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Perspectives in Pedagogy- Shahnaaz Khan


This lecture was delivered as part of the History for Peace conference titled 'Beyond ‘Teaching’: A Conference on the Meaning of Education' which was hosted in Kochi through January 20, 21, and 22, 2020.

For a long time, the role of the teacher was to be just a teacher—non-existent as to who they were and what their reality was, and the student was supposed to be detached from what was happening at home. The student is just a student, not a holistic human being and the teacher is just a teacher, not a holistic human being. Your experiences as social science teachers, especially in this day and age, will tell you that students bring a lot of their experience at home and who they are. You would have noticed not just in your classroom, but even outside—conversations in buses, during lunch breaks, what you overhear in the corridors—and realised that the child is not just a student, but also a human being with inchoate identities, complexities to who they are. My endeavour is then to try and find means of transferring the lesson from the text to the student, where the student also develops a holistic identity and personality so that they are well adept to step into the world and deal with its many issues.

The session today will then be focussing on the ‘3 Is’, as I like to call them. In our journey today, we will move from Identity to Interest to Ideology—what do these words mean? What does identity mean to you, what is one word that comes to your mind?

Audience member: Reflection

S.K.: If I were to ask you, who are you, what would you say?

Audience member: My values, my behaviour.

S.K.: Then you could also say I am a teacher, I am a man, I am a woman, mother, father, I am from this region, from this religion—those are all aspects that come into our identity. But what is interesting is that our identities have three perspectives to them as well. One is the identity that society ascribes to us—if someone is born a Dalit, then that is an ascribed identity; that child has not taken that identity. The other identity is one that somebody has achieved. So if a child has studied and done well in class, then that child has achieved that identity—the ‘topper’ is also an identity, and a lot of the times the child’s relations with peers, and sometimes even with teachers, are changed or reflected in that identity. The third is the identity that one grows into or owns. If you work with older children, one example I could give you is that of sexuality or gender—that is an identity that a teenage child will understand and own as they grow. Even within the spectrum of religion, somebody could be ascribed to one religion but could convert and change to another religion, or even become an atheist.

From there, what is the interest of the child, or even for us?

Audience member: Ambition

S.K.: The ambition of the child, right? What does the child want? If you look at this in the wider picture, this applies to us, adults, also. We have our identities, and based on our identity our interests are moulded. Finally comes ideology—a word that is thrown around very heavily and sometimes has a negative connotation, especially if used in a very politically charged atmosphere. It comes from the word ‘idea’. If I were to break down your ideology, it would be your idea and your vision of the world. For the child, what world do they want to grow up into? The terms left, right and centre are just names of different kinds of ideas that people have on what the world should look like. Do you think these are connected?

Audience member: My identity may not be my interest, my interest may not be my idea. So, I suppose it is situational. My identity is based on a situation—I may be a father, a friend, a teacher. I have different interests. So sometimes we cannot compartmentalise identity and interest.

Audience member: It may be connected, it may not be.

S.K.: Sometimes, if it is not connected. Rather, it is a conscious disconnection between your identity and your ideology. That means you are not connecting that identity, that you don’t own that identity—you feel that society has given you that identity, so why should you think about it or accept it in your being? There is a journey between the known and the unknown with regard to identity, interest and ideology, especially for younger minds. You could start from not knowing and move to knowing, and after knowing move again to unknowing. So it is both linear—back and forth, as well as circular. How a child’s identity comes across and what do we do in a classroom to try and help the child to become who they want to be, not who we want them to be—we will explore this as we go further.

Are all identities immediately visible? So, if you are looking at me right now, there would be some aspects of my identity that you would be aware of. You would know my gender. I could also be transgender and not be sharing it with you, so my identity could also be invisible. There is also who I think I am or who I know I am. Similarly again for interest—you can hide your interest, you cannot show it, or you can make it visible, you can share it. Then you can also make sure that it is completely unwavering, the entrenched interest—that no matter what happens, this is what I want. We all understand ideology. For a lot of children, ideology is invisible and also unknown—then as they grow they will see it becoming visible and known. What we can try is for it to not become entrenched, to let our children grow and learn. I work with a group that is between fourteen to eighteen years old, and they now come with very entrenched identities and ideologies because of what they are experiencing at home or hearing about them. So immediately the child will come to class and start debating—you are leftist, I am rightist. Do they even know what that means—do they realise that people change as they grow? So how do we get them there?

An example is when we talk about identity in the classroom, we discuss some identities when thinking about reservation. If your classroom has both Dalit and non-Dalit students, Adivasi and non-Adivasi students, immediately their interests will clash. You’ll see that the general category children will say ‘Why should reservation be there’ and the Dalit children will either invisibilise their identity—they sit quiet—or of course if they visibilise their identity, they may feel hurt and things can turn into an argument in the classroom. Even if you are talking about religious issues, say the Moplah rebellion— a 1921 rebellion against the British—was it an issue between Hindus and Muslims or was it an issue between coloniser and colonised, which? How do you present this, how do the textbooks present it? How will your Hindu students react in contrast with your Muslim students? For a long time, we didn’t take those questions into account, but those children are reacting in their heads, and if we as teachers don’t help them navigate that, then who will?

