In-person teaching has value if it’s led by values

Days after a teacher in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar was caught on camera urging her students to hit their Muslim classmate, a teacher in Karnataka’s Shivamogga asked two Muslim students to “go to Pakistan.” In the former case, the child had forgotten tables of multiplication, apparently, but the authority figure in class thought it fit to bring up his nominal faith. In the latter, the country named left no doubt over the sentiment of rejection behind the words. Together, both tell us how casually bigotry has invaded our classrooms. For decades, these were idealized as bastions of compassion. They served as upholders of diversity, equity and inclusion much before India Inc set itself ‘DEI’ goals. Inculcating values of openness was part of any teacher’s job. Today’s teachers retain similar levels of influence—and power—over children. But, as social beings drawn from the same society as everyone else, some of them have begun to air prejudices just as people do in relatively crass settings, like streets and studios. As much as we must worry about what kids are being exposed to in a normative context, it should also prompt us to explore how best to place education beyond the sway of bigots.

The pandemic disrupted every aspect of life, class attendance included, but it also tested out a model of online schooling with e-learning tools and standardized modules. The results of this forced experiment varied vastly, with well equipped schools and homes adapting well, even as drastic learning losses were reported from across the country overall. Online classes were found to be more formal, with less space for instructors to control students and make snarky remarks. For kids with unhappy school lives, this was liberating. On the other hand, it was also found that e-classes were no match for the in-person version if teachers are adept at their jobs. Those who can capture attention, arouse curiosity and stoke a passion for the subject at hand may be exceptional, but where they exist, they work their magic best in live theatres of academia. Even otherwise, online sessions cannot replace the vibe of a live class. For pre-teens and adolescents, the best teachers are those who combine overt mastery of a field with subtle inculcation of a humane set of values. Empathy, respect and grace are for students to absorb, rather than be taught. This fuzzy aspect does not lend itself to a structured format anyway. It requires spontaneity that digital pedagogy lacks. It’s a pursuit not only of knowledge, after all, but also wisdom. Hence, schooling at its best cannot go fully digital, not even in an online ‘metaverse.’ Wise humans will probably be prized even more in a world of teach-bots.

The country’s challenge of educating millions at low cost, however, means we must rely on digital aids. State funds have been allotted for it and hybrid models are coming up. The finer challenge, then, would be to ensure it offers the best of both worlds, online and off. Content and concept knowledge could be imparted virtually, while interactive in-class hours can be used for the ‘know-how’ part of it, with hands-on experience adding value; some skills are better acquired under active guidance. But for it to prove valuable by way of values and attitudes picked up, it must be kept bias-free. Unfortunately, with textbooks pitched into a political battle, the official syllabus itself might be somewhat contorted. Thankfully, India is also full of educators who know why unbiased education is valued so dearly across time and space.

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Updated: 04 Sep 2023, 10:24 PM IST

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