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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Which Bird is Closer to Home?

Which Bird is Nearer to Home?

Children, please open your Math-Magic Books and turn to page 6.

Now which bird is nearer to home? 

Child points to brown bird.

Why?

Shows with finger the path from the bird to the tree.    Both bird and tree are slightly in the background.  The bird has a slightly lost expression, but seems to be headed towards the tree.

Showing the lavender bird, “What about this one?”

Child points to the brick house and says, “that is not the bird’s home.”   This bird is headed straight for the neatly thatched roof of the brick house.

* * * * *

Above is what actually happened one day, years ago, when I brought out the Math-magic book and looked it over with my daughter.  I could have gone on to show that even if we were talking trees, the lavender bird is also closer to the trees.   But that would have just been contrived, as if I was trying to get the answer expected by the book.   And it is not even entirely clear that the lavender bird is closer to the tree in the background – even if on paper the linear distance is less, the perspective in the drawing suggests that one tree is further from the viewer than the other.  Same with the birds.  Which tree is home to which bird?  We don’t know.  The drawing does not give us this information.  In retrospect, it also seems likely that in judging “close to home” she looked not only at the scalar distance, but also at the direction in which the bird was travelling.   It may be near the tree, but if it is flying towards the mud house, then it is closer to home than another bird which is actually flying towards the tree?

What is clear (to the experienced worksheet user) is that the textbook intends for us to recognize the thatched-roof house as the “home” and is asking which bird is closer to that structure.  The “right” bird is aiming for that roof with a bright expression.  The “wrong” bird” looks lost and far away.  At least these are the clues that must have indicated to me which bird we were expected to circle.  I did not take into account the depth in the drawing nor ask where the bird made its home.  Only because our answers differed did I examine my thoughts at all – had she circled the lavender bird, I suppose we would have forged ahead to Tick (✓) the Cat Farther from the Tree.

Since I asked why, rather than moving to “correct” her, I learned something about perspective – in drawing and in our relationship with nature.

Tick the Cat Farther from the Tree

Tick the Cat Farther from the Tree

Images from Math-Magic Class 1 NCERT Textbook, page 6. Accessed online.

What curriculum are you using?

What curriculum are you using?

The question of curriculum often gives rise to unnecessary confusion, perhaps because those often called upon the answer the question, rarely have a direct answer like “CBSE,” or “Waldorf,” or “Khan.”  It ends up as “We are a little Waldorfy” or “We mix and match,” or “Life is our curriculum” or “Why put knowledge into boxes and give your kids worksheets when you can give them the world?” This leaves a beatific smile on the face of the one who answered, but a blank and almost apologetic look on the one who asked the (apparently silly) question.

A prevailing misconception among homeschoolers is that there are those who follow curriculum and those who don’t. And those who sometimes kind of do. And that these two directions towards and away from curriculum, worksheets and structured educational activity define a linear spectrum of those on the one hand who follow curriculum and conventional educational goals, called “homeschoolers,” and “unschoolers” on the other, dismissing them in the name of free thinking.

Let me take this opportunity to step up to the soapbox and say that this is not a meaningful distinction between homeschooling and unschooling. Learning without textbooks and planned lessons will not automatically throw you into the weird wild world of “unschooling” unless you choose to go there. Dissing curriculum (e.g. saying “I don’t use curriculum”) will not automatically make you an unschooler charting brave new paths. Nor will using a worksheet or textbook (or – gasp – bedtime) demote you from the coolness that is unschooling.

When I think of curriculum, I think of currents – roaring ocean currents and also whispering currents as the rain drops through the soil and seeks out other drops through capillary action.  I think of thoughts sailing along rivers and tributaries, or lighting along ever branching out networks in the brain.  I think of roots, rooting deep into the ground, seeking moisture and and drawing nutrients towards themselves.

When we apply fertilizer to a plant, then the roots need not extend as far for us to see results.  The plant grows, the fruit or vegetable gains weight.  Fertilizer can only give a plant the nutrients it contains.  When we nourish the soil, the numerous organisms living in it make not only six or seven micronutrients but hundreds of them and the plant works within that ecosystem.  The fruit or vegetable may gain less weight, but its nutrients come from deep within the soil where the roots have taken time to reach.

Jonathan Kozol writes about a student who was failing tests in school (“The Road to Rome,” in Shame of the Nation, pg . 130.):

He often misses what most others think to be the “main point” of an essay he has read or lecture he has heard, which may be one reason why the comprehension questions on a standardized exam sometimes befuddled him. Instead, he often tends to fasten on a piece of what he’s read or heard that corresponds to something he already cares about and finds his own unusual back-channel to the essence of the work or to the meaning of the man, which leaves him with a sense of intimate association.

Those channels, taking the student from one idea to another, are the student’s own curriculum.  They may lead him to people, places, books, even textbooks, but it is his own inner curriculum that is leading him.  The books may also open up further channels, provoking further paths of inquiry.

Of this approach to learning, that I am calling the inner curriculum, Jonathan Kozol writes,

One result of this, I think, is that his memories of these encounters with a person, or a passage of prose writing, or a poem, linger in his mind …

This inner curriculum is so strong that even if one must go through a program dictated by others, it will still find ways to express itself, just as a river finds its way around a dam or grass still grows through paved roads, and the memories of meaningful encounters linger.  This is the curriculum that you are already using, and will always use.  If you are at the same time following a Standardized Curriculum from a Board of Education, your inner guide will help you latch on to what nourishes you and it will also help you to forget what is useless and keep the mind free to learn, discover and rediscover.