The evolutionary Indian classroom

Mounik Shankar Lahiri

Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time. – Rabindranath Tagore

The quote by Rabindranath Tagore could not have been more appropriate than today, the 21st century globalized world which is characterized by storing more information and data in the virtual world of the World Wide Web than the largest of libraries and bookstores. This puts the teacher of today in a strange conundrum. They have to transcend the boundaries and limits of their own educational context, their own grasp of the theoretical demands of different subjects and expose their students to a world of learning that they themselves are quite unaccustomed to. While the fundamentals of cognitive processes in children across generations do not change much, the quality of pedagogy and especially the expectations of the role of the teacher see dramatic shifts, upheavals and conflicts across generations and across different time periods in history.

History of Indian pedagogy
To better understand how pedagogy, philosophical understanding of education, and the role of the teacher evolves over time in a society, a glance at history is necessary. The Indian subcontinent has witnessed many an educational paradigm, and at various points in its long history has occupied prime space in creation and dissemination of knowledge, though the exact nature of its supremacy and prominence has been much debated and has been historically controversial.

The history of Indian pedagogy can be broadly divided into four reasonably distinct time periods, with changing emphasis on different kinds of skills and cognitive processes during these processes. The four periods have been the High Middle Ages or the Early Common Era, Late Middle Ages or Early Modern Era, the Colonial Era and of course more recently the Post modern globalized world order with a marked technological revolution that intervenes in pedagogical processes. A quick glance at these phases will tell us how across these stages it is not just the philosophical understanding of education and associated pedagogy that changes but also the definition of a teacher or educator, and the kind of respect and position they enjoy in the system.

Education in the early Common Era
Some of the earliest recorded history of education in the Indian subcontinent talks about emphasis on Vedic/Indic mathematics and Indian logic at early Hindu and Buddhist centres of learning such as Taxila and Nalanda. Such education was typically supervised by a Guru, and was considered to be a sacred enterprise in search of true knowledge and understanding of the ways of the world in its myriad forms. It was also then believed that the quest for knowledge and spirituality was in the same direction and not mutually exclusive ideas or goalposts as is believed today. The Guru, or the teacher, was accorded immense respect in society and was considered the ultimate authority on knowledge and its pursuit. They were not just disseminators of knowledge like teachers in modern classrooms but also creators of such bodies of knowledge. This was also the time that Chinese explorers and scholars, sold on to the pedagogy of these, ‘Gurus’ would frequently visit different institutions of learning to survey Buddhist texts, among other exploratory interests of philosophy and studying the social dynamics of the adjoining spaces.

Education in the Middle Ages
The traditional methods of education went through some metamorphosis with the advent of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. The patronized institutions included traditional ‘madrasas’ and ‘maktabs’ which taught grammar, philosophy, mathematics and law, with large scale impacts from the Greek traditions, inherited by Persia and the Middle East, before Islam spread from these regions to India.

A special feature of this education was its emphasis on the connection between science and humanities. Courses were typically conducted in grammar, philosophy, logic, astronomy, mathematics and mysticism. Like in the previous era, religious education was therefore inseparable from the emphasis on exploring other knowledge streams. The educators and the teachers therefore were at the centre of the knowledge accumulation and delivery process, and as such had great patronage of the monarchs, the society and the community of learners.

Education in the colonial era
There has been a significant difference of opinion among the colonialists about the ideal education for Indians, divided roughly into two camps on the basis of their views. They were termed the orientalists and the utilitarians with distinctly different perspectives on the desired future for education in India. The orientalists believed that Indian education should be in the classical or court languages like Sanskrit or Persian, while the utilitarians believed that it is in the best interests of subcontinental Indians to learn their subjects in English. Lord William Bentinck favoured the replacement of Persian with English as an official language, the use of English as a medium of instruction, and the training of English speaking Indians as teachers. He was a big proponent of a utilitarian educational model and along with Babington Macaulay believed that Indians need English education for progress and to be united as a common civilization.

The idea of a utilitarian pedagogy emerged in the west after the age of Enlightenment, and around the same time as the advent of modernism, when western society started breaking free from the shackles of faith based belief, which wasn’t subjected to the ideals of reason, individualism and scepticism, especially on matters of learning and pedagogy. These ideals for the most part still dominate educational standards across the world today.

Mounik-Shankar-Lahiri

Dwindling interest, scholarship and classroom emphasis in traditional knowledge systems of the subcontinent
Most Indians who believe in English education, have been beneficiaries of the colonial shifts into utilitarianism in pedagogy, the obvious impacts being that education has become increasingly market and objective focussed, with sciences taking precedence over humanities and philosophy. While this is hugely beneficial for a developing country like India, the flip side is that in the name of utilitarianism, large repositories of pre-colonial knowledge systems, mostly in the classical sub-continental languages like Sanskrit and Persian have been left out of further exploration and scholarship. The young learners in schools are almost never exposed to such bodies of knowledge, even though there is still considerable language politics across the different regions of the country.

