Beyond the language debate

The seminal prerequisite is to determine if the problem is instructional medium or instructional methodology, or a combination of both

By Author YL Srinivas   |   Published: 14th Sep 2020   12:05 am Updated: 13th Sep 2020   10:20 pm

Addressing a conference organised by the Ministry of Education on ‘Role of NEP in Transforming Higher Education’ on September 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphatically put forth the relevance of the mother tongue in the formative years of a child’s education. He further added that by attempting to harmonise the discrepancy between the mother tongue and language of instruction, the policy helps students develop critical thinking abilities.

There is ample scientific basis to support the fact that when students learn in their mother tongue, they will be able to comprehend better as the energy they otherwise spend in comprehending a new language would now be deployed in understanding critical concepts. When this is done in the formative years, it will lead to an enhancement in critical thinking skills that children will be able to carry for the rest of their lives.

Identify Problems

When the nation is on the threshold of implementing the new education policy, it is important to identify problems that have been plaguing the system. Therefore, the seminal prerequisite is to determine whether the problem of India is instructional medium or instructional methodology, or a combination of both.

Those who are familiar with the Indian education system would vouch for the fact that the obsession for English education is a recent phenomenon that took impetus during the last three decades. Prior to that, English education was confined to a few metro centres. It is evident that a large number of the educated, at least senior citizens, had their primary and secondary education in a non-English medium, which means that there was no disconnect between the mother tongue and language of instruction. Why then did India fail to become a knowledge producer then and how will it become one now?

Focal Issue

More than language, the issue which needs to be addressed is teaching-learning methodologies. The NEP emphasises the need to end the current methods that compel students towards ‘rote learning or learning for exams’ methods. Now that there is an emphasis on ‘learner-centric approach’, the policy aims to promote conceptual understanding, and in order to achieve that, it proposes the establishment of a National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCFSE), which will reconfigure curricular and pedagogical structures of school education.

While the statements sound lofty, the details need to be carefully calibrated. It is not that India does not have schools and models that implement learner-centric approaches. Many of the schools of the Jiddu Krishnamurti foundation are built on the principle that every individual and every child is unique and that children have their own unique needs and own unique skills.

Finland Model

A country that India can try to emulate is Finland. Finland’s education model clearly states that the focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives included in the curriculum. In fact, it would be a good idea to study multiple learner-centric models that other countries have implemented and customise these models for the Indian context while devising the NCFSE.

Further, it is important to primarily understand the idea of conceptual understanding. It is a notion where children grasp ideas in a transferable way. Students can take what they learn in a class and apply them in all domains across societies and in their life situations. Teachers must, therefore, realise that while they can give students all the information that is required, it is of no use unless the student develops the ability to deeply understand and transfer this knowledge to make educated assumptions about new situations.

 language debate

Second Fiddle

One of the noted thinkers of the 20th century, Alvin Toffler, in his seminal essay ‘the third wave’ talks about how Indians have been playing second fiddle to the entire process of knowledge production that the world has been witnessing. Toffler states that during the time of green revolution, India had landlords holding huge parcels of land and to work in the fields it had a large number of peasants. During the Industrial Revolution, we had huge industries and we had labour to work in those industries.

Now, we have MNCs, which have migrated to digital platforms unleashing a cyber-revolution, and to meet these demands, our youth have become ‘cyber coolies’. There is no change in the nature of the job that Indian employees have been performing, which is application of knowledge that has been produced elsewhere. He makes it evident that India remained a knowledge consumer. When we say knowledge production, it is not merely about innovations in science and technology, but also creative ideas, which have the potential of galvanising the world.

We must understand that during the last 400 years, there have neither been many innovations in sciences, nor a proliferation of new ideas that had the potential to influence the world. Nobel Prize winner and Mexican diplomat Octavio Paz in his book In Light of India argues that Gandhi’s movement, which was both political and spiritual, was one of the greatest historical novelties of the 20th century.

Good Foundation

Vaclav Havel in his address accepting Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, 1995, acknowledges that Velvet revolution of Czechoslovakia was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s concept. Europe produced many social and political thinkers during the last 400 years whose propositions have gained global acceptability and relevance. Be it Thomas Hobbs’ Social Contract Theory, Karl Marx’s Marxism, Sigmond Freud’s Psychoanalysis, Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, Nietzsche’s Nihilism or Feminist ideas of Simone de Beauvoir — the list would be endless. It is sad to see barring a few such as Mahatma Gandhi and Amartya Sen, no new idea figures from India.

The New Education Policy with its emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM), Humanities, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences powered by a multidisciplinary approach will certainly provide ample base for the proliferation of inventions in science and technology and innovations in humanities and liberal arts. For this, we need to carefully and radically change the whole eco-system around the existing teaching and learning strategies.

(The author teaches at Osmania University and is an Executive Council Member of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). Views expressed are personal)

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