Just to give you a background of why this is particularly important today—we are living in a world that has seen the IT revolution, the media revolution, the telecom revolution, and the information revolution. Everybody has a lot of information at their fingertips. The students who are active on social media have a plethora of information available to the via the internet—Google will tell you anything you want to know. The interesting thing that has happened is that we may think that we have within our reach all sorts of ideas, ideologies and understandings, but we do not. The way the search engine and social media work and show you results is actually called cyberbalkanization. You would have read about the fragmentation of the Balkan states of Europe. In the build-up to the First World War, between 1911 and 1913, there were these states in the Ottoman empire that completely broke apart and fragmented and had wars and violence. The term cyberbalkanization comes from there. So what happens is, today if I Google ‘all cats eat all mice’, all my internet will show me are videos, advertisements and links of cats eating mice. If I were to say that ‘not all cats eat mice’— the other side, then I will not be shown that. Instead, I will be shown the other extreme—that a mouse is eating a cat. This is just an example to say that the moderate view of the opposite side is not represented, and is coming from the arithmetic of how Google works. So this means that our identities and ideologies are becoming even more entrenched because I am only seeing what I already believe in. I am only visiting the forums that agree with what I say. The classroom is the only space that we can provide to our students to hear the other side respectfully, understand who they are today or what they think, and also know that it is okay to change that. Your ideology need not be connected to your identity. If I change my point of view, that does not negate me as a person, that just shows growth. Do these issues have some relevance to your teaching experience? I am speaking from my teaching experience; let me show you how then we go about answering these questions.

The question is: Where does the teacher fit here, in such a classroom and such a world? Maybe your students are not coming and directly talking to you in the classroom, but the conversation that they are having at home also seeps into this. So where does the teacher come in? And that is where the ‘fourth I’ of the picture comes in—your Involvement. This session will help us navigate the question of where the teacher step in when these issues come up and where the teacher steps out. How much of the teacher steps in and how much of the teacher steps out?

This is a snapshot of my NCERT grade 11 textbook, and this chapter is on citizenship. I will illustrate this with four different teachers. Teacher 1 comes into class and says, “Children please open page 80 to the chapter on citizenship. Read the first line: ‘Citizenship has been defined as full and equal membership of a political community.’ Please underline this. This is your definition which you have to write when asked in an exam.” The teacher then goes on to the next line and it goes on like this, breaking it down and making the language easier for the child. That’s about it. We would have had some of these teachers while we were growing up, who were to the point and textual.

Teacher 2 comes in and says, “This is your section, divide yourself into groups and assign different paragraphs. Come and tell us what is written in the text—do you agree, do you disagree, and share that with the class.” The students will share this, but the teacher is sitting quietly as an observer, letting the children express themselves and not really commenting on what the children are saying. The children will have a lot to say, especially because it is such a current topical issue.

Teacher 3 assigns the same group work to their class. This teacher guides the classroom discussion with more questions. This teacher begins with the question “Is it important for you to be an Indian citizen?” before even beginning with the text. Then they ask what makes a good Indian citizen according to you, and the children will give their answers. Next, the teacher will ask if the students see anything of interest in the images next to the text. They will ask if anything is of interest to anyone here that is striking in the two images. The image on the right is that of a protest, and the one on the left shows people of four prominent Indian faiths, and could perhaps be read as an image of secularism. Then Teacher 3 will ask a question, that in the chapter called citizenship, why is the first image showing religion—what is that doing to your head? The textbook makers have not done it out of malice or wrong intent, but do you see how I guided the discussion with my question?

Teacher 4 comes in and after guiding this discussion says, let’s get into groups. Or even if the teacher works with students and their individual identities, they will ask, “Do you feel is citizenship for you?” If it is older children and you have given them a brief overview of the Citizenship Amendment Act, you can then ask if they think that the act affects them in any way. In fact, not just older children, I have had children in grades 6 and 7 ask me about the CAA because they are hearing these conversations. We cannot escape them. Even if these are children who I don’t teach, they find me in the corridor and ask me because I am a Political Science teacher. Since you are social science teacher, children may come and ask you, “Ma’am, what are people protesting about?” And once they are sitting there, the conversation unfolds. As the children are discussing, teacher 4 also shares how CAA would impact them. So, they bring a little bit of themselves also into the classroom discussion.

So let’s see, what role did each teacher play? The one on the left says ‘indifferent’; which number teacher would this be? Teacher 1. So if the circle is the identities of students and their holistic being, then the journey to where the teacher fits in here. The teacher on the left is Teacher 1 because they just came, explained the text and that’s it. So, teacher number 1 brings no aspect of who they are—I am a teacher, you are the students, this is the text, that’s it. You see then there is a disconnect or a difference between the teacher and the students. I am not saying that that is bad. We will also look at the pros and cons of each. But I am saying that this is the role of the Teacher 1.

