A few weeks ago, I spoke to a group of teachers from government schools across the country, who were attending a programme on cultural awareness and conservation at a Central Government institute that focuses on such training. The teachers represented the full range of subjects and class levels, so, given that the programme was three weeks long, they had opportunities to interact with colleagues from different states and with different kinds of experience. As always happens, it was clear that the learning was as much from these interactions as from the course content and sessions. For some of the participants, it was the first time they were meeting people from certain states. One teacher from Kashmir, for instance, spoke about how his assigned roommate was initially very hostile to him, trying to minimize their interaction as much as possible, even going so far as to make sure they were not in the room at the same time apart from when they went to sleep! It turned out that the roommate had never met anyone from the troubled northern state, and all his perceptions were based on reports in the media, much of which focuses on the conflict. “I think he associated all Kashmiris with terrorism!” the teacher told me. “It took him a few days to understand that I was just another teacher, like him, with the same concerns about my work, and the same interest in life. And it took me a few days to understand his fears and concerns!” After that, they couldn’t stop talking and sharing ideas and experiences.
Undoubtedly, they both went back richer for the experience and more likely to be open to questioning their own assumptions about people and the world in general.
The recent tragic incident in Pulwama generated a range of responses across media and among people in general. In varying measures, there was shock and outrage, sympathy for the victims and families, and anger. This last emotion was expressed in a variety of ways, and one even heard of individuals from the state being targeted by this anger. Clearly, another instance of perceptions and biases given more importance than direct experience. When these biases are combined with the kind of information that is indiscriminately shared on social media, it can lead to very dangerous consequences – as we discussed in the February issue of the magazine. But a powerful way to combat this is to take advantage of direct experiences, and make room to reflect and learn from them.
Many of our classrooms are very diverse places, with children coming from a variety of backgrounds. Even where there is relative homogeneity, there could be diversity of experience and outlook. It’s important to get children to talk to each other, and for teachers to make space for this kind of lateral learning – about differences, about similarities.
But as the experience of the trainees showed, maybe the first step is to work out our own biases, as teachers. How do we react to people who we see as different, and why do we do so?