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Touchstones of learning and living: observations from “Schools That Care” conference (Bangalore, India)

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(Reposted from: The Hindu.  July 31, 2017)

By Manasa Kambanna

Conference by the Teacher Foundation emphasized that an element of care must be brought not just in our curriculum but in our personas too.

“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Psychiatrist Shekhar Seshadri restated one of the most poignant examples narrated by apartheid crusader Desmond Tutu at ‘Schools That Care’ Conference, organized by The Teacher Foundation (TTF) at Indian Institute of Science campus, Bangalore. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, how then do you care?” asked Shekhar probing the limits of neutrality and opening up the floor for discussion on the concept of care. For him, caring begins when we show solidarity to the oppressed during persecution or abuse. “Bystander apathy is detrimental in creating an empathetic society,” he claimed in Vaad Vivad, a panel discussion that laid out the complexities involved in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in theory and practice.

Vipul Rikhi, a Sufi singer who is also a part of Kabir project at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology said, “SEL is neither an additional element to be introduced in the curriculum nor is it an abstract intellectual conclusion. As one of the dohas of Kabir spells it out –‘by reading and reading you become a stone and by writing a brick; in order to become wise, you need to read the letters of love’– the world is flooded with information and knowledge, but to live a life of meaning, we need to experience love. Once the word ‘love’ emerges, people get flustered because it destabilizes the system,” laughs Vipul at the enormity of love.

“Often the tendency is to control it, not being aware of the fact that the very nature of love is disorder. The beauty of it begins once we start recognizing that we all are ‘out of control’. For instance, a science teacher broke down in class due to intimidation by her students, but what happened later was stunning. Students became remorseful witnessing what a teacher goes through when bullied,” he narrated spell-bindingly. Vipul claims that if we ease out the shackles of vulnerability that we have so strictly suppressed, its expression many a times knits wonderful connections, making us more humane.

Shekhar asked, what is objectionable in the statement –“A black women took away my job”? While some were thinking of ‘black’, yet others said ‘women’. However, he picked the word ‘my’! He pointed out, “how spontaneously we feel we are entitled to riches and power in the world…..” This, in a way, was an explanation to the statistics Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International had mentioned in the beginning of the session that only two and a half percent of Indian population attend good quality schools and the rest go to poorly taught ones. Patel argued, “often the media and policy discourse also work within the elite educational sphere, so the narrative of education itself has to be broadened. SEL begins when the education system turns egalitarian.”

Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) added, “we have to be clear who are we thinking of when we discuss SEL.” He asserted that framework that is being developed by Roger Weissberg, President of collaborative for academic, social and emotional learning (CASEL) who was also the keynote speaker for the conference, can be implemented within the privileged sphere as it is similar to the US structure. However, he elaborated, “if we do not encompass all sections of the society, SEL becomes another cliché as talking of care but turning a deaf ear to the other section makes it superficial. SEL has tremendous potential if we see it as a system of thinking and being. Then it can be implemented anywhere, both in-school and out-of-school.” Nikhil, though is pleased with the idea of SEL, is sceptical of its seriousness and depth. For the implementation of SEL in our education system, he poses the question: “Do we have the compassion towards the majority of students who are under-privileged and the commitment to go through what we have realized in our minds?”

Asked of the means to implement SEL, Shekhar responded, “teachers should inculcate a culture of conversations with their students and not a practice of expectation and instruction. Teachers should create a collaborative space where children can express their differences without fear or favour as only through debate can we refine knowledge. Therefore, as a teacher you can be fair by creating equal opportunities for students which is by recognizing difference and creating opportunities to match that difference.”

Parth Shah, President of the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) too stressed on the element of diversity that is contained in the concept of equality in a parallel session on Right to Education Act (RTE). He said, “if we employ uniform inputs to unique children, the outcome would be unequal. Therefore it needs individualized input to get equal outcomes.

Unfortunately, RTE was conceptualized based on uniformity in order to standardize education system. Some of the RTE policies have to be re-examined. For instance, 25 percent of seats is given to disadvantaged kids in private schools. It is a welfare policy, no doubt, but the fact that they come from different class and backgrounds, speak different languages and are not trained in the etiquette and mannerisms that other children practise, they do not integrate into the system and hence experience exclusion .” A survey conducted by TTF also saw how external appearance has become a highly rated aspect for children to socialize in private institutions. Parth suggested, “as law makers and policy experts are not practitioners, to formulate SEL at the policy level it is advisable that teachers who are interested get together, only that would change the nature of the education debate in India.”

Chintan Girish Modi who works in the area of education for peace and social justice demonstrated in a plenary session, how the conceptions would change once the object of discussion is humanized. In an exercise that made children to respond to an invisible Pakistani sitting in front of them, few remarks of suspicion and hatred came up. But once Chintan described the attributes of the person, student responses changed. His description was: “what if the person whom you imagined as one with a moustache and a black gun were a two year old baby!”

When modern education system insists rationality, perpetuates exclusion and control, Schools that Care 2017 was a thought-provoking and an engaging space for teachers, educationalists and students to sow seeds for the future of human learning.

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