“Learning is an activity of thought. It is not stuffing the mind with facts.”
— University Education Commission,1948-49
Teaching, learning, flipped classrooms, smart classrooms, online classes, blended or hybrid teaching, or concepts like learning management. A host of new-fangled technological and management terms are being bandied about as solutions to deal with the disruption in the education system caused by the Covid pandemic. One idea, however, is missing from the suggestions that are being floated. This is on how to cultivate the powers of independent and critical thinking.
Though the pandemic has claimed many lives, it has presented us with an opportunity to reshape several areas of human endeavour, including education, particularly in this direction. Many eminent educationists have identified building the capacity to undertake independent enquiry through observation, listening, exploring and experimenting as one of the primary aims of liberal education. Sadly, this aspect remains largely neglected and the pandemic disruption can be used as an opportunity to reset the system. Digital solutions, after all, can at best provide emergency responses, not ultimate answers.
The task is by no means easy, as there is an in-built bias against independent thinking in our much-lauded joint family systems. In most homes, unquestioning obedience to the heads of the families is the accepted norm. So, the decision-making is left to them, regardless of whether they possess the wisdom or capacity to do so. This promotes the safe maxim of ‘follow the leader’, and brings relief from the strenuous exercise of ‘thinking things out’ and, at the same time, avoids taking the blame for blunders.
When schools, colleges and universities were shut following the lockdown in March last year, delivering a jolt to the education system, the authorities were at a loss. The Internet appeared to be fitted to provide an immediate solution. For their part, tech giants jumped at the opportunity to expand their operations, as social distancing shut out in-person scenarios. But even they were not fully equipped to deal with the sudden onslaught of demand for online use, as work-from-home and teach-and-learn-from-home became the norm. On the one hand, existing software proved unequal to the task. And, on the other, students and parents realised that online was no substitute for the conventional in-person classes.
However, despite being grossly inadequate, the only response so far has come from the tech sector. Other elements of the education system are still to make any credible moves except to make technology solutions an integral part of the system. This should not come as a surprise since those suggesting the solutions are themselves enamoured of the superiority of technical education. Rote learning, mass examinations and guide books have dominated the system for a century-and-a-half, ever since the British rulers half-heartedly introduced the western style of education.
The new universities became degree-awarding institutions, and the degrees virtually guaranteed jobs. Learning soon lost its myriad shades of meaning, as private schools mushroomed to coach people for the ‘entrance exams’ of the university-affiliated colleges. Education came to be identified with memorising and regurgitating in the answer books. There were isolated examples that tried to buck the trend. But it is difficult to dislodge a system that has been entrenched for so long. The commercialisation of education had begun. That the “liberal course of education”, which was pompously inaugurated, miserably failed to achieve its objective is evident from the low literacy rates that still prevailed well over a hundred years later, when India became independent. Isolated efforts were made to improve the standard and quality of education by men like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. But their impact was limited.
In 1947, India faced many daunting tasks like removing poverty and ignorance. Industrial development would create jobs to deliver the country from the clutches of poverty. Technical expertise was lacking. So, the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, helped to set up the first technical institutions of excellence – the IITs and the IIMs to create a much-needed pool of scientific, technological and managerial manpower. At the same time, the founding fathers realised the urgent need to overhaul the education system – both at the school and university levels – in order to build a self-confident democratic India.
Two commissions were, therefore, set up for this purpose. These were the University Education Commission (1948) under former President and philosophy scholar S. Radhakrishnan, and the Secondary Education Commission (1952) headed by Lakshamanswamy Mudaliar, vice chancellor of Madras University. The voluminous reports of the two commissions remain the most exhaustive study of the state of education and its historical evolution. They include recommendations for a radical overhaul to meet the requirements of the new nation. The analyses could be studied with profit by contemporary educationists and planners. While the University Grants Commission (UGC) was set up in 1953, a number of policies have been periodically issued since 1968 (the latest being NPE 2020) to set standards for higher and school education, respectively. It took many decades to recognise that although success was achieved in spreading the network of schools, the students remained uninterested in education, resulting in high dropout rates. The recognition was triggered by the call for Education For All (EFA) in 1990 by several United Nations bodies in conjunction with the World Bank.
