Monday, December 24, 2007

Educational Surveys

I wrote this blog quite a while ago, but haven't had the adequate internet access to post it, so here it is, just in time for the holidays:

In this holiday season, I would like to share some of my experiences and thoughts with you that will hopefully make us all think about what we are truly thankful for, and what we can do to contribute to humanity.

As part of a grant we recently received from Plan International, for the last couple weeks, some colleagues and I have been traveling around the rurals of Uttarakhand in means to ascertain a baseline of the quality of education in government schools. For the next two months straight, we will be busy with teachers trainings, which means have around 50 government students and teachers at our school. The survey will hopefully show that, an academic year from now, that our trainings have brought out a change in the teachers. Unfortunately I am not so hopeful.

The survey experience, for me, was a mixture of extraordinary beauty and terrible depression. It would be hard not to find the beauty in the subtle differences of each area of Uttarakhand, from the awe inspiring Ganga flowing through Uttarkashi, carving out stark mountainous walls on either side, to Gairsain, with its more moderate foothill mountains, densely covered with oak and pine forests. This region continues to surprise me; around every bend is impressive new scenery.

There was also the beauty of all of the children we encountered as well, so curious, so creative so much potential. When we first visited each classroom, the children's submissive nature was quite apparent; the classroom had an oppressive atmosphere, children sat straight and silent, while their lumbering thuggish teachers wandered about. But outside of the teacher's eyes, the layers quickly melted and they opened up to us a bit. But I really cannot forget their beautiful smiles and laughter.

First of all, let it be said I live in a bubble. The children and teacher at our school transcend these labels, opting instead for a more familial relationship. It is paramount at our school for the child to realize the equality of all people, including their teacher. Out of this a learning partnership is formed, where everyone is learning and challenging each other. In the morning we all meditate and sing together; in the classroom, all sit around the teacher, and in the lower grades, mostly on the laps of the teacher. Although I had read the literature about the realities of the Indian educational system: physical abuse, terrible infrastructure, the high dropout and low performance levels, I had been coaxed into this idyllic environment. It wasn't that I didn't believe that that was out there, that this milieu existed, but, given that all of my time here, I don't think I wanted to.

The true reality of education in government schools in India, is that they are like those of the military: and bad ones at that. Every morning, children stand in ordered lines, numbering off then barking out call and responses as if they were at boot camp. They then file into their classrooms and into more prescribed lines, where they sit quietly, and if they don't sit quietly they get beat, if they miss an answer they get beat, in fact, if they are Nepali or from a lower caste, different from the rest they get beat. Beatings are rampant. In every school without exception, the teachers continuously beat the children, at one school, to the point that the village chief, or Pradhan, filed several forms trying to get him removed, unfortunately to no avail. Chalk that one up to inefficient and irresponsible governance. Obviously, the teachers would not admit to such beatings, except for one teacher, with disarming candor, actually beat her children in front of us. She admitted to us that she had no idea how or why she became a teacher.

This might be why: teaching positions are highly coveted in the villages because the high wages (I know that teacher's salaries make up more than 85% of the Central Government's educational budget) and the strength of the teacher's union makes it virtually impossible to be fired. These two factors lead to absenteeism, with many teachers showing up less than half of the days they are suppose to. We went to six schools, despite the teacher's knowing that we were coming, at every school, only one teacher was present.

In India's Constitution and included in almost every five year plan following, there is much verbage about dedication to universal education reflecting the sentiments of many international organizations, but in practice little has changed. Sure many more students have enrolled, but with the quality component of education virtually devoid in the current governmental educational regime, the obvious civic and social utilities of education (increased participation in politics and civil society organizations, increased economic opportunities and social mobility, etc.) are denied to these children. Therefore, in practice, the school system almost resembles more of a day care scheme for most, staving off the hard realities of their parent's lives for a couple years, until that same adulthood is superimposed onto them. This observation was echoed by many community members that we talked to, who felt that many parents had come to accept that their children were not learning much substantively in the government school, so they view the schools more as day care centers and a free meal (with the Mid Day Meal Scheme) for their children.

