Classroom Teaching: A Cultural Impasse

By Gyaltsen

TCV School Gopalpur in its formative years (Photo: Phuntsok Namgyal)
Education in exile has crossed its 50 year landmark since the first Tibetan school was established in 1960 with 50 students. Over the past 50 years the education landscape of the exile community has changed drastically. The days have passed when infrastructural facilities were inadequate, when the schools were understaffed, when qualified teachers were scarce and curriculum resources limited.
 Today, we have 76 Tibetan schools spread across India and Nepal in which about 21,000 students are receiving an education. It is not just the numbers that has ballooned. Most of these schools are on par with Indian public schools in terms of infrastructure facilities, curriculum resources, teacher’s qualifications and administrative functioning. In 2004, a new Education Policy that can meet the unique basic needs of Tibet was officially launched. Since then various efforts have been made to put this policy into action by the Department of Education. 
In many ways, our progress so far in the field of education has been highly commendable. The fact that the effective literacy rate of the exile community is 82.4% (as per the latest Tibetan demographic survey report published in 2010 by CTA) is a major testimony to our hard work and success.
Unfortunately, there is one aspect of our education that has maintained an almost immutable constancy since the beginning of our exile journey. This is the classroom practice of our teachers. Considering the fact that teaching is the most important activity in a school and it is the key lever for improving students thinking and learning, the lack of any substantial improvement in the classroom practice of our teachers over the past 50 years is a matter of grave concern. Although our idea of a good teacher and good teaching has undergone radical changes with time, the failure to translate these ideas into action is a serious lapse that needs attention from all of the stakeholders in the field of education.
There was a time when the notion that good teachers are effective transmitters of knowledge pervaded in schools. More simply, the idea was that the sign of a good teacher was their ability to fill their students (as if the students are some empty container) with knowledge. This line of thinking continued that, the more submissive the student, the more able they are to be filled, and therefore the better student they are. This thinking about the teaching-learning process suffers from what Paulo Friere called “narration sickness”, in his famous bookPedagogy of the Oppressed. According to Friere, under such a system, education becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqu├ęs (like press releases to the media)and makes deposits, which students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. He named it the “Banking Concept” of education.
The majority in exile including myself have spent our entire school life being a depository under that Banking Concept of education. We may be able to recount innumerable memories from our school life where our inability to memorize and regurgitate abstract facts had earned us punishments ranging from after-class detentions to chair-lifting exercises. We may also have vivid memories of the praises that we received from teachers for our unquestioning and submissive demeanor in the classroom. Above all, for many of us, our school life in its entirety has taught us that the purpose of education is to pass a grueling three-hour test by excelling at memorization and disgorging vain and useless information through the ‘Examination’.
A wave of awareness about alternative approaches to teaching called “Child Centric Teaching” spread across Tibetan schools in the ‘90s and 2000s and the awareness gained impetus after the promulgation of the Basic Education Policy for Tibetans by the CTA in 2004. The focus of Child Centric Teaching is on student’s needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles, and unlike conventional classrooms where the teacher’s role is to dispense knowledge, in this approach the teacher’s job is to facilitate the student’s learning. At its core, Child Centric Teaching requires students to be active and responsible participants in their own learning. The approach is a huge deviation from the conventional Banking Concept of education.
As an Education Officer, part of my job description involves the academic inspection of the Tibetan schools in India. Last year, I inspected 8 Tibetan schools in which I observed over 40 classrooms. A disappointing revelation was that classroom teaching has not changed significantly even after years of concerted efforts to transform it from educational administrative bodies. Still the same old script is repeated where teachers spend the bulk of their classroom time lecturing information, while students listen along meekly. It was all so familiar to me. The innovative ideas and approach remained confined to the teachers’ heads and the administrative files; failing to find its way into the actual classrooms. Evidently, from this sample, the gap between awareness and action has not been bridged so far.
As much as the revelation was disappointing, it was not so shocking. Teaching (and learning) is a cultural activity. Cultural activities are highly stable over time making them difficult to change. Most teachers spend over 15 years of their life as a student before they enter a teachers training center. What teachers learned about teaching implicitly through this informal participation over an extended period has a far greater influence on their own classroom practice than what they learn formally in teachers training and in-service professional development workshops.
To illustrate the stability of cultural activities, James Stigler and James Hiebert in their book “The Teaching Gap” tell an interesting anecdote from the late leader of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker. The story goes that, Mr. Shanker was touring a housing project for some of the newly arrived Jewish immigrants from African and Arab countries in the U.S. Before arriving most of the Jewish immigrants had lived in tents and hadn’t eaten on tables. Therefore there was a great effort taken to make the immigrants eat on tables. Upon entering the house of a Yemenese family, Mr. Shanker saw that they were eating from the table. But, the table was inverted with legs standing up! Teaching as a cultural activity is no different from eating. The imprints of the old teaching style has remained so deeply entrenched within our teachers that its hard for them to change their practice after a formal training.
As I see it, the one of the best possible ways to break this cultural jinx is to initiate meaningful teacher collaboration in schools to improve their practice. Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) of US in 1996 revealed that more schools in high-achieving countries have policies and practices in schools that foster teacher collaboration. In Japan, which has consistently ranked among the highest achieving countries in mathematics since 1960s in cross national standardized tests, teacher collaboration is a common practice across the nation.
Teaching in our schools has to be redefined to give our teachers the responsibility and resources to study and improve their own practice. Empowering the teachers in our schools to make them feel professional in a true sense is absolutely crucial. One of the main reasons why teaching has always remained a low status job in many societies is the lack of initiative and structural support required for the teachers to advance their craft. Many may argue that teaching not being amongst the most lucrative jobs is the reason for it’s low status, but I think that is a secondary factor. The key is to instill in our teachers a genuine desire to improve their practice and provide them the necessary support to fulfill that desire. For that our school structure should be reorganized so that teachers have opportunities to collaboratively study and contribute to the knowledge base of the teaching profession. Once this “culture” of studying and improving their own teaching flourishes in schools, our classrooms, students and teachers will truly transform.
NOTE-- The writer works as Science Education Officer in the Department of Education, Central Tibetan Administration.
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