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Case Analysis: Beyond The Classroom

The challenge is not simply moral literacy. There seems to be a disconnect between theory and practice, writes Pranita Lele

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Roosevelt once said: “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” He forgot to add, “and get away with it”. If we look at the various scandals, corruption and chaos prevailing in the world, we realise that a majority of the culprits are well educated and belong to elite schools and colleges. Is there something missing in our education system? In the newspapers, we read stories that show an absence of self-regulation and a lack of integrity or sometimes, a complete lack of social responsibility. We have rudderless, isolated youth drifting without any moral anchor or structure to their lives. Despite their excellent education, they let themselves and the society down. One can improve literacy and numeracy scores, while the moral and ethical values deteriorate over time.

It is in schools that young people find themselves as part of a larger society, form their own opinions about political, economic, ethical, legal and scientific matters. Most of the schools post moral values on walls and reiterate the importance of values in classrooms, during assemblies, and at other school events. All good schools emphasise the importance of role models, heroes, people we look up to. Young students are told legends of great people and stories with great moral values. Moral Science and Value Education classes have a prominent place on school timetables.

CBSE introduced the concept of value-based questions in question papers of all the main subjects from 2012-13 — a total of 3-5 marks questions are value-based in CBSE exams. There are many opportunities to teach the principles of value education through existing subjects and topics. ‘Values-centred’ pedagogy is still considered a worthwhile investment.

Inside the classrooms, the Physics teacher dreams about the students contributing to the technological development. Who would have thought that beyond the classrooms, the insight of Physics will come ‘in handy to break a lock’? The knowledge of chemistry helps in the field of medicine, engineering, agriculture, etc. Beyond the classrooms, how can a lesson of chemistry ‘end a life cleverly’? The knowledge of mathematics helped in the development of civilisations and helped give order to society. The Math teacher would take pride in teaching analysis, reasoning and logical thinking to the students. Beyond the classrooms, how did math ‘help analyse how to hack accounts and plot a clever system’?

The challenge is not simply moral literacy. There seems to be a disconnect between theory and practice. In Phaedrus, Socrates said that true learning can never happen through written words. Books cannot effectively teach anything worth knowing. They can’t clarify or reply to objections. Only through discussions and practice can true knowledge be acquired. He says, “Reading mere words, in his mind, is akin to looking at a lake rather than swimming in it—or worse, looking at a lake and thinking that now you know how to swim”. The child understands the values but is unable to translate this knowledge and reasoning into virtuous action. This is why there is a gap between recognising and understanding virtue, on one hand, and performance of virtues, on the other. It reflects in small instances such as: Whether a child is honest with a teacher as to why the homework is not done; whether the child indulges in plagiarism; whether the child cheats in exams if left without invigilation; whether the child will return the money found on school grounds; whether the timid students get bullied? Whether the students admit their mistakes?

Or could it be that while icons, idols and books teach one thing, real life playing out in the world among people in positions of responsibility and trust tread the grey zone of impropriety? When companies mis-state their assets to get larger loans for their businesses, when people in leadership positions misuse power to oppress others, when those occupying responsible positions resort to deceit, when one State refuses to share natural resources with a neighbour, when on national TV, young children watch bad behaviour among those they are supposed to trust, depend on, look up to... how can we at school talk about integrity? How does a teacher tell a child to ‘behave’ when the outside world is so ‘misbehaved’? When a school bus driver uses abusive language in a traffic jab, have you seen the first look of shock on the children’s faces? That shock means, ‘but you are not supposed to use words like that!’ And the next time, they join in the fun. By the next time, they have learnt the words.

Schools need to acknowledge that young people encounter difficult moral questions every day, and they want guidance. They need to recognise that no subject is morally neutral. Education is not meant to “hurt, trouble, offend”. Schools teach the students to be courageous not destructive, brave but not reckless, confident but not arrogant, bold but not a bully, insightful but not antagonising, humble but not weak, have humour but without mockery. Where do things go wrong once they leave the school premises? Trust is built in the classrooms, but broken in the marketplace... in the nebulous zone outside the school and at home.

Noreen is a classic case of a student who needs differentiated instructions and special attention. The subject concepts unfortunately remain ambiguous, abstract, uninteresting textbook pages for such children. Their grades start falling, and they ‘appear’ to be lazy, disinterested, underachievers. They just meander into class, indifference written all over their face and their work. That should be the ‘red flag’ for the parents and the teachers.

‘Everybody is a genius but if you teach a fish to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking that it is stupid’. In the domain of education, this allegory has been employed repeatedly. Children are not gizmos or widgets. Each child is unique. Parents and teachers need to respect their uniqueness, and their individuality. Differentiation is not just the work of teachers, but educational leaders and test designers need to differentiate as well. Core curriculum fails to differentiate. There is no true differentiation until and unless assessments and exams are differentiated as well. Unfortunately, we have not reached that level as yet.

Performance obsession from the side of parents and teachers puts students in a ‘pressure cooker’ syndrome. Marks do matter for admissions, but in the long run, who remembers these marks? Over the years, when we teachers look at marks scored in board exams, we find some scores to be too generous, some are too mean and there is no pattern. Exam marks have to be handled with care as they do not give a full picture.

People take different routes to get to where they are. In my teaching career, I have seen students achieve tremendous success in life. I do not know what makes them successful. Is it their inherent capabilities, their luck, their fate, their confidence, their family support, their degree, their hard work, or is it a combination of all? But I know for sure what does not take them to the top — marks! Marks show perseverance, tenacity, luck, structured working, but marks do not and cannot define a child.

Mahi’s conflicts are understandable. She sees Noreen, the lovely child, who walked in 12 years ago and who has now ‘run away’ unable to fit into a world the school seemingly prepared her for. The teacher will say, “I followed rules.” The system will say, “We followed rules.” Then who failed Noreen? There is despair in her Facebook messages. Who will save Noreen? Is the world outside the school so threatening? Principal Singh has a challenge to face too when Mahi says, “We have more Noreens ripening for running away from home next year...” The school leaders need to give frequent feedback on academic, social, and behavioral performance of students. Coach the student in ways to organise and execute tasks demanded daily or weekly in school. Develop a home-school communication system to share information on the student’s academic, social, and emotional behaviour.

Making good human beings through character education is not an easy, one-time project. Building character is the work of a lifetime. Otherwise, how can an excellent education let the young — and society — down?

Teaching is a profession dedicated to fostering hope. With hope, comes obligation and responsibility, especially when, situations are complex. Those who are in this profession, commit their lives to protecting young people in their care. They will not give up hope on any child. As a profession, we have many sleepless nights. We anguish over those in our care, challenge each other on the best way forward, hope and pray that a young person makes good calls, and do all we can to develop character, impart wisdom and lead with hope. Teaching should be intended to nourish the student for his or her own sake; not just for CBSE outcomes.

Also Read: Case Study | Case Analysis By G. Gautama

The writer is Supervisor (Senior Section), The Indian High School, Dubai