Can Inclusivity be Built Into Global Education Programmes?

Across the world, those in power have used education to maintain the status quo. A panel of domain experts discuss how this long-standing practice can be challenged and how inclusive empowerment through education can be fostered.

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The inaugural edition of the xSDG UnConference, hosted by Belongg in collaboration with Dalberg, J-PAL South Asia and Breakthrough India was held from August 18 – 31, 2021. Bringing together the global community of academics, development professionals, practitioners and people interested in themes of diversity and inclusion, each session at the UnConference offered diverse and nuanced insights on topics ranging from inclusive WASH education, urban planning and employment to various other aspects of an intersectional approach to sustainable development. Read the transcript from the previous sessions on building inclusivity in global cities here and on inclusivity in global employment programmes here.

Access to education is a fundamental right in most countries across the world and yet, it either does not translate into much for some people and totally excludes others. Social norms (for instance, gender norms for girls) and the lack of documentation and impact of trauma (for refugees and migrants) remain some of the key reasons behind this exclusion.

What do we know about the nature and extent of identity-linked exclusion in schools and higher education institutes across the world? What are the different kinds of actions needed to address this? What role do different players in global development need to play to more actively to address this issue? What are some innovations or successful examples we can learn from?

These questions were discussed by a panel comprised of Shivani Nag, assistant professor at the School of Education Studies of Ambedkar University Delhi who is an education and language rights activist focusing on inclusion and participation of young people from marginalised contexts in education; Shailaja Paik, associate professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and author of the book Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination and Felicia DeHaney, director of program and strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where she supports efforts to promote thriving children, working families and equitable communities and is also the former president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute. 

The session was moderated by Dayoung Lee, an associate partner at Dalberg Advisors who co-leads the Dalberg Education and Employment Practice.

The following is a transcript of the session. Questions and responses have been edited lightly for style and clarity.

Dayoung Lee: What are the drivers of inequality in education and how have you seen this manifest in the areas you work in?

Shivani Nag: Every time I think of the term inclusion, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is: shouldn’t inclusion be the norm? We talk about inclusion because it hasn’t been that way and because there have been exclusions. It is exclusion being the reality of our education systems that pushes some of us to then think about inclusion.

The fact is that in different parts of the world, the powerful and the dominant have used education as a tool to ensure this dominance; to validate any knowledge that legitimises their holding of power. Which also means to keep out of that knowledge access and production system anybody who poses a challenge to this concentration of power. Exclusion can be on the basis of race, gender, caste, class and they all even intersect, these are not in silos. There are many more who are excluded than included.

Shailaja Paik: This is something I looked at when I studied Dalit women in India. With this exclusion, which is based on caste and especially gender, we clearly see the barriers that Dalit women have to experience because they come from a certain social location and they are considered polluted and untouchable. In addition to this, we have the gender category – because they are Dalits and because they are women, they face double discrimination and that is what I try to record historically in my first book. When I am talking about Dalits, this will also apply to Dalits all over the world, they could be blacks or Latinos in the US or other minorities in different parts of the world.

Also read: What’s Keeping Madrasa Girls Away From Education? Unpaid Salaries, Govt Neglect, Lack of Awareness

Apart from language discrimination, I also want to point out other aspects, for example, how these children are treated inside the classroom. I have conducted interviews with Dalit women who have told me how teachers discriminated against them. One teacher told a Dalit woman that she does not need to study math or physics because “this education is not meant for her”. This is the kind of discouragement that children belonging to marginalised communities have to experience in the classroom. Teachers also use abusive language to exclude students; they call these students by their caste names and that is how they actually make these students more visible in the classroom.

The caste system is entrenched, even though most middle classes in India talk about how India is casteless. The reality is far from this.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

Lee: Felicia, how have you seen this manifest in the US context?

Felicia DeHaney: These are intentional systemic barriers that have been not only what our institutions are built upon but what they continue to operate around and I think it is very important for us to call them out. It is not by accident; these systems were not placed there haphazardly. These are intended to isolate a group of individuals based on race, gender, class. And these systems need to be continually disrupted.

The Kellogg foundation is a racial equity foundation and we work in the early childhood space; many of these discriminatory practices start so early in life. I know lots of people who would spend millions of dollars to send their child to private school so that they can be bilingual. But when we think about a birth right and the native language of children and families who are intentionally marginalised and put within these systems, we block them from thriving for having a different language than the power class. Those are the things that we need to continue to call out, be intentional about and recognise that they have to be addressed. 

Lee: We know that language is such a critical part of our cultural identity and yet, especially in a country like India, there is a huge market demand for mainstream languages such as English. How do you balance this need to preserve culture and respect linguistic diversity with the demand for learning mainstream languages?

