Poor effectiveness and quality plague our school system. Learners are, in most cases, led through pre-packaged curricula. These are ‘delivered’ mechanically by teachers who have very little freedom to modify the content or the classroom environment in any significant manner. Both the student and the teacher seem to suffer from a severe lack of autonomy. This lack of autonomy is rarely acknowledged as a potential factor contributing to poor learning outcomes.

The teacher has traditionally been part of a vertical pyramid of authority with her at the bottom and the headmaster at the top. This structure is replicated in the classroom, where the teacher is the unitary authority. In government school systems there is another layer of organization where headmasters are fitted into a larger structure that consists of superintendents, educational officers of districts and so on.

I would like to argue, in this essay, that we need to devote considerable attention and research to explore alternatives to the present arrangements. Much time and ink have gone into exploring new curricula and pedagogy. Yet a new curriculum, however innovative, may achieve poor results if the structure of the classroom and the school remains unchanged. I would like to make the case for change, and follow that up by looking at alternatives to the present arrangements, briefly considering their pros and cons.

The case for change

It has long been recognized that the way an organization is structured significantly influences the nature of the relationships in it, as also its capacity to achieve its goals. A lot of research effort has gone into correlating structures with different degrees of effectiveness and discovering the ‘ideal’ structure for a given task. Business organizations have been particularly interested in this question. They would like to reorganize in ways that would enhance effectiveness, both in achieving results (most often higher productivity and profitability) and in being better prepared to respond to a changing business environment.

The same concern with structure seems curiously absent in discussions about educational institutions. In India, these continue to be traditionally structured; little has changed in a century or more. Does this mean that we have discovered the ideal arrangements? Or could it be that too little research and reflection have happened in this realm? I believe that the latter is the case. I would like to make the case for change by looking at two important factors that impact the learning process.

  • Effective communication and feedback.
  • Power and authority in the relationships at school.

Effectiveness of learning critically depends on free flow of information, in both directions, from the learner and the teacher, in the classroom and in the ‘staff room’. Traditionally the teacher has been the source of information and knowledge, and this is supposed to be ‘imparted’ to the student. We have a more sophisticated view of learning today. It is now widely understood that the ‘imparting’ model of learning needs radical revision. However, this new understanding cannot be actualized without changing the structure of the classroom and the school.

Traditionally the teacher enjoyed unbridled authority in the classroom. Corporal punishment was common. In many schools in the country the situation is not very different to this day. The learner’s freedom to question the teacher is severely circumscribed. Obviously all talk of ‘educating for understanding’ is a distant dream as long as the student and the teacher are locked in such a relationship.

Unfortunately, the situation of the teacher is inverted as soon as she leaves the classroom. She is as powerless outside as her students are within. It is not an exaggeration to say that the role of the teacher in the Indian school has been, to a great degree, reduced to that of a worker in the assembly line. Teachers hardly play a role in curriculum development or in the management of schools. The army model of structure with an inflexible chain of command seems to be the norm. The examination system, with its emphasis on rote learning, has very little use for an autonomous, proactive teacher.

The end result of all this is loss of creativity and understanding.

Two clarifications

At this point, my use of the terms democracy and structure may need to be clarified before we go forward. The dominant meaning of democracy is the idea of elected, representative governance. I use the term more generally and in a less restricted way than this implies. Democracy, in our context, is an attempt to loosen the notion of power and authority in learning environments, so that the learning process is more sensitive to the needs of the participants.

The idea of structure is more difficult to nail down. There are many invariant features of groups and organizations that have a strong impact on their working. Many of these are tangible; some are not. For example, the physical organization of the classroom and the very architecture of the school buildings are important structural features. And in a different sense, the hierarchy of the school and the perception of the teacher’s role define the structure in an important way. The difficulty, you will recognize, is that features of structure and ‘process’ are not easily separated. They are mutually reinforcing and often intertwined. Still the notion of structure is quite useful and can definitely lead the way to meaningful interventions.

What needs to change?

I would like to focus on three frames that need to be targeted.

Firstly, teachers have to learn the art of engaging with problems that are now thought to be beyond their grasp. The teacher and the teacher-community must have a greater role in the tasks of education that are considered the realm of experts. Governance of schools and design of curricula, for instance, are central to a teacher’s calling but are often held by specialist administrators and educational experts.

Secondly, the teacher’s expectations and attitudes have to alter radically. She has to be prepared to meet challenges to her authority, both in subject content and ‘discipline’. Thus, under what might be difficult circumstances, she has to strengthen her capacity to relate with students.

Finally, the student’s own expectations and responses must change. The student needs to be ‘helped’ to expect a more open and less authoritarian classroom experience. This would need the co-operation of school authorities, families and teachers themselves. It is only in such an environment that easier, two-way communication can flourish.

I would like to reiterate that changes in structure cannot bring about changed outcomes automatically. They have to be accompanied by new expectations, practices and capacities. And tenacity! Here are some ideas for further discussion:

  • Not by fiat alone. Administrators and other authorities in the system have to be willing to participate and see the logic of the change and the potential for greater effectiveness. So decentralization of school administration has to be accompanied by creating the capacities in teachers, for instance, in planning flexible curricula.
  • Teachers may feel threatened by a (relative) loss of authority in the classroom. A more confident teacher (both in terms of knowledge and in relationships) will be better prepared to ‘cede’ authority to students, encouraging them to ask questions or to challenge answers. This may have to be strengthened by a series of orientation exercises and exposures where the teacher gets a taste of what to expect from a more open classroom.
  • The student’s capacity to take advantage of a more open structure may have to be built from the ground up. Students used for years to ‘taking notes’ may themselves resist change. A transition from receiving knowledge to creating it will need adults to catalyze it. There are many ways of doing this: by demonstrating the joy of discovery, by showing the nature and limitations of theories and concepts, and by reinforcing the participatory nature of learning.

