A Brief Examination of the Education Systems and Processes in the UK and India by Hemant S.
There are many educational theories and each try to push its own view forward. My focus of observation was the ‘hands-on learning’ approach used in the UK primary school that I visited. I called it hands-on approach but its philosophical and epistemological underpinnings can be traced as far back to John Dewey’s ‘Constructivism’ (Dewey, 1944). Constructivism underpins the philosophy that learners construct their own knowledge. It goes on to expound that there is no independent knowledge that lies beyond what has been constructed by the learner.
Over the decades since Dewey came up with the constructivist theory, there have been many variations to its adaptation in classroom practices. Active learning is one such practice, where students are more involved in the task at hand and is opposed to passive learning, where the teacher is at the center. Before I go any further, I would like to take stock of the broader topic – what are the links between education and society? – and the highly nuanced and complex nature of this topic. While we can certainly reflect on this topic over an afternoon lunch, it must be looked at more critically from a practitioner’s perspective to find the hidden interlinkages. I am a new entrant to this field of study and I would like to lay out my premise by stating that it is a mutually synergetic relationship. What happens in one impacts the other and vice versa.
During my school placement, it dawned on me that we have vastly different practices in the UK and India. I am going to outline my observations before I move into the policy aspects underpinning it. The school was described by some of the staff as an underfunded school. This was meant in terms of personnel, resources and infrastructure. This caught me by surprise as a public school of this stature in India would have been categorized as excellent and parents would have been eager to get their pupils admitted to such a school. The next thing I learnt, and was fascinated by, was the level of integration amongst students – that is students who are perceived to be needing a special education in the same class as those of their peers.
In India, I have seen, during my school going days, school buses with the name ‘school for the deaf and dumb’ passing by the road while I was on my way to school. It struck a vivid image with me because there would be students in that bus who would be smiling and waving at me. I never knew where their school was located or what they learnt except that they were not allowed in our private or public schools.
The third thing I thought was significant is the collaborative nature of the learning experiences. Many factors contributed towards this – the seating arrangement that facilitated collaboration, the hands-on learning activities and the movement of students in groups from one work station to another. I was completely taken aback when a class 3 lesson began with pictures of a battery, crocodile wires, a bulb and a switch. The teacher then asked the students to ‘explore these materials on your table to see if you can get the bulb to light’. This was unheard of for class 3 level, as far as my experiences were concerned. I was waiting to see the teachers’ expression and observe how she would proceed when a whole class of 29 students would end up either breaking the bulb or causing some injury. As I went around the different tables, offering to help if they were struggling, I was amazed at what I witnessed. The students, by trial and error, were managing to get the bulb to light. Buoyed by this success, the teacher asked the students if they could introduce a switch to the existing circuit to control the bulb. Now, before seeing what I had just saw I was certain that this would not be possible for a group of eight-year-old students to do. I was pleasantly surprised that they did it in less than 15 minutes. My previous work experience in Bhutan had yielded similar surprises in working with a group of students who were 12 – 14 years old.
These experiences helped me understand that many cultural differences between countries begin right from primary school. Let me illustrate that with an example. There is no Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture in India. I was surprised when I ordered a chair online in the UK, it was delivered to me in parts and I had to assemble it. That would be unheard of in India. If you ordered something online, it would either be delivered in tact or an employee will come and do what is necessary. So much so, IKEA struggled with the Indian market for six years before opening its first store in 2018 and adapted to the Indian context.
‘Indian consumers are unused to traveling to stores to buy self-assemble furniture, Reuters reported. Instead, furniture is usually delivered to customers fully built. To solve this problem, Ikea has set up a 150-strong in-house team to help customers put products together.’ (CNBC, 2018)
Observing the classroom practices in the UK primary school gave me tremendous insights into one example of how education impacts society. If hands on activities are encouraged in schools, the learners grow up to be independent explorers. In India’s context, this was not the case. From my own experiences of being in a private school, if anything, parents and teachers were extremely over-protective. There was no room for experimentation. This was one of the topics I discussed with the teachers in the UK school I visited. They were amazed and felt that they could not imagine living without the DIY culture and gave me an example of gardening as a popular example of DIY in the UK. In India, if you had a garden meant you had agardener to tend to it, in most cases or you were an avid gardener.
If we were to analyze my experiences using Biesta’s purpose of education, the Indian education system and the UK education system would appear to have the same overarching goals of Qualification and Socialization in common. How this is practiced in each of the countries is vastly different. And, in the process, how it leads to subjectification of the learner is also very different. From my experiences of the Indian classroom, qualification is mostly achieved through a rigorous practice of the recitation method. Subjects are taught in silos and there is very little room for student expression. It would not be uncommon to have a teacher tell a student ‘don’t ask stupid questions. The Paideia model of teaching (Davies & Sinclair, 2014) would be unheard of in the Indian setting, whereas in the UK I was able to observe something similar. The socialization aspect of education in India needs to be viewed through the tumultuous history of India where it was colonized by European countries for over 400 years and major divisions were created along religious and ethnic lines which came to be known as the ‘divide and rule’ policy (Stewart, 1951). Hayden White’s theory of historical narratives would serve as a useful lens to view the political and ideological underpinnings of the education system in India (White, 1984). This, to me, feels like an example of how education is shaped by society which, in turn, is shaped amongst other things, by history. I believe Vygotsky’s abstraction of social constructivism in which society shapes the creation of knowledge helps explain the phenomena observed in India. The other major hurdle to socialization in India would be that of languages. India has 22 official languages, 122 major languages and 1599 other local languages (Census, 2001).
