The results of an educational tour undertaken to Finland to “fix” Delhi government schools are eagerly awaited. Many teachers have known that the measures being adopted here to “fix” them were not in line with what some of the best countries have done to achieve quality and equality.
Teachers here are being placed under control and surveillance, with CCTVs and biometric attendance. Even the little autonomy the best of them had to transact the curriculum within their classrooms is deeply eroded. Functioning under an arbitrary regime of a barrage of ad hoc circulars, they are forced to test their students and even segregate them into high and low “ability” sections named pratibha and nishtha, with differentiated syllabi, textbooks and even exams. Teachers said students even cried and pleaded with them not to put them in the “other” section. In Class IX the third section is of “failures”, euphemistically called vishwas. The Pragati textbook teachers have been forced to use for the “low ability” section is a farce, they say, especially after the thought-provoking NCERT books they have taught from. As one experienced teacher of social science posts on a blog: “I will not compromise with my expectations from my pupils, or from my understanding of education, and teach from these Pragati books. If children are not able to read well they certainly understand complex ideas, even ideas about freedom and rights; narratives from history are meant to help develop their thinking, not be limited to reading and answering drill questions from these one-page ‘lessons’.”
Ironically, sincere experienced teachers feel threatened to publicly voice their concerns and compelled to write anonymously; some of them are singled out and even reported to the higher authorities when they ask questions during workshops. Even eminent academics who might question the efficacy of these measures are
blatantly attacked and even called disparagingly ‘armchair experts’ or ‘perceived educationists’ (whatever that means). So much for a democratic and transparent system that most of Delhi had eagerly voted for.
Do these steps reflect the principles and practices Finland followed to improve its schools? Will making the curriculum “less challenging” and exams “easier” for the poorest children, in segregated sections improve quality? The half-page Pragati lessons, made under the guidance of Pratham, are indeed a shame, doling out completely unconnected information, followed by questions to reproduce the same. For example, it says “when the earth comes close to the sun in its elliptical orbit it gets hot and we have summer — twice in a year it comes close to the sun.”
So we should have two summers and winters in a year?
Some of the other steps taken are as questionable. Delhi first wrote to the Centre to revoke the right of children to learn without fear and detain them after class III. The RTE Act mandates that children must learn “through activities, discovery and exploration” and must be assessed in a continuous and comprehensive manner. Which exams anywhere in the country have assessed their ability to express, explore, create or think?
The tests given in Delhi are more alarming than the “results” they declare for the media. Sample this stereotyped notion of gender — “little girl Salma loved playing with her doll, which broke; she cried a lot till her mother gave her another one, while Ravi is a boy, has many friends, loves to draw but not to sing”. Has anyone noted the RTE bans discrimination based on gender, religion, caste, class, or “ability”?
However, the systemic changes in Finland tell us a very different story. With a focus on achieving equity and social cohesion, they changed their curricula over a sustained period of time, to keep all children in government schools (hardly any private schools there) — learning in mixed ability groups, with no exams in elementary grades. Schools with the poorest children get more teachers and better funding. Separating into academic or vocational tracks is delayed till after they are 16. Without any label or stigma attached, nearly half the children get special support (not “remedial” teaching for the “weak”) by the time they finish elementary school. Students are given freedom and are invested with motivation to learn, which shows in all of them performing at high levels. Teachers are rigorously trained and recruited (the best graduates opt to be teachers), and are given autonomy, trust and respect in the system. We eagerly look forward to some of these Finnish lessons to help improve our schools.