Tuesday, December 24, 2013

We need campuses that inspire - Hindustan Times

    We need campuses that inspire

    Little would have been thought in 1869 by the initiators of the move to establish a college for a “better means of education” at Allahabad that it would become an imposing institution in its own right.Their efforts led to the founding of the Central College, which eventually developed into a university and it contributed ever since in the development of our nation. Its cosmopolitan spirit attracted students from all over to transform them by its alchemy. The great names that have been its products and have served the society at large in various capacities are far too many to be recounted. Every great name is only another addition to its halo of inspiration for the coming generation. This halo has been its biggest asset. 

    What makes a university good or great? Is it its faculty, or its infrastructure, or the academics, or its excellence in extra-curricular activities, or the researches conducted by it? It is all these, but something more. It is its atmosphere to inspire. 

    Allahabad University turned 126 years of age on September 23, 2013 but not a speech could be delivered leave alone festivities. 

    Instead, screaming police sirens, slo g aneering students, and whimpering citizenry marked the milestone. Wordsworth’s lines (in a different context of course) come to mind to express the feelings – ‘Where is it now, the glory and the dream?’ 

    University of Allahabad typifies the condition of our higher education. The QS World University Rankings published recently had miserable news for India’s education system. Around 11 Indian institutes featured in the top 800 of the global list with the highest-rank going to IIT Delhi which was placed 222 in the list. The fact is that our universities are plagued by many ills. 

    The curricula of various disciplines do not allow for interfaces and have an exclusivist nature. The curriculum is not revised regularly and is divorced from the social milieu. It, therefore, fails to sensitise the students to the conditions of the world outside of their own. 

    This malady has only deepened with the setting up of ‘deemed universities’ for narrow disciplines.
    Though they may be excellent in the technical sense, the students of professional courses generally lack knowledge of society, economy, politics and culture. 

    Universities have been failing to act as spaces where students emerging out of their adolescent worlds realize the existence, and the need to respect, the geo-cultural diversities. The standard of researches has nothing much to say of, particularly in humanities. In fact our academic environment is not conducive to indulging in research activities for the love of it. The setting up of many elite bodies exclusively for research is reducing universities to mere teaching and examining bodies. 

    The universities are also facing a paucity of teachers, though academics is one of the best paid jobs. The reason is the non-academic ambience of the campuses which makes the best and brightest in the country choose other professions. 

    The earning of a living, rather than learning and developing the art of living, has become the sole motive of our higher education. 

    We are acting simply like cogs in the big machine of economy, a mere resource and, no wonder that even the controlling ministry is not called the ministry of education but, the ministry of human resources. 

    On the bright side, our universities have been a precursor to many positive changes in the world of education and society.But we need to further this quality when the most felt loss is in the degeneration of values in the society at large. Developments in any sphere are useless if the value system is weak.As Tagore said in his essay ‘The Educational Mission of the Visva- Bharati’- “Great civilizations in the East as well as in the West have flourished in the past because they produced food for the spirit of man for all time; they tried to build their life upon the faith in the ideals, the faith which is creative.”Understanding the world and ourselves, through rigours of reinventing, re-examining and reconsidering, is the essence of a university.

    We need to emphasise the perpetuity of these essential foundations- the immortal spirit of openness, inquiry and access that have defined and must continue to define our universities. We are terribly in need of campuses that inspire. 

    • 24 Dec 2013
    • Hindustan Times (Lucknow) 'Xpressions'

    Saturday, May 25, 2013

    published in the book "Innovations in English Language Teaching: Voices from the Indian Classroom Z. N. Patil, Anindya Syam Choudhury and S. P. Patil (Eds.)"

