Student Centred Breakdown

Travelling and spending time with family means a few weeks away from social media.

This is a moving guest post by Clive for my series on learning in different contexts.  It first appeared at his blog, Clive Sir, a month ago and he agreed to let me post it whenever I liked. As I’m still away from home and not writing posts, it seems like a good time to share it…

I had a chat with someone the other day, talking about teaching styles. It brought back memories of my time in India, circumstances when my student-centric approach broke down.

We had a lad I shall call Aneesh. About ten years old, he was the son of one of the traders down on the beach. The NGO I was working for had encouraged his parents to send Aneesh to school rather than have him work in their shop. For parents it’s never a case of simply finding a public school to take their children. They have often missed so much schooling that the kids fail the admissions tests. Families are then, usually, left to their own devices to seek private education. In families where little importance is attached to education, where the cost of books is significant, and where the child brings in some income, they mostly don’t bother.  My organisation had its own school and provided books, transport, food and clothing, totally free of charge. It paid parents a small fee to compensate for lost income and the children received a small allowance for each day attended, as an incentive. The idea was that they would be brought up to speed over a year or so. The organisation would then fight to get them placed in mainstream publicly-funded school, while continuing to support them by covering all incidental costs. The parents would justify it in terms of doing the organisation a favour: by supplying their children in return for some money the NGO could continue to exist.

Aneesh was a real character. Highly popular with his fellow students, he was always making them laugh. Somehow, miraculously, the organisation got him immediately placed in a local English-medium public school. Maybe because he bluffed his way in or for some other reason, whatever, he got in.

The policy was that all such kids would come back to us for tuition after the school day. Being one of our “tuition kids” had several advantages: we would get to hear how they were doing at school and what they were struggling with, so we could then focus on the weak areas. Coming from poor families, these children were frequently bullied; by giving them the opportunity to talk about it we could try to do something to help, even if it was only to take them back into our day-time school. Finally, home environments were often not conducive to studying or doing homework, maybe because there was no table or space or light, but sometimes because of abusive family members; a few hours in afternoon tuition meant the children got some necessary support.

Anyway, Aneesh struggled badly in all subjects and eventually I was assigned to help him. Language wasn’t a barrier – he and I could communicate quite effectively because his spoken English was good, most likely a result of speaking with tourists in his shop. I concentrated on maths and computing with him and I quickly discovered that he was only surviving because he was copying his neighbours’ work. His friends didn’t mind because he was amusing, always acting the buffoon and mucking about but, in the strict, Victorian-disciplined day school he now found himself, he was no longer getting away with it.

After a week he told me that he was really worried about an imminent computing exam. I had a look at his text-book – it was essentially a learn-by-rote work-book, typical of the way many Indian kids learn.  It was pretty dreadful, expecting kids to simply repeat unexplained words and phrases. I could do better. With only a few days till the exam I decided that the most effective way to get him to grasp the concepts was to work one to one, discussing and explaining the things to be covered, and trying to encourage questioning, thinking and understanding. He actually seemed to improve so I thought he’d stand a chance of doing reasonably well.

Aneesh sat it and got his marks back almost immediately. He was very weepy when he showed them to me. What stared out from the sheet, in big, red letters, was “3/25″. Worse, the teacher had written down the page:

“V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V. Bad.”

I didn’t count them – I was too dismayed. There were probably more. I guess that gives you an idea of the quality of teaching some Indian children encounter.  Teachers are not all like that, of course, but the existence of even one is one too many. Pure punishment. Where were the gentle words of encouragement?

After I had calmed down I thought about it some more. What I hadn’t realised was that firstly, in all likelihood, the teacher didn’t understand his subject. He was lazy and was playing safe by following the work-book to the letter. Secondly, the exam followed exactly the same format: words had to be memorised and quoted verbatim. There was no leeway and any understanding was incidental. It didn’t matter what “input” meant, it just mattered that that was the word to be fitted into the blank.

I blame myself. I should have known. I hadn’t made the connection. If I had spent time getting Annesh to repeat and regurgitate the words then he would have passed the test. Educationally a meaningless test, but that was lost on Aneesh and he was the one who mattered.

My recommendation was that Aneesh should be taken out of that school and brought back to us. He was just too weak and had way too much ground to make up. Management didn’t see it like that, driven by the belief that the public school was an opportunity not to be wasted. Perhaps he was better in other subjects but I doubt it. I questioned my ability to help any of the Tuition Kids because I saw no value in working like that. Aneesh was taken away from me and given to a more conventional teacher. They persisted for a few months until after I left India. I heard through the grapevine that he eventually returned to the NGO’s school where he would have received the nurturing he so needed.

7 thoughts on “Student Centred Breakdown

  1. A ver sad story and a wake-up call, I suppose, that, although one person can make a difference sometimes it’s the structure that can hinder or even block that difference happening. It certainly is a dilemma for those operating in societies where rote learning and standardised testing are all-important, regardless of whether learning actually happens.


