Manufacturing crisis: the business of learning

ANITA RAMPAL

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A decade back, many of us had begun working on the National Curriculum Framework (NCERT, 2005), the primary syllabi and textbooks, with a new focus on understanding young learners, their contexts, aspirations and agency and how they make meaning and construct knowledge, in vastly disparate environments. Bringing together diverse grounded experiences with children, groups of academics, educationists, teachers and artists had departed from the conventional ‘transmission’ approach, where syllabi ‘topics’ are meant to be ‘delivered’ by the system and ‘received’ by students, to promote learning through a pedagogy of empathy.1

The same year the EFA Global Monitoring Report had dwelt on the theme of quality of learning and strongly warned that the contrary discourse on ‘efficiency’, of ‘inputs-outcomes’, and the application of production function analysis to education is ‘hazardous’ and diverts attention from classroom practices that have the strongest association with learning and achievement.

Acknowledging the agency of learners and the nature of the environment that motivates their participation in the process of learning, it elaborated that the production function computed by economists for, say, a fence, describes the maximum output (the fence) that may be obtained using different combinations of the inputs – e.g. nails, tools, some planks of wood and some days of labour. ‘But the main difficulty with representing education as a production process is that some of its inputs and all of its outcomes are embodied in pupils, who have their own autonomous behaviour. Planks of wood cannot decide that they do not want to be assembled, avoid coming to the construction site or refuse to interact with construction workers.’2

 

Significantly, in the decade that followed, there has been a dramatic shift towards an economist dominated discourse on education. Planks not pupils are now being sought to be managed, sorted and segregated early, based on their perceived ‘ability’ to contribute to the global economy of ‘knowledge’ or ‘skills’, while showcasing or shaming different nations and governments, in a global race to measure productivity. Ironically, international agencies such as UNESCO or UNICEF, with a humanist mandate for children’s rights and equitable education, have been marginalized and outfinanced. Education policy is assertively governed through the ‘soft political power’3 of organizations such as OECD supported by funding conglomerates, international banks and large corporates.

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) by OECD, promoting global competitive free market policies, has played a major role in creating ‘PISA shocks’, crisis and alarm, where countries have been coerced into impulsively changing curricula to suit its demands. Ironically, the OECD advice given to Finland was completely contrary to what the country had diligently done to improve learning environments and the performance of all its students, rendering it a PISA winner; similarly Norway was advised that its schools could perform ‘better’ by cutting high spending, closing smaller schools, increasing class size, introducing more testing, publicly declaring test results at school (and teacher) level, and tying teacher payments to students’ results.4

The economic priority of OECD’s global ‘learning’ agenda is clear from its claims ‘to evaluate the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems in some 70 countries that, together, make up nine-tenths of the world economy.’5 However, countries showing the highest ranks in international tests in scientific and mathematical literacy are worried because their high scores correlate with pupils showing greatest disinterest in those subjects.

 

An Open Letter to the Director OECD written by leading academics across the world in 2014, called for a stop to PISA, which ‘by emphasizing a narrow range of measurable aspects of education... takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives... thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about.’6 ‘OECD has entered into alliances with multinational for-profit companies, which stand to gain financially from any deficits – real or perceived – unearthed by Pisa.’ Incidentally, a close partner is Pearson, which declared itself as ‘the world’s leading learning company’ that won the tender to develop the 2018 PISA Framework.7 It is also the owner of the Financial Times, The Economist, Allyn & Bacon, and Prentice Hall, and the largest company involved in testing students and teachers, with related publications and education programmes, operating in more than 80 countries.

