Classrooms or Prisons!

-By Vijitha Rajan

 Vijitha is currently a research scholar in Central Institute of Education, Delhi University

Not until recently have I realized why Kumar’s (1991) description of a teacher as a ‘meek dictator’ has appealed me to the core of my understanding about Indian teachers and classrooms.
As I went through his book – Political Agenda Of Education – second time during last summer, almost as an epiphany, I realized that the author, Kumar, was describing my life as a teacher and not just the colonial teachers.
When he described the nature of teacher training and teachers’ work during the colonial times, I was reliving my own experiences of teacher training and work as a school teacher.
Though there are changes in state standpoints and policy level reforms regarding our school and teacher education classrooms, the underlying processes that define our classrooms haven’t really undergone any fundamental change. And that is why the colonial classroom that Kumar (1991) described in his book, my own school and teacher education classroom, the classroom in which I was privileged to be a teacher and the classrooms that I observe now as a researcher are all essentially the same.
I happened to get my teacher ‘training’ from one of the Regional Institutes of Education (RIEs), which is a major constituent unit of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). During the time of entrance exam for the Integrated Programme of Teacher Education called Bachelor of Science Education (B.Sc.Ed.) in 2006, I met people whose parents have been educated in the same institute desperately wanting their wards to get admission to the institute.
A class on Ozone layer (Photo by Janakiraman)
I wondered if the educational experience of people in the initial days of the institute would have been much better than how we are ‘made’ teachers during our programme. All through the four years, we had triple main (Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, PCM in my case) and along with that papers related to education. As one can imagine most of our energy is spent in understanding (memorizing rather) the so-called core science subjects, as it’s hard to pass in subject papers without some hard work.

Education, on the other hand, was a subject of which we never really found a need to engage with so deeply. We could write anything and everything in the education paper and get pass marks, if not excellent marks. Nobody feared of failing in the education subjects. It was only the previous day of the exam, education subjects found a place in our schedule, whereas science subjects occupied our entire schedule during the study holidays.

I remember how two of my mischievous friends sat and made quotes about education in the name of people who did not exist so that they can impress the faculty. We used to imagine how the faculty would get fooled by giving marks for the elaborated quotations that are actually made by us.
The pedagogy of our teacher education classroom was still stuck in micro teaching, skill development and lesson planning. We made lesson plans, each focusing on different skills like questioning, explaining, introducing the chapter and so on. Teachers ‘taught’ us constructivism by lecturing about it and we ‘learnt’ constructivism by memorizing its definition from National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2005).
The broader arena of education that the teacher has to be aware and reflective about; the philosophical, sociological and political dimensions of education; and constructive ways of understanding knowledge, learners and our own selves were never discussed in our classrooms. It seems that teacher educators in our institute still believed that ‘chalk and talk’ are the best way of teaching teachers and in fact one and only way of doing it. Though there were some exceptional teachers, their work was still shaped by the overarching culture of teaching and learning existed in the institute. I thus became one among many uncritical teachers in our country, who did not know how to dialogue and alternatively engage with children in our classrooms.

I recall these experiences not to criticize or defame my own institution, instead to understand my wonder of how teacher education experiences in a reputed central government institution can go this worse. And what would be the nature and quality of various other state and private teacher education institutes in the country? Even more disheartening is how I carried my notion of education, children and learning into the school classroom when I became a teacher.
I worked as a teacher for two years in a so-called residential public school, which not only allowed me to practice what I learnt wrongly about education in my teacher training institute but also reinforced how true they are. Monitoring and disciplining the children were openly declared as the main responsibilities of teachers and we wholeheartedly engaged in accomplishing it.

Children taking down notes in a Government School (Photo by Janakiraman)

The most silent classroom was the best classroom and teacher who handled that classroom the best teacher. When children asked questions in the class or when they talked to each other in the class, irrational fear and impatience grew spontaneously in our minds. Nobody wanted that stare from the principal or the co-teachers that declared them inefficient teachers.

Neatly written laboratory records were more important than doing experiments. Silence in the classroom and more marks on the paper were more important than having a dialogue with the teacher. Finishing syllabus and revision on time were more important than children’s understanding and knowledge. The success of high performing students was more important than the failures of backbenchers. What mattered more was how children performed in exams and not who and what they actually were. It wasn’t that I never realised what education actually is, but somehow I continued doing what everybody else did in school and how they shaped their classrooms. Of course, we have counter-narratives of good teachers, both in government and private schools. But whom I represented was thousands of our school teachers who gets school education in conventional classrooms, teacher ‘training’ again in conventional teacher education classrooms and sincerely try to educate our children based on the incorrect knowledge they acquired.
What is more striking, as I have mentioned in the beginning is that how this classroom culture has been stagnant in our country for decades. My experiences of school education, pre-service teacher education and teaching in small towns of South India have striking similarities to that of teachers who worked decades before and also of teachers in the contemporary society (even in the metropolitan city of Delhi where I pursue my research now). What do educational reforms mean in this context of historically transcending nature of classrooms? Do we really understand our classrooms before attempting to change them? We understand our classrooms as frozen in time and space and try to reform them. We are stuck in the temporality of our classrooms, which are in turn transcending beyond what and how they are here and now. The reforms that do not engage with the history of our classrooms and how and why they have become what they are today will reinforce the existing classroom ideals and instead of reforming them.
All curses of the current educational system: exams, rote learning, blind dependency on textbooks, authoritarian teacher-child relationship, the gap between school knowledge and children’s everyday lives, lack of inclusion and dialogue, are rooted in assumptions and beliefs about learners, learning, teachers, teaching, knowledge and society. These beliefs are in turn created and recreated in the socio-political, cultural, economic and historical context of the country. When one leaves that context behind and attempts to understand and reform classrooms, we fail to locate the roots of our classroom culture.
Sarangapani (2003) in her book – Constructing School Knowledge: An Ethnography Of Learning In An Indian Village – tries to understand the ‘everyday reality of the common Indian school’ by deeply engaging with the routine processes that determine our classroom culture. She argues that it is important not to ignore those underlying features of classrooms or to try radically changing the school system.
Sriprakash’s (2011) study with rural primary school teachers in Karnataka who are negotiating their ways through child centred educational reforms explores how reforms have to negotiate through the social context in which teachers and classrooms are located. We need more such studies to understand the continuity of our classrooms with history, culture, politics and socio-economic context of the country and the global world.

Why do our teachers teach the way they do? How are our classrooms fundamentally defined by the teacher authority and uncritical transmission of knowledge? Why do our school’s classrooms reproduce inequalities instead of uprooting them? To understand these questions, we need to disconnect our classrooms from its temporality. We may have to inquest into how colonial and nationalist history has shaped the classroom discourse in India. We may have to locate our classrooms in the social system where caste, class and gender inequalities are deeply entrenched, where education is a medium to propagate political ideology and where education is made to follow the rules of the market game. And we may have to comprehend the everyday realities of classrooms beyond time and space and critically reflect on standalone quality interventions in classrooms.


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