Right to Education

After reading Alfie Kohn What does it Mean to be Educated? and Jonathon Kozol On Being a Teacher I am all fired up. Must do something, etc etc.

A few weeks ago I was all fired up when my neighbour told me what happened to her son at school. The English Ma’am wrote something on the board. It contained an error, which the boy noted (aloud). The Ma’am reprimanded him and he remained silent.

Considering all the bad grammar I hear routinely, I guess I should not be too surprised at this. But an English teacher? This boy is an avid reader so I am sure he has an ear for correct English, certainly at the grade school level, and apparently more so than that of his teacher. The word in question was the plural of sheep which the boy correctly pointed out, was sheep. Now in this situation, did the teacher

a – acknowledge her error and appreciate the alert student who cared enough to point it out?
b – say, oh, is that so, let me look it up and confirm?
c – say, “Do you know better than your teacher?”

The correct answer: c. No prizes for guessing and no extra credit for realizing that the tone and volume in which it was asked meant that there was only one acceptable answer to that question. The boy said, “No, Ma’am” but later confided to his mother that he had wanted to say, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Is this not a violation of this boy’s right to education? He may be in school, attending class, doing homework, getting marks. But is his right to education respected? When he speaks is he heard with interest, with patience?  When he asks a question, is he encouraged? Answered? Or told not to ask? Even when he responds correctly he risks being silenced. Is honesty something to be read in the Morals class textbook1 or is one encouraged to speak the truth, even when your voice shakes2? What is the role of the teacher? What power did she hold that caused this boy to back down, even though he believed what he said? Grades? Punishment? I doubt he was thinking so far ahead. Being snarked at by the teacher when he was merely making a grammar correction, as he would expect her to do if he made an error, was no doubt disturbing enough that his only aim at that moment would have been to make it stop.

And what about something more consequential than the correct plural of sheep? What about questions of history or science or social studies where there can indeed be multiple approaches and viewpoints, leave alone errors in the textbook or in the teacher’s lecture? We have even faced ambiguity in the grade 1 math textbook! Do students stand a chance at having their voices heard on such matters?  Are students allowed to try out ideas or methods that they may eventually discard, i.e, make mistakes?  And what would we in fact prefer, that they think and develop a viewpoint, compare with others, examine consequences, test against evidence, revise and refine …. or that they repeat the views provided by a textbook author or a teacher? Doing the latter ostensibly requires less effort and yet most children, given the chance, will do the former unless constrained to do the latter, for the sake of the grade and the teacher’s approval. Such constraint, which is the norm in the vast majority of the schools in India, public, private, elite or international, is a stark violation of children’s right to education.

How do we want to read our history lessons? Ahimsa, satyagraha, are these formulae to be memorized for an exam? Or are they living principles?  Can we too speak truth to power? Can we unearth the lies told in our history books, as James Loewen has done for US History? Can we question authority? Are we willing to risk our comforts for our values? Or vice-versa?

Emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing widens the gap between the haves and have-nots, and not only because it renders students passive consumers of pre-fabricated knowledge.  The haves, after all have opportunities outside of school to explore ideas freely. They may converse daily with family and friends and at some point, usually quite early, recognize that school tests are a game they play and but a thin slice of the wide arc of learning that beckons.  Even if they have little time outside of school,  whatever original observations or experiments they make are duly recognized and valued.  In our neighbourhood the children have buried various objects, planted seeds, made up imaginary games and plays – when children in poorer communities do such things they may get reprimanded for “wasting time.”   In our neighbourhood when parents  come to drag their kids home from the playground, they do so wistfully, and often try to compensate for it during other times.  Even this modicum of awareness of the value of free play is denied to many children.

Standards are not confined to “the basics” of reading, writing and arithmetic but extend to social and economic values, which are increasingly dictated by corporate interests, either through direct intervention in school programming, or through emphasis on ranking and testing. Alfie Kohn talks about this: .

In India, where test-based teaching is unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon, even corporations are making fashionable noises against “rote learning.” They are not against standardized tests, mind you, they just believe they can get better results on those tests through hip means such as independent, innovative and critical thinking.

from The Unschool Bus

I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers ….

Thanks to The Unschool Bus  for this apt illustration.

The press drums along with them without questioning the goals of education, appropriately shocked (shocked!) that children can’t keep their Gandhis straight or give liberal minded answers to questions on rights of women and immigrants. See The Hindu, 12 Dec 2011, “Learning by rote prevalent in top schools too.”  In the entire article neither the top-ness of these schools or the validity of the tests are called into question.  Nor are we invited to wonder why the children have “wrong” answers.  For the record I would be open to hearing about how the “shape of a square object would change if it is tilted,” as nearly half the sampled children apparently opined.

If the powers that be in the classroom are not answerable to the students, if the questioning goes only one way, and answers are determined by the questioner, then it is inevitable that the those who succeed in this path would need to keep it that way.

But do students, parents or teachers really believe that it should be that way? I don’t think so. We also believe that education and literacy enable us to go to the source, to look for evidence, to take it apart and see how it works and how it doesn’t, and even make our own models and theories and stories.  Insofar as everyone gains these abilities, no one can cheat another, and therefore we can, together, build a more just society.

Serious change is required for education and literacy to achieve their potential to act as tools of empowerment. Today we see them promoting conformity and consumerism and widening inequality. Right to Education, however, must not only mean right to be admitted in a school and consume the information and ideas dictated, and speak only on command, but right to express ideas, ask questions and actually learn without fear. On not need to be in school to exercise these rights, but certainly no school should infringe upon them. Outside of school, children do ask questions, question the answers, and even question the questions.  Right to education must include the right to make mistakes, not only the right to be right.   Unfortunately in school, the vast majority of students get little time or space to ask or even answer questions in their own words, or ponder questions tangential to what the teacher or test-book has asked.  Their role is to reproduce the answers provided to them. Children who step outside of this expected role will typically be punished by a bad mark, humiliation or even physical punishment. There is no grievance redressal mechanism for children whose right to education is violated in this way.

to be continued…

[1] In the closing scene of Bangaru Papa, Sekhar, regretting his inability to stand by his principles when his family prohibits him from marrying Papa on grounds of her caste and class, says his high status demands that moral values remain confined to the textbook.  See from 6:34 in this .
[2] Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn is noted for saying, “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.”

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1 Comment

  1. 17 August 2012 at 2:17 am

    […] In fact, I would argue that for the most part that the current regular schools do not offer relevant service for children who are passionate about learning, who are eager not merely to answer the question but also to question the answer, and even question the question. I have observed in case after case that young children do all of these things quite persistently but the behavior is systematically ironed out of them till they can sit as passive receivers of the standard curriculum and efficient writers of standardized tests. That is a tragic denial of Right to Education, as I have written here: Right to Education. […]


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