  2. It is sad, and it is a dilemma. But it is a reality for the majority of children in learning situation in the world. I teach in Mexico, and I watch how my colleagues teach at all levels, from kindergarten to post-graduate, and I see much more of the same kind of student-centered breakdown. Traditional transmissive means of teaching are much the norm.

    How do I know? I have taught at all levels and have worked as a language advisor, doing needs assessment in many schools, in rural and urban areas in my region. I have been active in the local MEXTESOL and watch what happens in workshops and conferences. And finally, I see the results from those 10% who finally make it to the public university.

    I see at least 150 students per semester, and 95% of them have never written a creative story, read a blog (knowingly), used Web 2.0 tools in their classrooms, or been allowed to make mistakes without penalization. As an EFL teacher, I question, how esle do you learn if not through mistaking?

    Look at any cluster map; where do you see the blog hits of Edna’s readers? In the ‘haves’ countries, for the most part. There are enclaves here and there of future-thinkers who center education on the learning instead of on the teaching, but they are not many. The rest of the world, which is among the most populated, is becoming increasingly farther left behind as we literates surge into future possibilities.

    The information gap grows as students like Aneesh struggle to learn basic literacy and computing skills. People like Clive make a difference as they go into areas and share ideas from ‘outside’, creating students’ ability to question and critically think, although it may be only one at a time.

    Thank you Clive for sharing your experience, and thank you Edna for having Clive post. I hope that all of us may touch our learners so their world will be more cohesive and comprehendible.

    I apologize for my rant,
    Ellen in Mexico.


  3. A heartbreaking story, Clive, and what is worse is that it is not the exception.

    Although Ellen above has solid arguments for presenting the increasing gap between countries like India and say, the U.S., I do think blaming the system is always too comfortable. Because the system is made by people, and people can change it. In this instance I recall a saying, “No snowflake feels responsible in an avalanche”.

    Also, I don’t think the lack of tools (information, digital tools) is the key to fixing the situation although it is part of it. Education is more than having iPads or PCs in the entire school. It is so much more than that. And it is more connected to community and its values than we like to admit.


    1. One morething to think about about reading the responses:
      Would you call it cultural inertia, or would that be an ethnocentric term?

      Check out Hofstede’s cultural dimensions at to more clearly understand the differences in culture and why the technology gap is an unrealistic measure, except to those of us working in cultures which are not our own and find ourselves banging our heads against the wall more often than not.


  4. Many, many thanks for taking the time to comment, Pam, Elaine, Ellen and Christina. I guess you know how great it feels to have made a real connection!

    I am hopeful for Aneesh’s future now – he is in the right place for him. But what is sad is as Cristina says: he is far from the exception. This is the reality for many, many children.

    I like the concept of having a “global family”. I feel we have an individual and collective responsibility to help everyone in our global family – to at least not shy away from learning the reality of its members, and to do something, no matter how small, if we can. With sensitivity, of course.

    I know exactly what Ellen means when she says that 95% of her students have never written a creative story. It is quite shocking – quite incredible – but it’s true. I remember trying to get students to invent a story and illustrate it with Powerpoint. They had enthusiastically mastered Powerpoint but could barely write a story in their own language. They could copy one from a book but they couldn’t imagine one into existence. On the other hand, they could certainly express themselves in dance and singing, loved and acted out scenes from Bollywood, Tollywood and Malayalam film cultures. And it was quite staggering how the older children had embraced mobile phone technology – sharing and borrowing phones if they couldn’t afford their own – I really don’t know how they did it, and they were only at best “feature phones”, but nevertheless they were connecting and reaching out…

    Strangely, I was actually optimistic for the future of children like Aneesh or perhaps, more realistically, his children. Yes, it does seem to take a long time to make the slightest impression, generations probably, but I felt it wasn’t an impossibility. For one thing, I feel that technology is opening up opportunities in both directions. India is becoming a powerhouse in this respect and there is everywhere a real sense of community… ergo benefits get shared, communications level playing fields. For example, near where I was, not long after I left, volunteers started coming from the local Technopark to help the children from the poorest of communities.

    Imagine how we, in the arguably over-developed world, got from where we were 100 or 200 years ago to where we are now. OK, we are FAR, FAR from perfect!!! but maybe lessons can be learned from our experiences. A bit like developing countries not being hampered by legacy communications infrastructures (as we were) when they grow their mobile phone networks… they can make leapfrog advances. It’s a possibility and my belief is that education is key.

    Yes, as Cristina implies, there is huge inertia in the culture. We talk about investing especially in girls as being the most effective investment because girls are more likely to invest in their children. I think that’s true, but girls are also held back considerably by their own mothers and grandmothers (in my very limited experience) – the investment has to re-educate in that direction too, and that’s a tough one to crack. But probably not impossible.

    Anyway, although it maybe doesn’t come over in what I wrote above, I don’t think all is doom and gloom if you look at it long-term. However, in the here and now, there are desperate hardships but we shouldn’t be overwhelmed and shrink away from them. You, in education, should be proud in what you already do – every day you are tackling issues, sharing and empowering members of the global family, and doing that has far-reaching ripples…

    Ok, that’s _my_ rant over for today! Damn – I could have got a whole new blog post out of that reply!


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