Second, let’s look at the observer teacher—Teacher 2. So, what is this teacher doing? The teacher gave the students a group exercise and let the discussion unfold, understanding what the children understand, but they did not give their point of view. Surely, they will tell the student if the student is saying something incorrect. In terms of the wider discussion, the teacher will not really comment but will observe and keep it to themselves. So, teacher number 2 is just touching this sphere, not coming inside.

The third teacher is the facilitator. Starting the discussion and even after that, guiding where the questions were going. That means that the teacher will be able to get out what they want. Keep in mind then that the questions will reflect what the teacher thinks or believes or wants the children to look into. We have limited time in the classroom, so we have to take it to the things that we want students to think about. That will somewhere inherently be guided by what my beliefs are, whether we accept it or not.

Finally, the teacher who is completely within the sphere—the fourth teacher. She said to the students that you share some of you and I will share some of me and then let’s have a complete discussion. Let’s look at this from different perspectives. When children are sharing their thoughts, with the example of CAA—how a Muslim child would interpret it may differ from a Hindu child's or a Christian child’s interpretation. Especially in Delhi or Kolkata where I come from, there will be some children who trace their lineage from Bangladesh—how would that child interpret it? Teaching, you would all agree, is not just about classroom interaction, it is about creating a bond, a relationship with your students. Isn’t that the most fulfilling part of your job? When your student shares with you, comes to you in times of need because the student knows that that teacher will be there for them. When we share a bit of ourselves, we make the other person lower their guard because they think that you trust them. So if you think that I trust you, then automatically, a little part of you will start to trust me. The participant also then works because children who may be very shy to share will also do it when they see that the teacher is sharing. Maybe, they will do it in the classroom setting, or they may see you outside by themselves and share it. That is also all right.

Let’s look at what you think the pros and cons are. So, what do you think is the good thing about the indifferent teacher?

Audience member: She will finish her portions fast.

S.K.: Absolutely.

Audience member: We can see that the teacher image, which is presented first, is outside the circle, then it is coming closer and finally it gets in the circle. So she is coming closer and getting along with the children.

S.K.: But if I was to say that you could imbibe just the role of the indifferent teacher? See, it is a cycle. It is not necessary that from the role of participant, you can’t go back to indifferent. But if it is just the indifferent teacher, do you see something good in that as well? Isn’t this teacher the most unbiased and objective? You can’t question the objectivity of the teacher. They are reading and explaining the text. Does that have a role sometimes? What is not so good about the indifferent teacher?

Audience member: The bond is not there. The students don’t feel connected.

S.K.: So the biggest thing that is standing out is that the bond is not there. There is also no in-depth discussion. So, if you are talking about citizenship, the teacher will just talk about it theoretically and end it. The students may have questions.

Moving on to the observer—Teacher 2. Is there something good about the role of the observer?

Audience member: She teaches students to study independently.

S.K.: So the observer makes the students independent thinkers. It is not necessary that the teacher will have the complete picture. The students may bring up something new and innovative that the teacher has also not thought about because she has left the discussion or the interpretation open-ended. So it gives you that wider space to work with. What is not too great about the observer, or can we think of any situation where the observer would not be valid?

So, for example with reservation (referring to the Indian constitutional policy of reserving seats in institutions to ensure the representation of marginalised identities)—that is something we teach a lot—if the students keep talking and the teacher says “Let’s have a discussion or debate around this issue,” and one group takes over the debate, whichever side it is, the teacher will not step in to ensure that things are balanced, although the teacher will maintain content and discipline. But for example in the reservation debate, if students say “no, it should be removed” and you see that there are a few students who don’t agree with that, and they are not getting a chance to speak, the observer teacher will not step in. The observer teacher will let the discussion take place, paying attention that discipline is maintained and nobody is hurtful. So we don’t forget our role as teachers but how much we step in as people and not just teachers is the question.

Next is your facilitator—Teacher 3. Would you say that many of you are facilitators in your classroom? What is good about the role of the facilitator? For the observer, you may let them waver, if you think they are coming up with something innovative and new. Let the discussion happen and you see where students take it. So if students take reservation to the colonial period—how colonial history has shaped our identities and start discussing that, you let that happen. Students may take reservation to reforms in education, you let that happen. Sometimes, they may bring in pop culture—cultural references and media references so that they can relate to it and make it relevant. But, the facilitator is guiding the students. What could be the not-so-good thing about the facilitator?

Audience member: Maybe, we are correct as teachers or as facilitators, but with regard to the children’s discussion, sometimes we may impose our own ideas as facilitators.

S.K.: Absolutely, the facilitator can show their biases regarding where they will take the discussion. But bias does not have to be negative. All of us as individuals have our opinions and our understanding, so the facilitator may reflect that in the kind of questions, they ask. The fact that I pointed to the image in the chapter on citizenship, does that not show my bias in that I want to bring up CAA in the class? It is my decision to do that. It would be my bias that I find it important. Another teacher who does not find the issue important may not bring it up.

