Sunday, February 26, 2017

Four truths about teaching and learning

‘Can you name four things the teaching profession has taught you?’ asked a young teacher in a freewheeling session I had with a small group of school teachers on an orientation programme last week. ‘Why only four?’ I asked perplexed. She flashed a coy grin in response. Just like that, it seemed to suggest; you could talk about two, three or even five. But I decided to stick to four, and spoke about four of the insights I had derived in my three-and-a-half decades of chalkface experience. Considering the lightness of mood, however, I wanted to speak half in earnest half in jest. As it turned out, the earnestness far outweighed the jest.

Teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning
The first insight is: Teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. What I mean is that what our students learn during our classroom teaching is not in proportion to what we teach. In other words, intake, as they say, is not equivalent to input. Teachers are often quick to protest that they are not to blame; a host of factors, they point out, are conspiring against learning. Yes – and no! There are, of course, constraints in any environment, but apportioning the blame is not going to help. Instead, we, teachers, must look for ways of maximizing the intake, which in turn will lead to the maximization of learning.

How can we maximize the intake? Perhaps by increasing the attention span of the learner. This we can achieve by motivating the learner to listen, by making our classroom communication appealing, by introducing variety in the learning experiences we offer, by introducing interactions of different kinds (e.g. learner-text interaction, teacher-learner interaction, learner-learner interaction), and by providing for experiential learning – by relating textbook knowledge to real-life experience. If we can attempt to go further and inspire the learner to go beyond the scope of the lesson, the intake may even exceed the input.

Telling is not teaching
The second insight is: Telling is not teaching. (I have borrowed this catchphrase from Bright and McGregor whose 1970 book, Teaching English as a Second Language, which I read in 1982, begins with this statement.) In other words, teaching doesn’t mean merely providing information or, worse still, explicating the textbook. It calls for methods and techniques. But if the teacher merely – mechanically – adopts expert-developed methods and techniques, they are not likely to work. This may even lead to the teacher complaining that the methods and techniques have failed in his classroom – I have heard this complaint often enough on teacher education programmes. The problem is that most teachers merely adopt expert-developed methods and techniques and find them failing at the chalkface. If, instead, the teacher adapts them, according to his sense of plausibility – according to his perception or judgement of what can work with his learners and what cannot – he will find the methods and techniques working effectively. (“Teachers’ sense of plausibility” is a beautiful idea the well-known ELT scholar, Dr N S Prabhu, whom I regard as a guru, discusses in an insightful article, ‘There Is No Best Method – Why?,’ in TESOL Quarterely, Vol. 24, Number 2, Summer 1990)

To exercise one’s sense of plausibility, one should be capable of some reflection. It may be relevant to briefly mention here what Donald Schon, a philosopher in the American Deweyian pragmatist tradition, has said about reflection in professional practice. In his book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, he talks about two kinds of reflection: reflection in action and reflection on action. Reflection in action refers to the reflection the teacher makes during the course of his teaching, while reflection on action is post-teaching reflection. Teachers do practise the former, which Schon describes as “knowing-in-action.” But they need to go beyond it and reflect on it in order to derive experiential knowledge from the process. More on this subject in a different post.

Teaching has little value for learning unless it provides for learner self-investment
The third insight is: Teaching has little value for learning unless it provides for learner self-investment. When we teach, we normally do so at the level of our learners. And when we test them, we do so at their levels. Do you know what happens as a result? There is no pressure on the learners to rise above their levels. If, on the other hand, the learning experiences we offer in the classroom are neither at the level of the learners, nor far beyond their level (which might frustrate them), but a little above their level, and the teaching challenges and motivates them to bridge this gap, the learners will struggle to bridge the gap. The learning that takes place as a result of this struggle is real learning. And if the struggle calls for the learner making investments of different kinds – intellectual, emotional and ethical – the learning will be even more valuable.

