Prof. Ramanujam’s talk at the AID conference held in Chennai in 1999.
Ramanujam (Jam) is Professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. He is the President of Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) and coordinates its education programs. His talks on education have inspired the Indian community in the US. (bio from 1999 proceedings)
I WAS THINKING OF PROVIDING a continuity with earlier talks. I am not going to talk about TNSF in education; suffice it to say there is some work going on in universalization of primary education, preventing drop outs, some Non Formal Education (NFE), some work with school teachers, intervention in curriculum, pedagogy.
I would just like to give you a flavour of the kind of work rather than giving details of any particular project. Let us start with the question, what is your image of a child labourer?
Profile of a child labourer [elicits from the audience]
— less than 10 years old
— poor parents
— honest worker contributing to society
Okay you are thinking of a composite. Let us think of a profile of one child. Let us have a male, let us say, working in service industry, carpet weaving, quarry, fireworks. Or a girl. Where does she work? Domestic, matchsticks, glass factory, beedi making, fireworks.
There is truth in all of these. It is hard to say, this is the profile. But the child worker is not only the one sitting in Sivakasi, or in the various industries. Consider a child working in a shop or hotel. What do you think is the number of children working in such shops? Estimates vary, it is around 4 crores. Let us consider any road where you may travel. It will be full of shops, as you see all over urban India. Almost all the shops have children working in them.
Think of the child (usually a boy in these shops). Let us think of his day. Where does he stay, where is he coming from? [guesses]. Close to 70% of them do not come from the city, or even the slums, though they may stay there while working (more like bachelor’s quarters, 6-7 children living in a hut, with one ayah in charge of a group of huts). They are from different districts. The child has been brought to work. In udipi restaurants, many of the children sleep in the shop itself. Of the 4 crore children we mentioned not all are living like this, but a substantial number do.
Next Question: what do the children miss?. Of course this will be different in different sectors. [audience responds]
What do we mean by childhood?
Yes, play is not an option for them. Play is most central to child development. They don’t get to play, only work. But they do make up their own games to play in the small spaces they get when owner is not looking, but basically they work from morning to night and have no opportunity for play. Try to design a game which 6-8 year old children can play? it is not easy. They do get off early once a week (though most work all 7 days) and typically they go to the films. Kids who work anywhere near a movie hall will usually see every film that is screened there.
Interesting to think of the children who work in the movie halls. If you ask a kid in the Udipi restaurant what would you like to do if you did not have this job. He says, I would like to quit and get another job in the movie hall. Why? Because then I could see a film every day.
So think of these kids in these barracks. It is a totally male affair, there is no female company at all, unless there is an ayah. Whatever pocket money they get is over fast. They do not get any salary on hand, because it is sent to their homes, which is the deal that was made. If you ask the shop owner, he will also say, I could have hired anyone, but I wanted to help this family, so I hired this kid. Remember every story has multiple versions.
These children learn to be tough. They are used to abuse. They also steal, and the owner knows, and they get beaten, etc. Pattern develops of pushing the limits.
So the kind of worldview they develop, and I mentioned abuse, homosexual abuse is part of it. The views that they have of women? their only exposure is through films are quite shocking.
So what are the needs of the child worker in terms of education, play, family orientation.
Now a girl child worker, perhaps in a more rural area what is the profile?. [elicits answers]
— domestic, babysitting
— construction work
— gathering firewood, fodder
— tending livestock
Now what is the girl’s worldview?. Invariably these girls have not gone to school at all or for only 2-3 years before being pulled out or before dropping out.
Some of the TNSF work has been in organizing NFE for rural children. Instead of talking about an area where we have had success, I will talk about this area where we have had dismal failure, namely education for these shop children.
So we had night classes for those working in udipi restaurants. A waiter was the teacher. Classes started out very enthusiastically. But what were the problems that quickly set in? The only time available is 9 pm. Everybody is really tired. I am sure all of us have the experience if reading ourselves to sleep. Well that is all that happens in our classes. Second, even if the children are not tired, what we have in our books is enough to put anyone to sleep. The books are pretty bad, the process is pretty bad. The waiter who is our teacher is also very enthusiastic, but enthusiasm does not make up for good technique.
Okay so we thought, this once a week that the kids get off early, can we push it a bit, instead of getting off at 6 pm, can they get off at 4:00?. So this was good. We decided just to let them play. I don’t know if you have worked with teenagers who cannot read and write, but trying to sit with them at 9 pm and making them read and write is very hard. But one thing that worked was, bringing them to a playground, give them a football and let them run.
Remember play opportunities are missed. Any educationist would tell you of the tremendous value that team games have. Now girl children, forget girl workers, most of the girls in this country miss that kind of play anyway.
So we thought weekly once we would bring football, hockey and cricket. We also tried smuggling in some things, like telling stories or singing songs just before or after the games, but all this sissy stuff was quickly put down.
