Saturday, January 2, 2010

Week 5: Education in India

Shown in the picture above are students at a Political Science Department party, who later provided us with a heartwarming New Years gift, a beautiful card with roses. With our daughter Sonrisa having returned to the U.S. this week, three of us were left to enjoy New Years Eve together, enduring a night of load fireworks and cat fights (yes, felines fight for territory here also)! Classes were held both New Years Eve and Day, though attendance was down on New Years Day – and classes were canceled for Saturday January 2nd. Today is January 2nd (though it is January 1st in Oregon due to the 12.5 hour time difference). For the record: yes we followed the Rose Bowl game in real time, but without visuals as our internet connection was too weak to allow for a video stream….. In any case, life goes on!

This week saw two courses (called papers) begin for me (Gandhian Thought and U.S. Government), with the continuation of a third (International Issues): all at St. Thomas College in Palai, Kerala. As this is the primary reason why the Fulbright Lecture Grant was awarded, it would seem timely for some comments to be made regarding my impressions of post secondary education having now completed one full month in India.

Some facts relating to Education at St. Thomas College may both be of interest and set a context for some of my observations discussed thereafter:

St. Thomas College (STC): approx. 1,800 students, over 600 of who are female post graduate (PG) students working towards Master Degrees. Founded in 1950, STC is one of a great many religious and non-religious institutions affiliated with Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU) which is located 10 miles away in Kottayam. Every course at STC has its required content/topics required in a syllabus set by MGU, complete with reading lists that are rarely updated. Each course is supposed to meet for a total of 90 classroom hours – but really manages only 40-45 hours due to holidays, strikes, and various political protests. Full-time students enroll in 5 courses per semester, each (ideally) meeting 1 hour a day for 6 days per week. On average, however, the reality is that the mandated 30 hours in class become about 16 (similar to a full-time schedule at my home institution in the U.S.: Portland Community College).

Religious educational institutions (like St. Thomas College: supported by Syrian Christians associated with the Catholic Church), have their Presidents (called Principals) appointed by their religious sponsors and all decisions (including what, if any films may be shown on campus) are decided by these people. Kerala state funding covers the costs of most all staff (except for an occasional self-supporting program) but not the buildings or maintenance (which are funded through a combination of resources provided by the sponsor, other donors, and crops that are harvested for sale on properties owned by the educational institution). As a condition for receiving state funding, any school with a religious affiliation must be open to students of any faith and cannot require religious coursework or attendance at any religious function. Such courses and functions do, however, exist as options carried out by faculty and staff paid with public money. In other words, here there is no Wall of Separation between Church and State, but rather a secular Government Accomodation to extreme religious diversity. How much neutrality may exist in that accommodation is largely left to the discretion of the individual educational institutions.

While blatant discrimination based upon ethnicity, culture, caste, religion, and gender is unlawful, equality of treatment cannot be assured. Affirmative action is very much in evidence throughout all institutions of higher education, with Reserved Seats set aside for approximately 20% of those admitted. This very controversial practice has recently been reaffirmed by the India Supreme Court and is now legally extended to socially disadvantaged groups including Adivasis, Dalits and Scheduled Classes (tribal peoples and those formerly known as untouchables), as well as to physically handicapped persons and other minorities (with minority status being determined on a state-by-state basis in India). Preferences given to admission, however, does not always translate to improved social mobility for the disadvantaged – as resources are generally scarce to help them improve their skills and complete their studies.

In the classroom, most students would seem very respectful of authority, quite friendly and eager to learn, even as they are significantly handicapped by structural realities. Conditioned by a society geared to status hierarchy and a British-legacy that emphasizes control and lecture-centered instruction, most students make no comments and ask no questions even when greatly encouraged to do so. They all stand when the instructor enters the room, sit when told to do so, and generally refuse to leave the room (even when dismissed) until the instructor departs. Notepads are filled with whatever information is provided and the accuracy of that information is never openly questioned. Put simply, this is an extremely passive learning environment.

Most faculty here almost exclusively lecture, making little use of any visuals (including the blackboards or whiteboards that are available), and encouraging few student questions. For most courses, textbooks are not required for purchase or to be otherwise read in the Library. Most students are too poor to buy books and too busy either with family or employment responsibilities to have time for library work. So it is that the norm of passive learning is reinforced by a reality that depends heavily upon instructor content competence and lecture skills. As is true in any educational institution (in India, the U.S., or elsewhere), competence and skills vary widely.

My very organized lectures are appreciated, while my distinguishing of opinion from fact is met with some confusion -- and my more dramatic and self-deprecating style produces a few smiles (as is my desire). While I have managed to create a fairly relaxed learning atmosphere and can now be well understood by most of my students (speaking more slowly and making each word distinct, while making maximum use of a whiteboard for which I have purchased my own marking pens), thus far very little verbal interaction has been provoked and busy hands taking notes on the gospel of Michael is the rule. Of course this reflects big problems on multiple levels: a) occasionally my information may be in correct, b) often my opinions are very unusual and clearly debatable, and c) there is no guarantee that the accurate information provided and the critical analysis I encourage will be in any way rewarded on the Final (called External) Exams which account for 75% of the performance evaluation for each student.

The structural reality is that every instructor is expected to cover a course syllabus set in stone by a higher authority, the Final Exam for which is neither created by nor evaluated by the instructor. The attempt is to effectively teach to an exam (allowing each student to benefit with marks as high as their efforts earn) -- without knowing in advance what questions will be on the exam, having only previous exams to indicate patterns of questions that may be included. This structural reality tends to reward memorization of facts by students (facts that may include commonly held opinions by those creating and evaluating the exams) -- rather than encourage creative analyses, critical thinking, or the forming of independent judgment. Since course syllabi are not frequently updated, this reality can translate to having students learn information and perspectives commonly accepted 20-40 years ago (when those evaluating the exams were students) -- information and perspectives then renewed as gospel. So it is that opinions, as well as the information base for those opinions, are extremely slow to change.

Recognizing that my teaching in this context could be a liability to student performance scores, I have chosen to team teach each of my three courses with instructors familiar with the system who can better prepare each student for their Final Exam. My contributions to the classroom include a) helping to update my colleague information base so as to contribute to both their knowledge and to their possible input into future syllabi change, and b) encourage the students to form their own opinions and develop critical thinking skills even though the system is not designed to reward such outcomes. In other words, I am acting on the faith that time will vindicate my efforts to promote active learning within a very traditionally passive and conservative (in the sense of slow to change) learning environment.

I do my best to avoid offending people in this process by both making fun of myself and knowing that most people expect the outsider to be odd. In fact, trying to be insiders here is hardly practical since, among other things, my wife and I (now joined for the next five months by my son Shaman) do not speak the local language (Malayalam) and have yet to encounter another non-Indian (white or otherwise) in this relatively rural area. We are looked upon with curiosity by many, glared at by some, and have been treated in a very friendly manner by most. A few close relationships are developing which help to sustain us and already can be seen as likely to become lifelong treasures.

Perhaps this weeks focus on education has been a little boring to those of you less interested in this topic. Next week my entry will be more varied, providing more information about our daily life routines where we live. While what is shared here may, in any given week, not feed your interest – I hope that, over time, insights of importance to you may find their way into words here.

May the New Year provide you and your loved ones with greater joy for life, an improved thirst for enlightenment, and such personal empowerment as may come from enhanced knowledge and skills as well as from your own internal exploration for Truth.

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