Teaching is performing, and the teacher is a performer
The fourth truth is: Teaching is performing, and the teacher is a performer. When someone gives a performance, what does she actually do? She makes the audience enjoy what she is presenting. In other words, she entertains the audience. The teacher is also an entertainer – both in the superficial sense of engaging his learners, and in a deeper sense. In a deeper sense, a gifted teacher is capable of three kinds of entertainment: he can entertain a new idea, he can entertain other people, and he can entertain himself.

Entertaining a new idea is not so easy; it is often as painful as delivering a baby. ‘The soft-minded man always fears change,’ said Martin Luther King Jr. ‘He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.’ Teachers, in particular, resent new ideas – I’ve noticed this often enough. That is one of the reasons why the education system remains so hopelessly conservative. Teachers by and large don’t look for new ideas, and even when a new idea is imposed from above, they routinize it in their resentment, with the result that the idea gets absorbed in the “tradition” – the name we often use to refer to our bad practices. What happens as a result? Nothing happens! The past continues. The world is changing rapidly and dynamically, but the education system is unable to keep pace with it: it clings to the past, shutting its eyes to the present. If a large number of teachers entertain new ideas and visions, if they are prepared to innovate and experiment in the light of those new ideas and visions, then the system will become dynamic: it will be ever-changing, ever-expanding and vibrant.

A teacher must also know how to entertain himself as a professional. This will help him enjoy the profession. For such a teacher, teaching itself is a chief source of entertainment – so much so that when he comes out of the classroom, he comes out not weary and tired but absolutely relaxed because teaching is a satisfying, refreshing and entertaining experience for him.

I concluded my answer with a catchphrase and stole a glance at the young woman. She was stifling yet another yawn.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Thoughts occasioned by ‘What’s your good name, please?’