The Open Letter went on to state that, ‘most importantly: the new Pisa regime... harms our children and impoverishes our classrooms, as it inevitably involves more and longer batteries of multiple-choice testing, more scripted "vendor"-made lessons, and less autonomy for teachers... These developments are in overt conflict with widely accepted principles of good educational and democratic practice.’8

 

Despite these explicit warnings, OECD has enlarged its business model, with a new test for developing countries, and the Indian government has announced it is entering the fray. There seems to have been little ‘learning’ from India’s last misadventure in 2009, when despite MHRD having declined, the World Bank promoted two of our educationally high provisioning states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, into the test. The result was predictable: the media went hysterical, its panellists from Pratham, J-PAL and allied organizations dwelt on the imminent crisis of India coming second last to Kyrgyzstan.

A cursory glance at the test items in science or mathematics would show that teaching even in our well resourced schools does not happen in a manner where students (or their teachers) learn to think through such open-ended questions. My Masters’ students have regularly analysed PISA items and compared those to our class 10 board examinations, to reflect on how our secondary syllabi, teaching-learning classroom processes, textbooks and assessments have indeed a long way to go before we can begin to consider subjecting students to such challenging and high stakes testing.

 

This global manufacture of a learning crisis has several layers of interests, from consultancies, business enterprises for teaching, tuitions and testing, use of information and communication technologies, increasingly for surveillance and monitoring of teaching and learning. Interestingly, while it involves extending financial loans and aid to poor and poorly performing governments for public education, at the same time it exhorts global corporate players to step into the billion dollar industry of ‘low cost private schools’ for the poor.

The concern for a majority of our children getting poor quality education, even when the country was doing well economically, had galvanized the struggle for The Right to Education (RTE) Act 2010. It was meant to ensure equitably resourced classrooms (with qualified and enabled teachers, libraries, materials for experiments, etc.) for all our pupils at the elementary level, to participate in the learning process with confidence, through exploration, discussion and discovery, building a good foundation for subsequent secondary schooling. However, organizations advocating for more testing within the input-output model have continuously attacked the RTE, claiming that learning levels have declined since its implementation.

This, however, is questionable, as also shown by a recent study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.9 Levels had been falling before 2010 and though arrested in some states after the RTE, did not significantly improve as often happens when enrolments go up sharply while the system fails to make provision for adequate teachers, good classrooms and learning resources. More significantly, the legal authority for the RTE, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, has recently noted that the continuous and comprehensive assessment of the learning of each child as had been mandated by the RTE, to track their progress all year round, was conducted in a completely flawed manner by the Central Board of Secondary Education, which also had no locus standi to be doing it for elementary schools. Lack of proper implementation of the RTE, thus actually breached children’s fundamental right to participate in school, learn through nurturing learning environments, and be assessed through an authentic pattern of tracking and supporting their development.

 

The RTE Act (for children in classes 1-8) has two separate sections – 16, which says ‘no child shall be held back or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education’; and 30(1), which says ‘no child shall be required to pass any board exam till completion of elementary education’. The RTE rightly differentiates between a school examination and a centralized board examination – the first needs to be close to the learning context, rooted in the child’s culture, language and environment. The board examination, on the other hand, is set at a distance by people who may be far removed from the social context of the child and also may not know what teaching-learning has happened in the school. Moreover, board exams are generally competitive and, therefore, lead to more stress even among high performing students.

Learning theories and researches show that students (even at higher levels) perform best in a non-competitive, non-threatening assessment or examination environment. As soon as there are high stakes involved, or in a ‘selection’ where large numbers compete for a few seats or positions, the performance of even the best drops.

 

Examination and curricular reforms in Kerala (initiated during the District Primary Education Programme) had shown that in districts where question papers were set by teachers in school clusters through creative discussion, and each item was considered a ‘learning activity’ conducted in a non-threatening manner, children’s performance across a wide range of abilities was much better than in districts following a conventional pattern.10 However, even after the RTE, school exams have remained regressive, focusing on rote memory and narrow skills of information recall, with no attempt to promote critical thinking, original expression, innovation or creativity. Detaining students based on such examinations is in itself questionable.

