is narrowly focused on epistemology?. Do you seriously believe philosophers only do epistemology? Some of the phrases that you have inventively used seem to suggest so and it is why I am asking you. Can you please explain for the an average minded person like me what is this high sounding word- ‘epistemic totalitarianism’ preferably with an example. More precisely, how does it come and where did such a totalitarianism exist in the history and what was its political and social consequence? What is it that you have in mind as a contrasting concept to this allegedly problematic concept called ‘Epistemic totalitarianism’. It would be a great service if you could explain this if you choose to reply to my request. I certainly hope that you would certainly not have the traditional opposite concept to tatalitarianism such as democracy, individualism, liberalism, as they all share their origin within philosophical discourse. I do believe that your opposition to this would come from non-philosophical disciples or discourse.
      Your language is such complex and theoretical that it is very difficult for a person as I said above- an average minded- to grasp over its inherent and intended meaning. With repeated and concerted efforts, what I get is that you are also saying that ‘system analogy’ which philosophy uses is actually drawn from mechanical engineering (only) and when a philosopher invokes the term ‘system’, he/she takes this meaning and that’s why he/she is unable to negotiate with ‘different plain’ which in your view is incomplete as it is uninformed with sociology of education. You seem to be a never before essentialist scholar in education who seem to have a total understanding of scope and limitation of philosophy and sociology of education. Great! This is not to say that this is unachievable- one can be such a scholar and the others should be aspiring to be so. Do you really believe that Philosophy and Sociology of Education are mutually exclusive? A philosopher remains marooned with sociological understanding and he/she has necessarily a ‘positivistic understanding of ‘system’. You must be serious to suggest that philosophy considers (education) system ‘autonomous on its own making’, one would like to know which philosopher (of education) has said this. Do you really believe that philosophers have no idea idea how education system is funded and what is the ‘politics of resources’. And they have no idea that educational system contains stratification? And educational quality is compromised with allocation of resources?

      Towards your closing remarks you request the author that he ‘should reflect upon about resource allocation rather than advising political masters’. I hope that you as a sociologically inclined scholar must be knowing that it is the ‘political masters’ who distribute the resources. So what are you saying that he should be only saying that education is resource starved, it does not have sufficient resources. And he should stop advising political masters! Wonderful.
      -Shankar, JNU, New Delhi, 17 Sep. 2014


  4. Deependra Baghel says:

    Mr Shashank.
    I am really thankful to your response for I got carried away while specifically responding to Rohit and consequently deviated from the universalistic address in the discussion. Since you have asked for certain clarifications ; I feel that it is necessary to make my assumptions clear. And this has to do a lot with my set of interpretations of Rohits position. And I feel that Rohits contributions has been phenomenal in articulating and shaping the philosophical perspective of Education in India and his exemplary scholarship has also inaugurated the Philosophical perspective on Elementary Education in India . And there are multiple policy documents which represent his rigor of Philosophy on Education. And he has also been working as an Educationist cum activist who orients the critical discourse by sharing and disseminating it with thousands of social activist and he has also large following adhering to his perspective which call for deeper engagement in the aims of education and preparing critical citizenry is the dream which he cherishes most by evolving philosophically rigorous pedagogical practice of Elementary Education. So indeed he is a master figure who could shape and articulate the analytical perspective by ferociously interrogating the premises of Educational Policies.
    So it is the critical perspective itself which for want of adequacy poses question( s) with Rohit as Philosopher and with the discipline of analytical philosophy too.
    But for having critical appreciation of Rohits scholarship ,we also need to take a critical view of how philosophy of Education has been positioned in Educational curriculum . One can decipher that role that is accorded to philosophy is narrowly construed and questions of knowledge, forms of understanding , aims of Education , epistemology are being prescribed and it is the Sociology which is given the critical role to analyze the power relations in and around the Education. So it is the compartmentalized conception that restricts Philosophy to narrow epistemic plain. I really wish that some of the critical school of Philosophy also find their reasonable place in the curriculum and more so the political economy school which comprehends the foundational maladies in the politics of resources.
    And I feel that exclusion of the perspective of political economy can deviate us from the genealogy of the discourse. When I say ‘epistemic totalitarianism ‘-which I say only metaphorically – I only intend to allude towards the exclusion of critical philosophy by the analytical Philosophy . It is indeed shocking to see that whole of Frankfurt school and current contributions do not find even scanty mention in the curriculum.
    Given the contemporary status of Education , one can see the utterly discriminatory public education system which ensures that poor get inferior quality of Education but the rich ones get ‘quality’ Education in Elite Govt Schools . And nowhere in the world we would find such a massive discriminatory public education system and current act of universalizing the right to Education : RTE bear testimony and accords legality to the insidiously discriminatory public Education system. And one could see the genesis of the blatantly un-just public education system , one could easily see that as how neo – liberalism has shaped the trivialization of social welfare which could have demonstrated the -justice- per say. But sadly, critical reflection on policies from the social and ideological perspective is not at all allowed in the educational philosophy curriculum’s which I rhetorically term as ‘epistemic totalitarianism’.
    So I expect when a philosopher such as Rohit is hinting towards the ideological moorings of the state , he/she should also critically analyze the inherent class and several other bias in the educational system from the vantage point of critical philosophy to establish that master would have got changed but structure remain the same in spite of rhetoric of diffrence.

    My interest lays in the critical philosophy so for invigorating critical perspective I feel both Sociology and Philosophy complement to each other. And both discipline help me to analyze power matrix from the critical perspective. I have deliberately used ‘positivistic ‘ term towards the metaphorical logic of Rohit for he uses mechanical analogy for the system rather than the organic one for the system as is being suggested by Comte.
    Philosophers have the every right to follow their school and we must appreciate the fact that liberal philosophers such as Rohit have the autonomy to prioritize their perspective. But if equity is a substantive consideration then critical philosophy needs to be given its due. And as critical philosophy suggests that the oppressor may have different take on knowledge and knowledge could also contribute to the domination. And the Whole Education could also be a ‘hidden curriculum’ to maintain status -quo – As is insightfully suggested by Miachel Apple.

    Deependra Baghel


  5. Anonymous says:

    Dear Deependra, with all due respect to streams of philosophy (critical, analytical, others), and sociology as well, all you seem to be saying is : our education system is deeply non-egalitarian, reflecting the resource distribution and power structures of a highly non-egalitarian society.

    Is there anything more you want to say? My request- please replace heavy words with the power of ideas themselves. The simpler, the more communicative they are. Replacement of heavy academic language far from laypeople is another reform our education and discourse badly needs (a culture built and maintained by the academic elite too).

    Sorry if I sound too blunt.



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