The major part of this post was originally written for Quora, the question-and-answer website, to answer a follower’s question whether ‘What’s your good name?’ was acceptable. When I was about to paste here a link to the answer on quora.com (https://www.quora.com/Is-it-correct-to-use-What-is-your-good-name), it struck me that I could add some more perspectives. Hence this blog post.
What didn’t strike me at the time of writing an answer to the Quora question is the fact that “What is your good name, please?’ is the title of a memorable poem written by R Parthasarathy in 1975 – a poem in which Parthasarathy caricatured the syntactical oddities in what can be called bazaar English in India. This reminds me of two other Indian poets who used, in some of their poems, a pidginized variety of English, widely prevalent among not-so-well-educated people in India, in order to produce a humorous effect: Nizzim Ezekiel (e.g. ‘A Very Indian Poem in Indian English,’ ‘Goodbye Party to Miss Pushpa T. S.’ and ‘Soap’), and Joseph Furtado (e.g. ‘Fortune-Teller’ and ‘Lakshmi’), who had mocked, in some of his poems, the English of middle-class Indians long before Parthasarathy and Ezekiel did. But, in my opinion, “good name” in ‘What’s your good name, please?’ doesn’t deserve a pejorative treatment that, perhaps, the pidgin forms parodied in the “bazaar English” poems do. The world has come a long way since Parthasarathy ridiculed the expression in his poem four decades ago.
Though I have often come across ‘What’s your good name?’ in India, especially in the northern part of India, including West Bengal, I have never used it myself. However, “good name,” which is actually a translation of the Hindi “shub naam” makes perfect sense in the Indian cultural context. If an Indian wants to sound deferential while talking to another Indian, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t ask, ‘What’s your good name?’
Indians have little difficulty in adopting western tendencies in their own English, whether they make sense in the Indian cultural context or not. A good example is ‘I’m good’ in response to ‘How are you?’ A typical Indian understands “good” in the sense of the opposite of bad or, to be more precise, morally good in the context of human beings: ‘He’s a good boy.’ But the Americanism, ‘I’m good,’ in the sense of ‘I’m fine’ (which was the typical response till about the 1990s), is now firmly established in Indian English. As a matter of fact, you may not sound trendy if you say ‘I’m fine’! ‘I’m good’ is a la mode.
The disapproval of “good name” in the country of its origin itself has much to do with how English is taught as a second language in India. Grammar and vocabulary teaching in the English classroom in India is almost always guided by British or American norms. English teachers must graduate from the stage of passing an absolute veto on expressions which make perfect sense in the Indian cultural context (though they may not in English-as-a-lingua-franca contexts) to one involving teaching both forms or different forms to help their students communicate in an intelligent way in different English-speaking contexts. This calls for some cultural sensitivity on the part of English teachers.
Some of us, Indians, may frown upon “good name,” but we do sound deferential in various other ways. Why only Indians? Being deferential is an essential part of successful communication in any language, whether one uses a particular tone of voice or words to sound courteous or respectful or submissive. Let me share with you a real-life incident which will help you understand this better.
Sometime ago, a friend of mine, a young woman whose staple intellectual diet is Hollywood movies and American television chat shows, committed a faux pas. She was walking out of an auditorium in Vijayawada, my home town, after watching a cultural programme when she saw in front of her Krishna Rao (name changed), a retired professor of English, whom she had met a couple of times earlier. ‘How are you, Mr Krishna Rao?’ she greeted him in a chirpy voice. The rising intonation fell flat on Krishna Rao's face: what greeted her back was an admonishing look from the professor. ‘I only greeted him. Why did he give me a dirty look?’ the young woman asked me when she met me later.
Krishna Rao answered the question when I met him a few days later: ‘I am used to being addressed in a respectful way – as 'mastraru' or 'sir' or 'Krishna Rao garu'. (Both mastraru and garu are deferential forms of address in Telugu, a South Indian language. Incidentally, I have always addressed Krishna Rao as “mastraru”). But the lady mistered me: she called me 'Mr Krishna Rao'! I couldn't stand that familiarity.’ I would have shocked him if I had told him that the young woman, who is ten years my junior, and I are on first-name terms.
But Krishna Rao is far from being an exception. As likely as not, any other Indian of Krishna Rao's stature would have taken offence at being addressed as "Mr--". We may have taken easily to western social mores, but the old Indian practice of addressing an elderly or a respected person formally (sometimes even in the third person) is too deep-rooted to give in to western modes.
A young friend of mine carries this a bit too far: he addresses me as "your goodself"! Here is a sample: ‘If your goodself comes here at 10 o'clock…’ I won't be surprised even if he says, ‘Your goodself says in your goodself's blog post today …’ This deferential form of the second person is in effect the third person and springs from the belief not only in Indian culture but several others that the singular form ("you"), when used with reference to a respected person, is over-familiar and therefore vulgar. I am so used to this overcourteous form that I wonder whether I will take kindly to the use of the unadorned "you" with reference to me by the same person.

Getting back to ‘What’s your good name?’ Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian writer in English, has captured this practice so beautifully in her novel, The Namesake. In an interview to John Glassie, portions of which were published in The New York Times Magazine, September 2003 (Questions For Jhumpa Lahiri -), she uses the term “good name” several times and even explains that one’s “good name,” as against one’s pet name, is one’s proper name.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tamil identity: A telephone conversation with a jallikattu aficionado


‘Identity,’ he repeated. There was an air of finality in his voice.

The speaker was an old college buddy, a Madras-bred sexagenarian, and the subject of the telephone conversation was the mass movement for jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. I had asked him to explain the phenomenon of almost the whole of Tamil Nadu coming together on the issue of jallikattu. ‘A sense of identity’ was his explanation.

Bull-taming being a mark of Tamil identity! I was amused. ‘Come on, don’t try to bullshit me!’ I protested. ‘Jallikattu is by no means a pan-Tamil-Nadu sport. It’s, in fact, a regional, all-male sporting event, confined to just a few places like Alanganallur, Aavaniapuram and Kandupatti. And a seasonal one at that. If this is a mark of identity, then it doesn’t make sense to me how the gangs of youth fighting for a revocation of the ban on the sport share this identity. Aren’t they, by and large, urban youth unacquainted with country life and pastoral practices, let alone jallikattu?’

