A million mutinies in education

Prakash Iyer

One basic concern that repeats itself for teachers after every class: “Did they learn or not? Did they learn something else? Will their learning only lead to correct answers and good grades, or more than that?”

Each of us teaches a few students; that too for a year or two. We have colleagues who teach some other students, again just for a few years. They might be teaching differently and even expecting different results. They each had different educations, different trainings, they read different books. Millions of teachers are teaching different things with different expectations in different contexts! Moreover, teachers do not work in silos. There are head teachers, school administrators, textbook writers, curriculum developers, teacher educators, teaching-learning material developers, guidebooks, education boards, board examinations, policy makers. As if that is not enough, there are educational researchers, educationists. All these people contribute to the education of our children directly or indirectly.

Education is complex. Students are influenced by various elements of the system. In addition, students are not educated in a classroom or school alone. They learn from their family, their experiences, people they meet. Teachers are cogs in one mammoth wheel we call the education system. Is it possible to imagine a good education that every child will receive? Every cog has to help the large wheel move in the right direction. Everyone has to be aligned to one set of aims of education. In the Indian context, aims are a set of few sentences articulated in the National Policy and a National Curriculum Framework. The culture of a society plays a critical role in the conversion of aims of education into curriculum. But culture is an even more abstract idea than aims of education!

Mathew Arnold offered a simple, yet profound definition of culture: “The best intellectual and artistic beliefs and practices of a given group of people or society.” This definition is profound because he qualifies intellectual and artistic beliefs with the word “best”. He means to say that culture does not remain static. There are many different traditions and practices in one society, and societies keep assessing and evaluating them, and a sense of the “best traditions and practices” are arrived at. For example, we hear people affirming that education is rife with mindless memorization of facts and figures, and it should change to learning by understanding, not only memorizing. Or we need to encourage critical thinking and not let children accept whatever is told to them. These ways of thinking, constantly keep challenging existing practices and determining which practice is the best. This evaluation includes comparison of teaching-learning and schools, and also what is accepted as good education. Needless to say, this notion of good education also keeps evolving over time along with culture. Until a couple of decades ago, the main concern was education for all, leading to the Right to Education (RtE) Act in 2009. But now it is understood that access and quality of education cannot be separated. The RtE acknowledges that access has to be combined with good quality education. That is how culture informs policies and even laws like the RtE.

Obviously we would all want a lever, or a key to make popular culture change. If we had that key to change societal concerns, we could trigger a revolution in education! My claim is that educational revolutions are going on all the time. They are going on right now, this moment. Unlike political revolutions, educational revolutions by their very nature are subtle and we see them only after they are over; and well before one revolution is over, a new revolution has already begun.

Tangible revolutions
We only have to compare all the national education policies so far. Each time the policy highlights some issues and concerns in education and makes recommendations to resolve those concerns. The policy changes particular actions, structures depending on the current circumstances. It does not change the basic idea of good education. A policy responds to current popular culture and tries a different approach so that the system and its people think differently about education. Each educational policy created a subtle, yet critical revolution in education! For example, the NEP2020 brings early childhood education and learning levels in early years to the fore. Needless to say, what anyone learns later largely depends on education in early years. The perceived unconcern for early childhood education that results in the reduction of kindergartens to mere play and games, the need for midday meals and the ICDS scheme, all that led to more attention to early childhood education.

Policies do not come out of nowhere. Policies are responses to predominant culture and pressing concerns felt by a society. They are informed by the critical evaluation of predominant culture.

Revolutions in culture
But how does culture inform policies? How does something that was not considered important in mainstream education, suddenly become very important? The answer, I think, lies in the question itself. They do not happen suddenly. Culture morphs slowly over time, and there is one point in time when a concern is highlighted and a solution offered by the national policy of education.

Like I said earlier, we kept hearing for decades that mere memorization is bad, understanding is good. Was it only a few people who talked about it? No. Many schools, organizations and universities engaged with this problem, and tried to find solutions to the issue. Some people started alternative schools. Some people started organizations that worked with mainstream schools to research, figure out changes to the curriculum and to teaching-learning methods that would result in learning by understanding. We teachers know that it is easy to say – do not memorize, you should understand – but making that happen involves a deep understanding of theories that come from psychology, sociology, philosophy and various other disciplines. People need to learn how to use those theories and translate them into practices of teaching, assessment, evaluation. That is not enough, we also need to know the kind of environment that is required to make this kind of education happen. These theories then need to inform teacher education, curriculum development, textbook writing and all those practices that together comprise the education system.

A few years ago when I started working in education, it was common for everyone to make suggestions about how teachers should improve and change the way they teach. Some people even used to say, “It is so simple. I wonder why school teachers don’t teach better,” meaning to say, “I shall show them how it is done.” This has now changed thanks to universities and educational organizations. Teaching, curriculum development and textbook writing, teacher education are slowly being accepted as professions that require deep knowledge and years of hard work and practice. Higher education in the domain of education is now acceptable as a career option. I think this is the result of decades of hard work from organizations that worked in education reform. They had to begin by coining the term “education reform”, and explaining the idea to schools. They needed acceptance by the schools to work with their teachers and generate the knowledge and wisdom that has now become an option in formal higher education.

Change of the B.Ed. curriculum from one year to four is a direct result of this cultural upheaval initiated by organizations working in education reform for decades. Feeling the need to formalize this, devising a B.Ed., M.Ed., MA education curriculum and then launching the program and working to make them interesting, important and inviting was a complex task. It is not surprising then that it took decades to arrive where we are today. Universities and educational organizations have initiated this kind of cultural revolution in education resulting in education reform through good higher education.

Foundations of a revolution
Does it mean revolution in education is a question of decades and requires large number of people to come together in an organized form? No. Educational organizations and universities are individuals, learning from other individuals. I started this article describing a concern that repeats itself everyday for us. “Are my students really learning from my teaching?” We don’t stop with this or merely agonize. We think about it, we talk to each other about it, we read, we try things in subsequent classes, we exchange ideas with each other, we learn, we do better. These thoughts contain grains of knowledge that travel back and forth and coagulate into ideas. These ideas become the norm, and we realize that a revolution has already happened.

Every instance of concern and response to a concern is a positive act; a mutiny. A million such mutinies are the foundations of a revolution in education.

Endnote: The title is inspired by the title of the popular book “India: A million mutinies now” by V. S. Naipaul.

The author teaches Philosophy of Education at Azim Premji University. He can be reached at prakash.iyer@apu.edu.in.

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