In contrast, in the UK, an inquisitive, collaborative and exploratory nature to learning is encouraged. The school that I visited had the same teacher teaching different domains and thereby making vital cross-curricular linkages as identified in the secondary national curriculum reforms (2007). Students were encouraged to pursue their interests and their opinions were sought after and valued. Socialization in the UK, I understood, focuses on respecting diversity and fostering inclusive values which, in turn, contributes to subjectification of an independent and informed individual. The freedom given to teachers to adapt to their learners’ needs were visible during my visits. Following the introduction of the new national curriculum for UK schools in 2014, the education secretary had this to say ‘…will free up teachers to use their professional judgement to design curricula that meet the needs of their pupils (Gove, 2013)’. This would be in stark contrast to what is practiced in government schools in India. In well-functioning schools, there will be a prescribed curriculum to follow with very little room for innovation. And on the other side of the spectrum, in derelict schools that have few teachers they will innovate to handle two or three classes of 40 students each simultaneously. While I appreciate the UK educational policy that affords autonomy to teachers, I would not be able to draw any meaningful conclusion on its effectiveness until I can observe more or carry a focus group with the practitioners.
Biesta (2010) also talks about the measurement aspect involved in education and this can be seen in the Indian context. Assessment in some form or the other has been around for centuries. The current model of assessment that we see in schools is however a rather new phenomenon, in the timescale of things (Berry, 2008). It is increasingly evident that it came about during the advent of the industrial revolution to secure a burgeoning workforce that was obedient and skilled at one or two tasks. In India, grades and ranks triumph anything else. Students as young as 10 attend school from 8 AM to 3 PM to be followed by additional tuition until 6 or 7 PM. I raise this point because it is felt that this is an evidence of society shaping education. The guilt and shame associated with faring poorly in examinations has resulted in a suicide epidemic engulfing India. The period from 2014 to 2016 saw 26,476 students committing suicide in India, according to figures from the National Crime Records Bureau. That translates to about 1.5 deaths every hour. The comparative number for student suicides in the UK is estimated to be at 95 students for 2016-17, according to the Office for National Statistics. I agree with Biesta’s argument that modern education has been measurement oriented.
In this section, I would like to raise some of my objections to Biesta’s purpose of education model. I feel he has failed to account for a lot of factors that shape the modern educational context. Education should not merely be about Socialization, Qualification or Subjectification. The purpose of education should be to lead meaningful lives that make the world a better place. Biesta, while touching upon some aspect of these, has failed to provide a holistic framework. This could be because the reality of education processes does not support this view. However, I feel any model that talks about education should factor in not only the lived reality but also an ideal to strive towards. Take the example of finance, for instance. During my education in India nor during my brief school placement in the UK did I ever hear any of the teachers talking to students about finances and the importance of managing it well. After all, it is a topic that drives many of our careers and lives yet it finds no prominent place in the school education system. How could this be? The easiest rationale for this is attributed to the industrial age education model that we follow where the purpose of education was to deliver obedient workers. The closest Biesta comes to this is when he talks about the ‘qualification’ purpose of education to equip learners with skills and knowledge. He does not lucidly outline how this knowledge is chosen to be imparted. Nor does he examine why certain knowledge is chosen. At best, Biesta’s framework tells us what is happening but not why it happened. And, I feel, it is the ‘why’ that shapes the relationship between society and education. This is not to say that there are no schools in the world that does education differently. The school that I worked for in Bhutan, The Royal Academy had an autonomous curriculum and a holistic approach to education (Hundred, 2019). However, if we were to follow Biesta’s prescriptive framework, that school would be excluded and be considered an outlier rather than an innovator.
In conclusion, my experiences suggest that the educational process and the practices underpinning them in the UK and India are vastly different. I have often been confused about the criticism of the UK education system by practitioners in the UK. I felt that it is a good education system and the criticism was unfoundedalthoughthere certainly are areas for improvement. The UK has a little over 10 million full time and part time students. Contrast that with 250 million students in India. Therefore, I feel that the UK is in an advantageous position and would be adjudicating its responsibility if it cannot serve these students well. The UK National Curriculum sets out, amongst others, this main objective‘…prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’And in my school visits I could see that students were being equipped with skills derived from hands on learning. Some crucial skills that I did observe were Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity. While the aforementioned soft-skills would not be as evident, if not entirely absent, in schools in India, there is another crucial distinction where India could be ahead of the UK. And this is also an instance where society shapes education. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, people in India had to book years in advance to get a landline telephone connection. In fact, having a landline was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Fast forward to present times, and nearly every household has a mobile device. Most of these households skipped the landline altogether and leapfrogged to the mobile era. Indian society learned an insightful lesson into the power of technology to be a great leveler. It is based on this understanding that schools in India introduced skill courses in Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and advanced computer sciences as part of the high school curriculum.
The relationship between society and the educational system, I feel, is tied to the historical context of the country. It is here that elements of the hidden curriculum (Giroux, 1978) seep in. According to the United Nations, education is considered as a fundamental human right. In many parts of India, until a decade ago, this was not the case. While the Indian constitution also recognizes education as a fundamental right, the state did not have the means to provide for quality education for all. After the liberalization drive in India and the opening up of the Indian economy, India began to make inroads into education. While the state of affairs still leaves a lot to be desired, it can be confidently said that the children of today have the kind of possibilities that their parents never could dream of. This is one of the main reasons why the pressure on children to perform well in tests is so high in India. In his framework, Biesta does not delve deep into the nuances and one of my major criticism of his work would be that it is not universally applicable. Another important point is the nature of colonization of India by multiple countries and the subsequent desensitization of the citizens caused by the violence of the occupying forces. Unfortunately, this has seeped into the education process where there is not much room for inclusion. I feel that society has a considerable impact on education and education in turn has an impact on all areas of society, especially economic.