I could hear snorting through my BSNL landline followed by a torrent of grunting. Then he bellowed like the Kangayam bull. ‘Listen, the problem with you is that you are a cultural cringe – a philistine, as a matter of fact, lacking in cultural values. It’s a pity that you are a Tamil. Coming to your question, yes, of course, the whole of Tamil Nadu doesn’t take part in jallikattu. So what? Every one of us, true Tamils, Tamils who are truly Tamils at heart, shares the spirit of the sport – the spirit of valour which is the spirit behind jallikattu. In that sense, it’s indeed pan-Tamil. Is that clear?’

‘Not quite,’ I said. I wouldn’t expect the Tamil Dalits, who form over 20% of the population of Tamil Nadu, to share this so-called identity. Let’s face it, the Dalits are not allowed to take part in jallikattu; they can’t even watch it standing with the caste Hindus. They can only stand at a distance – at a place earmarked for them – and watch the game. At the most, they can beat drums – that’s the only kind of participation they are allowed; they just can’t touch the bulls in the jallikattu arena. When the sport is so casteist, when it excludes a huge section of the Tamil population, where is the question of its representing a pan-Tamil identity? I do agree that the sport with all its violence and cruelty to the hapless jallikattu bulls is indeed part of Tamil culture, but the problem is that the Dalits don’t seem to be part of this cultural landscape.’

‘This is cultural ignorance,’ he said. His voice, however, sounded subdued and bovine now. ‘It’s common knowledge that even those who enjoy a popular culture are part of that culture.’

‘Isn’t that a construct rather than reality?’ I persisted.

‘The pan-Tamil identity,’ he started off on a scholarly note ignoring my question, ‘lies in the spirit of valour we all share, irrespective of our caste. This spirit is as old as Sangam literature itself.’

‘But my question…’

‘No true Tamil,’ he continued, raising his voice, ‘will remain uninspired when he reads Kapilar’s description of jallikattu in Kalithogai: எழுந்தது துகள்; ஏற்றனர் மார்பு; கவிழ்ந்தன மருப்பு; கலங்கினர் பலர் (Vaadivasal is thrown open, and the bulls come leaping out with heads down, charging at the tamers. Dust rises, so do the chests of the young tamers, and the spectators scamper out of their way, terror-stricken). Again, கொல்லேற்றுக் கோடஞ்சுவானை மறுமையும் புல்லாளே ஆயமகள் (Valour was valued so high that not even in her next birth would a herdswoman take the hand of a man who dreaded the killer horns of the bull).’

‘Isn’t this glorifying and romanticizing an anachronistic, if not a primitive, practice and misleading young people? Don’t you think we live in a world vastly different from the hyperbolized one presented in imaginative literature of yore? The reality is that even as you are fighting for what you call honour and valour and identity, the Tamil land is experiencing the worst-ever rainfall in 140 years, so much so all the 32 districts have been declared drought-hit and 17 farmers have committed suicide. The reality is that we are living in dishonourable times when the majority of the elected representatives of the Tamil people, who claim to be ready to lay down their lives for honour and valour, are busy prostrating themselves before their political Ammas and Chinnammas. Or, are you saying that Tamil culture is so complex that it also recognizes discretion as the better part of valour?... Hello, are you there?’

He had hung up.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

English medium instruction in municipal schools: A viable proposition?

Often enough, in India, Shakespeare's "whining schoolboy" is in the news – in relation, I must add, to the language in which the Bard wrote about him.  They both – the schoolboy and the English language – are in the news again now. A few months ago, the government of Andhra Pradesh (AP) dropped a demonetization-like bombshell when it announced that, with immediate effect, English would replace Telugu as the medium of instruction (MoI) in the municipal schools in the State. In response to protests by teachers’ unions, however, the government has relented on the issue; yesterday’s papers said that the ‘controversial move’ had been ‘put on hold’ (The Hindu, Vijayawada Edition, 6 January 2016, p. 1).

