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School education cinema verite

EducationWorld September 2023 | Magazine Teacher-2-teacher

Through their contrasting narratives, two movies compel us to reflect on the condition of K-12 education in India. They force us to confront uncomfortable truths and inspire us to strive for change

Dr. Prashant Narang, Senior Fellow (Research & Training Programs) at the Centre for Civil Society, Delhi

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This quote by W.B. Yeats sets the stage for exploration of two Indian films — Maassab (2018) and Roughbook (2016). These cinematic narratives, while set in the backdrop of classrooms, transcend the confines of K-12 education to reflect larger societal paradoxes.

In the heart of rural India, in Khurhand village of Banda district, Bundelkhand, we meet Ashish Kumar, the protagonist of Maassab. A Dalit who has sacrificed the allure of the Indian Administrative Service, Ashish chooses the path less travelled to teach in a government school. His character is a throwback to the patriotic heroes of the 1970s, brimming with idealism. He is the type of teacher who works on Sundays, spends his salary on midday meals, and brings a laptop to the classroom. Yet, his efforts are like a single lamp trying to illuminate a cavernous abyss of systemic corruption and apathy.

The government school system, as portrayed in Maassab, is a hollow shell. Funds meant for education are routinely misappropriated, teachers are absent or send proxies, and students are deprived of basic amenities, including midday meals. The system is so broken that it seems beyond repair. It’s a grim picture that leaves viewers with a sense of despair and disillusionment. The transformation of such a system hinges on the arrival of a messianic figure, the exceptional teacher. But reliance on extraordinary individuals is not only unrealistic, but also unsustainable. It’s akin to waiting for a superhero while the city burns.

Contrast this with the bustling cityscape of Roughbook, where we encounter Santoshi, a physics teacher in a private school. She is a rebel in her own right, prioritising concept clarity over syllabus completion. Yet, she is caught in the crosshairs of a system that values market demands over education ideals. During her interview, the principal solicits her opinion of the education system and then justifies demand-driven focus on exams and grades. But the question that haunts her — and us — is why parents want what they want. The answer, though not discussed in the movie, ironically, lies in the government’s creation of high stakes board and entrance exams, shaping parental expectations, pressure and perpetuating the cycle of rote learning.The private education system, as depicted in Roughbook, is a well-oiled machine. It functions efficiently, but at the cost of genuine learning. It’s a system that churns out students well-versed in the art of passing exams, but without deep understanding of subjects they study. It’s a system that caters to the demands of the market, but fails to ignite curiosity and creativity in students. However, Roughbook concludes on a hopeful note, with the teacher and students carving out an alternative path through private tuition.

This success story prompts introspection about the mainstream system, underscoring the transformative power of competition. It’s a testament to the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. It’s a beacon of hope that shines brightly, illuminating the path to a better education system.

Against this backdrop, which system would allow an average student to learn chosen subjects well, without a super idealistic teacher rebelling against the system? Perhaps the answer lies in schools like the Muni International School, Uttam Nagar, Delhi. A movie showcasing its approach could provide a blueprint for a more effective, inclusive, and sustainable education system.A budget private school (BPS) that is consistently high ranked in the annual EducationWorld India Super Budget Private Schools league table, Muni International is a shining example of alternative schools that prioritise student-centric learning. Its pedagogy encourages students to explore their interests, fosters critical thinking, and promotes genuine love for learning. It doesn’t rely on extraordinary teachers, but empowers ordinary teachers to do extraordinary things.

Through their contrasting narratives, Maassab and Roughbook compel us to reflect on the condition of K-12 education in India. They force us to confront uncomfortable truths and inspire us to strive for change. They serve as a stark reminder that the future of our nation lies in the hands of our educators and the system within which they operate. It’s a call to action for all stakeholders — policymakers, educators, parents, and students — to cooperate and reshape the future of education in India.

Viewed in a larger perspective, these movies are not just about education, but about the very fabric of Indian society. They are about the choices we make, the values we uphold, and the future we should envision. They are about the power of individuals to make a difference, and the collective responsibility we all share to shape our world. They are testament to the transformative power of education, and a reminder of the work that needs to be done. They are, in essence, a call to action — a call to light fires, not fill pails.

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