Lessons from India: Is your reality based on myth?

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The problem with assumptions is that they always come with blindspots.                                                        Oliver Blanchard

I had the pleasure of hearing a poignant address by Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Association, to an audience of 700 delegates at an Australian Research conference this week. Dr Banerji shared the outcomes of a project in Jehandabad, a district in India, and how they improved attendance rates by focusing on what they were teaching and ensuring the teaching was of value to students.  Through this project she challenged education officials to explore educational assumptions and realities. While her address was moving and inspiring on educational and humanitarian fronts her message, I realised, has implications for our lives as well.

To give a brief summary; the education system in India, like in many other countries, utilises an industrial model where students are grouped by age, promoted to the next grade each year and are taught a curriculum for that grade level.  This systemic structure in India, Dr Banerji argues, is built on a number of assumptions.  I’ll share four with you.

That high enrolment means children are in school. The reality is that attendance varies a lot across the country. Various studies have shown that attendance, on an average day, can range from 60 – 90% depending on the district.

Children are in school from age six onwards. Indian law “guarantees” education from the age of six to the age of fourteen. The assumption that children enter school at the age of six is far from the reality. According to a 2011 study it was discovered that in rural India, around 60% of all five year olds are enrolled in school with many younger children also attending.  Why? Schools offer incentives to encourage attendance, such as a free lunch, which sees a good many 3, 4, and 5 year olds attending school.  This has implications for the next assumption.

Children in a given grade are of a similar age/ ability.  Again the reality is very different.  Indian classrooms, as many around the world, are very diverse. Data from the 2011 ASER review from Bihar tells the story:   Based on the assumption that children enter school at age six, the ‘right age’ for Grade 4 should be about nine or ten.  In Bihar 51% of children in Grade 4 are the ‘right age’ but the rest of the children, half the class, are younger or older. If we reflect, the current model of education implies that a child in Grade 4 is homogeneously grouped with other students who are in Grade 4, are taught by a ‘Grade 4 teacher’, and can demonstrate learning  at a year 4 standard, it is clear the reality is very different and misguided.

Interestingly, studies of grade 5 students showed, on a simple year 2 test, that 48% of children could read the text fluently.  Of the other half, not yet reading at a year 2 level, 15% of children could recognise letters, another 13% could read simple words but not effectively read simple sentences, while 24% of children could read simple sentences but not fluently read at Grade 2 level.

The fourth assumption in the system is that textbooks are at appropriate age/grade level. For the reasons given above you can see that the textbook level for a specific grade is too difficult for most children.

So, what’s the takeaway? How can assumptions by Indian education officials guide us in our own lives?  I’m not sure I have the answers yet but I do have a lot of questions.

How attached are we to our own reality?  Are we seeing our ‘reality’ clearly or is it based on a set of assumptions?  Do we recognise the assumptions?  If so, why do we persist with them or alternatively, how do we change them? What is the impact of unexamined assumptions on our lives?

I’m no expert but I sense that if we don’t look hard at our own ‘reality’ we have more than likely set parameters for ourselves, boxes from within which we function and relate and ultimately stagnate. If we don’t look hard at our own ‘reality’ and the underlying assumptions can we set ourselves reasonable goals? Can we thrive and grow through the blurr assumptions create?

If we don’t look at our own reality do we realise that every interaction, reaction and thought is based on a set of values, assumptions and beliefs that may not be obvious to us.  These values, assumptions and beliefs shape who we are, they are based on where we have come from and they can cause us to be selective by ignoring information and perspectives that conflict with them, thus limiting our view of the world.

Our assumptions, values and beliefs are often so ingrained in us we are unconscious of their existence but they can, with identification and work, be changed if they are not serving us well; just as assumptions were revealed and addressed in rural classrooms in India after hundreds of years without change.

Thanks to the witty, intelligent, inspirational Dr Banerji I now turn inward to identify the myths I have created.  Can you identify yours?