English-in-schools policies in India
The state governments' English-in-schools policies are interesting.  In some states, English is not at all part of the primary school curriculum.  In some, it is, as in Andhra Pradesh, but is offered only from Class III.  Maharashtra, which had been offering English only from Class VIII, changed its policy at the dawn of the new millennium and introduced English in Class I itself.  The West Bengal government, which had been firmly against a place for English in the primary school for more than two decades, changed its policy in the year 2000 and introduced English in Class III, following the Tamil Nadu example.  Later, it dispensed with the policy altogether and introduced it in Class I itself.

The obsession with English in AP
But, this post is about English as the MoI in the government-run schools in Andhra Pradesh. During the past ten years so, irrespective of the party in power, the government of AP has been keen on introducing English as the MoI in all schools. In 2008, six years before the State was bifurcated, the government rolled out an interesting MoI policy called SUCCESS, an acronym for Strengthening and Universalizing Quality of and Access to Secondary Schools, for implementation in select schools.  In these 6,500 schools identified for SUCCESS, instruction was made available in both English and Telugu, and parents could opt for one of these two languages as the MoI for their children. There are only 3072 SUCCESS schools in AP now, as 3428 became part of Telangana in 2014. In 2015-16, the government wanted the SUCCESS schools to become fully-fledged English-medium schools with the Telugu-medium sections in them being shifted to non-SUCCESS high schools in the neighbourhood, and issued orders to this effect, but has failed to implement the orders so far. The government also announced that the teachers of the SUCCESS schools would be trained by UNICEF, the British Council, and English and Foreign Languages University during summer holidays, but this plan also remains only on paper. The last two events in this English as the MoI history are the decision to replace Telugu with English as the MoI in all the municipal schools and the climb-down a couple of days ago.

The reasons for the obession
Why is the government so fixated on English as the MoI? I can think of two reasons.

First, enrolment in government-run schools in AP has greatly declined, and perhaps the government thinks that “upgrading” them into English medium schools will give them a makeover. At the beginning of this academic year, there were as many as 5639 primary schools with fewer than 20 children in each, and the government wanted to close 2,300 of them by merging them with upper primary schools. (The situation is worse in Telangana where 6,361 primary schools are facing the threat of closure.)

Can English medium provide the needed attraction? The government seems to think so. But, it is not altogether wrong because, the Telugus, unlike the Tamils, the Malayalees and even the Maharashtrians, seem to put a high premium on English language education to the extent of ignoring their mother tongue; the craze for English-medium education runs so deep here. During the three school-year period till 2006, enrolment at the upper-primary level in English medium schools in AP registered a dramatic 100% increase (i.e. from 10.6 lakh to 20.9 lakh), while the figures for Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala for the same period are 17% (from 14.7 lakh to 17.2 lakh), 12% (10.6 lakh to 11.9 lakh) and 3% (2.4 lakh to 3.2 lakh) respectively [http://www.schoolreportcards.in/Media/m69.html].

Secondly, the government seems to think that an early start in English is necessary to cope with the needs of a fast globalizing economy.  It seems to assume that an early start will serve to equalize learning opportunities and empower the underprivileged sections of society.  Implicit in this assumption is the cynical belief that the mother tongue is inimical to the child's success in the job market.

Can an early start in education through English help?
Are the government’s assumptions about an early start in English education yielding gains valid?

Research has shown that a late start in a second or foreign language is not at all a disadvantage: late starters can easily catch up with early starters, using the skills they have learnt in their first language, if they have attained, in the first language, what is called CALP (cognitive and academic language proficiency). And acquiring CALP in the first language doesn’t involve a long and painful process. Proficiency in the mother tongue is, therefore, a resource.  A good deal of research has been done in the area of the best starting age for learning a second language. The findings (e.g. Lightbown, P. M., and Spada, N. 2006. How Languages are Learned. Oxford University Press) indicate that unless an L2 learning situation is similar to that of an L1 acquisition situation, which is possible in the case of total immersion, learning a second or a foreign language in childhood is not at all an advantage. As a matter of fact, research results suggest that one can learn a second language more effectively if one starts around 12-14 years.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that an early start is advantageous, its success depends upon competent teaching.  Is this possible in our State-run schools?