The post modern conception of educators as facilitators
If the Age of Enlightenment in the west has had a profound impact on modern disciplines that are taught in our classrooms today, and if it can be credited with replacing religious scholars in the classrooms with practitioners of objective knowledge in the forms of specialized disciplines, it should also be acknowledged that the prominence of the educators and teachers have gradually receded in the west and have ceased to be seen as arbiters of knowledge and more as facilitators in cognitive processes, even though traditional strongholds of the role of teachers still exists in most pockets of the developing world.

The idea of post modernism, a shift from the colonial focus on modernism, lends itself to the idea of constructivism which believes that humans generate knowledge and meanings from an interaction between their ideas, experiences and objective knowledge. This means that a participatory pedagogy is more important than one way transmission of objective knowledge from the teacher to the learner. Those who believe that the status of teachers should be as sacrosanct pedagogues, argue that this unjustifiably diminishes the status of the teacher from knowledge disseminators to knowledge facilitators. But many others see it as an empowerment of learners in the creation of knowledge, with active support from educators who follow democratic and participatory pedagogy. These participatory methods become challenging for teachers and educators who have been schooled in traditional methods of education and learning that value objective and factual knowledge over something that is learnt through constructivist participation.

The challenge for teachers who haven’t been exposed to participatory methods of learning as students but are expected to be facilitators are quite daunting. It becomes even more challenging when school evaluations test objective and factual knowledge over a more participatory understanding of the disciplines but expect teachers to follow more participatory methods that create skills that are not accurately tested or rewarded. Since most curriculums and assessment methods across the country incentivize rote learning of facts and data over comprehension and reciprocation of ideas, teachers find it difficult to adopt a more participatory pedagogy, lest students don’t perform optimally through assessments that measure factual and objective knowledge.

Technology and teacher – The changing expectations:
In the 21st century the most obvious question that faces school leaders and educational policy makers is – is technology in the classrooms a threat to the role, significance and authority of the teacher in the classroom?

The answer to this question depends on how one defines the role of the teacher and how the teacher is placed in the context of today’s pedagogy. Also, it is a more relevant question to ask, if technological interventions guarantee better learning outcomes for the learner? There are two views on this subject, the first one believes that technology is the solution to every kind of educational underachievement in the classrooms and that the entire gamut of inequity in learning outcomes can be solved through readymade lesson plans fed into a computer program that also acts as a repository of everything worth knowing about a particular subject. All that the teacher is expected to do is to help learners be hands-on with the piece of technological hardware, which like any piece of user friendly gadget, ensures complete ease of usage with increasing familiarity.

The other view is that allowing technology in the classrooms snatches the pedagogical authority from the teachers and adversely affects not just learning outcomes but other supposedly desirable qualities such as respect for authority, discipline and greater compliance. Both these ideas are fundamentally flawed and at both ends there is a disdain for an inclusive classroom environment that seeks to empower the student and the teacher in a mutually beneficial pedagogic process. This mutually beneficial pedagogic process is characterized by educators being open to using every tool at their disposal, including using technology that complements classroom interactions but none that prejudices the very need and agency of the educator.

Those who advocate a complete technological overhaul of classroom pedagogy believe in closed factual knowledge trapped in a piece of hardware that needs only to be introduced to young learners by their teachers and therein ends the role of the teacher. They don’t realize that every learner is not similarly predisposed to cognitive processes. They also fail to understand the critical role of teachers in bringing ideas and themes of a certain subject alive for their learners with special emphasis on the diversity of learning needs in the classroom.

On the other hand, the reason why many educators and school leaders shy away from using technology is that they believe that an educators role and the role of technology is mutually exclusive. Also, those not exposed to participatory pedagogy fear that their knowledge gaps may be exposed by technological interventions. The reason for this fear is that they consider themselves to be arbiters of knowledge as opposed to knowledgeable facilitators of cognitive processes, also because our curriculum still focuses disproportionate emphasis on skills of fact retention over skills of association and analysis.

Looking ahead for technology in the classrooms and making it work:
It is only if the pedagogic focus shifts to a cross gamut of cognitive skills over narrowly defined boundaries of objective knowledge will educators feel empowered to use technology in the classrooms. There cannot be any cognitive dividend through using technology, despite the best of interests, without an understanding of participatory pedagogy or by thrusting technology into the classrooms for the sake of it without the confidence of the educators or understanding the dynamics of cognitive variations in the classroom. It is time for school leaders to think hard and question both these assumptions so that they can create the perfect context for their teacher and students, to make the best of the technological and pedagogic advances the world has to offer for classrooms today.

The author is an educator and freelance writer on education and holds an advanced PG diploma in Public Policy. He co-founded ‘Fill in the Blanks’, which aims to conduct workshops for teachers and students to supplement regular classroom interactions. He can be reached at themounik@yahoo.com.