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Diversity deprived education
By Sudhirendar Sharma

As the entire education system has remained urban centric and is now becoming globalised with textbooks heavily borrowing from the western ideas and terms, the majority of children in a vast and diverse civilisation like India do not feel any relationship with the content, leading to alienation of majority.

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Most rural students find difficulty in understanding concepts and symbols used in
modern textbooks

In the last 60 years, beginning 1950-51, enrolment of children at the primary school stage has shown an incredible increase, from 19.2 million to 130.8 million. Cumulative enrolment, including upper primary level, tripled in past five years - recording a high of 192 million enrolments in 2009. As a consequence, number of out-of-school children declined by a factor of three to 8.1 million during the same period. This is only half of an evolving story!

The other half of the story is equally impressive. A significant portion of increase in enrolment has been from the historically marginalised and excluded sections of the society, reports a Unicef study based on disaggregated data from NSSO. The study further observed that large number of children between the age 6-14 years, who can read and write, either belonged to scheduled caste families (58 per cent) or represented other backward castes (72 per cent).

But the flip side of the otherwise impressive story is that the drop-out rates too, despite some improvement, remain very high among children from marginalised and excluded communities. Grossly unrelated to the quality of incentives, including mid-day meals, drop out among children from diverse backgrounds has much to do with the quality of teaching and the contents of the syllabi and textbooks being offered at the elementary level.

If one goes by the contents of the school textbooks, country’s multicultural traditions and future are inadequately reflected in it. ‘The contents of textbooks reflect and reinforce most of the negative values, which result in the exclusion or at best only ambiguous inclusion of substantial proportion of children in the school system,’ argues Prof T K Oomen, distinguished educationist and emeritus professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Infrastructural facilities are undoubtedly important but to address the issues and concerns of quality education and students retention, there is a need to focus attention on the nature and quality of teaching-learning practices and processes.

The Education Commission’s (1964-66) observation that ‘the future of India is shaped in her class rooms’ remains ephemeral as the mainstream policy debates centres around provisions of basic infrastructural facilities in schools. Infrastructural facilities are undoubtedly important but to address the issues and concerns of quality education and students retention, there is a need to focus attention on the nature and quality of teaching-learning practices and processes.

Offering a prescriptive diagnosis, a recently released report on ‘Inclusive Classroom, Social Inclusion/Exclusion and Diversity’ addresses many such compelling concerns but misses out on quite a few. If any, the report restricts its diagnosis to government schools only. However, it does toss up various myths and stereo-type beliefs about children that are widely prevalent among teachers and school administrators in private schools too.

One such belief is that children are children after all … they are the same. This belief ignores the fact that children come to school not only with their own individual identities and experiences, but also with a consciousness and identity formed while growing up as members of collectives. Another belief that leads to stereotyping is that children’s ability to learn is determined by heredity rather than by what happens in the classroom.

Language of instruction does contribute to cultural monism. The irony is that despite the Indian constitution espouses the need for education until the age of 14 in child’s mother tongue only, majority of mother tongues spoken in the country have yet to be recognised by the same Constitution.

Such beliefs spring from cultural monism perpetuated through one syllabus for the entire country in the name of globalisation (or Americanisation?) is being internalized by most of the textbook writers in the country. As a consequence, the need to nurture cultural pluralism as an instrument fostering core values such as equality, liberty, fraternity, dignity, identity and harmony between humanity and nature without endangering cultural diversity and compromising on cultural pluralism takes a backseat.

Language of instruction does contribute to cultural monism. The irony is that despite the Indian constitution espouses the need for education until the age of 14 in child’s mother tongue only, majority of mother tongues spoken in the country have yet to be recognised by the same Constitution. No surprise, therefore, of nearly 100 languages in the country only 22 have been officially recognized.

Multiple identities of a child get adversely amplified as an alien medium of instructions alienates the child from the socio-cultural milieu of the classroom; the caste structure impinges significantly on child’s self esteem and the economic stratification makes the child suffer most on account of subjugation in the classroom. Unless the changing social composition of children in the classroom is recognised, drop-out rates are unlikely to change.

Innovative experiments in developing inclusive classrooms have been piloted; however, most continue to remain exceptions that have not been able to tilt the predominant picture on primary education in the country. There are few pioneering initiative wherein plurality and marginality have been simultaneously addressed.

Though such experiments have not been replicated, these do emphasize the need to carefully analyze not only the neglected dimensions, such as curriculum and medium of instruction, but also over-analyzed dimensions such as caste and economic status in order to understand the nature and causes of social exclusion in the classroom. It goes without saying that there is a need for greater focus on diversity issues in teacher training and education curriculum.

Will overt commercialisation of education at all levels acknowledge diversity and inclusion as a guiding principle? When the focus is on job-oriented education at higher level, will inclusive classrooms at primary level carry any weight? But for a country to prepare its children for the unknown challenges ahead, the agenda of inclusive classrooms alone can make ‘total literacy’ an achievable target where each child, irrespective of his/her socio-economic strata and place of upbringing, gets treated at par.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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 Other Articles in Human Development
Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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