Masquerades in alternative thinking: The case of education

Government Primary School, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Photo: Arun Sivaramakrishnan)
Government Primary School, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Photo: Arun Sivaramakrishnan)

What is ‘alternative’ about alternative education? This is where I begin. Education is not my area of expertise but I have been a teacher and experienced what it is to teach. That is where I draw my understanding from. I explore the meaning and practice of it from my own experience in tutoring seventh and eighth graders, from Deepti  Mehrotra’s account on Origins of Alternative Education in India: A Continuing Journey and Sarada  Balagopalan’s Understanding Educational Innovation in India: The Case of Eklavya.

There are significant sociological concerns with the way alternative education is practiced in India and in its assertion as the way forward for education. Its claims are large and the practical effect meager.  For instance, Deepti Mehrotra asserts in her paper that, “Alternatives to this kind of education might not constitute a cohesive movement, but inherent in them is a powerful critique of such a system, and the potential for social transformation.” Serving the role of a powerful criticism and then suggesting that it can bring about a social transformation does imply that the ideas need to operate within the realm of mainstream education. Or is a social transformation possessing a completely new education system will emerge which would have displaced mainstream education? The idea appears to be farfetched. The paper does not engage with the question of what should be the vision and specific goals of education from a philosophical perspective. It merely seeks to engage with the idea of alternative education as claimed and as practiced.

The stated vision of the mainstream schools and alternative schools is not very divergent. Without a doubt that the form and action that mainstream schools adopt towards realizing these educational goals are of deep concern. Mainstream education in its present form has often had damaging effects on children’s development and also builds up further potential of creating an individual deficient in several vital facilities of life which constitute the experience of living – appreciation of arts, nature, sensitivity, self-consciousness and similar values. However, the ideas advanced as alternative education are merely different pedagogical approach towards a broader vision of education that is similar to that of mainstream education. I contend that the ideas labeled as ‘alternative’ with respect to school education do not suggest a different or another way of thinking about education itself but are about means and approaches to delivery of education in its present form.  If what is proposed by alternative education proposes to be alternative then the practice of education children for a few years on a free form curriculum and then making them appear for the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) examination can be read as a merging with mainstream education. Contrast this with Mehrotra’s observation on examinations, “Children pursue rigid, examination-oriented syllabi and compete with one another in a relentless race to perform. Camaraderie, cooperation, fun and a love for learning are, unfortunately, casualties.” An alternative education system which aims at letting children explore on their own, self-learn and only facilitate learning (vs. teaching) also submits to the urge of certification. This in true spirit is not alternative, perhaps a divergent way of arriving at the same outcome.

The other question is that of the social transformation claims that alternative education makes. How does it aim to achieve this transformation when choice of alternative education is made either by the poor sections of the society or by the upper sections who are positioned enough to support their children in pursuing non-conventional career option. The ‘middle’ section is missing. This must be examined closely because this section is critical for the aimed transformation.

When the question of alternative is framed from another perspective – of that of educational innovation, it gets relevant and consistent with its meaning. Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) and later Eklavya, an NGO which worked in improving science teaching in government schools in Madhya Pradesh embody a true sense of being an alternative in a sense that it can achieve social transformation starting from school education. Sample this diary entry by a school teacher, Hemraj Bhat, who kept a record of his experience as a teacher in a government primary school. Here is a teacher who is questioning, improvising, innovation and genuinely trying to achieve all that alternative education proposes and this, by being within the larger mainstream framework –

“We play a game of words through this paper. Today some boys listed Gulab Jamun in the category of flowers. Similarly some boys thought that Chameli was the name of a place and many listed butterfly as a bird. When such situations arise, they provide a good atmosphere for discussion. Many children thought ‘Rabri’ was rubber and said it is something we put in our hair. Some boys said ‘Rabri’ is an eraser. All children associated cream with cream rolls and put it in the list of eatables. In local language ‘Makri’ is called ‘makra’. The children could not understand that ‘Makra’ and ‘Makri’ was the same thing. They can differentiate between animals and birds but cannot understand the difference between  animals and insects. That is why they put butterflies and moths in the list of birds and lizards, cockroaches and snakes under animals. So this activity creates an atmosphere for discussing language, our environment and science etc., all at the same time. I have only realised this now. When I prepared the assignment, my objective was merely to develop the reading skills of children.”

The thought advanced here is that innovations in mainstream education hope to achieve the same outcome as that of alternative education. That alternative schools finally subject their students to one or the other type of examination, assessment and certification goes against the grain of alternative behaviour. Such claim to exclusivity and divergent practice by alternative education does not qualify as another possible ‘thought’.  Much of what is claimed by alternative education is being practiced and successfully in the mainstream schools as well. A school teacher when asked his role in the classroom while teaching Eklavya textbooks replies, “Our role while teaching the Eklavya books was like that of a colleague or helper. For instance, if a group were working on a given experiment, we would sit with them and assist them.”

So, while the claim that alternative education is about a wide range of alternative possibilities in education stands valid, the same cannot be said of it as a radical new thought. Examining this claim is pertinent to the current debates in education because first, this claim problematize mainstream and public education in a non-constructive manner. Second, this could lead to rise of a certain elite variety of education at one end and a lesser variety of schools for the poor at the other end, without actually having done anything radical after all!

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