Is India in a Learning Crisis?

You read it everywhere these days. From the draft National Education Policy to op-eds in national dailies. Everyone seems to be insisting that the country is in a “learning crisis”.

A simple Google search for ‘learning crisis’ yields over 40,000 results –

Google search with text “‘learning crisis’ india” yielding 41,100 results

In this article, I hope to point out that this is a manufactured crisis. Calling it a ‘learning crisis’ puts the onus of learning on the learner. To use an analogy, this is equivalent to blaming a starving child for being physically weak. What it really is is a state of systemic failure causing learning deprivation.

But you won’t see anyone call it that because that disrupts the deliberately established inequity in society. And who would want to break that?

Before we begin, let us establish common ground.

Students learn not as isolated beings, but from interaction with their peers, in mixed ability groups, actively involved in thinking, discussing, observing, exploring, presenting, and so on. Do our classrooms seem remotely capable of serving as ‘learning spaces’? Even our ostensibly better schools are only teaching rules to be followed, algorithms and answers to be copied and reproduced. 
Prof. Anita Rampal (emphasis added)

What do you think of this quote? Do you find yourself agreeing with it? If yes, great, you and I agree on the general purpose of education in public schools.

If you do not agree with the above quote, that is okay too. We just have to recognise that you and I are coming from different points of view about education. Thus, the point I make in this article may seem unusual to you. Please do leave a comment.

Let us assess this ‘crisis’ from the perspective of the various people involved in it, namely –

  1. The learners
  2. The teachers
  3. The parents
  4. The supervisors
  5. The bureaucrats
  6. The politicians

The learner

Is it the learner’s fault that s/he is unable to understand the teacher’s language? Is it the learner’s fault that the system is designed in an exclusionary manner that disregards his/her own knowledge capital? Is it their fault that they are often segregated into ‘ability-based’ classrooms that slap insulting labels on them that cause lifelong identity crises? Is it their fault that the system is designed only for those students who have no problem coming to school everyday? Is it their fault that the people at school call them casteist and ableist slurs?

The teacher

Is it the teacher’s fault that s/he is overburdened with responsibilities from the administration? Is it their fault that they have to teach students who speak 7 different languages in the same classroom? Is it the teacher’s fault that s/he often spends more days in a “teacher training” workshop than in a school? Is it their fault that s/he finds no appreciation for all the selfless efforts s/he puts in under trying circumstances?

However, this does not absolve the teacher community entirely. There are teachers who choose to spend more time engaging in either personal or administrative tasks and hide behind easily available excuses to save their skin. There are others who became teachers not because they hold an innate desire to teach but because teaching is one of the few well-paying professions with a shockingly low entry barrier. And there are yet others who knowingly perpetuate gender, caste and class inequalities, and engage in ‘un-teacherlike’ behaviour.

There is a middle ground as well where teachers who came in with a desire to do good work got swayed away from the light because of the unforgiving ordeals of the work environment.

The parents

Is it the parents’ fault that they find themselves unable to support their child’s education because they are illiterate or not educated enough? Or that they have to spend several hours a day performing ungrateful labour in order for their family to survive? Is it their fault that they lay their trust in the state and the school to provide a holistic education to their child? Is it their fault that they are unable to provide a congenial learning environment to their child because society is structured against them in a way that ensures that they ‘stay in their place’, no matter how hard they try?

Should the onus of learning be on the learners or the people causing the deprivation? You decide.

The supervisor

Is it the supervisor’s fault that the bureaucrat/administrator up top takes decisions willy-nilly? Is it their fault that they are offered no clarity on their roles and responsibilities? Or are subjected to engage in activities that fall outside their given mandate? Is it their fault that they are expected to do 40 days of work in a single month?

We can’t absolve the supervisor community as easily without acknowledging that a significant percentage of them lack basic understanding of pedagogy and supportive mentoring themselves. In the Hindi heartland of India, one can often hear the term “neta type” (politician type) used to describe certain teachers and most supervisors. The selection process of supervisors isn’t the most transparent and nepotism runs rampant as is customary in India.

The bureaucrat

Is it the bureaucrat’s fault that s/he is often too busy trying to show high quality outputs with poor quality inputs? Is it the bureaucrat’s fault that s/he often tries to show “instant results” using methods that befit a charlatan at best and an idiot at worst? Is it their fault that they often display pathetic project management skills and run dozens of interfering programmes at the same time? Is it their fault that despite all their training and experience, they fail to look at things from the perspective of the supervisor/teacher/learner? Is it their fault that they don’t see teachers as partners and thus lay no trust in them, therefore resorting to surveillance methods to ensure compliance? Is it their fault that they vehemently push silly ‘education technology’ solutions that have been shown to cause no improvement in learning by numerous researchers?

The politician

Is it the politician’s fault that s/he often derails quality interventions by pushing silly money-driven, Brahmanical agenda? Is it the politician’s fault that s/he remains willfully ignorant of expert opinions and research? Is it their fault that they weigh personal anecdotal evidence heavier than everything else? Is it the people’s representative’s fault that s/he doesn’t give a damn about honestly empowering their electorate and instead prefer whitewashing PR stunts?

So. Should the onus of learning be on the learners or the people causing the deprivation? You decide. I think I have made my perspective amply clear.

Further Reading

If you would like to read/watch more on this topic, I recommend the following resources. In order of recommendation –

  1. * [Article] Manufacturing Crisis: The Business of Learning by Prof. Anita Rampal
  2. [Article] Diagnostic Trouble by Prof. Krishan Kumar
  3. [Article] Reforming Education Systems by Yamini Aiyar
  4. [Article] There’s a hole in the data by Kiran Bhatty

* strongly recommend

Keep up with the Pedagoguey!

Check out @pedagoguey on Instagram – that is where I post bite-sized versions of these blog posts, because sometimes reading a tweet thread is all you have the energy for.

You can read all the Pedagoguey blog posts here: pedagoguey.