Finally, you have the participant—Teacher 4. So, what is good about the participant?

Audience member: The real relationship between a teacher and a student is fulfilled when both the teacher and the student actively participate in any kind of activity or presentation. It becomes a platform where both the teacher and the student are learners.

Audience member: Students don’t know the teacher in person or about their personal experiences, they only come in as subject experts who deliver and go. We can guide them by drawing from our diverse experiences. So when we share our personal experiences, children feel connected to the teacher and they realise that the teacher is not just a teacher but a human being as well.

Audience member: The participant teacher has a more democratic class, where the students and teachers get involved and you create new things, thus taking the children to a higher level than where they were at the beginning of the class.

Audience member: The participant teacher will also motivate those students who are in their own shells and she will teach them how to be active citizens in the future.

Audience member: If the teacher has to be a participant, then she should come with lots of extra information and there needs to be some planning, and students should also be given some time. Only then will the role of the teacher as a participant be fulfilled.

S.K.: Do we see any cons with the role of the teacher as a participant? Let’s say I am discussing Partition and we are talking about the violence that the Partition caused. Then if I say that being a Muslim, my family from 2-3 generations ago had to run away to Pakistan and a lot of them were raped and murdered. Will this affect the classroom and the discussion—can it also have a negative effect?

Audience member: They will understand that a particular section is not being treated properly, and that will go to their mind.

S.K.: Yes. Also, students who don’t agree with my experience will then not participate as much. What happens is, once I step into this role of the participant teacher, then stepping out of it becomes difficult. If as a participant teacher, I share my views, rather some story on how the economics of the country should be—possibly that this scheme helped me, or education being free helped me—somewhere I am showing my interest and my ideology, even if I am not saying it in those many words. Now when I am talking about economics, they will know where I am coming from and they will always have it at the back of their heads that this is what the teacher believes in and you may influence the class more than you set out to do, depending on how the students feel about you. If a student is very fond of this teacher and respects the teacher, they may start thinking the same way and if a student does not like the teacher then they will think they will not agree with everything that that teacher has said. So what I want to point out is that all these four teachers exist around and within us, but when it comes to having these conversations in class—particularly as social science teachers because students are coming and asking us these questions—who we are at what time is very important.

You may think that the indifferent teacher is absolutely redundant, but that is not the case. Sometimes you have to decide to be that unbiased and objective—that could be the nature of the topic or also the practical constraints. Sometimes you have to take a step back and just observe. Being the observer means letting go, which can be difficult as a teacher; you do want to retain some control over the class. But the observer lets go.

I think we would identify with the facilitator to a degree, but it is important then to see our biases in how we facilitate. So when you are the facilitator, be very conscious of that. Why am I asking the questions I am asking? What is my hook question? In citizenship what is my hook question? I can begin with ‘What makes a good Indian citizen?’— students will respond to that according to what they have studied, read, heard and talked about—to be a good citizen is to vote in elections. If your students are old enough to understand ‘stateless’, the hook question could also be: Do you think those stateless or without a country should be allowed to live in India? Third, I could point towards the picture and ask, why does the chapter on citizenship begin with 4 prominent religions, and also why is the focus on the 4 prominent religions—is that all there is to India? There are many more religions and there is much more than religion. When I have shown this to a grade 11 student, consciously or unconsciously the student has imbibed something. Which hook question I’m asking and how will that show my bias? The teacher needs to realise and be very conscious of that; students will not realise that. If I am taking the discussion in this direction, then why am I doing that? Do I want to and then will I be able to navigate it in the other direction?

We have the Anne Frank exhibition going on. When we talk about Nazi Germany, what are some of the hook questions that you begin your class with?

Audience member: We will start with Hitler because he is a known person. We will talk about his ideology, what he did to the people.

S.K.: Yes. Hitler is a villainised individual that is already there in everybody’s mind through the media—it is there in our everyday parlance, “Don’t be a Hitler”. The moment we begin the discussion around the ideology of Nazism with the connection to this villainised individual, does that reflect my bias?

Audience member: I have seen children who admire Hitler a lot. I can’t condemn their ideology by becoming biased just because I don’t believe in Hitler. I will say to them, “Let’s go through the chapter and then I will ask you at the end of the chapter what you feel about Hitler”. But consciously I am trying to make the child not like Hitler. This is how somewhere I am biased.

S.K.: So somewhere you know those biases are there because we want to create humane individuals. An unaware student may connect with Hitler because they see Hitler as a leader figure who tried to change the system and that is very appealing to young minds.