    -A Short Note...
    The phenomenon of innovations in teaching of English is not new. Innovation is an intrinsic part of the dynamics of life. Language being the medium of expression in this ever-changing environment is also therefore always evolving. English, being the second-Language in India (as in almost all the countries who have had a colonial past) has been perhaps evolving faster than in the country of its origin, because of the dynamics of inter-relationship with the vernaculars. This change in the language perforce requires change in the process of teaching it.
    Innovation, as suggested by the historian Carl Schorske, is the end result of two converging forces – the felt need and, new research. The last two decades in the history of this country have seen more changes in its socio-economic - technical environment than ever. Since a language affects and is affected by its environment, the English Language has had a fair share of effects on it.
    This short note has no programmes of innovation to present because innovation is an ongoing process. It however tries to explore the environmental changes in last couple of decades which should prompt newer ways of teaching and, the kind of innovations required.
    When we were school/college students (in the 1980's) our English teacher told us to regularly read newspaper and, listen to the AIR/Doordarshan English news if we were to improve our English. This, alas, is not possible now. The national dailies have little space for kids and adolescents. The language also at times lacks the perfection it once had (Jug Suraiya's 'Subverse' article –'Angrezi? Maro goli! – in The Times of India mentioned quite a few lapses found in the newspaper's language). The English on FM Radio and T.V. Channels is preposterous. For instance, I have failed to convince many a youngster that there is no such word as 'anyways', because for them Radio/T.V. jockeys are better guides. In this era of short texting via cell phones and social sites on the internet, the spellings of the most common words and grammar are so twisted and changed that reading them seems similar to reading a Chaucerian passage and, the abbreviations like reading Morse code. Often teens tend to hide their ignorance of their language behind the veil of designer English.
    There is another aspect too. The children when they come to school now are not unfamiliar with many words of English as they were two decades back. Amidst the all pervading media the kids today are not insulated from the English language as they once were. The children in the urban areas get a more English Language environment as compared to those in the rural areas.
    The post - liberalization and globalisation era also has had on impact on the English Language teaching. English is being learnt more for the sake of its utility in professional fields than for its own sake. The mushrooming of English speaking private coachings are testimony to it. Earlier the students in higher classes preferred studying English literature but now they chose English language. The veering of students from humanities stream in senior school is also a reason that makes them language impoverished. They are weak in their regional language too besides English.
    The English teaching has to innovate itself in the changed scenario. Innovations are broadly of two types – imposed from the top through major policy shifts and the other at the level of the teacher in the classroom. An example of the former is that quite some time back English teaching began from class VI, later it was introduced in class III and now it is being taught from class I in the government schools in most of the States. The practice of Continuous and comprehensive evaluation is another example of it. The examples of the latter are umpteen and depend on the teacher and the taught.
    For the innovation from the top to succeed it is essential that they are comprehensive and take into account all related factors. For example in the case of continuous and comprehensive evaluation system it is more necessary to design the curriculum, texts, supplementary reading materials, time-table and work-sheets/books and, the size of the classroom than a complicated chart to trace the childs progress. It is also necessary to reorient the teachers to the new method of evaluation. Bab Adamson ( Queensland University , Australia ) and Chris Davison ( University of Hong Kong , Hong Kong) in the article "Innovation in English language teaching in Hong Kong primary schools: One step forward, too step sideways?" (Prospect vol 18 No 1 April 2003) examine the success of task – based learning introduced in Hong Kong in the 1990s. They show the incongruence between the intended, resourced, implemented and experienced curriculum because of clashing teacher-student beliefs, pedagogical constraints, and unclear expectations. One major problem identified by them was that the task based learning was not grounded in local experiences and educational realities and was more an imported package from the West.
    Major innovations from the top to be successful have to ensure that each of the key players – the curriculum developers, the text book writers, the teachers, the students (and their parents) and, the inspectors- along with the process, and not just the product, have been taken into account while framing the policy and they are constantly monitored, evaluated and supported.
    The innovations by a teacher in a classroom has an individual orientation. As Robert Oliphant pointed out in his article (The locus of change: some notes an Innovation in English Teaching' (California English Journal V3 n2 Spr. 1967), -" the innovative process should begin at the point at which a need for change coincides with the means of satisfying that need. The English teacher can update his instructional approach by examining, on the one hand, the student's felt need for articulate expression and a sympathetic listener, and on the other, the researches in counseling, programmed instruction, and the human use of language."
    Generic teaching is ineffective in a class. The teacher has to create special methods for special cases. He has to see that the student is not good merely at learning concepts – what is a noun, verb - but at applying them. He has to make the language seem so amicable that the student is not afraid of it. It is the teacher and his classroom-ambience which can make his student learn English as naturally and unobtrusively as his mother tongue. And for this he requires, more than training, a will to perform and a support from his environment comprising policy-makers, policy implementers and parents.
    English is increasingly becoming a source of anxiety, paranoia and despair in a world scenario where those who have 'English' are separated from those who don't. Its teaching needs urgent attention. We need policy reforms to provide enabling environment for teachers to produce not mere English-literates but, English knowledgeable students. But, before the major reforms, it is essential to find out how many English teachers are there at various levels in school education, how many more are required, what are the major points of weaknesses in learning, what books are being used and, what evaluation techniques are commonly used. It is high time that the school –leavers do not leave with an English disadvantage which not only gets accentuated further in life, but also gets perpetuated in the generations learning from them.
    Skand Shukla

