Education is a field that requires deep expertise. It is the coming together, in the form of practices, of knowledge and understanding, of a range of disciplines and fields.
The chat with me about his passion for working in education left him very unhappy. He was fortyish, with 20 successful years in the world of business. Since I get many requests for such chats, I have developed a method for mentally filtering who to meet (I wrote about this on 18 September 2013). He had passed this.
Since he had come wanting to hear my views, I shared candidly, as I had learnt to do in such situations. For a few years, I was confused on how to tackle such conversations, since much of what I think can be a dampener for someone considering getting into education. Here is what I shared with him.
Education is a field that requires deep expertise. He will have to develop this, and he does not have it. This is complex expertise. It is the coming together, in the form of practices, of knowledge and understanding, of a range of disciplines and fields. The practices are mental, meaning how to think, act and feel, and to know what knowledge to use. They are social, meaning how to behave and work with others. And they are systemic, meaning how to think and act in light of the larger context.
To clarify these abstract notions, we talked of some examples of knowledge areas that come together in the practice of education. First, in the classroom. An understanding of child development and psychology is essential. Understanding the influence of the home and social environment on children is critical. The nature of the subjects being taught and learnt, and their content, have to be well understood, and then integrated with effective pedagogical approaches. One has to know how to tackle the practical issues of any classroom (e.g. an angry child, children learning at different paces), and perhaps, above all, how to engage with children, since at its core this is a matter of human relationships.
Second, in the school. What kind of school environment supports the pedagogical approaches of the classroom, how does one organize and reorganize (because things always go wrong) the teachers’ time, the timetable, the school calendar. How does one prioritize the meagre resources available to make all this happen. How does one engage with the local community and parents of the students, how does one work with other stakeholders.
Third, in the system within which the school functions. What would be an effective curriculum, how does the system develop it, how is it reviewed, and how is it then implemented. How to develop textbooks for different subjects and grades, what efforts for inclusion of children from disadvantaged groups may be more effective, what kind of support do schools and teachers require, and how does one effectively enable change in the schools. What kind of teacher education is most effective, and how to make it happen, how does one prioritize the financial spending. These are all just examples, the reality is much more complex.
At this stage of the conversation, his impatience was palpable, and so I used the old analogy of the hospital. Just because someone has been through a heart surgery, has tended to a friend recovering from chikungunya, and feels very passionately about healthcare, he doesn’t start believing that he knows what the right protocols of treatment for various diseases are and how doctors, hospitals and healthcare systems can be more effective. Feeling passionate about education, having been deeply engaged in your child’s education, and yourself having been educated doesn’t qualify anyone to work in education as anything more than a beginner. And one has to remember that since education is largely about the hearts and minds of human beings, and healthcare is mostly about their bodies, education is a lot more complex.
While at this juncture, he was ready to leave, I did not let him go without sharing the two other things that complicate matters a lot further for anyone and everyone in education. The first is that there must be integrity and coherence in the practices at all levels of the system, across all parts of the system, and through time. Expecting teachers to help develop critical thinking in children, and then having archaic textbooks, a poor teacher education system and a rigid management culture is stark incoherence. While perfection is impossible to achieve in this matter, every action must be a move towards greater integrity and coherence, and that requires deep expertise.
The second thing that complicates matters is achieving clarity for oneself, as to what aims of education one is working towards. This requires an examination of oneself and one’s beliefs, which is not easy. It also requires a clarification of the good society, the good life, and the good human being, as one thinks of it. Eventually, one would want education to aim to develop such a society and such a human being.
He left unhappy, despite my emphatically telling him that all this doesn’t mean that someone like him can’t work in education, but only that he must come in as a beginner, ready to learn and unlearn. The reality is that educators with decades of experience are still at it.
Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.