Nag: We need to understand how important language is for thought and for the early years of education. If you’re going to privilege some children’s languages over others, we are also fundamentally interfering in how concept building happens. Children do not walk into classrooms as blank slates, but the moment the language in which they are experiencing their everyday world is pushed out of the classroom, we end up reducing them to blank slates and so the language question becomes important.

Additionally, language has an epistemic connection with knowledge. I remember a poignant excerpt from one of the writings of Kancha Ilaiah where he said that most people would assume Telugu was his mother tongue but when he went into a classroom, classical texts in Telugu and in English would appear similar to him. So, the language of the classroom is not just the mainstream language, it’s also a Sanskritised version of the mainstream language, which is further exclusionary. That has played a role in who will get to formulate questions, whose thoughts we will allow to develop to an extent that they can get certain degrees and whose engagement with knowledge we will encourage so that they can challenge the existing theories that we have. 

Lee: The government may even want to introduce linguistic diversity in the curriculum but often parents want English medium instruction. What do you say to that and how do you marry those two desires?

Nag: Firstly, when we talk about bringing in mother tongues, it doesn’t have to be at the cost of other languages; it’s possible for languages to coexist in our school systems. But why should the burden of being multilingual only be on the oppressed?

I conduct a linguistic survey with my Master’s course students. Usually in India, you will not find monolinguals; bilinguals are those whose mother tongue is Hindi; trilinguals are those whose mother tongue is not Hindi but a dominant regional language, so they would know Bangla, Hindi and English and multilinguals are those whose languages are not even official state languages and so the burden of multilingualism is on them.

Once parents see that in these multilingual schools, the child will eventually learn other languages also, they will realise that it’s not fair for us to make this choice on behalf of the child. 

Language also has a class context. In India, students who are going to regional medium schools or Hindi medium schools are not necessarily from elite socio-economic backgrounds and they are more likely to come from homes where they don’t have exposure to English. If my child goes to an English medium school, even if I talk to my child in Hindi or Kangri all the time, the child will have exposure to English via television, radio, social media, books, magazines, newspapers. But imagine a child who is a first-generation school-goer, from an oppressed, marginalised socio-economic background and has no exposure to English. It’s like telling somebody “I am going to teach you German and math in German at the same time”.

They are therefore unable to make connections between their everyday world and school concepts. There is an important cognitive component that we need to understand when we are talking about language and this is a conversation that we need to have with parents. There will also have to be other, simultaneous initiatives such as making other languages available as the medium of instruction in higher education. As long as our higher education remains only in English, parents will have to make these difficult choices. 

Representative image. Photo: Unsplash/ Jonas Jacobsson.

Lee: Felicia, I am sure you have seen lots of different investments; some succeed and some fail, so I would love to hear from you about some approaches you have seen work really well as well as some approaches that people have tried in this field that don’t work.

DeHaney: I will start with the things that don’t work. At Kellogg, we are very intentional to take a community-based approach; to listen to communities because they know best what they need, how their children need to be engaged and what they need to ultimately thrive. I would that say there are lots of things that might not work the first time and we expect that because there is no one prescription that’s going to fit for each community. Even zip codes look very different in the US. But without including the community voice and community engagement, usually those programs do not do very well. 

When we talked about those that are intentionally marginalised; those intentionally placed at risk – we place them at risk by intentional separation in the US, whether it’s redlining or housing. There’s data on how these practices ultimately impact the school funding formula; how student fees are paid; how where you live, your zip code and your tax bracket impact the quality of teachers in your classroom. And at the Kellogg foundation, we’re very intentional about designing programs that take into account these discriminatory practices.

Secondly, the cultural competence of educators is a big part of our portfolio. It’s big investment and we see how that has been successful. Are the teachers being trained and prepared to enter a diverse and global context in their classroom? In early childhood we are also very intentional about not only access but quality; we know that two days in a high-quality program outweighs five days in a poor-quality program. Therefore, we ensure that we are not only pushing access so all children can start early, their families can work and their communities can thrive, but these are also quality programs such that they don’t depend on your family income, your zip code or funding or whatever context you come from. You enter a classroom that is high quality and well-financed. Those are the things that we see are working.

Lee: Shailaja, what are some of the best practices in bringing out the voices of those who are least heard and are there any big research or learning agendas that you feel like we need to focus on to advance our understanding of how these issues affect different communities?

Paik: When we talk about education during the COVID-19 pandemic and the experiences of marginalised Dalit children, we need to look at the question of affordability; who exactly is able to seek education during these difficult times? This is a question of caste as well as class because we see that poor Dalits will not be able to afford internet connections, phones, laptops and iPads. Hence, this education is not meant for them and this is how they are going to be excluded from the learning experience. This is going to have a major impact on the community.

