Myth # 2 – All children must attend school every day
If you’re from a poor family, there’s a lot more to life than just attending school! Siblings and domestic animals have to be cared for, parents have to be helped, essentials such as water or firewood have to be fetched, birds and animals kept away from the farm, you may need to migrate with your parents…. It’s not necessary that all this is a waste – in fact, despite the shadow child labour, a lot of this is also learning for life.  Children who are in a position to attend daily too might learn a lot if they spent a day or two every week doing things other than school – such as tending to gardens, pursuing a passion, trying to earn something by putting their learning to use, solving a neigbhourhood problem, helping their siblings and parents, making things…. Or helping their underprivileged classmates so that they can spend more time in school.

The kind of focused (and therefore limited) scholastic learning our ‘advanced’ children end up doing has resulted in several luminaries pointing out that (even from institutions such as the IITs) our graduates are ‘unemployable’. One might add they haven’t developed many other aspects of their personality – including civic consciousness.

However, what this requirement of daily attendance does is to marginalize great numbers of children, since the teaching-learning process tends to be sequential (rather than re-iterative). If you miss out an earlier part, you can’t ‘keep up with the class’ and slowly head for being left out or pushed out or dropping out. Effectively, the school is saying: if you are poor and cannot attend regularly (as the we require), you shall not learn. Instead of: attend when you can, we’ll find a way to support you and make sure you learn (which is what the business of the school really is).

There are a few walk-in centres in the country (though of course only for poor and/or working children) and some of them do manage to attract and keep children for a long time even though there is no compulsion to attend. That kind of flexibility is perhaps too much to hope for in the school system. Enabling the school to be more responsive to children’s real living situations, though – that’s both possible and desirable. It needs a spiraling rather than linear flow, a variety and range of materials, and providing children engaging activities in many of which they will work on their own, and the use of a tracking system to keep record of progress. This gels with every provision of the RTE, with expectations put forward in our National Curriculum Framework, and much that contemporary understanding of pedagogy tells us. However, to make it happen what we need is not methods and materials but a way to get rid of this myth and the fear that everything will fall apart if the school seeks to respond (by adapting to children’s needs) rather than coerce (by making children adjust to its needs).
Myth # 3 – There is one form of knowledge and it belongs to the ‘educated classes’
What do they know – after all, they’re only poor people. And real knowledge is that which is written in books and taught in universities, which of course they don’t have access to, isn’t it?

By now I’m sure you’re well aware of the vast variety and depth of knowledges that non-literate people bring – only it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and is sentenced to remain marginalized and often die out.  By not respecting the knowledge heritage the vast majority of our students bring, we certainly deprive them of the one strength that can be used to learn ‘school’ knowledge – but we also lose out on the great contribution the diverse community knowledge heritage could make to the country. (I’ve written on this elsewhere in this blog hence not elaborating it further.)
Myth # 4 – Students learn mainly by listening to the teacher.
Listening is seriously valued – you must listen to your elders, pay attention to your teachers… as if major wisdom is dangling on their lips and will be lost if not caught by the ears that very instant. Now that you can not only look up information but actually hear lectures on all conceivable topics on the internet, this is one notion that is already past its sell-by date. In fact, it should never even have been available in the ‘sell’ category. Ultimately, it is what we reflect on, try out, adapt and work into our own understanding that emerges as learning, something the ‘constructivist’ thrust of the current NCF keeps emphasizing. By continuing to practice ‘listening-to-teacher-explaining’ as the core pedagogy, we ensure our students don’t get around to learning in the manner and at the level they are capable of.

One reason why this continues to prevail is due to the notion that teacher must ‘control’ the class – and the class can be controlled only if the teacher has something to offer that can be held back at will – namely, explanation-giving talk. By treating themselves as the ‘source’ of learning, adults in general, and teachers in particular, manage to hold themselves in a position of power vis-à-vis children, choosing what and when to offer – and emaciate children (mentally). All this talk of ‘developing our human resource’ and the ‘demographic dividend’ will bear fruit only if adults seriously make an effort to give up this kind of ‘power’.

In many ways, therefore, this myth is a bigger blockage than you might anticipate, since it operates to defeat the purpose of our efforts after we have succeeded in bringing the teacher and the student into school for a duration that is long enough to enable learning. This is the hole in the bucket, or one big explanation of the continuing low levels of learning across the board.

Unfortunately, it is proving really difficult to deal with. Despite the enormous amount of resources and effort spent on teacher development, practice continues to revert to the listening mode. Part of the reason may be cultural - after all the concept of the guru 'giving' his knowledge to the disciple orally is three thousand years old, runs in our blood and makes it difficult for us to believe that teaching can be anything else. 

One of the ways to address this might therefore be societally - it is only when parents, communities, society itself start expecting teachers to something different that it might happen...
Myth # 5 – Teachers can improve by following instructions given to them by their seniors
This is an extension of the previous myth, except it operates between officials/supervisors  and teachers. The notion is that the teacher is merely a cog in the wheel, lower down in the hierarchy, and the best way to get him to improve is to make him comply with instructions from above.  Apart from the fact that the instructions from above often tend to be problematic, it is also true that many of them don’t get implemented at all. At best, teachers can be made to comply with rules such as coming on time, or turning in a certain amount of work – but they can’t be made to like children, or smile at them, or feel like coming to work every day and radiating this enthusiasm to students and colleagues. That is only possible if the system seeks a partnership with teachers, treats them as fellow stakeholders and engages with them on a more equal footing.

As the experience of RTE shows, instructions, rules and even laws that make lack of compliance justiciable – are insufficient to bring about the required change. They are simply the wrong instrument for the purpose. (I’ve written about coercive and generative power elsewhere.)

 So what is the way in which teachers change?

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