Another observation that we made was that there was one teacher at every school for 40 or 50 children. I'll give that to the teachers: it is a difficult task to balance the needs of this many children coming from five different classes. But, here's a novel idea, how about trying? All of the teachers we talked to absolved all responsibility to the government, saying that they are given too much work outside of school to teach properly. Sure they are given letters to write, tasks like getting census info, giving out identity cards to villagers, but, this shouldn't take up too much of their time, seeing that the Indian work week is 6 days a week, and school is only for about 6 hours. There is plenty of time for the small remedial tasks while teaching. One teacher during our recent teacher trainings said, 'Each day I give about an hour to the children, with my other work, isn't that enough?' The other work, a couple of letters she had to write to the government in a week. Sickening.

This absolutions sets up a dangerous chain of apathy: the parents blame the teachers and think that they can't do anything because teachers are lazy and don't care, so the either don't send their kids to school or send them with no real hope of them learning anything. The teachers blame the government and think that they can't do anything because they have other burdens and few resources, so they predominately don't try. The government blames the social issues in the community and is so corroded with corruption they aren't even capable of fixing a broken chair in a school let alone the lack of quality in the schools.

But change must start somewhere. It could start with the parents and communities taking a stake in their children's education, hinted at the above example of the Pradhan. WIth vigorous participation and chopping through this apathy, teachers themselves will be held accountable by their community and different levels of government will start to take notice. Teachers can also realize the importance of their profession and strive to become quality educators. We have heard of a small handful of teachers in Uttarkashi who have actually invested a good portion of their paycheck into their school, giving their lives fully to their children. Teachers can stop blaming others, and take the responsibility on themselves. The government can be held more accountable to shine light on faceless dangerous actions of the bureaucracy. During our AIF orientation, a speaker came to inform us about the Right to Information Act, which enables citizens to obtain governmental documents in question. Although the system has some set backs, the prospects are promising, and to combat the terrible condition of the education system (such as the Pradhan plight through the governmental bureaucracy).

But this all means that somebody has to stand up, and once one does many will follow. That is what we are trying to do with our teacher's workshops, we focus on empowering the children while also trying to invigorate the teachers. In our school, we try to involve the older children in the education process of the younger. This develops personality and self confidence for the older and benefits the younger with a teacher with more relevant experience to their situation (I don't think that any teacher could fully relate to the child's learning process , in that they learned the concepts so long ago, most have computerized the knowledge in their brain, they know what it is and what answers are, but not necessarily why or how it works). Through the surveys, we also learned that many of the teachers didn't actually know competently many of the concepts that they were trying to teach, and admitted that they really didn't have the energy to learn them at this point. But children have boundless energy, curiosity and an impeccable sense of inquiry. Why not tap into this energy to teach and motivate each other, having the teacher be more like a facilitator of discussions and knowledge, instead of forcibly and halfheartedly slopping government syllabus concepts into the child's mind, one after another like on a conveyer belt?

Teachers, thus far, have be more or less receptive of this idea, but we will see what happens when they return to their schools and we do a follow up three months from now. We realize the difficulty of this argument, but we are placing our cards on the fresh minds of the children. We believe that a child's revolution needs to take place to break this danger chain of absolution.

I have been thinking about this lately in terms of how our (being from 'western' developed countries) actions affect those in developing countries and want to take a step back and examine how we all fit within this chain of absolution, but I think I will elaborate a later when I have a bit more time.


Carissa said...


Reading through this entry struck multiple cords in me, both from my experiences in I-INDIA and from some educational history I've been learning this last semester, so I thought I'd share (sorry, its a bit of a long comment...).

The U.S. education system actually used to be very very similar to the current Indian system-- rather surprising for a country that now prides itself on its creativity. We in the U.S. have gone through multiple different types of schooling. One type in particular might be interesting to you in this context. They're called monitorial schools, and they're far from perfect but they were a step foward at the time for the U.S. and sound a lot like the type of schools you're talking about trying to develop.

In most schools of the time,one teacher would teach straight off a chart at the front of the room to an often large group of student (sound familiar?). In monitorial schools, there was still only one main teacher but the students were broken up by ability level and the top students in each grade would take turns walking around and helping the grade below them. The main teacher would monitor, but it was really the students who taught most. This arrangement helped the school and fostered leadership in the kids while keeping students thinking about the material they were learning, as they had to reteach it to others later. They were often still learning off the chart, but it was a step forward...

Anyways, that was just my thought. Revolution is possible.


Courtney said...

This NY Times article was one of the most emailed of the day:

I think the author may have missed a few points that needed to be made, like exactly what kind of Indian schools he's talking about. Probably not rurual government schools. Such an interesting contrast to your blog and experience. Maybe after this you can move to Japan and make tons of money by opening an authentic Indian elementary school...