The reports of the two commissions in 1948 and 1952 remain the most exhaustive studies on the state of education. They felt the need for radical overhaul
Prof. Yash Pal, former UGC chairman, was asked in 1993 to look into the matter, and his simple recommendation (Learning Without Burden) was to reduce the size and weight of the schoolbag. He suggested that teaching should focus on concepts rather than textbooks. But it was not until 2005 that a National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2005) was set up (again under Yash Pal) to build on the findings of 1993. Providing deep insights into the flaws of the education system, NCF 2005 did not mince words in pointing out that it had become a burden and source of stress for students and parents.
What was to blame was the effort to teach everything. “The impulse to teach everything arises from the lack of faith in the children’s own creative instincts and their capacity to construct knowledge out of their own experience,” said the NCF report. Encyclopaedic textbooks are guided by the popular belief that there has been an “explosion of knowledge” and so vast amounts of it should be rammed down the throats of children in order to catch up with other countries. The key, said Yash Pal, was to distinguish between knowledge and information, as “teaching is not coaching for memorisation or transmission of facts”.
Decades ago, Prof. Yash Pal advocated learning without burden. He argued for a reduction in the size and weight of schoolbags. He wanted the focus to be on concepts, and not textbooks Software replaces human bias by error-free technology. It substitutes subjectivity with objectivity. But it renders teachers and students powerless. Their relationship is uniform
Along the way, constructing knowledge had been tossed out the window, and replaced by knowledge production and education management. And, of course, these two are supported by the total dependence on technology that has received a further boost during the pandemic. So, what happens to the communities that are built in classrooms as students attend classes from home in isolation from their teachers and classmates?
It might be worthwhile to quote Yash Pal on this aspect. “Learning takes place within a web of social relationships as teachers and pupils interact both formally and informally. Schools are institutional spaces for communities of learners, including both students and teachers. Play and scuffle with one’s friends on the school grounds, free time to sit on the benches and chat with one’s friends during breaks, gathering together for morning assembly…. In the school, studies carried out in the classrooms, anxious turning of pages before a class test and trips made with one’s classmates and teachers outside the school – all these activities are bringing the community together giving it the character of learning community.” Children, Yash Pal rightly said, perceive their world through multiple senses and this is accompanied by the blackboard and the book.
Several evolved teachers admit that learning and education depends on real-time interventions, peer-to-peer learning, and community knowledge. This is especially true for school students, and those who are in the primary and secondary stages. In physical classrooms, it is not just what the teacher says that’s important. A gesture, a turn of the eye, raised eyebrows can communicate a lot to the children. Similarly, children can learn from each other, and in real time, as spot decisions are taken instantly. In online classes, as attention is atomised and divided, these aspects vanish.
But the present crop of senior education administrators appear to put more faith in computer technology, artificial intelligence, learning management systems (LMS), and the new species of classrooms known as flipped classrooms. These, according to them, will prove to be the new foundations of the education system. There may (or may not) be teacher-mediated learning but the main channel of delivery, of course, is the Internet.
They are certain that computer software is quite capable of measuring the “amount” of learning that has taken place, and even accurately recommend courses of study for students based on past record and skills. In this system, ‘human bias’ is replaced by ‘error-free’ computers, and the physical community is replaced by a virtual one. So, there is no place for the play of the tactile senses, or the sense of smell, both of which play an exceedingly important part in exploring the world. As subjectivity is substituted by objectivity in learning, evaluation, and intervention, and as the rational overwhelms the emotions, education, say the new proponents, improves.
Computer systems used in education render both the teacher and student powerless. In addition, the teacher-student relationship becomes uniform and universal. The software is the classic example of one-size-fits-all. What is often lost sight of is that this objective digital system is not fool-proof, as has been demonstrated by the developments in other areas such as increasing numbers of online banking frauds, and hacking and spying. But the educationists are convinced that the digital will provide the elixir for the system. This is based on the experiences that the software companies have in supplying such systems to the corporate sector. What is implied is that education is to be treated on a par with commercial activities driven by profits, rather than the desire to gain knowledge.
While research and study are required to evolve newer systems that incorporate online technologies into the supplements for the education system, the main thrust of education has to be the creation of a thinking citizenry. Of course, their futures as employees of corporations are important. But that does not mean that their ‘present’ has to be sacrificed. A thinking student will become an excellent employee. But someone who is trained only to become a corporate citizen may lose out in real life.
The writer has been a media professional for 38 years. He was the former HoD of the Amity School of Communication, Amity University.