Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Some comments on the Indian government's New Education Policy draft Aug 2016

Some comments on the NEP draft Aug 2016

Probal Dasgupta, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

(1) In this and other policy documents and drafts, insufficient attention is paid to those middle class students who, in terms of access to equipment or resources, seem not to suffer from glaring deficits and therefore seem not to need any serious assistance from the educational system. But some middle class students, when they grow up, become makers and implementers of national policies. If they are not enabled to detect and address their own important deficits, the result is that the absence of critical scrutiny of their own situation leaves them ill-equipped to understand and address deficits in other sections of society. My main problem with the NEP draft available for comment is that this draft completely fails to notice that the near-exclusive focus on English in India’s educational system leaves the entire middle class sadly ill-equipped to understand and conduct serious discourse in Indian languages. To expect Hindi to flourish just because some classroom time is spent on it, in a nation where neither Hindi nor the other Indian languages are being encouraged for critical and academic use, is not a viable strategy.

(2) The NEP draft only pays lip service to mother tongue medium education. It fails to address the predicament of what I shall call ‘Region-Displaced’ middle class students whose mother tongue state and residential state are distinct – for example, Kannadiga students who live in Odisha. Unless Region-Displaced (RD) students are given serious resources to attain literacy in their mother tongue, their cognitive competence remains deficient. Many of us fail to notice this deficit as it is often masked by specially cultivated English skills and other social advantages. RD students, though not numerous, are a significant proportion of the vocal middle class, and often grow up to be influential; this decreases the chances of their deficits being publicly commented on.

(3) Now, Region-Displaced students often display below-average levels of public awareness and socio-cultural participation. They tend to be alienated both from their mother tongue state and from their residential state. They fail to follow the local processes in either of their states -- they cannot follow the news media, or understand film/ television content, or meaningfully take part in festivals. They thus become culturally disenfranchised ‘nebulously all-India citizens without a home state’, incapable even of casting an informed vote for this or that MLA candidate, for instance. This alienation has many side-effects that have been seriously weakening India’s integrity, self-confidence and intellectual/moral health. At the end of these remarks I note that one important side-effect is a weakening of India’s scientific and technological profile.

(4) Insisting (for doctrinal reasons) that every Region-Displaced student must receive early schooling in the medium of his or her mother tongue, come what may, is neither feasible nor a well-thought-out response to this predicament. The system needs to offer choices. At present, RD students are forced to abandon their mother tongue and get educated either (a) entirely in English, in a private English medium school, or (b) entirely in Hindi and English, in a Kendriya Vidyalaya, or (c) entirely in the regional language of the state of residence. The present dispensation has convinced everybody that augmenting this (a)-(c) list by adding any choice (d) or (e) which involves serious cultivation of the RD students’ mother tongues will overburden RD students, whereupon they will fail to compete with local students. We need to find a way out of this false sense of ‘there is no choice’, for otherwise we continue the destruction of the personal socio-cultural resources of RD students, who are an influential section of our middle class.

(5) The way out has to include innovative use of ICT resources providing long distance audio-visual access to spoken and written pedagogic materials from the RD student's mother tongue state. For a child to benefit from these resources will involve synergy between online instructors based in the mother tongue state and on-the-spot facilitators who teach at the school where the child is studying. (I am visualizing additional classes held by facilitating teachers at the child’s school, where the teachers don’t know the child’s mother tongue but will expose the child to the audio-visual resources and on-line materials. Ideally the child will have video-conferencing access to a teacher located in the mother tongue state. Even in non-ideal situations where video-conferencing is unavailable, the child’s assignments will have to be corrected by some teacher in the mother tongue state, and the facilitating teacher at the child’s school will have to liaise with that remote teacher.) Such teaching-learning materials will have to be specially developed for RD students; note that the existing primers meant for home state users presume locally available background knowledge and therefore will be opaque to RD students.

(6) How shall we find time in the curriculum to avoid overburdening RD students? There are several choices. My recommendation is that an RD student should be given mother tongue proficiency lessons in the niche that the current NEP draft reserves for Sanskrit. Other choices can be defended; I leave the ultimate choice of viable niche to those drafting the final document; I hope that a menu of reasonable options will be given to RD children, so that particular children can make choices best suited to their individual situations. Just as Sanskrit is proposed as a pedagogically enabling language, it is essential to see that the child’s mother tongue is an indispensable enabling resource. In particular, a child who has been uprooted from his or her mother tongue never acquires full-scope cognitive proficiency, especially in science research at the level that is needed to conduct debates and win arguments when challenging a position taken by a native speaker of English. That the absence of mother tongue proficiency causes such a deficit has been shown by psycholinguistic and educational research.

(7) The interface between language education and science needs attention in the context of another problem with the NEP draft. This draft expresses the aspiration that India must catch up with advanced nations in science capabilities including science research. But the overall vision as it now stands in the draft (perhaps in continuity with earlier education policy documents) completely fails to stress science education; it specifically fails to stress its importance in the context of eliminating the gender disparity (and other social disparities) in education. In this context it is important not only to recall article 51A(h) of our Constitution [It shall be the duty of every citizen of India—…(h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform] but also to note that UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in her 2013 vision statement has said "Gender parity means literacy. It means access to science. It means genuine possibilities for girls to become the person they want to be, to strengthen the fabric of communities and societies as a whole." []

(8) Researchers at the language-education interface have shown that students who grow up without serious anchoring in their mother tongue – up to the level known as Cognitively Advanced Language Proficiency, CALP – are handicapped in their scientific reasoning. Unless the mother tongue tweaking of our educational policy is done along the lines I suggest above, there is no hope for a serious upswing in science education and research in India in the foreseeable future.

11 August 2016


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