Then we also need to understand where this student is coming from. That student is also coming from somewhere, the student is not coming with the idea that “I want to kill millions of people”. So what is that child’s understanding of their identity? What is that child’s interest? What do they see their country being? What role do they see themselves playing in that country? What role does power play in that? Who is the other human? What is the connection they have made from there to the ideology where they are ok with something like fascism? One way is that we connect the villain immediately with the ideology. The other is that at the beginning, you have the students trace the history—Germany is made of German people, not exceptionally different people, the people are people. So, why was it that an entire country was okay with this? And that will make the child look at what made an average German not just vote for Hitler, but be okay with his rise to power, be okay when he was building the concentration camps. There must be something that the ordinary German was feeling that they didn’t do something about it. Do you see how that question does not automatically attach the villain to the topic, but also makes the students prod deeper and look at themselves? If you were an ordinary German in 1931, how would you have reacted to Hitler? You could show them a video of Hitler talking. So what is he saying, is that appealing?

There were two interesting things that came out of the Nuremberg trials that happened post the demise of Nazi Germany and the end of the Second World War. There was this philosopher known as Hannah Arendt. She said that she wanted to find out how these people who were on trial go about doing this. They seemed like regular, normal people—men and women with homes, families, good neighbours, and members of the community. That is the question you ask even while communal riots happened—my neighbour did this to me, the person who I would buy groceries from gang-raped me. What makes people do that? So she coined a term called ‘the banality of evil’. She said that evil is so banal, every day, and present in all of us that all you need is permission to be evil, which Hitler gave you. If those in power give you permission to be evil, then will we be evil? Hitler’s Germany is an excellent example of that.

Then there was this other journalist who was sitting there and said, “As I heard those war criminals come and talk, I tried to find what was common between them, what connected them, because maybe then we can work towards not letting history repeat itself.” He said that the one common thing that he found was the lack of empathy—they didn’t care for the other human being. It was said this morning that the power of education is to make humane from human. So perhaps that ‘e’ is for education and for empathy. When we discuss our identities—biases and prejudices—and understand what the other is also bringing in, that’s when we develop everything. Because firstly I need to reflect on who I am, why I think, say or do the things I do—why do I feel discriminated against or wronged, when was it that I felt treated unfairly and why? When I am able to identify with that emotion within, then tomorrow if somebody says that I feel discriminated against, wronged or unfairly treated, a part of me will be able to relate to that. It may not be the same issue, but we will be able to relate to that emotion. Just like if you have known hunger, and someone else says I am hungry, you are able to relate to that person better than if you have never known hunger. If you have known the demise of a loved one and someone else loses a loved one, then you will be able to feel their loss a little better than someone who has not lost a loved one.

So it is very crucial to keep this in mind in our classroom when we take on one of these four roles. Even when I am sharing as a participant, which is the story that I am sharing? Because that will impact the child lifelong. It is possible that years later the child will remember that my teacher in X grade told me this. We cannot imagine all the impact that would have on the child. But if we understand as teachers where our children are coming from and who they are, then we will pick the stories that we think will mean the most to them. Somewhere, even if you are a participant, you are still the teacher, you still have to guide and inform their thought in a way that they become those humane individuals that you want them to be. For example, my hook question will not be “What was great about Nazi Germany?” or “Enlist 5 things that were great about Hitler”—those will be difficult questions to ask.

We will not do that because somewhere we want our children to understand that what happened was not right.

Does everyone have those 4 coloured flashcards? Now that I have shared a few experiences from my classroom, I want you to share some of your experiences from your classroom, beyond the classroom—it could be what you hear in the corridors, on the bus, or during lunch. It could even be a lesson that you plan on teaching which raises these critical questions. Each of these 4 flashcards represents one of the roles discussed earlier. So while one shares their experience, others should flash what role they think the teacher would play. There is no right or wrong here. Only through discussion and conversation will we better understand when it is better to play which role and when it is ok to step back and play the other role.

Would anyone like to go first?

Audience member: This was in grade 7 where we have a topic called ‘Democracy’. As the lesson went on we would keep putting questions to them. There was this one boy who would scribble with the eraser on the table and I would not expect him to answer. I had just asked a question: What do you mean by tolerance? So this boy gets up and says Rahul Gandhi. So I asked why he was relating tolerance to Rahul Gandhi. He said that’s because he is tolerating Narendra Modi being the prime minister. So that is his understanding of the concept of tolerance, and I didn’t say whether he was right or wrong. I was happy that he was listening and he had something to share.

S.K.: If you had to teach that chapter now, what role would you pick? Do you want to tell us a little about that chapter or any one lesson you do in that chapter, so that we could also participate and discuss which role would be ideal?

Audience member: Some lessons we teach are ‘What is tolerance?’, ‘What is democracy?’, ‘How do we elect our ministers?’

Audience member: Is democracy tied with the polity only? Is having the right to vote democratic enough or is there more to it than that? Then which role would you pick if you are discussing that? Flash the card you think shows the ideal role in this.

We have a few for ‘participant’ and a few for ‘facilitator’. So, those who have chosen facilitator, what is stopping you from choosing the role of participant? Those who have chosen participants want to go all in, but for those who have chosen a facilitator, why do you think you need to not be the participant and only facilitate?

Audience member: The student needs to understand what the meaning of democracy is. So, the teacher can facilitate the discussion to make the student understand that—the role of the citizen in a democracy, and the ways in which leaders are to be elected. For this topic, I would like to begin by playing the role of the facilitator. Then if the child wants to know more, I will play the role of the participant. I could be both a facilitator and a participant.

