Notes from India: #2

Classroom in the Kalpakkam Model School in Tamil Nadu, India
Classroom in the Kalpakkam Model School in Tamil Nadu, India

I was invited to a conference in Chennai to learn about the results of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012. Various educators, activists and writers were invited to share their perspectives on the current state of the Tamil Nadu education system.

ASER is an annual educational assessment conducted throughout India to test the basic literacy and arithmetic skills of children aged between 6-14 years who live in rural areas. It compiles information on the percentage of children who attend schools and, if so, whether they attend government-run or private schools. Lastly, it researches the quality of the schools’ infrastructure and schools’ compliance with the Right to Education Norms (RTE).

The methodology used to attain results is relatively simple and as a result those who conduct the testing are not required to have expertise in the area of surveying and statistical findings. 811 villages were visited in the Tamil Nadu state and the results procured conveyed a dismal state of affairs across the state. The first test involves having every child read and comprehend a one-paragraph story written in the respective regional language. Only 43.4% of children in the 1st standard (6 years old) could recognise letters from the Tamil alphabet and only 43.6% of children in the 2nd standard (8 years old) could read simple Tamil words. Worse still, literacy rates do not seem to proportionately improve with seniority, as only 29.9% of the 5th standard children (11 years old) can read a story that is used in a 2nd standard class.

After reporting the statistical findings to the audience, the invited speakers expressed their thoughts regarding the stagnant condition of the literacy and arithmetic results. Firstly, government officials are unwilling to accept the responsibility of repairing the flaws of education sector. True enough, there were no representatives from the government to provide an explanation for the lack of progress in the education sector. Secondly, various problems associated with the manner in which the survey was conducted were noted, as indicated by the absence of evaluating teachers. After this brief diagnosis, larger problems were noted as follows: the need for life-skills education in the curriculum, the disparity between government and private schools, an urgent need to involve village council members into school management affairs so as to mend the urban-rural/state government-rural grassroots gap. Clearly, the common thread running through these matters is the widespread incompetence that has been continuously demonstrated by the Tamil Nadu government. As much as the speakers’ perspectives enabled a clearer understanding of the prevailing problems, it is not clear when and how these issues are to be solved. Most importantly it is not clear who is to initiate this process of radical education change.

I left the event with an understanding of the failures and the reasons behind the Tamil Nadu government’s inability to provide a well-functioning educational system. However, I began to question my own agency as a temporary participant in education reform. What effect would the outcome of my time at the Kalpakkam model school have on rural education?

To give you an idea of what my work at the Kalpakkam model school entails: the 5th standard students and I gather for an hour to read a Tamil-written storybook together. We actually attempt a close-reading of the text by scanning the lines. There are plenty of concepts nested within the sentences and it is an utter joy to be able to extract them through the perspective of the children.

The point of these discussions is to mainly expand the boundaries of the traditional classroom environment by opening up dialogue to transport the children to more unfamiliar scenarios that hopefully arouse their curiosity. After an intimate reading session, I gradually stir them away from the textual scenarios to the concrete realities that can they relate to. And after fishing in familiar waters, we together migrate to more abstract waters in hopes of looking out for and understanding the essential ideas expressed in the story. As mentioned in the previous write-up, we do not attempt a complete understanding of all that is mentioned in the text. The intention here is to discover the intricate relationship between a child’s agency and specific societal circumstances that surround him or her. Through this, they can discover how they could be their own shepherds.

By conducting these dialogue sessions, my larger aim is to unravel the concept of ‘facticity’ – or simply facts of one’s life. I was introduced to this idea two autumns ago at ECLA, in Professor Katalin Makkai’s seminar ‘The Gaze,’ when we read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness together. The concept immediately seemed uncanny to me as there was immense potential to witness its translation in the day-to-day life in India. The intuition here is that the facts of one’s life are constrictive to the idea of agency or potentiality. Hence my basic point of enquiry begins here: is ‘facticity’ an existing concept in reality and when contrasted with ‘transcendence’?  How much tension is there between the former and the latter? Furthermore, can an overcoming of ‘facticity’ be enabled?

With this in mind, I thought that conducting these dialogue sessions would provide the students a fresh experience—however puzzling its intentions might seem to them. Of course, there is the problem of deciding what sort of study is essential to a child’s education and how much time and effort should be spent on specific subjects. Which of these options carry more value and result in a more favourable outcome? Will the study of primary subjects, such as English and mathematics, provide a good and comfortable life or will such exploration of ideas enable a child to experience a moment of their own flourishing? I am not sure myself and neither have I grown adept at explaining my intentions or explaining the expected ‘outcomes.’ There was one line that resonated with me when reading Gayatri Spivak’s essay Righting Wrongs: “I have no moral position against grading, or writing recommendation letters. But if you are attempting to train in specifically literary reading, the results are not directly ascertainable by the teaching subject and perhaps not the taught subject either.”

In my experience, the “proof” comes in unexpected ways, from the other side. But the absence of such proof does not necessarily signify that nothing has been learned. This is why I say ‘no guarantees.’ Hence, it seems to me that a space wherein conversations freely occur suffices for the facilitation of the child’s development. My intuition tells me that the process of conversing carries more a favourable outcome and that is the opportunity to flourish.

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