Sunday, 11 August 2013

Moving towards a more Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in India

As a teacher of English who has taught for  almost two decades in a Government Aided School in Delhi, followed by a stint in a Diocesan school in the interiors of Haryana being run under the ISC board, and then back to a Public school in Gurgaon being run under the CBSE, I have felt  a very strong need for educationists and curriculum framers to move towards a syllabus which is culturally relevant. The same is applicable therefore to pedagogy! Pedagogy, per se might be defined as the theoretical framework on which a teacher builds himself or herself up, it is what defines the teacher, his methods, attitudes, and even beliefs as a professional. The crudest definition for Pedagogy is theory of education or teaching!
In a country which is culturally diverse as India, it is very difficult to frame a blanket syllabus that would cover all the sociological, cultural,geographical and even linguistic groups. It is in this context that any competent educationist would have to develop his own teaching strategies to accommodate cultural variations that exist in his class. For example, few students in schools studying in villages would have the ability to  understand the Cultural background of the characters in the Novel Hound of Baskervilles, introduced recently as a “long reading text” at the class twelve level. The novel set during the Victorian era might pose serious challenges for the teacher of English who is teaching the subject to first generation learners. This is also a problem faced by students and teachers in many of the Government Schools in the capital itself. How does the teacher create an understanding in his students about the social context of a novel that has been set in the past and belongs to an unfamiliar society?
If problems are faced while teaching  contextually challenging lessons to first generation learners in Government schools, the same can be said of students belonging to affluent families studying in Public schools but for different reasons.. One of the common questions made  by  students belonging to affluent families and studying in public schools , is about the relevance of reading lessons which have no contextual relevance to their culture or way of life. There is a shared reluctance (both in  first generation learners and learners belonging to affluent families) towards the  reading of classical literature including: poetry,prose and drama which is not contemporary. Some of these complaints are genuine while many more are mere excuses for not putting in more effort, perhaps driven by laziness, complacency, or perhaps even over confidence!
Culturally relevant pedagogy should address  exactly this reluctance to read literature which is is not contemporary, literature which students find it difficult to relate to, or literature which students pass on as being too easy and so  they don’t take it seriously. Appropriate teaching strategies should result in a collective understanding of the themes and issues present in a particular work, it should lead to students achieving academic success and last but not least it should result in the ability to develop critical consciousness-through which they can at least compare and contrast the themes present in the text and relate the same to every day life. This ability to make connection between important themes and those in real life is an important outcome of culturally relevant pedagogy. The student should be trained to understand and identify the common strands that exist between literature which is culturally diverse literature which belongs to the past and his own way of life, his own culture and popular trends.
How then, can teachers modify their pedagogy so that it caters to a  cross-section of the society a cross section of cultures? One way of doing this would be to use the students’ own culture as a means for promoting learning. Identifying suitable tools such as music, plays, and role playing, and perhaps identifying similar works of literature written by indigenous writers as a scaffold to what they have to read as per the syllabus would help a great deal! The reading of the Novel, the Hound of the Baskervilles could be supported by the viewing of a popular detective serial or film even if it has to be in the local language. One popular method used in the teaching of English in the state of Uttar Pradesh till date has been the translation method. Although exact translation of words might not be possible, students, however are better able to grab the gist of the lesson. This strategy would be ideal while teaching literature and sometimes grammar to students who are first generation learners, or those who do not have a very good English Speaking Environment! The reverse translation could produce even better results, such as the teacher writing the poem in Hindi and then asking the student to translate it back into English. For students who already have a fair knowledge of English, teachers can start with the filming of a film with a related story or theme. Teachers can start the lesson by asking students to read contemporary poetry which shares the same themes and concerns as the poem which has been prescribed in the syllabus.
Teachers and educationist who are adept in culturally relevant teaching teaching strategies view teaching as an art and not a skill. For them, somehow, it comes not from the adherence to rigid rules but rather the courage to go around rigid rules. These are the people who think of themselves as those who can make a difference to the society. They have more to give to the society than take from the society. These are the teachers who view themselves as active participants in the process of learning, they are not “Masters” of their subjects, rather they are constant learners, scholars who are equally happy to learn from their students. These are the teachers who draw connections between different lessons, they draw connections between lessons and real life situations, and are always ready to take a detour in order to scaffold or support the lesson with another lesson that has a similar theme and to which the students are able to connect to rather easily!
Culturally relevant pedagogy can benefit a large cross-section of learners both culturally diverse and socially disparate! Culturally relevant pedagogy should be used while teaching students with special needs, students who might be suffering from various mental and physical disabilities. Students who belong to less affluent section of the society, students who are first generation learners, students who do not have a good English Speaking environment will benefit tremendously from this strategy. Children who belong to more orthodox communities, communities which are linguistic, cultural, religious, and even Geographical minorities would benefit a lot if lessons which lack relevance to their culture were to be supported by first exposing them to a story in their own language and then connecting it to the lesson prescribed in the syllabus! But then some of the so called good students, students with a fair understanding of the subject also need culturally relevant pedagogy to help maintain interest in the subject. In many cases such students lose interest in the subject because they don’t find any relevance in the lesson. They believe that the themes in the lessons are out-dated,or that the characters in the lesson are too naive. What they don’t realise that many of the lessons deal with the universal themes of love and hate, loss and gain, evil versus good, spirituality versus materialism, and of course the importance of upholding moral values. For example linking the theme of upholding the higher laws of Humanity in the Class twelve lesson, The Enemy by Pearl S. Buck to those that exist in real life, can make students see the relevance of reading a story that takes place during the Second World War. The benefits of moving towards a culturally relevant pedagogy far exceed a pedagogy which is ossified by written diktats, formulas and processes. The teacher who adopts culturally relevant pedagogy is teacher who believes in globalism, a teacher who is at home while teaching his or her subject in in village school or even a public school. Culturally relevant pedagogy is about student centred learning it is about teaching strategies which are student centred!
Culturally relevant pedagogy should invariably be backed by an accurate assessment of the cultures of the students studying in his or her class. This is the phase in which the teacher learns more about the students with whom he is going to spend the whole year. It is about bonding, it is about getting into each other’s good books, knowing each other better. My favourite strategy is to ask my students to write a few paragraphs about themselves. This is usually in the form of a SWOT analysis, and often this exercise leads to instances where students learn more about themselves; their abilities, their fears, and weaknesses! Giving students the opportunity to write a poem, on a topic like, “Where I come from” or writing a paragraph on “ A History of Myself as an English Student” would be useful exercises! Students can also learn about various cultures through research on the internet, and projects with titles such as, “Life in the Metropolis” or even for that effect, “Life in a Village”. Sensitizing students towards each other’s cultures, taking them on expeditions - students of rural schools to  visit urban areas and students of urban areas to visit villages, and   writing  reports on such exchange programmes can all help make pedagogy more culturally relevant.

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