S.K.: For those who want to participate, what would you share with your students?

Audience member: Suppose we are talking about fundamental rights, I will talk about what rights I have in the classroom and the rights they have in the classroom and why it is democratic. Then I will let the student also openly discuss their thoughts, which will make it democratic.

Audience member: Democratic rights also come with their limitations. We can express our views, but that freedom also has certain limitations, which we could then explain to the students.

S.K.: As a participant teacher, if we are talking about the right to freedom of speech and expression, I could give two stories. One would be that I live in Uttar Pradesh and a friend of mine had posted something criticising the chief minister on Facebook and the police registered an FIR against that friend. This could become a hook. Participant teacher can make this a hook because they are giving a real lived experience story. One is that you give your story and the other is when you ask the child for a story. Since you are a participant here I am only giving a teacher’s story. The facilitator can ask for the child’s story. The other story could be that I have friends who are very critical of the current government on social media, but they are allowed to be so because we have the right to freedom of speech and expression. In fact, I have a friend who is an activist. They constantly go and file RTIs and come back with a lot of information, therefore constantly questioning the government. But nothing happens to them and they are allowed to question the government. Both are stories in which I have shared a bit about myself—the stories need not be directly about myself, but those two stories would change what the output of the class would be, changing the learning objective and the discussion that would take place.

Is there any situation where, while talking about rights, teachers could just be observers? Ask the students what freedom of speech is to you in your everyday life.

When designing a class or a lesson plan it is important to realise which role has prominence, because your lesson objective, discussion, understanding and output will be moulded around that. It depends on the topic, on the class, who your students are and how much you know about them. So which role you play when you walk into the class for the first time, versus which role you would play when you walk into the class for the fiftieth time also differ.

Audience member: Sometimes, a teacher must also start their teaching with the indifferent role and then end up in the role of the participant. Would you agree?

S.K.: Absolutely. That is why I said that you should not discount the role of the indifferent teacher because sometimes you need that level of unbiased objectivity.

Audience member: When it comes to a topic like ‘Gender, Caste and Reform’, we have to be indifferent, because it would be very difficult if we are very biased. The differences due to discrimination and problems exist even now, after so many years of independence. Even if we leave out the element of gender, when discussing the topic of communalism, we have to be indifferent to the topic, otherwise, it would hurt religious sentiments.

S.K.: If that is the topic being discussed, what role do you think the teacher should play? Please show it with your cards.

Audience member: In the case of the United Arab Emirates, I have to be indifferent only because we cannot teach these terms there—communalism, religion, caste and also names of certain countries, or anything related to discrimination against one religion. So we give them assignments and are indifferent teachers. Whenever the students have doubts, they will come to the teacher and ask personally.

S.K.: That is a very practical constraint that you have mentioned. In teaching citizenship, I could go in as a participant and discuss how this will affect me and my family, and because of the way it affects me, this act should not be there. As a school teacher, there could also be constraints. Some schools may not be ok with that, which I understand. So, when we are talking about communalism or religious discrimination, I want to see your flashcards to understand which role you think teachers should play.

I see observer, facilitator, indifferent, participant. So, that is how difficult it is because even in this small group, all 4 roles have been covered. If you ask me what is the correct answer, I would say the right one is practical constraints. However, teachers should always ask questions. Across any of the despotic regions of the world, some of the first people to be jailed are writers, teachers and journalists.

The other point to consider is who is your student. Would it differ if you are teaching a homogenous class of 1 religion and you also belong to that same religion? Which role would you play then?

I see participant, observer.

Audience member: I should share my experience here. Children in the 21st century do not support any religion. They only support humanity. They never fight about religious identities. It is the teachers who are mingling with this thought process. This is my observation, it may however differ according to region and section. Now, with humanity as the basic premise, the answer that students give is that they want to go to a hospital and do seva (service) rather than go to a temple or a church.

S.K.: Yes. Now, coming back to the topic of reservation, if the discussion veers towards the question of why minority institutions are allowed to have reservation for their community members. Some minority institutions are very prestigious in the country and some of our students may want to study there, where the general category may feel that will not get admission even if they study harder than others—do you think religion would then come in? What the gentleman mentioned was very important. I had earlier mentioned identity being ascribed versus identity being owned. The students may not agree with the religious identity that has been ascribed to them, but the part of it that is connected to their interest in shaping their ideology.

Audience member: About having a homogenous class of students from the same religion where the teacher also belongs to that very religion—there we need to teach the students to be tolerant of all views, positive and negative comments about religion.

S.K.: That is the aim, but getting there is challenging. So now, let’s look at scenario 2 where your class has a majority of one religion, and there is a minority of another religion and the teacher is discussing about religious discrimination and communalism, with the teacher in this case belonging to the minority religion. Which role should the teacher play? Understand that students also know that the teacher belongs to a minority religion.

