Unlearning, re-learning and sharing

Lalitha Krishnamurthy

Being a teacher in a progressive school, I was comfortable, popular and had access to tools of modern-day schooling. Along with these, I was exposed to the latest articles on pedagogy that helped me reflect on my own practices and beliefs. Years of such exposure made me restless. There was something amiss in what I was doing. It was time for me to move away and look at everything from afar. And so I went to Nepal (as a volunteer of VSO (Nepal), recruited by iVO, New Delhi).

Nepal has had public schooling only from 1958. So this was a perfect ground for me to study and observe the early conflicts that arose from the spread of the modern school system with its hidden curriculum. My workplace was Pokhara, one of the largest and most picturesque cities of Nepal. The government primary schools where I worked were tucked in between the hills, far from the maddening crowd. I had to use public transport and walk nearly an hour or so to reach some schools. Needless to say, children from the very lowest section of the society came to these schools. The anecdotes I have narrated will give the readers an insight into my interventions.

School=English+alienation of lives?
Thanks to the rapid growth in communication, what has reached every nook and corner of Nepal are the images of developed cities, not only of the West but of India too. The view that schooling in English is the path to progress and helps one fit into a globalized society is very dominant. And any volunteer teacher is assumed to be an English teacher!! No wonder I too was also asked to assist in the teaching of English. This was a tough nut to crack. But with some persistent efforts, I was able to intervene in core subject areas like science, math and social sciences. It was embarrassing to see committed teachers being apologetic about their poor knowledge of English!! But my fluency in Nepali laid all such trivialities to rest and I could work along with subject teachers effectively. The science and math expo that these teachers held using simple and locally available materials was a real trendsetter. But my intervention to boost the morale of the teachers came a bit too late!

The most astonishing thing was that some of the government primary schools changed their medium of instruction from Nepali to English overnight. The Department of Education had no problem as the medium could be decided by the school management committee (decentralization of education!). I felt sorry for the teachers who felt helpless now that their command of English was at stake. The Nepali children were at the crossroads of their lives!! What little numeracy and science they learnt in their own language was now not accepted.

In the government school where I volunteered as a teacher educator, I saw a teacher reading a book, What can I do? to the children. The teacher made the children sit near her and showed the book and asked what each child in the picture was trying to say. It was interesting to note that at least four children were fluent in reading and others were trying to read. Good work!! The teacher was very happy that the children behaved and responded well. She believed that she had done a good job. Of course she had! The things that the children could do in the book was – “I can read, I can tie the shoe lace, I can keep quiet in the library, I can pick oranges, I can use a dustbin, I can look for grandpa’s glass, etc.”

Copycat schooling
I was curious and asked the children to list out what they could all do? The responses from the children were, “I can dig out potatoes from the field”, “I can look after my sister and brother”, ”I can make tea”, “I can dig in the field”, “I can pick greens”, ”I can cook rice”, “I can fetch water”, etc. I was amazed at the responses. I asked the teacher whether she was surprised. No, she wasn’t. When one compares with what the book says to the responses of the children, I see a big gap between the book and the children’s actual life. It is very progressive to make children read from books (even if the books do not relate to the child’s world) and the teacher was sincerely doing the same. My conflict was, do I stop at congratulating the teacher for her work or do I expose her to the conflicts her society could face out of such copycat schooling?

The children of Nepal face alienation both in language and content. A generation of Nepali teachers will feel worthless for being unable to express in a dominant language. Readers may not find anything new in this narration, but what was significant was my being in Nepal when such events were unfolding in the history of education in Nepal.

My stay in Nepal was for two and a half years, – a fairly long time for volunteering. But to me it was valuable, and significant. My intervention by way of asking them to relook into the act of aping popular schooling was viewed suspiciously. But I tried to do my might in whatever forum I could by participating in their labour-rich lives, using their language, and valuing teachers and all disciplines.

I came back home realizing the discomfort I had. It was revealing that I was a well-informed teacher but that itself was not enough. As a sensitive teacher, I had to see beyond the textbook and the curriculum presented to me and challenge myself and the learners to see how real learning is free from such copycat ideas and thoughts. I realize that I am a product of an alienation process that I witnessed in Nepal, which must have happened when I was going to school. The conflict I face stems from such a process. And my fear is that I might have passed on such a process to my wards too.

I join the team of “Schooling the world’* in seconding their thoughts on education. But first, I have to unlearn and relearn to put my findings into practice. Sharing of skills has definitely changed my life!!


The author is passionate about learning and can be reached at lalithak58@gmail.com.