The official MHRD note accompanying the RTE had stated the rationale for Section 16 as: ‘The "no detention" provision is made because examinations are often used for eliminating children who obtain poor marks. Once declared "fail", children either repeat grade or leave the school altogether. Compelling a child to repeat a class is demotivating and discouraging. Repeating a class does not give the child any special resources to deal with the same syllabus requirements for yet another year.’

It went on to assert that each child has the same potential for learning; a ‘slow’ learner or a ‘failed’ child is not because of any inherent drawback in the child, but most often reflects the inadequacy of the learning environment and the delivery system to help the child realize his/her potential, meaning thereby that the failure is of the system, rather than of the child. This requires addressing the improvement of the quality of the system rather than punishing the child through detention. There is no study or research that suggests that the quality of learning of the child improves if the child is failed. In fact, more often than not, the child abandons school/learning altogether.

 

The most disadvantaged first learners, who are neglected, taunted and labelled as ‘slow’, from whom teachers have least expectations, and whose knowledge and ‘lifeworlds’ do not normally get reflected in the school curriculum, are those who are most vulnerable to be detained, and pushed out. Research tells us that ‘motivation’ and self-esteem is crucial for learning, and teachers who are ‘warm demanders’, challenging and nurturing students, manage to get all children to learn well, though at different paces. Giving them time and support is crucial, while acknowledging what they know and can do well. Stigmatizing and detaining only lowers the self-image and further demotivates them.

Students learn not as isolated beings (certainly not staring at blackboards, if those exist, or textbooks if they have any) but from interaction with their peers, in mixed ability groups, actively involved in thinking, discussing, observing, exploring, presenting, and so on. Do our classrooms seem remotely capable of serving as ‘learning spaces’? Even our ostensibly better schools are only teaching rules to be followed, algorithms and answers to be copied and reproduced.

More worryingly, the Delhi government has gone a step further in using the learning crisis to discriminate and segregate children from class 1 onwards, into separate sections on the basis of their so called ‘ability’. It uses differentiated syllabi and tests for children assigned labels such as ‘pratibha’ (talent) or ‘nishthha’ (commitment). It has also called for revoking the RTE to begin detaining them from class 3; while a Central Advisory Board Committee has recommended that ‘skill’ based vocational education should be offered as early as class 3! Promoting the business of surveillance, the Delhi government allocated over a thousand crore just for CCTVs and, playing on parents’ fears, is enticing them into the ‘technological fix’ of live streaming on their phones, thus not only shifting some responsibility onto them for ensuring the safety of their own children, but also completely invading the pedagogical space of the classroom.

 

The alarming state of ‘biocontrol’ today involves not just monitoring teaching and learning through cameras and live streaming, but also more invasively through digital tracking devices on pupils’ bodies (including electrodes and straps to scan the brain, eyes or skin activity), or even implants inside them, through enormous corporate funding. In 2012 the Gates Foundation in the U.S. had given 1.1 million dollars to a university for the use of ‘Galvanic’ skin bracelets, strapped onto children in classrooms. This research grant was part of the Gates Foundation’s ‘Measuring Effective Teachers Project’, on using biometric technology to monitor emotional and cognitive response to specific stimuli, in order to measure children’s engagement while learning.11

In fact, millions of dollars had already been spent on evaluating teachers’ quality of teaching, through standardized tests, questionable video-taping of their lessons, with contested results. Protests had raised questions about the efficacy and ethical dimensions of this research, especially when hundreds of American schools had been facing essential shortages, including funds for teachers’ salaries or the school electricity bills. Students and teachers alike had found such snooping devices repugnant and there were parodies on how they would raise their ratings on the ‘learning’ bracelet by getting children’s pulses or neurons racing.