Audience member: In one of the sections that I teach, the students are always ready to have a discussion about whatever happens to be the current topic—CAA, reservations. There I find that 2-3 students are always against the entire class. The teacher is a human being who should always remember that there is no caste or religion for her students, they are all human beings to whom she has to be just. So all 4 of these roles are useful for us as teachers. With regard to reservation, we need to first tell them what the Constitution wants to say—the right to reservation does not mean the violation of equality. Then we need to tell them what the past was. Every country has a different history and that is why the arrangements exist as they do. If one wants to bring a change… I told my students about the PIL (public interest litigations) and their right to file a PIL, but I am in no way provoking them or telling them to do that. If today you feel that reservation should be based on economic condition, then you can go and fight for that. Democracy is about political rights, and if a change is to be brought, that will come only with the active support of the people. So they went and filed a PIL and are waiting for the results. But first, it is important to be a good human being.

S.K.: That is a great initiative by your students. Also, this government has now passed a law for reservation for the economically weaker sections of society. In grade 12, we talk about communalism and discuss that all religions need to be treated fairly and equally in a secular country such as India. Then, I talk about Godhra riots. Two things to note here are that when I say the identity of students, that is in no way to discriminate against them, never. Secondly, nor will I ever thrust my identity on them. My class is comprised of a Hindu majority and a few Muslim students, and they know that I am a Muslim because of my name. When I talk about the Godhra riots, I talk about who caused the Godhra riots, who suffered the most and what were the repercussions. If you were in that class, what would you like for your teacher to do—would you like for her to be indifferent and teach the text as the text states it? Would you want your teacher to initiate a discussion but not step in at all, just observe from outside? Would you want your teacher to guide the discussion through questions and comments? Or would you want your teacher to step in and share a little bit of themselves so that the student also shares a bit of themselves?

Audience member: I would personally prefer a mix of facilitator—who would give us the information and guide us towards the questions we should be asking ourselves—and participant—who shares their own experiences, particularly for something that is so relevant today in Indian history and Indian politics that it is hard to separate it from the emotions of what happened. And if you were to separate it and treat it just as general knowledge, as a compilation of facts, then it takes away from the learning of history. I don’t think the teacher needs to hide her identity or her beliefs because that only supports the classroom, it does not take away. Putting that impediment within the teacher also supports the idea that there are differences, but at the end of the day, history is about understanding differences and moving past them, and not about focusing on them and letting them divide us.

S.K.: That was an excellent insight from a student who just finished school last year. At the end of the day we may think we are being objective, but can we actually be that? We cannot hide the fact that we are who we are. Also, keep in mind that assuming the role of the participant does not mean that I have to keep going on about my own stories. If we are discussing Dalit issues, then I could share that a very close Dalit friend of mine was a victim of sexual harassment at her workplace by her immediate boss who was also a Dalit man. She filed a case against that man. Since both of them are Dalit, the Prevention of Atrocities Act does not come into play, but the boss who is a Dalit man filed a POA against my friend’s fiancé who is a non-Dalit. Now when I ask whether the POA, which is specially meant for the Dalit community should or should not exist, after sharing this story, many will say it was misused, and many will say that it is valid. Do you think that my choosing the participant role here is biased or does it add to the conversation? I add another element by saying that also because I am a witness to her case against her harasser, and I am not a Dalit, he has threatened me with the POA.

Do you think the teacher should then be a participant, or would it be better for the teacher to withhold and not be a participant, and instead be an observer or a facilitator or even indifferent?

Audience member: There are lots of different shades in this. But the fact that the teacher has a special authority and agency in the classroom gives them extra power to put forward their own views which might overshadow what the students think. It may try to either forcefully or subconsciously change what the students think. So I think there needs to be a line drawn beyond which the teacher chooses to withhold the greater knowledge that they have of whatever the issue is. While there should be a line, I still feel that the teacher should be a participant.

S.K.: For my interactions with my students and beyond my students, the impression that I get is that students want to see their teacher as a human being, just as they want their teacher to see the students as human beings. Also, we know our students well, we know the kind of homes they are coming from. If we know that we have a student who is coming from an abusive home, who sees that violence almost every day, and you are talking about gender and violence, would that change your role? The other side of looking at it is, if the child does not feel heard in this classroom, then where will the child feel heard? Would you then rather choose a role between participant and facilitator where the discussion is veered in such a way that somewhere it comforts the child or gives them the strength to ask questions?

Audience member: I would like to help the child understand it, give them some strength and find some solution to come out of it emotionally.

S.K.: If I decide consciously when discussing discrimination, gender and violence and I tell a story about somebody I know who underwent domestic violence and fought it emerging stronger—would the story then comfort the child?

Audience member: The child may even find it easier to approach you and talk to you then.

S.K.: Could you give me an example of a situation where the indifferent teacher role might be most apt, apart from syllabus constraints?

Audience member: While discussing the origin of rocks or soil, I want to be indifferent because they have to take the facts.

Audience member: We could be indifferent while discussing terms and facts.

