What ails Indian education? A teacher’s experiences

What ails Indian education? A teacher’s experiences

In all the action plans implemented from time to time, bureaucratic control of authorities on teachers continues to steadily increase. Even as all of them claim to deal with the crisis, they reflect a mindset deeply distrustful of the last mile delivery person — the teacher

VrijendraUpdated: Wednesday, November 02, 2022, 03:53 AM IST
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The case of the dysfunctional classroom (Representative Photo) | Wokandapix/Pixabay

It is common knowledge that education at all levels in India has been in crisis for decades. The New Education Policy announced last year is the latest official attempt to deal with this multi-dimensional, complex crisis.  Even as the policy is yet to be fully operational, in my view it is unlikely to even partially solve this crisis. Education, of course, is the central focal point of a modern society because it seeks to answer a few key questions: How do the old nurture the young? How do the young learn about their past? How to transmit skills, knowledge, ideas from one generation to the next and help them earn a living?

Though in contemporary India there are many ways of learning, and online learning is the latest panacea on offer, a teacher remains the central agent of education for a student because in real life, learning is tough. While one may gather large amount of data and superficial knowledge from the world of the internet — provided one has a good, reliable internet connection, a big if for many ordinary Indians and specifically children and the young — deep learning on one’s own is an almost impossible task, except for a few gifted ones.

Unfortunately, in my experience and that of many of my colleagues, when well-meaning recommendations of policies and reports on education are translated into action plans and activities to be carried out by a teacher in a classroom full of students, they often become farcical and/or ineffectual though they have one common and, I think, detrimental feature. In all the action plans implemented from time to time, bureaucratic control of authorities on teachers continues to steadily increase. Even as all of them claim to deal with the crisis, they reflect a mindset deeply distrustful of the last mile delivery person — the teacher.

Therefore, instead of once again commenting on policies and reports on education in India, in the next few columns I plan to look at higher education as practiced in a large number of undergraduate colleges in Mumbai. Admittedly, it will be a partial and localised report. It will deal with only a subset of education that still remains the preserve of the relatively privileged despite its continuously widening reach. Even within colleges, it will only partly capture what happens in a college. And, of course, one must remember that in Mumbai alone, there are hundreds of colleges with varied composition, facilities, resources (or lack of them) and so on.

Let me begin with the focal point of all education — students. After all, there cannot be any education if there are no students willing to learn. And there is the first, almost shocking, jolt that a teacher normally experiences — students unwilling to learn, or the bunking of classes. In many colleges in Mumbai, this has been an acute problem for decades. A very large number of students are keen to get admission into reputed colleges and courses. In any case, larger and larger numbers of students seek admission into colleges, leading to the opening of more and more colleges year after year in the city and affiliated to the University of Mumbai. But then, when classes actually begin, one confronts the dismal reality — many of these students are not to be seen in classes. The problem is further compounded because not only are many of these students not willing to attend regular classes, they are also proud of it. In my time, I heard not only present students but past students, their parents and even a few teachers claim with pride how they went to a college but almost never attended a class or attended only a few! The problem is, If students do not regularly attend classes, then how relevant is the institution and how relevant are teachers?

I am not suggesting that it happens all the time, in all the courses, across colleges, or for all teachers and all subjects. But the practice is so widespread that it is a cause for serious concern and anxiety. It is not the case that college authorities, managements, university officials and government bureaucrats are not aware of the problem. But in almost all cases, their solution has been to simply enforce compulsory attendance and make attendance rules more draconian, then order teachers to implement these rules with the facile assumption that it would solve the problem of bunking and all would be fine. Sadly, in many cases, this policy has led to even more dysfunctional classrooms with unwilling students in attendance, making it difficult for others to learn as well.

On the other hand, if there are no attendance rules at all, in large classes (many classes have up to 150 students each) the composition of students present changes from lecture to lecture with little continuity, as every class becomes a random collection of students with only a few common faces!

This, then, is the first serious symptom of the crisis in education in India, at least in a large number of colleges in Mumbai, and no clear resolution is in sight. And yet, unless we are able to ensure that students who enrol in a college are also willing to learn in that college on a regular basis, education remains an empty offer.

Vrijendra taught in a Mumbai college for more than 30 years, and was a member of Women Development Cell of the University of Mumbai for six years. He has been associated with democratic rights groups in the city

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