Teachers must encourage students to disagree

This Teachers Day is special, because the Union MHRD Ministry has for the fist time expressed that teachers’ education is of supreme importance and makes for an important part of school education reforms. MHRD will start one of the biggest teacher education programs designed to train 11.09 lakh untrained teachers by March 2019. Out of these 11.09 lakh teachers, there are 6 lakh teachers from government schools and 5 lakh from private schools.

My question is, will only skill training be sufficient? What are we doing about the motivation and attitude of the teachers? How teachers feel about teaching is more important than the skills they acquire. How are we going to change the mindsets of teachers?

Most of us are familiar with the statement “Don’t talk back, do what you are told” right from our childhood all the way to our adult lives. We have heard it innumerable times from our parents, our elders, definitely from our school teachers, our college professors and then many a times from our employers.

We have built authoritarian hierarchical societies where unquestioned and sometimes unthinking acceptance of ideas is a virtue. An important part of Indian culture is an expectation of “display of respect” from those who are younger or are considered socially inferior, for instance daughters, wives, students, employees, subordinates and anybody who appears to be less powerful. And this display of respect is often by just doing what is being told without questioning. Obedience and subservience is seen as respect. Disagreeing is seen as disrespectful.

In schools, children are not encouraged to question either data or their teachers. Teachers become uncomfortable when students, particularly adolescents, begin to show their identity and their independence. All effort is taken to suppress their rebellious and free spirited questions and behavior. The challenge that most educational institutions face, is how to bring in a sense of discipline without creating fear. And it is only the evolved and committed teachers that are able to crack this problem.

I believe that we need to understand the difference between courtesy and respect. We also need to understand the difference between respect and reverence. While we may respect someone, we don’t necessarily have to revere him and put him on a pedestal. Teachers should earn the respect of their students but they can at no time demand reverence. Children, however, need to be taught to be courteous to everyone. They also need to be taught to respect knowledge which is most often associated with age but not necessarily so. Children should be guided to be discerning and allowed to make choices. In addition, teachers must also learn to respect their students. Students respond to love and respect more heartily than any rulebook.

Recently I was talking to a class of 16–17 year olds and all they wanted their teachers to do, was to “listen” to them. They said that the teachers are so preoccupied in teaching them, that they have forgotten to listen to them. And most importantly they did not want teachers to interpret their questioning as disrespect or violation of authority.

Most teachers have been brought up in the culture of “ Don’t talk back”. It requires Herculean effort to reverse the way they have been brought up and understand that things are changing too fast in today’s world. The old adage of “children should be seen and not heard” does not apply anymore. If children are not allowed to express themselves and find solutions independently, then we are not preparing them for the world they will grow into. All this is tearing at the seams of the pedagogy that is still being used in most schools. Rote learning results in a single perspective and hence a single answer. In rote learning there is no space for semi correct, utterly incorrect or partially incorrect answers. So the teacher too does not need to think and life therefore is easy for the teacher.

Then why are a few educators like myself crying ourselves hoarse to change the way schools are run and how teachers should think or teach? The answer is simple.

As a society, we expect our schools to be places where new ideas emerge.

We expect our schools to nurture our best creative minds and to develop new avenues for the progress of society.

Our schools should be places where we do critical thinking, evaluate ideas, find new ways of relating with each other and hone the skills that will help us progress as a nation. That is why we have high expectations for the values our schools should embody. That is why we invest our hope in creating good schools — schools that will help our children achieve their aspirations without fear. That is why good schools are crucial for nation building.

Have you ever wondered why is it that during Indian elections our political leaders, many of them who haven’t been to college themselves, just give speeches or “bhashans” and are never open for debate? Why is that in India a political leader will never have a debate or discourse face to face with his opponent but will speak about him behind his back? Why do they think that they are above questioning? It all goes back to our “Don’t talk back” culture.

Today, India is at a point of inflection. Much is changing around the world and in our country. But first, much has to change inside our schools. And only teachers can do it.

This Teachers Day let us agree to allow our children to disagree and “talk back”.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Shukla Bose’s story.