Getting children into schools is an important first step. This is where learning starts. But it isn’t very useful if they learn little or nothing once they are there. Somewhat bizarrely the issue of learning is not very prominently positioned in international declarations. The Millenium Development goals do not specify that children should learn anything in schools, just that they should complete a basic cycle of education.
Reading the chapter on education in ‘Poor Economics’ by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, I note that in developing countries, school attendance frequently does not equate with learning, due to factors such as lack of resources, low expectations, class size, inadequate teacher-training and high teacher absenteeism. It seems that millions of kids attend school but don’t necessarily learn even basic literacy skills. I’m glad I read this chapter, since it affects my perspective on what I see on my visit to India.
My first educational encounter in Pune is at a regional government-run school. We wander in off the street and my friend Raj speaks to the guard at the gate in Hindi. After some discussion, we are given permission to go in and see the principal. As we introduce ourselves, we are joined by a couple of teachers who wonder, in Marathi, the local language, if we are part of a contingent of visiting educators, so Raj explains that I am a teacher from Australia and he’s a friend from Chennai. While I don’t understand their conversation, I pick up a bit from the odd English word thrown in and the general tone and gestures.
I am stared at by passing teachers and students alike. They have probably rarely seen anyone who looks like me face-to-face and certainly not in the context of their school. I doubt they ever interact with people from outside their own world.
The principal switches to limited English and explains that the student body comprises children from slums, whose parents are extremely poor and mostly illiterate. He tells us they wouldn’t know what grade their children are in, let alone what they do at school. Due to numbers, schools such as this usually run two shifts and children attend either in the morning or the afternoon.
I am grateful for the opportunity to peek into a few of the classes. The children are exceptionally clean and tidy, immaculately dressed in their school uniforms, the girls with their hair neatly pulled back and braided. In every single room, the teacher stands at the blackboard and talks, while 40-50 children sit in rows facing the front. I’m told the number can be as high as 60-70 in some schools.
We enter a 9th grade class and the students rise to formally greet the principal. He introduces me and they all stare. When I smile and gesture, they wave and grin back. Raj asks in Hindi whether they know anything about Australia and is greeted with silent, blank looks. I wonder if this is the first time they have heard of Australia at all.
Then he mentions the word cricket, and suddenly their hands are up and they are naming some Australian players! It’s interesting how sport helps narrow the huge cultural divide between us.
I’m a teacher and a learner. This kind of humbling learning experience helps me remember that my own reality is just a ‘tiny piece of education’ in the world.