Inquiry for an Excellent Education
This June, 19 children died of malnutrition in a tribal village in Odisha.
45% of the children in the village were malnourished. Giving these children food was not enough; the doctors had to admit 20% of the children in intensive care to save them. This happened in Jajpur, the district I hail from.
The village is close to the rapidly developing Kalinga Nagar industrial corridor of the state poised to emerge as the Steel hub of the country with Tata, Jindal and many others already operational in the site. The condition of a government school in another mineral-rich district in the state is worth telling – 4 teachers for 8 grades and 2 of them lack adequate teacher qualification. The state which has annual revenue surplus in excess of Rs.5000 crores also has more than 1 lakh teacher’s posts lying vacant. Poverty and prosperity are neighbors here. Any outsider would find this bonhomie disturbing, irrational, and inexplicable. But for the people of Odisha this is business as usual. We have remarkable tolerance.
Rather than punishing the authority for its misdemeanor we let it go unquestioned. In 2013, the Shah Commission reported the state lost Rs. 60,000 Crore to illegal mining carried out under political patronage. The very next year the ruling party was elected to power for its fourth consecutive term by the people of Odisha. The malady of deference to authority is not peculiar to the people of Odisha. In the list of cultural deference to authority for 120 countries India lies at the 77th place, 3 places above China. People are brutally crushed when they raise their voices against the authority. In 2006, 13 Adivasis were killed in police firing in the same Kalinga Nagar while protesting against the construction of a steel plant by Tata.
I joined the Teach For India Fellowship with the firm belief that the solution to the malady lies in academics.
The existing curriculum and textbooks were of little use. So I turned to inquiry. But due to various constraints which included my incomplete understanding of what inquiry-oriented education is, I wasn’t able to pursue my inclination in a productive way. I participated in the web-course “Inquiry and Integration in Education” (IIE-2015) conducted by ThinQ during my second year of fellowship which opened my eyes to actual rigor in the classroom.
I decided to stay back in the classroom and delve deeper into the inquiry-oriented education. So, I started working with ThinQ as part of my third-year fellowship. The experiences over the past month have made me further question the curriculum and textbooks and the role they play in ensuring the absence of critical thinking in our classrooms.
I was in an 8th grade classroom last month where the teacher was teaching physical versus chemical change in science. She listed down the difference between physical change and chemical change as follows:
|Physical Change||Chemical Change|
|No new substances are formed||New substances are formed|
|Appearance Change||Appearance Change, Energy given off/absorbed|
|Properties of end product are similar to the original ones||Properties of end product are different from the original ones|
|e.g melting of ice, tearing paper||e.g. burning paper, rusting of iron|
I sat with a group of children and questioned them about the definitions.
Me: Is melting of ice a physical change or a chemical change?
Children: Physical change
Me: Why is it a physical change?
Children: Because in melting of ice ‘no new substances are formed’ and the process is ‘reversible’.
Me: Isn’t ice a different substance than water.
Me: If I ask you to bring me some ice would they bring me some water.
Me: So are they different substances?
Me: Is the appearance and property of ice different from water
Children: Yes. They are different.
Me: So why do you say it is a physical change?
Children: No it is a chemical change.
Physical and chemical change is not an intuitive concept for the children. Unsure of the correct answer the children were trying to figure out the correct response acceptable for the teacher rather than engaging with the question at hand. In the course of learning about physical and chemical change the children were in fact learning not to question incorrect definitions; to blindly accept the authority of the textbook and the teacher. I brought this to the notice of the teacher and she was discomforted by it. As I discussed this with her and other teachers in the school I went back to the larger questions I am struggling with –
- Do we ask whether the textbook is correct or just blindly accept its authority?
- Do we ask, “What is the usefulness of the contents of the textbooks for our children?”
- Do we ask, “What are the skills our children are gaining by learning the facts in the textbooks?”
I am aware of the dilemma as a teacher. We have to make sure that the children do well in the examinations and for that they have to know the ins and outs of the textbook. We also feel a moral obligation to explain each concept including the erroneous ones in detail to students.
We have gone through the same education and examination system; it has become difficult to question our own indoctrination.
But we must ask the questions for the sake of our children. They find the text and concepts meaningless and incomprehensible yet they accept it without thinking. Moreover as the child progresses through school, the divide between his life and the classroom becomes so wide that he thinks academics has no use in real life. Barring a few children who learn quickly what the textbooks ask of them, most children get alienated; they concentrate on different passions i.e. sports, arts and so on, whichever he finds meaningful. Others develop a fear of learning. For most people there remains no connection between things they learn in book and the life they go on to lead. Krishna Kumar rightly says-
“When the educated Indian is most himself, in the expression of his deepest emotion, and in the domestic or communal enjoyment of his leisure, he shows the least trace of what our schools and colleges have given him.”
As children grow they go on to do in life what school and college have taught him.
A child taught to accept the authority of textbooks, in adult life accepts the authority of the government. He has been trained not to question the definitions of solid, physical change; and in adult life he doesn’t question the definitions of nation, nationality, and democracy. The unthinking, unquestioning educated minds are not aberrations; they have been systematically manufactured in classrooms.
During the protests against industrial projects such Kalinga Nagar or POSCO, the discourse among majority of educated city-dwelling people was that people should give up their land for national development. But they didn’t question what nation meant to those Adivasis whose identity was being snatched away from them along with their land.
In ‘Teachers as Transformative Intellectuals’, Henry Giroux suggests that teachers must be reflective practitioners. I am trying to be that through my work with ThinQ where I am involved in developing and piloting inquiry-oriented content. I have read this in the conclusions of so many articles about teachers that it almost sounds clichéd now. But there’s a reason clichés exist — they are discomfortingly useful.
Making children think in a slow, sustained manner is one of the major challenges and it is in exact opposition of today’s societal norm of ‘thinking on one’s feet’. To make children see the importance of thinking, I must take the parents and the teachers through the same journey of inquiry as their children.
For that I must start with myself by engaging critically with the content I am teaching and reflecting on my role as a teacher.
In the following months with the help of Fellows, I plan to pilot the inquiry-oriented content in multiple Teach For India classrooms to create proof-points for this venture. I would endeavor to create and sustain a community of practice around inquiry within the Teach For India community.
- Nineteen children had to die for the Odisha government to find this village. Retrieved on October 16, 2016 http://scroll.in/pulse/815002/odisha-child-malnutrition-deaths
- What a primary school in Keonjhar tells us about Odisha’s misplaced government spending. Retrieved on October 16, 2016 http://scroll.in/article/758158/what-a-primary-school-in-keonjhar-tells-us-about-odishas-misplaced-government-spending
- Kumar, Krishna (1992), What is worth teaching?
- Giroux, H. (2004). Teachers as Transformative Intellectuals. In A. S. Canestrari & B. A. Marlowe (Eds.), Educational foundations: An anthology of critical readings. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.