Audience member: We have to be indifferent while discussing untouchability and marginalisation because many students say that untouchability does not exist any longer. In that case, we have to explain it to them to make them understand the reality of the situation.

S.K.: But if you are convincing them otherwise, then you are not being indifferent.

Audience member: In the 10th-grade Geography book, the first chapter is ‘Resource and Development’, which has been taught through classes 6, 7 and 8. While critical thinking has to be advanced, the teacher might think that the details of the resources would have been taught earlier. So keeping that in mind the teacher may be indifferent and not explain the details, but critical discussion does happen.

S.K.: Give an example from economics.

Audience member: Role of money.

S.K.: Yes. Factors of production—where there are terms and definitions. If I am talking about development and I begin with the 5-year plans, I narrate them as they have been put, explain and discuss them with my students—architects of the first plan, why did we choose to focus on agriculture versus industry— without bringing in any element of who I am and also without thinking about what the child believes and whether they are the child of a farmer or a businessman. The second day when I come in, now that they have this knowledge, I discuss ‘what next’, given that we have limited resources—agriculture or industry? Earlier in the role of the indifferent teacher, you have already given them an understanding of what the debate is. Now you move to the role of the observer, where students could choose or you could assign them a side, and they are told to research or get together in groups and make a poster and then present to the class whether we should focus on agriculture or industry and why. You could grade them or there could be peer grading.

What would be the role of the facilitator here?

Audience member: If we are spending more on agriculture than industry, then why so? Why do we need to move from agriculture to the tertiary sector? In earlier times the emphasis was on agriculture, but we are now increasingly shifting towards the tertiary sector.

S.K.: I could also start my class with a narration or a video around farmer suicide, and navigate the discussion towards why farmers are killing themselves—is it a new phenomenon or has it happened earlier? Why is there no money in agriculture? Why are they taking loans with so much interest? So I am guiding that conversation and getting something out of the students.

In the fourth class, I could come in as a participant and say that we’ve been discussing this for a while now, and you have an understanding of India’s economic journey which you will step out and inherit in about ten years from now. You have it within you to change it according to what you think is right, which you know better than I do, and I can help you get there. So let’s discuss that. Then I can ask students to talk about how they think development impacts them. This will all depend on where you are teaching. For example, if you are teaching in a rural setting, then the answers will be very different, you could ask students to narrate their own experiences. We need to understand that the power of lived experience is very real, and that is what human life is about. Numbers may say that this percentage of women get raped, but if even one man comes and says that he was raped, then does their story not have value? It does because that is coming from lived experience which may not be covered by data. We ask students then: what is your lived reality experience with development?

Audience member: The journey of technology.

S.K.: Would your life be any different if this wasn’t there? What is my lived experience with development? I got good schooling, we can all speak English, we have it within us to travel the world, and talking to anyone across the world is at our fingertips. If I were to speak of my experience, I teach students primarily from the middle to upper middle class and some beyond that. Their experience of development is very different. So tomorrow when I talk about poverty, they have never experienced it. I will then decide how I will talk about poverty from the vantage of their identity. If I start talking about the poor people on the road, a grade 5 or 6 child will not connect with that. They will give your answers, but they will not grow up to be empathetic human beings. Then I will ask them, ‘When did you feel poor?’ Maybe an upper-middle-class child will say that they felt poor when the parents didn’t buy them an iPhone X. If, through the discussion, we start sharing what development means for them and for me, by the end of the class the child will have a more holistic understanding of development as an issue, but also ‘what next’. Their ideology will start coming up, not to say that you have told them how to think. But what you have done is help them build their own perspective through the sharing of your story and their classmates’ stories. They understand that it is not just their story and it is also not just facts. This is particularly important in this day and age because whatever you believe in can be validated through the internet, referring back to cyberbalkanization. If you look up ‘Hitler was a good man’, then you will get entries saying ‘Hitler was a good man’. That space can only be provided in the classroom, and with the passing of time, classrooms are increasingly becoming heterogeneous. So how do we take advantage of that instead of invisibilising or by not addressing that correctly, which will further entrench differences? In terms of the journey from the unknown to the known and then maybe back to the unknown sometimes, does this make more sense now?

The last question I want to ask you is, is there anything you could do to ensure that your child is not forced to choose any identity or that students don’t feel constrained? I will make you do a short exercise here. Close your eyes and imagine that you are holding your left palm out and there is a spider on it, slowly crawling up to your neck. What would you do now? Be absolutely repulsed and flick it.

Keep that image of the spider in your head as you watch this video.

S.K.: Did something change? This is what I will end with—that is the power of imagination. Who is your child? Some aspects are ascribed to them, some they have not discovered and some they are in the process of discovering. And if I am fully honest, that is true of us adults too. So, I will leave you with that.

Thank you!

Shahnaaz Khan has a background in peace and conflict studies, focused on identity-based violence and using education to transform perspectives and challenge prejudices, and has spoken on multiple platforms including TEDxGateway, Katha etc. on the same.


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