The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Unravelling mindless rituals of education
D.S. Cheema

Constructing School Knowledge
by Padma M. Sarangapani. Sage Publications. Delhi.
Pages 308. Rs 350.

Constructing School KnowledgeTHE author has tried to construct school knowledge studying a government-run primary school in a village near Delhi, which is eagerly developing into a small town. The book is based on the thesis presented by the author to the Department of Education, Delhi University, for a Ph.D. degree. The author spent nine months at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study at Tufts University, Massachusetts, on a pre-doctoral fellowship and many months in the village to study the teaching-learning process in the Government Boys’ Model Primary School. Perhaps, this is the first study of its kind in India which has approached the school to learn about schooling with the eyes, ears and tools of an anthropologist. The work is likely to make many educationists sit up and take a note of it.

The major challenge to education policies in India is to know the reality and relate the mundane, meaningless, mindless rituals of education in schools to the local ethos and socio-cultural situation of the teacher, student and community. A few inferences, which can be derived from this ‘new’ approach of the author, are given below.

Schooling is important to the children of primary schools in rural India as it prepares them for the adult world of work. It is necessary for ‘opening up’ employment opportunities. Every child looks up to securing a steady desk job with a higher status than the ones their fathers currently hold.


In village, children are characterised mainly by their playfulness. In order to become a bada admi, schooling demands that they must give up ‘playing’ to learn to become a model student who lives up to the demands of his teacher. The failure is a stigma in school and a symbol of inability of the very fundamental kind. The failure in a class is equated with social backwardness, financial dependence upon others and no chance of becoming a respectable man in life.

School knowledge is a storehouse of propositions from society, which is necessary for the child to know, and is put in the textbooks. A student may ‘know’ a formulae, theory or equation, but does he understand it? The children learn that they could be heard if they ‘spoke from knowledge or authority.’

According to the study, a textbook culture existed in the classroom. The teacher was the primary actor who decided what was to be done or not done as far as the teaching-learning process was concerned. So the classroom centred around the authoritarian teachers. Teaching the new lessons meant to know the ‘right answers.’ The students had to match the textbook answers, both for the content and language. The teacher never explored what the students were thinking, as they were not expected to participate in the teaching-learning process. The students expected even the ‘right questions’ and anything not in the textbook was not considered knowledge.

The regulation of knowledge is through the process of teaching and learning. Teachers in school, in which the study was carried out, used the ‘teachering device.’ It included pedagogic communication, the use of voice to give impression that sacrosanct important announcements were being made with authority and the students had no choice but to repeat these till they memorised them. The teachers used the other device of ‘teachering,’ the eyes, which ensured that children did not veer from the duty of memorising.

The students tend to adopt different ways of finding out and verifying knowledge Asking to know from others is an important activity, as they know whom to ask for what kind of knowledge. The person who can answer their questions has to be elder to them and the first expert/authority is the teacher. Remembering or yaad karna turned out to be the most important activity of the student, through which they acquired knowledge. They even requested the teacher to make them remember so that they could learn. The students did not differentiate between memorisation and ratna, though the teachers felt repeating a lesson again and again was memorising with understanding but ratna was without understanding. The author discusses the details of memorisation vs learning. The students believed that in order to learn they must memories. Many feel that memorisation is an indication of non-comprehension. Memory must not be emphasised to the point that knowledge itself becomes like a physical object and burden to be borne.

The study says the knowledge acquired in the school is not integrated in a child’s fabric of understanding he acquires from everyday experience. He develops an attitude that the textbook—the only source of knowledge he ought to have—has nothing to do with his local knowledge of things. The students do not develop reasoning with local knowledge, for example, placing their own village in relation to the country as a whole. The book has raised certain new issues for those designing the syllabi for schoolchildren.

Though the study is related to a village primary school, the inferences drawn are common to urban schools and perhaps at the college level also. The teacher has to be ‘developed’ and not only trained to understand his role in relation to the child, parents and society, and put it in the correct perspective while teaching.