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Many a Hurdle on RTE Path

    The link to the article - http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/many-a-hurdle-on-rte-path/article4684082.ece

    The Right to Education (RTE) Act turned three on March 31, 2013. It is certainly a short period to examine its efficacy, yet it is enough to give us a fair idea of the hurdles that are being faced and have to be tackled to get positive results. Most of these hurdles are attitudinal.
    The services of retired teachers are mostly sought for imparting “special training” to out-of-school children after which they are to mainstreamed in regular schools in their age-appropriate classes, according to Section 4 of the Act. These teachers are attuned to the routine teaching methods, while the “special training” teacher has to have a different attitude altogether. He has to be bias-free and sympathetic towards his pupils, which is difficult even in the regular schools as has been pointed out in the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) — “Discrimination against under-privileged groups is endemic, in several forms” (4.4).
    Besides being equipped with suitable pedagogy, this teacher has to have a keen sense of adolescent psychology to tackle the hurdles of shyness and fear in the 12+ age group. The course for these ‘special-training teachers’ requires strengthening in this area.
    A substantial section of students in regular rural government schools are first generation learners belonging to a weak economic background. The teachers, on the other hand, come from a relatively different background and therefore, many a time their behaviour is either patronising, or of indifference, or of a negative bias — anything but that of a friend and guide.
    Cause for concern
    In this scenario, the provisions of Section 12, providing for not less than 25% of the class strength of special category schools and unaided schools for students of the weaker sections and disadvantaged groups, become a cause for concern. Though it remains to be studied how students of the weaker/disadvantaged sections will psychologically cope with the upper economic class ambience of those schools where students from the very well-off families study, no effort has been made to orient the teachers to shed the subtle forms of discriminatory behaviour so that little children with a weaker economic background do not face a culture-shock or feel like misfits in the class.
    Automatic promotion, a problem
    Section 16, which bars failing a student, has been found to be irksome by many teachers. The surety of being promoted to the next class makes students lackadaisical towards studies at times. A teacher said that when she asked a student to be regular to class otherwise he won’t be able to learn anything and will have to sit in this class again next year, the boy replied, “Don’t try to frighten me, I know next year I will be promoted to class 7 whether I know anything or not.”
    It is essential, therefore, to see that the intention of removing the fear of exams does not result in indifference to learning and breed stubbornness and indiscipline in students. Besides making the ‘Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation’ more scientific and stringent, the curriculum and books development have to be seriously reviewed in this perspective.
    Section 21 provides an important role to the community. The School Management Committee (SMC), consisting of a majority of parents and headed by one of them, is to monitor the working of the school, including its finances. A number of instances have been brought before this writer in which the SMC Adhyaksha has tried to use his local clout and the power conferred by the RTE Act to intimidate the teachers to go along with him in unfair financial acts. This only disturbs the academic atmosphere of the school and makes the teacher lose interest in his duty.
    Many a time, the members of the SMC are not very eager to attend meetings as, for some, it is a sacrifice of one day’s earning. Thus, the burden of the SMC, at the end of the day, falls on the head teacher. It is so convenient for the authorities, too, to fix the responsibility of a work on him which ideally should be of the whole SMC.
    The transfer of many powers exercised earlier by the Village Education Committee to the SMC has raised the hackles of the gram pradhan. Instances of false complaints against teachers and interference in the working of the school by the gram pradhan have become common. This situation will worsen when the SMC and the gram pradhan are of different political orientations.
    Though the Act bars teachers from getting engaged in non-academic work other than census, elections and disaster relief, duties of a booth level officer, pulse-polio helper or, implementor of various schemes in the school and keeping their accounts do affect academic work. It also sometimes results in confrontation with the locals. This, along with poor pupil-teacher ratios and unscheduled long holidays (for instance due to the vagaries of the weather), makes provisions like ‘Academic Calendar’ (Section 9 m) a pious homily.
    The schedule of ‘Forms and Standards’ annexed to the Act raises some questions. It prescribes the number of teachers on the basis of the strength of students and not classes/sections at the primary level. For instance, it prescribes four teachers for 120 students which, in effect, means that at least one teacher will have to do multigrade teaching. It will only get worse as the number of students falls.
    The RTE blends the State’s responsibility of providing education with the community’s active participation in monitoring. Steps have to be devised to counter the negativities of community participation like caste bias, egos and financial corruption to make it a success and positive force. It is also essential that the training programmes focus on making teachers love their job, besides making them efficient. Road bumps are not something to be afraid of. They are, in fact, a testimony to the reality that we have started walking the path.