The pandemic is going to amplify their marginalisation and poverty. Important policy work is required here. How is the government and other state agencies and non-profit organisations going to prevent this exclusion?

We also need to assess how the curriculum can be made more inclusive and can speak to the experiences of the marginalised. Only recently has some Dalit literature been included at the school level and maybe also the university level curriculum but we do not have a deeper engagement.

And finally, is the institution really able to cater to the students admitted in that particular institution? Do students feel that they can access the teacher and the staff members or interact with their peers? What kind of support can the institution provide them on different lines, in terms of language or other kinds of skills that they may need in order to succeed at that institution? 

Also read: India Can’t Keep Citing the Pandemic to Deprive Children of Education+

Lee: Shivani, from your work as a professor and your understanding of how marginalised children are being left out, how has COVID-19 affected these groups differently?

Nag: Even amongst those who have access to online education, how has the classroom space transformed and to whose advantage has it transformed? Students are engaging from their homes and if you think in terms of marginalised communities, these may not be the most comfortable settings where they will have a room of their own and they can share their thoughts freely.

If society is feudal, casteist and patriarchal, then all of these hierarchies begin reflecting from home. Your community, your neighbourhood and your home forms the first point where you get to experience it. So as classes and learning shifts online, the kind of dialogues which were earlier possible and were so necessary to be able to challenge some of these hierarchies and divisions have become so much more challenging.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The classroom space is not just about what students from marginalised communities stand to gain from learning; it’s also about them being able to articulate their experience and reclaim their voices and it is in those interactions that not only can oppression be voiced, but we can create conditions for privileges to be recognised, which is so important for any kind of meaningful dialogue to happen. 

In the kind of mode of education that we have shifted to, the fact is that education has again become unidirectional; it has become text-centric or lecture-centric again and, whether we like it or not, there is a dehumanisation that takes place when my students get reduced to boxes on the screen of a computer. Therefore, the online mode has led to certain intentional exclusions of the marginalised and for those who are still able to get access, this access is only entry-level access.

There has been a dynamic change in the nature of participation and the dialogic space that should ideally exist in a classroom, which makes the forging of solidarities between different marginalised communities also that much more difficult.

Lee: Is it easy to spot biases against certain identities in school curricula or is the variety of books and lesson plans so large that it becomes hard to track and biased content often slips through?

Paik: The content and the curriculum are very vast, however, here once again I want to reinforce the aspect of intentionality that Felicia was mentioning. As we attempt to make education, knowledge and learning-seeking more inclusive for marginalised communities, we have to be intentional in including these stories inside our curriculum.

For example, there could be ten books that students have to read at the Master’s level but out of these ten books we could have at least two or three that bring in the marginalised voice – be it of women, be it of black women, Dalit women or trans folks – so as to make this curriculum diverse and the most inclusive and welcoming experience that we can have for a variety of people. 

DeHaney: I want to just add one note to that. One of the things we charge ourselves with at the Kellogg foundation is that when our programs submit their funding request, whether it be curriculum or program implementation, we ask: who is doing the work? You’re entering these communities, but who are in your staff? What is your own cultural competence to be able to enter these communities? Have you spoken to the communities? And when we talk about textbooks: who is the author and what is the context that they bring?

I think we do hold that power to hold people accountable, not only for what they are writing and the stories they are telling but also for asking about the people who they are involving within the development of these programs and these books. 

Also read: NCERT Removes Teacher-Training Manual on Transgender-Inclusive School Education After Backlash

Nag: Like I said in the beginning, we talk about inclusion because exclusion has happened. The ‘mainstream’ has been defined, shaped and nurtured by what is actually a minority. So why should critical pedagogy not be the mainstream? Why should trans narratives and caste narratives remain at one end of the periphery? Because that doesn’t challenge the status quo. We need to challenge who has the power to write theories, to pose research and academic questions, the power to define the world and the people in it. And by doing so, all the groups that have been systematically and intentionally discriminated against and pushed towards the margins reclaim their place at the centre. Otherwise, I am afraid of things becoming tokenistic; people at the centre need to realise that it’s not theirs by right, they have not inherited the centre.

So, I do think that it is important for discourse on exclusions and inclusion to be mainstream because everybody should have an equal right to the centre. Only if that happens can we imagine a circle in which the relationship between the centre and the periphery is not static; it is fluid depending on our interests. People should be able to move from the centre to the boundary and there should be no systematic structures that prevent somebody from entering the centre or prevent somebody from moving towards the periphery. It will be an individual choice and the system will not make this choice for them. 

Amiya Chaudhuri is an associate at Belongg Research Collective.