“I will explain them,” said Kanulal, a headmaster and master-trainer of his strategy to train 20 other headmasters. Kanulal had just participated in a five-day training workshop on instructional leadership, led by two school leadership experts. Now it was his task to disseminate what he had learnt to other government school principals in Raigad.
The year was 2014 and I was observing the school leadership development training programme. Three days ago, I felt a sense of déjà vu when Avnita, a master-trainer in Goa, presented a slide on design thinking to communicate her strategy to train other principals and said, “I will explain them.”
The grammatically flawed phrase “I will explain them” is a metaphor that explores how progressive educational programmes and policies are expected to find their way into government school classrooms through training sessions and why they may fail.
Despite the wisdom behind the progressive programmes and policies, the passion of those who want to see them implemented well and the large investments of time and energy, these training programmes rarely improve government school system capacity in a sustainable way.
Why? Because “I will explain them” constitutes and represents the overemphasis on telling, the relative absence of know-whys, and the futility of a rapid delivery approach to improve teaching and leading in schools.
Overemphasis on telling
“I will explain them” is underpinned by telling and the oral transmission of knowledge. India has a rich oral tradition whose echoes continue to resonate in our educational system.
The Hindi word ‘shiksha’ is rooted in Sanskrit and prioritises correct pronunciation. A teacher saying something and the student repeating it sound for sound remains one of the oldest methods of teaching. Even today, when passing by a classroom, one might hear a teacher reciting multiplication tables and the students repeating them verbatim. A school’s morning assembly often demands repeating prayers, pledges and anthems over understanding their essence.
Conceptually, knowledge through such oral transmission implies that learners have no agency to create knowledge of their own, that they are empty vessels and that repeating the phrase will ‘fill’ them with knowledge. When a training programme or curriculum is ‘delivered’, it subtly reinforces the idea that knowledge is like a product that can pass unadulterated from the teacher’s or trainer’s mind to that of the learner.
Such knowledge delivery is the opposite of education which, according to linguist Noam Chomsky, is the act of educing from the learner. The way Kanulal and Avnita intend “I will explain them” has little emphasis on such drawing out.
Absence of whys
The telling that occurs through “I will explain them” leans towards whats and hows but places little emphasis on elaborating the whys. For example, a training session on instructional leadership will define what instructional leadership is and how one may enact it. A classroom session on geometry is likely to focus on what Pythagoras theorem is and how to use it.
Even teacher-principal interactions in schools are almost always devoid of the whys. What “I will explain them” misses is a discussion, debate or activity that creates knowledge of why instructional leadership will work in the life of a principal overwhelmed by administration or why the Pythagoras theorem is necessary for a certain kind of mathematical thinking.
It is not surprising, therefore, that knowledge from such teaching or training remains superficial. We may be able to prove a theorem, define a formula and recite important dates – but we seldom know why we must.
“I will explain them” occurs frequently in training sessions because it is often the easiest display of mastery. When training other principals, Kanulal will present the slide on instructional leadership, read out a definition and provide one or two examples that he has heard from the experts during his training.
Although experts suggest those examples to instruct, Kanulal repeats the examples to show that he knows his stuff. It has taken an expert about 10,000 hours of experience with multiple cases, close observations, reading and writing to understand the practical and conceptual nuances of instructional leadership. It is unfair to expect anyone to grasp it in five days of rushed training.
To be fair, when asked in private, Kanulal admitted he is still figuring out the various dimensions of instructional leadership. But admitting that will disqualify his master-trainer status in our institutions.
The irony here is that incomplete mastery is institutionally accepted in a system that is ostensibly designed to teach mastery. But such mastery is also considered normal. After all, the programme must be scaled rapidly to all schools – so, like it or not, it must be transmitted often through those who are still novices.
Building on these three points, I would suggest that the word “explain” in the phrase “I will explain them” is deceptive and an incorrect substitute for the word “tell”. Instead, “I will tell them” is simpler and more accurate. When Kanulal and Avnita train other principals and teachers, they tell them their preliminary and evolving understanding of complex concepts, such as instructional leadership or activity-based learning.
Since telling remains the predominant mode of communication, it will be garbled by the time it reaches the classroom just like in a game of Chinese whispers.
How then do we build capacity without oral transmission? Instead of telling what we should do, I suggest three questions and propose a few ideas:
1. Are we telling or are we educing? Do we respect learners to be co-creators of knowledge? For example, instead of telling the definition of instructional leadership, we can ask principals to describe and share examples of how they lead, guide or avoid classroom instruction.
When we draw out their experience, we are likely to find that they practice their own flavour of instructional leadership or have strong reasons for why it is not part of an administrator’s job. Also, changing the mode of interaction by using dynamic artifacts, such as whiteboards and flip charts, might reduce the verbal chatter.
Activities that involve creating comparison tables, diagrams, and mindmaps may be more useful than passively watching presentation slides.
2. What about other approaches to build capacity? Would mentoring and coaching provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of complex ideas and lead to true mastery? Theatre and arts may provide the necessary pauses for self-reflection and building knowledge.
Another option is to use action research projects to experiment new ideas and write case studies that become etched into professional memory.
3. What about incorporating the whys? Training programmes mandated from the top are resisted because people do not know why they participate. Making the whys clear is often useful to highlight existing knowledge gaps, educational dilemmas and wicked problems that the policy makers are trying to address.
In sum, building professional capacity and expertise must not be a rushed process executed through freshly trained master-trainers. Unless our training sessions stop reproducing the “I will explain them” culture and instead consider that teachers and principals are active agents in constructing knowledge, authentic mastery is unlikely.
Yes, our rich culture of oral transmission serves well when chanting scripts, but it does not develop expertise in complex teaching-learning concepts and skills. We need to ask this question for the 1.5 million school principals, 8.5 million teachers and over 100 million students in our government schools.
Gopal Midha holds a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He is currently setting up a Center for Research on School Leadership in Goa.
Featured image: Unsplash