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Class Struggle

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What is education for? Is it to transmit our collective social wisdom from one generation to the next, to pass on the best that’s been said and done? Is its main purpose perhaps to promote socialisation: preparing the young to work together as a society, follow its customs, and achieve social harmony? Or is it to equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need for independent adult life and the demands of the labour market? It’s a basic but vital question, and yet on my many visits to classrooms up and down the country, I’m not sure it’s one we’ve fully thought through in relation to the way we actually teach and learn here.

Classrooms are microcosms of the whole education system, and indeed in many ways of wider society. When all the conventions are implemented, policies drafted, plans made, training given, it’s here that the real thing happens. So what goes wrong?

Let’s push open the door, enter a typical classroom and observe from the side. This morning the geography teacher enters the class (bare walls, gloomy light, a fan turning slowly overhead) and offers a hurried greeting. The students dutifully chorus their response. She spends a significant amount of time taking the register and recording the details of attendance on the board.

Once the class gets underway, she writes up a short title and text. Some of the students appear to copy it down. She fires out a question, “How long is the Jamuna Bridge?” One student answers correctly and is ordered to sit down. She then asks the same question of six more children. All offer identical answers and are also told to sit. The next question is asked, “How many rivers are there in Bangladesh?” Towards the middle of the class, a boy who is called on mumbles an incorrect response. He is left standing, his eyes full of resigned shame: he has been here before.

Next we turn to the textbook and the class reads aloud one by one from its pages. More questions follow and all are answered by those keen students in the front benches. They look well fed and bright. They lean forward and follow the teacher’s instructions with eagerness. In the back row a student stares at the visitors for a while, then gets bored and looks out the window. He doodles idly on a piece of paper and opens his book slowly when asked. His exercise book is a collection of half-finished sentences, gaps, and torn sheets.

Towards the end of the lesson, students read out a piece they have written. All their contributions are identical: it turns out they have memorised and copied a section from the textbook. As the lesson drifts to a close, we wander out in silent torpor.

As an outsider here, this class (even though it of course doesn’t reflect the reality of every classroom in the country) offers up many questions about the basics of teaching and learning and how they reflect the wider purpose of education itself.

We could start with the physical environment. I can’t help wondering why there is so little decoration and so few displays of student work here on classroom walls. The message seems to be that the physical environment in which we learn is not worth our attention and bears no relation to the motivation and engagement of people who spend years of their lives within these four walls. Is it because students are rarely asked to produce something original and therefore worth displaying? Or that their thoughts and insights count for little anyway? Here is a place, these empty walls suggest, where you come to receive knowledge, not to create it.

Furthermore, few teachers seem to devote much attention to the emotional atmosphere of a classroom. There is often little in the way of relationship between teacher and student: in fact they seem to occupy different universes. This might be a reflection of cultural values. Clearly it would be inappropriate to suddenly look for much warmer relationships, but it’s difficult to see what purpose such distance serves, such complete disconnect between a teacher and her class, in which the teacher often does not even know the students’ names. Perhaps at base lies the idea that education is not meant to be pleasant or engaging. It’s a duty, something you put up with until you escape into the fresh air at the end of each day.

This emotional disconnect seems further encapsulated for me in the way teachers respond to students’ answers. Very seldom are words of praise or encouragement heard beyond the tacit acknowledgement of a correct answer in the command to sit. Is it simply the belief that children do not need such positive reinforcement, or again a sense that feelings, like physical environment, are unimportant?

Colleagues say, “This is not our way,” implying that children and young adults here have less need of praise. However, all learning, whatever your cultural background, means undertaking a risky journey. Surely confidence is a key factor in this. The relationship of positive feedback to self-esteem is obvious. Such confidence developed in early years can sustain us into adult life. Conversely, diffidence caused by negative responses from teachers can affect us long after we leave school. How can the confidence to try things out (and yes, even make mistakes) be served by leaving those students standing who get the answers wrong? Even as a mature adult, I’d baulk at the risk factor here. If my punishment for an incorrect answer is to be publicly humiliated, isn’t it easier to take the safe option and keep silent?

The isolation of each student from each other (they rarely have a chance to help each other or discuss an answer) keeps the class atomised and offers little in the way of developing social interaction skills. Meanwhile, as a back bench student, I can relax in the knowledge that the teacher will rarely if ever acknowledge my presence, let alone ask me a question.

