The Tsunami We Don't Always See

Our hearts go out to the sufferings of people in Japan. The pictures of the tsunami rushing in and engulfing everything in sight, wreaking havoc – will stay with us. Our sympathies and support should – and will – be available to help our fellow human beings in whatever way we can.

Our horror – and the desire to do something – would obviously be even more if we saw something similar happening all around us. And in a way something similar is happening all around us, only it is not as dramatic as a physical tsunami, making it a little difficult to be noticed by most people. It is what I would call the tsunami of poor quality of education that is hitting a million schools and tens of millions of children, its impact likely to be visible over the years rather than right now, instantly, in front of our eyes.

The Tsunami Around Us
No this is not alarmist, but an effort to put across a real picture and the urgency with which it needs to be recognized and acted upon. Every day, in hundreds of thousands of locations across the country, children make their way to the school. Around a quarter of them may find their teacher not there. This number alone is staggering, ranging as it would between one and two million teachers. MILLION! And if each teacher has 30 children in his class, you can estimate the number but not really conceive how enormous it is. And it is huge not just in terms of numbers, but for each child who loses a day of learning, and does so for many days every month, it is incalculable.

Had the facilities or the teachers not been available we could have cried over our fate in terms of being an underdeveloped country. But having the infrastructure (over 98% children have a school within a kilometre, and most buildings are not bad) and teachers actually in place (though the number of vacancies is still very large) – it is horrifying to watch or at least it should be, for there doesn't seem to be a sense of horror, or as much of it as would shake the country into action.

However the story doesn't end there. It is when 'teaching' takes place that the impact on children is often at its greatest. Decades ago, the Yashpal Committee's report on The Burden of the School Bag had detailed the 'burden of incomprehension' a majority of children bear. And it is difficult to see if things have changed dramatically, despite changed curricula, textbooks, the use of TLM, evolving assessment patterns, new training programmes… The number of children attending school – and their diversity – too has grown in leaps and bounds, while the approach to handling their needs has remained fairly static. Hence, survey after survey shows that – despite a degree of improvement – we continue to be far from the levels of learning desired (and possible).

But it is when it comes to the process that the greatest deadening effect takes place. Rote memorization, 'explanation' ina language not necessarily understood by children, a disregard for the needs of children who are too poor to be able to attend regularly, (an often active) discrimination in the classroom, are the lot of a majority of our children. If you doubt this, all you have to do is visit any 10 government schools in different locations, especially those away from 'headquarters'.

This is not to say that all government schools are bad and that the 'bad' is restricted to government schools. It is to point out that even if only a third of schools are like the ones described above (and the number is surely more than that), it adds up to literally hundreds of thousands of schools and tens of millions of children – a slow tsunami of poor quality education that is surely wreaking havoc on the potential of our children, our country.

Dealing With It
So after all this panic, what do we do?
As in any disaster, stay calm! First recognize that there is a problem and accept that something must be done about it.

Second, realize that you are the right person to do something about it. Anyone is, everyone is. Every small action counts. Even if you smile at a child, say an encouraging word to a teacher, raise this issue with friends, relatives and colleagues, you are doing something.

Third, if you are willing to be more proactive or are already active, please do look at the urgency of the situation. Children cannot wait for us to learn or get our act together slowly. We need to quickly:
  • Establish the minimum conditions that must obtain. These are well laid out in the RTE (Right to Education) and its rules. Raise this issue wherever you can, and directly with the school or education authorities.
  • Encourage and support the community and the school management committees (SMCs) drawn from among the community to become more active. You can help in setting them up, in record keeping, in setting the agenda, in follow up, in helping ensure that teachers take them seriously and that they in turn don't take an adversarial position vis-à-vis teachers. You can use your position to ensure that the educational agenda is not hijacked by the money-making or power-gaining agenda.

If you are a Head Teacher, supervisor, CRC-BRC / district level teacher educator or officer:
  • Model the kind of behaviour you want from teachers
  • Share practical steps they can take in their classes, especially in terms of activity-based teaching (see the many entries in this blog for support)
  • Encourage teachers to be innovative, support them. If they ask questions, don't be dismissive (pass on the questions here if you can answer them!)

If you are a planner / policy-maker / decision- maker, please start by not dismissing what you have just read here. It is real, and it is happening – and it's on a gargantuan scale. On any given day, the number of children who are in school and not learning is more than the population of many countries – and it is a shame. What kind of performance standards can you set in place? What kind of outcomes can you insist on? How can you prepare the institutions and the system to deliver this, monitor them effectively and enable an ongoing improvement? Once again, the many entries in this blog would be helpful – and you could always share issues you would like others to provide suggestions / inputs on.

As surely as Japan will recover from the huge earthquake and the devastating tsunami, we can deal with this too. But first we have to see it as an emergency and address it. With all our might.
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