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Learning is a deeply social human process, says Anurag Behar

In his new book, ‘A Matter Of The Heart’, educationist Anurag Behar delves into the issues central to education in the country

The kind of investment and problem-solving required to reform education systems has long-cycle effects.
The kind of investment and problem-solving required to reform education systems has long-cycle effects. (iStock)

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“I must tell you, if you want to understand education, the heart of the matter is that it’s a matter of the heart.” It’s from these words, which Anurag Behar heard his father tell someone, that he chose the title for his latest book, a collection of essays about education in rural India. Released by Westland India recently, A Matter Of The Heart: Education In India collects over a decade’s worth of columns written by Behar, Azim Premji Foundation CEO, for Mint.

Behar’s father is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer who spent about 20 of his 36 years of service in education. Behar too focuses largely on education, travelling to remote parts and interacting with students, teachers, politicians and policymakers. He encounters thorny, deprivation-led problems and people trying to come up with creative solutions. It’s this experience that forms the crux of A Matter Of The Heart.

Despite being very much in the prescriptive mode (the average newspaper column is expected to describe a micro-problem and then offer tentative solutions), this book is a concise, clear-eyed, empathetic document that offers original, thought-provoking insights into the nuts and bolts of Indian education. It’s sprinkled generously with literary and cinematic allusions, from Dushyant Kumar to Thomas Mann to Rachel Carson to Abbas Kiarostami. A particularly delightful chapter, originally written in 2016 after Kiarostami’s demise, recalls an evening in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, spent watching Where Is The Friend’s Home? with 30-odd schoolteachers. A Matter Of The Heart is highly recommended for every stakeholder in Indian education, especially policymakers and young parents.

Over a video interview, Behar speaks about the making of the book as well as his travels over the last decade. One of the recurring themes in the book is that while resources and an empathetic administration are important, it’s teachers who make the crucial difference to a small school. Edited excerpts:

What does the average trainee teacher learn by way of pedagogical methods—and how much does India differ from the universal “script”?

The basic idea is that even if your school is low on resources, if the teacher is good (and dedicated), they will figure it out—how to get a child interested, how to hold that interest, the areas that the child is lagging behind in. The pedagogy goes hand-in-hand with the subject being taught: The pedagogical methods for a geology teacher will be very different from math or language, for example. They are only similar at very high-conceptual levels.

Learning is a deeply social human process. The student is sitting in the classroom, they get distracted, they focus again…we are all familiar with this process, with this theatre of human interaction. The teacher has to understand a child’s needs, the development stage they are at, and adjust their approach in line with those needs. In India, until very recently, we had not acknowledged how acutely we needed training for our teachers, how badly our teacher-preparation systems were being run. However, even the most efficient teacher preparation systems in the world are not one-time events—a good teacher has to keep learning new tools and techniques throughout their life.

In the opening chapter, you mention how introducing school development and monitoring committees in Karnataka schools in 2002 was challenging. Politicians are loath to invest in education because it does not show immediate results for the election cycle. What are the political difficulties behind making strong, centralised investments (both in terms of money and innovation) in education?

Let me frame this properly—there is a deep or basic soil of politics and governance in this country, one that affects everything. It doesn’t have anything to do with education in particular. Then there’s the next layer of the education system itself, which has grown over the last few hundred years, shaped by culture and societal expectations. Finally, there’s the topsoil or the top layer, which consists of the existing education systems in various states. I have learnt that often, people conflate the issues of the basic soil with the issues that we see on the top layer.

Now, your question is about the base. And you are right—the kind of investment and problem-solving required to reform education systems has long-cycle effects. And even those long-cycle effects may or may not materialise. It’s a classic “wicked problem” (in policy, a “wicked problem” is considered extremely difficult to solve because of its intricate, interconnected nature and frequently shifting variables). One way to approach this is to focus on the things you can do with the topsoil or the top layer because when it comes to the basic soil, one cannot do drastically different things overnight—it takes a lot of time and will.

One of the pandemic columns, from September 2020, describes a woman saying her family would be unaffected by covid-19 since she never “interacted with Dalits or Muslims” (using a pejorative for both groups). This feels like a “ripple effect” of large-scale lack of education. In general, how much of a correlation did you observe between anti-science attitudes/anti-vaxxer sentiments and the lack of quality education?

Very little, I would say. When I was travelling with the Azim Premji Foundation during the pandemic, we reached nearly 100 million people across the country, about 5,000 PHCs (primary health centres). I would think that it’s far more correlated with the kind of effort that the public health system had taken to ensure that the correct information was spread among the public. I have seen rural areas where people would say “We will die” or “We won’t be able to have children” at the prospect of the covid-19 vaccine. And I have seen rural areas where everybody lined up promptly to get the vaccine as soon as they could. And similarly, for urban areas. I see very little correlation between formal education and anti-science attitudes or vaccine hesitancy.

The columns span a decade. You have done a lot of work, a lot of travelling, a lot of engagement with schools, teachers and policymakers. What are some of the major changes in Indian education since the late 2000s?

I can tell you a few things that have changed visibly. In 2010, when I started writing these columns, people from inside the education system were shouting at the top of their voices about how dysfunctional teacher education is—BEds and so on. But there was very little acknowledgment of this fact on the outside back then; this has changed completely. Have we been able to improve the system? Not yet. But we have taken important steps in that direction. I am hopeful that in another 10 years, we will come close to fixing this.

Another change is that this false idea that private schools will fix all of India’s education problems—this false idea has receded to the background. If you see the data, over the last five-six years enrolment in government schools is rising again. People are realising that too many of these private schools are basically shops with no interest in public education and no idea how to improve their systems (this does not mean that there aren’t good private schools, of course).

The third major change is that people are finally listening to what educators have been saying for the past three-four decades—that early childhood education (for three- to eight-year-old children) is absolutely crucial to the development of the child. Over the last four-five years, this has happened in a big way, in stark contrast to the situation in 2010.

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