 

Children sense these injustices done to them. They have all along wondered why they face discrimination or controls in schools, private or government, Hindi or English medium, in sections for ‘slow’ or ‘talented’ learners, for the rich or poor… Pupils’ voices (translated from Hindi) in the following discussion clearly show how motivation and agency, determined to a large extent by the ethos of school, play an important role in either their autonomous decision to participate in learning or to give up. They invoke a commonsensical understanding of quality and social justice and the potential of a good learning environment, to declare that if there is discrimination even in schools then what is the point of going there. These are pupils, not planks, speaking, feeling, acting, demanding respect, their right to learn and ‘together help each other move ahead’:12

Pupil 1: Now see, this is a government school, and not one child of a doctor or engineer studies here! (continues emphatically) When the child of a doctor and the child of a junk collector come to the same school, they study and play together and get to understand each other better. They will learn useful things from each other’s lives and become friends. Then there should be no problem. Yes, at first it may take some time, but if teachers take care these children can become friends soon enough.

Pupil 2: But ma’am here things happen in just the opposite way. I mean, if a child is very poor the teachers themselves make fun of him. See this poor chap (pointing to Babloo), how they all deal with him! Not one teacher talks to him properly. They even make him sit separately saying, ‘You are in any case not going to understand anything’.

Babloo: (in a muted, sad voice, almost struggling to speak) Ma’am, even poor children want to study, want to move ahead and become someone. They may not have the facilities but they are very hard working. They need just a little love and encouragement.

Pupil 1: ... if teachers were to explain well then all children will learn to love each other more, and will together help each other move ahead. In our class all teachers talk so lovingly with Monu, they also increase his marks in the exams because he is from a slightly better off home. But they all behave very rudely with our Babloo. This poor fellow was telling us once that his mummy is always ill; his papa gets work only on some days, not on most days. He eats roti (traditional bread) sometimes only with salt, or with an onion. And then madam talks to him like this: ‘Your mummy and papa do not take care of you. You land up in school as a "chooda" (an abusive word implying a dirty sweeper).’

 

Footnotes:

1. A. Rampal and H. Mander, ‘Lessons on Food and Hunger: Pedagogy of Empathy for Democracy’, Economic and Political Weekly 48(28), 13 July 2013, pp. 50-57.

2. UNESCO, Education for All: The Quality Imperative. EFA Global Monitoring Report. Paris, 2005.

3. H.D. Meyer and A. Benavot (eds.), PISA, Power and Policy: The Emergence of Global Educational Governance. Symposium Books, Oxford, 2013.

4. S. Sjøberg, ‘OECD, PISA and Globalisation: The Influence of the International Assessment Regime’, in C.H. Tienken and C.A. Mullen (eds.), Education Policy Perils: Tackling the Tough Issues. Routledge, New York, 2016.

5. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices (Vol. IV). OECD Publications, Paris, 2010, p. 3.

6. The Guardian, 6 May 2014. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/06/oecd-pisa-tests-damaging-education-academics

7. Pearson, Pearson to Develop PISA 2018 Student Assessment 21st Century Frameworks for OECD (press release), 2014. Retrieved from www.prweb.com/releases/2014/12/prweb12386913.htm

8. The Guardian, 2014, op. cit.

9. S. Roy Choudhury, ‘Criticism of No-Fail Policy in Schools has Little Empirical Evidence, Says IIM Study’, The Scroll, 24 January 2018, accessed from https://scroll.in/article/865987/opposition-to-no-fail-policy-in-schools-is-not-based-on-empirical-evidence-says-iim-study

10. A. Rampal, Curriculum Change for Quality Education: A Study of DPEP and Non-DPEP Schools. UNICEF monograph, 2000.

11. A. Rampal, ‘By Making Parents Classroom Snoops, Delhi Government is Undermining Teachers Not Helping Students’, The Scroll, 25 January 2018. Accessed from https://scroll.in/article/865871/by-making-parents-classroom-snoops-delhi-government-is- undermining-teachers-not-helping-students

12. A. Rampal, ‘Students’ Views on Equity and Justice in India’s Schools’, in C. Day (ed.), The Routledge International Handbook of Teacher and School Development. Routledge, New York, 2012, pp. 243-253.

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