Can our State-run schools cope with the demands of English as the MoI?
Yesterday, I did a good deal of field work visiting a few SUCCESS schools in Vijayawada Urban and discussing with a cross section of teachers the teaching-learning situation obtaining there during the past eight years, ever since the introduction of English as the MoI alongside Telugu. From what the teachers said, this is how I understand the situation:

1.The teachers were pushed into teaching  through English with no preparation or training.

2.When the SUCCESS programme was launched, the government promised to train the teachers adequately through different means. GO Ms No. 76 Education (SE-TRG) Department dated 10 June 2008 promises the following, among others:

  (a) adequate training for the subject teachers drawing upon the expertise of English and Foreign Languages (EFL) University and the Regional Institute of English (RIE);

  (b) long-term training for 40-45 secondary-grade teachers at EFL University, the RIE and other institutions and then using them as resource persons for conducting district-level training programmes for the rest of the teachers; and

  (c) equipping each of the 6500 schools with an English language lab and 6 English-Telugu and 6 Telugu-English dictionaries).

All these grandiose plans have remained a pipe dream to this day; none of them has materialized. Except for a 5-day orientation programme in 2008, there has been no training whatsoever during the past eight years or so.


3.Far from putting in a mechanism for training teachers, the government has withdrawn the only mechanism available, namely the District Education Centre for English (DECE). In Krishna district, for instance, a DECE was set up in Vijayawada under a Government of India scheme with funding from MHRD for the first five years. This had been done in 2006, two years before the SUCCESS programme commenced, and as Director, Loyola ELT Centre, I was also associated with the training programmes of the DECE. But, in 2011, when the SUCCESS programme was in full swing, the DECE was closed down because the funding from MHRD stopped. Ironically enough, the GO referred to above orders the Director of School Education to strengthen the existing DECEs with ‘additional training and hostel facilities’ and set up three new DECEs in each district where there is no DECE ‘to provide training to the High School Teachers in improving their English language abilities.’ Do you know how the Department of School Education implemented this? By winding up the only DECE in Krishna district, leaving the district with neither a DECE nor an ELTC!

4. Neither has the government been serious about equipping schools with adequate number of teachers. According to the latest National Assessment Survey (NAS) conducted by the NCERT, (a) State-run schools in AP are short of 17,129 teachers; (b) 31% of the headmaster posts are vacant; (c) absenteeism among teachers is very high; and (d) 50% of the teachers are not teaching at all. (The last of the four findings involving arithmetical precision intrigues me; perhaps, this has to do with the figures for teacher absenteeism, too. For more information on the subject, one may read the paper, ‘Teacher Absence in India: A Snapshot,’ by Micheal Kremer of Harvard University and four others, including three World Bank officials, in Journal of European Economic Association, April-May 2015.
  (http://www.teindia.nic.in/Files/Articles/Articles_23feb12/jeea_teacher_absence_in_india.pdf)


When the subject teachers are so ill-equipped and feel demotivated on account of the cold-shouldering by the government, one cannot expect their teaching to be very competent. It is an open secret that even in private English medium schools and colleges, English education is by and large impoverished. While subject teachers rarely use English, even English teachers teach the content through Telugu even in urban areas. When this is the situation in the majority of the private English medium schools themselves, if the government expects teachers in State-run Telugu medium schools, especially those in rural areas which constitute the majority of our schools, to become competent teachers through English through their own efforts, it is living in a dream world.

The way forward
But, governments don’t listen. I’m sure that later if not sooner, municipal schools will become English medium schools with the bulk of the teaching taking place through Telugu and the students doing a poor job of memorizing answers in English to serve examination purposes. That cannot be averted altogether, but disaster management is certainly possible. If only the government makes a sincere attempt to follow the programme of action it set out for itself eight years ago in GO Ms No. 76, then it is possible to achieve some degree of success in the implementation of English-as-the-MoI policy in the municipal schools and remedy the situation in the SUCCESS schools.