The way we focus on those students sitting in the front of our classes sends out a strong message that only the successful are important, only the chosen few are worth bothering with. It means the lesson goes at a pace that suits them and those who cannot follow can be disregarded. As teachers though, our concern should not only focus on those whose family backgrounds, connections, and innate aptitude equip them to be natural survivors here. Their futures are guaranteed, but what about the majority of their classmates? It is they who need support most.

Turning to the lesson content, I wish I had a thousand taka for every time I heard a ‘display question’ (one whose answer is already known to the teacher). “How long is the Jamuna Bridge?” is a classic example. The glory of Bangladesh’s longest bridge is not in question, but surely we would do better to ask our children questions such as “What difference has the Jamuna Bridge made to people living either side of it?” and “How has it changed Bangladesh?” That would at least encourage our students to reflect and formulate opinions, and in doing so they could develop the crucial independence of thought that will serve them both now and in later life.

In our typical classroom, the way the question is asked once and then endlessly repeated points to a fundamental flaw. If we keep asking the same questions, which depend on recall rather than interpretation, we are merely asking our students to go through the motions, to jump through hoops like performing circus animals. Soon they become wise to this as they see it reinforced over thousands of hours of classroom time. It also discourages them from listening to each other. Why bother? We’re all saying identical things. The same applies to students reading the same text aloud, another staple of classroom life here (as indeed it was during many turgid lessons in my own adolescence).

A colleague tells a story of a teacher who visited a student’s house and then set the class the task of describing where they lived. The student duly produced a detailed description of a corrugated iron slum even though the teacher knew full well that the student lived in an apartment. When asked about this, the student saw nothing surprising — surely the task was simply to produce the requisite number of words, not to actually say anything meaningful?

Consider this contrast: recently I received a questionnaire by email from my niece as part of a school project. Fascinated, I attempted to answer the engaging questions she asked: “Are you a good learner? What are you good at and why? Are you good with people? How do you learn best?” Such questions seem designed to foster and promote an enquiring mind and also to focus on the key question of how we learn at all. She will benefit hugely from finding out about how to develop the skill of learning in an era when facts are no longer immutable but constantly changing. My niece, by the way, is seven years old, and clearly thinking for herself in a way we might never dare to suggest here at her age.

Perhaps the biggest problem in our education practice here, however, relates to the whole notion of memorisation: a method of learning which encourages conformity, passivity, and acceptance of what we are told rather than individual expression, challenge of received ideas, and analysis of the ‘truths’ handed down. Memorisation is a precise tool that has value only in certain, very limited contexts, such as learning vocabulary when learning a language. Apart from that, the only real skill it develops it that of remembering long pieces of text, and that’s not a skill I’ve had to call on once in the twenty-five years since leaving school. It’s considered an essential technique for passing exams as well of course, although even the most cursory glance at pass rates for the major exams here suggests that if this is the method of choice, it’s not really working.

Such classroom approaches and conventions can continue for decades. Teachers tend to teach as they were taught, and unless they receive meaningful training (not just exposure to exotic theories), there is neither reason nor incentive to change the status quo. The torch is simply passed on from generation to generation. At least now there are training programmes across the country trying to raise awareness of alternative practices and break this rigid mould, but there’s a long journey ahead, and these are just the first steps.

In conclusion, let’s revisit our opening question. It’s possible to say that education at its best can fulfill all three goals: transmit culture, offer guidance as to the kind of social practices and attitudes required in a harmonious state, and equip the next generation with key life skills. Currently, however, our typical class does none of these satisfactorily. Culture is best transmitted through being engaged with and understood, not memorised. The social skills we want our young people to develop are hardly fostered in our strict classroom atmosphere where co-operation is non-existent and competition to reach the front bench and to pass the exam is the dominant goal. As for developing key life skills, such as independent decision-making and the confidence to go on learning, over the years these students are implicitly told their voice counts for nothing, that risk-taking can lead to humiliation, and that the best way to succeed is by keeping your head down and repeating what you have been told. Above all, they receive loud and clear the message that reality is there to be accepted, not questioned. Is this really the kind of student we want to produce?

Which sectors of our society, we might ask ourselves, benefit most from a population that is systematically taught to be passive and uncritical and not to challenge the order of things?

This piece is based on my professional experience of observing classrooms across Bangladesh, but may also have resonances further afield in the region and in similar countries across the world. My work has been in the public sector schools, both urban and rural, catering to the vast majority of the population, not in the private English-medium schools that serve the elite.

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About Andrew Morris

  • Natalie Bennett

    Powerful piece. Thank you. And it is not just Bangladesh, by any means!