Now, what do these children crave?. [Answers]
Let us get down to more tangible stuff
They want ice cream! Think of a 13 year old working in a shop. Food, they will settle for anything, but ice cream, they do not get. So a simple device of football and ice cream once a week got children in a way that one year of trying to run NFE never did.
What about girls?. Let us move to a rural area. If you have been to school for 5 years you don’t learn very much. If you go to school for 1-2 years you don’t learn much, and then you forget that too. you just learn that there are things called school, and people go regularly, but then that is precisely what you don’t do. You see all the other kids going regularly, and you don’t. Here we have had somewhat better success. One reason is that most of them stay at home.
Abuse, especially sexual abuse is an even worse problem among the girl workers, specially in the case of domestic servants. This is one of the most unorganized areas, where more organization is needed to protect these workers. Very little is done.
Coming to education, sending them to school is very hard. When we read numbers such as some group put 1000 children back into school, we must be careful because the conditions that took them out of school continue to exist.
Often if we have a good teacher we are able to get girls to come to school. We don’t call this NFE but rather AFE, which is anti-formal education. In fact having non formal education enterprises has taught us an enormous lot about formal education.
In Vellore we were running non formal education for beedi workers, and there were actually families who pulled their children from school and sent them to NFE because this way they could go to school and work. This happened because children were very happy in NFE centers. The kind of success one could demonstrate quickly, by the way it is not sustainable in basic literacy and arithmetic for example was attractive.
So it is not at all surprising that the child workers pick it up very fast. They use what they learn immediately, they have some natural abilities which they don’t know about, and it is activated right away in these centers. So parents see their children learning more at NFE than in school. But you can’t go very long this way.
But we learned how the process of instruction, of teaching and learning, could be much more interactive. Teacher has more freedom in use of educational material, low cost teaching aids, loose structuring of school timings. Textbooks have a certain order to them: take all the knowledge in the world and put it in order. If you can give smart answers, or the identified answers to questions, this makes you a good student. These kinds of norms or devices of the school system can be broken in the NFE. One thing that we find in the NFE centres is that children actually talk.
There is this myth about children continually asking questions. I call it a myth because all you have to do is place a hidden tape recorder in a school, even in a very good school in Madras, and see how many questions get asked, and how many by children?. 1 out of 20?. Forget schools, even in universities, do you find students asking questions?. Just count how many questions were asked because someone did not understand something and was trying to figure it out. The number drops. It is negligible. That culture simply does not exist.
But in NFE the children do have the freedom. Ultimately they can just walk out. School is an imprisoning institution where children have no choice. There is this figure of authority. There are questions to which answers exist. This is a miracle of school. In life how many questions have clear identifiable answers.
But in school, questions have answers and they are clear, coming from this direction. If you know the answer you are fine, if you don’t you are in trouble. This is what people who have gone through an IIT type of education learn early in life, how to have quick answers to silly questions. This is a game that we learn very fast. Well it pays so that is fine. But if you are thinking of breaking this mold, non formal education has been an extremely enriching experience. We want to change the style of pedagogy, this model where there is this fountain of wisdom which is pouring forth and everyone with a bucket catching it, we are making something different.
We have some experience in adult education also. In terms of educational needs of adult workers, let me mention one case where education actually does improve something. There was one vegetable seller named Maryamma (at Christmastime she changes her name to Mary). She brings vegetables on her head, she is 52, she has been doing this for practically all her life. What are her educational needs?. Every morning she goes to the market and decides what to take. There is a clear upper bound. She can carry up to 20kgs on her head. 20kgs of what?. She has to decide on her product mix. She has a hunch, developed over so many years. She also has to buy in a particular order to place in the basket properly. Cauliflower, high profit margin, but may not sell at all. Tomatoes will sell, but low profit margin. Potatoes, even if she does not sell, she can use the next day. Other vegetables are more perishable. So this is really an optimization exercise. We have worked with a group of vegetable sellers and after a year we have taught some mathematical techniques and she has been able to increase her earnings by Rs 5/- a day. So here is a case in which practice of a particular profession is enhanced by education.
In the case of child workers it is not the product of education that helps, but the process, by which teachers and students talk together and ask questions.
There is another side to this involvement with child workers, which is learning their world view and thereby so much more about formal education and hopefully we will gain some deeper insights and make some impact on the education system.
Prasanna: any ideas on how after some non formal education, children can be brought back to the mainstream?
Sukumar: can you throw some light on child prostitutes
Suhas: do you have any experience bringing techniques from the non formal to the formal school?
Prakash: what effort is going on to stop the problem before it occurs, before children migrate to the cities.
Jam: We ran some systematic back-to-school programs. In summer we took some child workers and brought them to school. In Sivakasi and Vellore we have brought some children back to school. But this number is very small. In Vellore we found that if you can work out an arrangement where children can go for half a day to school, their enrollment will increase substantially. This is more a logistical answer, doesn’t answer the fundamental issue.
