Sunita, the principal, opened the door to her school’s library and said to me with unmistakable pride in her voice, “Everything is from XYZ, Ltd. (name changed), we did not spend a single rupee, all free.”
I was a visitor to the school. On the way back to her office, she introduced me to two volunteers teaching an ‘empowering girls’ curriculum to girl students from grade 5. When we returned to her office, two people from a technology company were waiting outside. They wanted to know when they could get feedback from teachers and students about the 50 phone tablets they had provided free under an institutional program.
This was the third ‘free’ offering for the government school. While there is one pandemic that everyone knows about and that has severely impacted our schools, I believe that there has been another, less visible one, silently eating at the roots of our government schooling system: the ‘free’ pandemic.
Most people would find nothing wrong with free services in public education and I used to be one of them. After all, what is wrong with a free collection of books, tablets or teaching that will empower the poor girls served by our government schools? Is it not better for the less privileged students who would otherwise not have access to such goods and services?
Over the years, my experience indicates that accepting free offerings may not be good for public education.
First, nothing is really free. Think about it. When you see an offer to get a free coffee filter with a bag of coffee, what the offer does is manipulate your desires so that you buy more of their coffee over time. Almost every free thing offered has an official and a hidden agenda.
I am not saying that the hidden agenda is evil, but that it is usually invisible and not open to discussion. Scholars argue that programmes under corporate social responsibility (CSR) may create social harm with their agenda.
Apart from the intent to improve public schooling, CSR could also be a way to improve the corporate entity’s public image, to use the government schools as a testing ground to fine-tune their product offering (e.g. a tablet) or to leverage the free offering as a showcase for commercial contracts (e.g., to say “our curriculum is used in over 500 schools!”). Even NGOs face political pressures from activists within and without.
Nothing is really free also because a free offering still costs precious time and attention. Even if a library or a program is offered free to the schools, principals, teachers, and students must think how to integrate it within their daily schooling. A few government schools I visited in Mumbai had between 15 and 20 free programmes in operation – an academic and administrative nightmare for crafting coherence! A free curriculum or training will leave less time for lesson planning and instruction and an after-school program might take away precious play time.
Second, a free offering tempts us to let go of quality standards in education. Consider an example from Dan Ariely’s 2008 book Predictably Irrational. In an experiment about spending 26 cents on a luxury Lindt chocolate truffle or spending 1 cent on a lower-quality Hershey’s chocolate kiss, an equal number of people chose each option. But when the prices of both the items were lowered by 1 cent, making the chocolate kisses free, 90% of participants chose not to buy the truffle. Zero cost made the lower-quality chocolate kisses far more preferable.
In education, too, a free training workshop offered by an average-skill trainer will be overwhelmingly chosen over one offered by an accomplished expert, even if the latter is inexpensive. During the pandemic, teachers and principals rushed to free YouTube videos offered by well-meaning technology experts, whereas a wiser option would have been to pay an educational technology expert help them build a deeper understanding of teaching through technology.
Free videos suggested converting classroom lectures to online presentations, reinforcing a one-way talk-based instruction. An educational technology expert would have offered transformative ways to teach – but such knowledge was not explored because the other option was free.
In my experience, a free training session, just like a poor-quality chocolate, almost always leads to a bad taste. Free can be very expensive if it reinforces flawed misconceptions about teaching-learning.
Third, I have heard two kinds of instrumental reasoning that encourage free in public education: access and service.
First, a school where students and teachers have access to tablets is better at digital capacity or a free school library means that students will read more. Second, free programmes fill the gap that the government is unable to service. Unfortunately, simply more access can be harmful because education is equally about values and context.
Books and software programs are written within a cultural context and can inculcate values such as violence, fixed gender roles, hero worship and pseudo-spirituality. Take Amar Chitra Katha for example – a popular comic series that seems like a safe choice for a free school library. But the series is unhealthy for young minds because it inculcates stereotypes about the right body and reinforces biases against minority groups.
Also, free interventions, which attempt to fulfil gaps may substitute the government’s responsibility to provide good education. In a way, a well-intentioned program may let the government off the hook for doing what it must do well.
So, should we demolish all free programmes? Not really. Instead, I want government schools to be extra careful when programs with a zero-price label offer to enter their classrooms. I offer three strategies to challenge the free mindset.
First, use educational values such as critical thinking, compassion and inclusion to judge the quality of any free offering. When offered tablets, ask providers to show how the software program supports inclusion or critical thinking. Check if the programs are backed by university partnerships. Importantly, when an NGO offers volunteers to teach the students or teachers, screen them for their values and competence. Gauge their subject and pedagogy mastery, ask what kind of books have informed their practice, and hold them accountable to the values they espouse.
Involve teachers and principals to evaluate any free offering. Yes, this means a school must work hard in clarifying and enforcing its values. What else would one expect from a public organisation with the crucial responsibility of serving the most vulnerable communities?
Second, use the psychological bias about money to your advantage. Enforce a minimum payment for any offering. Just by making the school pay even a nominal amount, say Rs 200 per person for a full-day training session, tricks the mind into evaluation mode. The shift to the paying mindset improves engagement for the attendees too: they will ask more questions and participate in the discussions because now that they are paying for it.
Finally, probe for other agendas. Ask what the NGOs and CSRs are getting as part of this offering. Develop a contract which enforces not collecting students’ data or not advertising their presence in your school to sell products. NGOs and CSRs with genuinely good intentions would welcome such transparency because they are always looking for schools as partners and not as organisations that must feel indebted.
The opportunity to volunteer in a public school must be seen as a hard-earned privilege instead of letting anyone passionate to roam the school corridors.
We need to spend more on public education – but poor quality in teaching and infrastructure is also rooted in corruption and red-tape. And the ‘free’ bandwagon, although well-intended, does not address these real issues. Let us inculcate and develop the self-respect that our government schools sorely need.
Our poorest students are not guinea pigs for untested educational offerings, passionate but unskilled volunteers, or be at the mercy of corporations who want to imprint their brands on young minds. Let us not sell our students’ future for ‘free’. It is our moral responsibility. It is what we signed up for.
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: The opportunity to volunteer in a public school must be seen as a hard-earned privilege instead of letting anyone passionate to roam the school corridors. Photo: Julieanne/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This article was first published on The Wire.