Targeting structure

Let me suggest some aspects of structure and process that may facilitate the above changes, listed in no particular order of importance.

  1. The number of students in a class.
  2. The architecture of the classroom; design of furniture, where used.
  3. Availability of learning material that does not force lecturing from the blackboard.
  4. Focus in the curriculum on exploration and understanding, thinking and problem solving skills.
  5. Better assessment techniques, reduced reliance on rote, and better examination design.
  6. Delegation of authority to teachers and teacher groups in schools.
  7. Schools with limited or no hierarchical organization.
  8. Higher degree of parental involvement in the school and its running.

I can almost hear readers muttering ‘impractical’ under their breath. Hold on. While a wholesale instantaneous transformation of schools in all these dimensions may indeed be unrealistic, there is nothing to prevent individuals and groups from exploring specific items mentioned, in ways appropriate to their context.

I would like to continue this exploration by discussing one of the above aspects in some detail—the notion of hierarchy. I will then go on to present some of the challenges and difficulties that a group may encounter in its attempts to modify this dimension.

Hierarchy in schools

Hierarchy is a central feature of Indian society. We are steeped in our belief in status and power derived from our positions in all kinds of hierarchies. Is it realistic to expect a rapid change in attitudes that have been built up over millennia?

I will restrict this discussion to the possibility of non-hierarchical functioning of teacher communities. I propose that altering the power relationships in the teacher hierarchy is a prerequisite to changing classroom dynamic. This process need not be ‘revolutionary’. Schools could explore the idea by creating small teacher groups with specific mandates. You could have a group of teachers of the primary section who are entrusted with decision making in all important areas connected with their section. These decisions could range from issues of the school’s calendar, assessment of students, communication with parents and sharing of responsibilities. It is important to begin without imposing leaders and ‘seniors’ on the group.

Will this replace the dictatorship of the individual with a ‘dictatorship of the committee’? Not necessarily. In the beginning there might be much confusion. The members of the group would pass through a longish period, developing norms of engagement and decision making. In fact a long period of learning ensues. School authorities will have to support the group through such a process. It is important that these groups are not short lived committees. There might be a tendency for informal leadership to emerge in such a group. There is an entrenched view that some people have a quality of leadership that sets them apart from others and that qualifies them for authority. If such leadership stifles free expression and dialogue in the group, individuals have to learn to assert autonomy. Initiative is valuable; however when it becomes ‘leadership’, old patterns of power can reassert themselves.

What are the likely problems? Curiously enough, in traditional structures hierarchy masks many patterns of temperament and emotion that a more flexible structure may reveal. For example, there may be high levels of anxiety related to decision-making and thwarted self-interest, inability to sustain open-ended conversations, and inability to brook challenges to one’s authority. The importance of these patterns should not be ignored. It is in the discussions in such settings that teachers can explore alternative ways of relating to each other and the art of creative cooperation. I have no doubt that such a learning will, at least in some measure, transfer to the classroom.

The idea of dialogue

Dialogue is a process that might be of crucial support in the transition from a rigid hierarchy to a flexible and consensual form of working. The term dialogue is being used to describe a process of caring engagement and exchange between individuals who, while related for a common purpose, are interested in giving free rein to their ideas and creativity and in listening to each other critically. I believe that groups can gain immensely from such a process.

For close to two decades, I have been associated with Centre For Learning, a small school outside Bangalore. We claim that it is a teacher-run school. This is meant in the sense that there is no explicit structure of authority in the teacher group and decision-making on all important matters is a group effort. Formal positions have been eliminated. Roles, where ascribed, can be temporary or shared and exchanged over time. Most decisions are taken in the weekly meeting of teachers, normally held on a Friday. The meetings are not presided over by any individual; certain discussions may be moderated by persons who merely facilitate orderly discussion, particularly when the issue at hand evokes great interest and participation.

Dealing with discord

Any group committed to working together has to, sooner or later, confront the challenge of conflict. I would like to distinguish (albeit temporarily, as one usually follows the other) between a discord of ideas and a discord of emotions. Usually groups are better at ‘sorting out’ conflicting ideas (however noisily!) but are very poor at acknowledging and responding to emotional turmoil. Often, when deeply held ideas are challenged, a highly charged and discordant emotional climate may result. A failure to resolve discord may result in terminal conflict.

Extreme situations apart, groups can use the idea of dialogue to respond to conflict. A willingness to listen to each other carefully and a feeling of ‘impersonal fellowship’ are qualities that contribute greatly to healthy dialogue and to resolution of discord. Most ‘problems’ have multiple solutions. Conflict is often the result of emotional identification with particular persons or beliefs. A prior awareness of this may not necessarily avert conflict but might provide a perspective to the group to navigate through a difficult situation.

A creative group needs creative individuals. In a society where teaching is almost a second-rate profession, what are the chances of a radically new outlook taking roots? All that I have suggested in this article rests on the assumption that teachers are interested enough in their vocation to invest a large part of their life-energies in a ‘dangerous’ exploration of this kind. Can our teachers be educated into participating in all the ways described above?