The problem of preventing migration to cities is quite huge and I don?t want to get into it. But how do we prevent drop out at all?. Most child workers are at least 10 years old. If you take the first 5 years of school, if you look at the dropouts who get into child labour, you will find that they have not been pulled out of school for work, but they have dropped out because of the shape the schools are in. Often there is no access, it is difficult to get to school. Two teachers and a whole mess of children. School is boring, they hate the teacher, the books are terrible. There is really nothing at all that excites them.
Think of a typical middle class family, are children waking up jumping up and ready to go to school? No, children are cajoled and escorted to school. So in a village if we were able to provide this kind of escort, or at least if we talked to the parents of the children who have dropped out of school we would find that the parents don’t even know that the child has dropped out because they have been in the fields all day. They are not there making the kids do their homework, etc. When our volunteers have gone to the families of dropouts and talked with them it has worked in getting them back to school. This will not work in Sivakasi where there is a big industry ready to employ all of them, but in the villages it will. Many of them have no employment opportunity anyway. Though for the girl children who babysit, it is different. Girl children are systematically discriminated against in our society in all levels in all ways.
About NFE lessons coming into formal education?. Breaking down this model of a teacher reciting and students taking it down, particularly designing ways to change classroom structure, timings, order. I can only say it in these general terms, but basically breaking the tyranny of the textbook.
Vijay K: How much progress has been made in the direction of breaking the tyranny of the textbook?
Jam: How much progress?. It is hard to quantify. We now have a minimum of 15 teachers each in 10 districts and in another 15 districts about 20-30 teachers, who are trying to implement the kind of pedagogy I have been hinting at, who share this understanding I have been talking about. Easily we can count up to 1000 teachers in TN who are trying to change their classroom situations in some way or another. For example in Anna University where I teach, I give a test, and one bright guy will be done with the test. So I see that he is done and say, well are you done?. he said yes. I said, why don’t you help that person then?. He said, how can I do that?. I said, you can. This is a little thing. So wherever we have the freedom, these thousand teachers are taking such steps.
We make a lot of fuss about integrated education. We say we should not say this is science, this is art, etc. Agreed. For example if I ask you to talk about a line, you can talk from so many perspectives ? art, physics, you can bring in so many things, if you only know how to do it. Where is the module? How can we also get children out into the natural world. So we are developing materials for this kind of education.
In the past few years some people in TNSF have at some moment when no one was looking, gotten themselves into the Tamil Nadu Text Book society. This is a committee which designs textbooks for TN. Some of us were able to influence the 4th standard textbook, which I invite you to see and compare with the others. We are trying to look at every space that is available, every opportunity.
Sanjay: Question regarding the approach. As you were just pointing out about Maryamma, with her own methods of calculating. Without being patronizing, can the people’s science be like that?. Along with taking the fountain of science to the people, can it give due cognizance or prestige to the mathematics, or physics or anything of such Maryamma?. Can the people’s science be more like that, instead of taking the standard science to the people?. Or is it that science has to be popularized, there is something called the science and it must be popularized?.
Kiran: could you tell us some concrete things you are doing through the NFE center?
Jam: Kiran’s question is easier, I will take it first. Sivakasi is where the bulk of the work is happening. Children work from 5 am to 4 pm in the fireworks factories and afterwards come for 2 hours to school. This is a government project, having NFE centers for child workers. Of the 80 centers, 15-20 are working well. In Kanchipuram, children are basically being trained to sit for the 4th, 8th and 10th standard exams. There are about 600 there, not all child workers, some 15 year olds.
About Maryamma?. She is also following her own folk algorithm. I am not sure her math has anything to contribute to theory, but they do have contributions to make to formal education [gives a subtraction problem on the board 100-56]. For example, we learn how to do this subtraction like this, take 6 from 0 some 9 appears here, somehow you get the answer of 44. But normally, what is the folk algorithm?. If you buy something for Rs.56 and give Rs. 100 how do we give the change?. you do not subtract, you start adding from 56 up, giving a two rupee note, another two rupee note, that is sixty, then 10 rupee notes till you get to 100 and you are done. You don’t know what the answer is, but you will give the correct change. This is a folk algorithm, there are plenty around.
There is a lot of hoo haa about traditional medicine, traditional physics. I don’t want to talk about vedic mathematics here, but I am talking about mathematics as practiced by people. Take a pile of bricks, people can tell you by a visual estimate with high accuracy how many there are. I am convinced that folk algorithms can play a major role in changing the face of mathematics education.
Then the question of the role of education, what is this all about?. It is a very big question. As far as I understand, even in this movement for education for all which may have started 150 years ago in Europe. There was a clear idea, people were convinced that this was a root of social equality.
There is a study by Colemon, 15 years ago or so. There was a farmhand. After a generation, on his farm 50% of people were farm hands. If universalization of education was about breaking this down, then where are we now?. We are talking about economic opportunity.
The kind of education we are imparting is going to preserve these inequalities. So what we are aiming for is a kind of education which would change it.