Shailesh Shirali is Director of Sahyadri School, which
is part of the Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI) school system. Dr. Shirali, a
Mathematician of international repute with a keen interest in Geometry, Number
Theory, Combinatorics, and history of Mathematics, did his doctoral on ‘On
Total Dual Integrality’ at the University of Texas, Dallas. He taught for two
years at New Brunswick in Canada and in 1983 returned to India where he began
teaching at Rishi Valley School, founded by Jiddu Krishnamurti, a philosopher
of great global renown. “Pursuing Maths was a sort of reawakening and was also
because it was around the time I began reading about Krishnamurti in the late
1970s,” says Dr. Shirali.While at Rishi Valley, he was intensely involved in
problem solving and the Olympiad movement and was closely involved with the
movement for nearly 20 years
in the country through the late 1980s up to 2008. A National Award winner for
Teachers from the President of India, he is a widely published author. A Primer
on Number Sequences, First Steps in Number Theory: A Primer on Divisibility, A
Primer on Logarithms, Adventures in
Problem Solving, and Adventures in Iteration, are some of his major works.
Dr. Shirali, also Chief Editor of At Right Angles, published by Azim
Premji Foundation, is a prolific contributor to Resonance and The
Mathematical Gazette, among other top mathematical journals. A sagely and
inspirational figure, Dr. Shirali has been not only an erudite mathematician and
philosopher, but also an academic administrator for over three decades with
KFI. He was recently speaking to K. G. Sreenivas on the idea of parental
involvement in the children’s learning lives.
From your experience as a teacher and administrator what has been your experience in terms of parental engagement? How have you negotiated this slightly beleaguered territory?
In our schools (KFI) we have had a varied experience. Our parental profile, as elsewhere, is not a homogeneous one. We have some parents who have great sympathy for the kinds of things we do in school and are ready to offer their expertise to teachers and students. They come over and host workshops or take classes. In general, there is a positive relationship in terms of the energy it brings to the school. But such parents are few. I think it depends greatly on the parental profile of the school and most schools are probably quite far from that ideal state where parents are ready to come forward and are interested in education. I think the general trend is that parents like to simply say that it is the school’s job, that they are best qualified to do it and therefore leave them alone. They restrict themselves to making some demands on behalf of the child with regard to the child’s academic performance. It’s the only the occasional parent who goes a bit deeper and is concerned about the culture of the school not in terms of merely what is happening to his or her child but in a broader sense… as to what is happening to the larger world outside. I think very few parents go beyond the stage of simply making a demand to the school in terms of facilities or some kind of service. Some schools I would say are lucky— they have parents who are willing to go much beyond that and actually come and participate in discussions and enquiry. There is a sense of shared ownership, a shared responsibility. But as I said, by and large,parents seem to take a slightly antagonistic point of view, like treating the school more like a service centre where you expect a certain quality of service. Such parents often convey that sense to their children as well. It’s a paid thing! So you get all kinds of parents, but very few parents go deeper and involve themselves either in the academic side of the school, or sport, or music, or the philosophic side of the school.
Do you think it calls for an institutional mechanism as an extension or outreach activity of the school? Or will that go against the very grain of it all?
I think in the case of a school such as Sahyadri we need to be more proactive and start engaging with parents in a more regular or sustained way, making our own position clearer on matters and actually be willing to challenge the parents and be challenged in turn, so that there is some actual healthy engagement with them, and so that we don’t get caught in that relationship of trying to explain how we do things or explain the lack of a certain facility. Often the relationship gets trapped in that kind of a mode. Once it does, it gets difficult to get out of it. Some parents sort of push you into that mode of relationship — more phones, more internet, different quality of food… But a few parents are genuinely helpful and thoughtful. At times we have parents who offer their services, be it an architect or academician or environmentalist or a rural specialist, who come and share something very enriching with us. We value it because we feel it is an important input into children’s education.
You referred to parental antagonism… Perhaps it goes back to their own schooling which may or may not have been pleasant so to say and perhaps they extrapolate from that and see this relationship through that framework without exploring more creative ways of looking at the relationship with the school.
It may not be something directly connected with their own childhood experiences, but I think this is the prevailing feeling about schools in India. It is simply a reflection of their backgrounds and culture. Because that is how by and large members of the public view schools — as service centres. Sometimes the complaints are that the teachers are either too strict or give too much of work. Sometimes they do appreciate their work. But everything is from a distance. You appreciate or complain as a customer. You are not there as a participant. That paradigm isn’t there in our culture at the moment. It’s only in the exceptional school where that happens. The default mode is that of the customer-service relationship and many schools, I think, also reflect that. They actually discourage parents from interacting too closely, perhaps apprehensive that parents might start dictating terms. They are wary. Some schools even actively discourage school visits except for occasions such as the Parent Teacher Meeting (PTM), which, again, isn’t typically a very pleasant encounter — essentially a top-down forum.
In the UK there has been a movement where schools, parents, and the community have been working together helping parents reach out to school and vice versa. As a movement it has helped build strong home-school links, which, in turn, has helped a deep connectedness with the process of learning. How do you reach out to the community at large?
It calls for proactive work on the part of the school. But they also need to have a receptive parent community which may not always be the case, especially in the early years of the school. You may not always have ideal conditions. I would say in Rishi Valley it took them a long time to get into that kind of a positive feedback loop. When I first joined the school they were definitely not in that kind of a position. It took us 20 years to get there and it did need some positive push from some people. The Director of the school had a vision and it helped in treading that path. Should it happen in most schools that synergy would be of great value, benefiting everybody concerned — the school, the children, and the parents, bringing them all on the same side of things ending that antagonistic service-demand kind of a relationship… Because, children naturally assume that, that is the accepted mode and carry it forward. If they are shown an alternative they would also move in that direction. But they are brought up that way and they assume that is the way. You can actually see it in children… when you ask them to do certain kinds of things they often ask ‘why should we do it when we have paid for it’.
That’s a bit of a gray area. Parents probably do not realise that certain things that are done in school are done in aid of the child and vice versa too. Today parents also do things at home which teachers may not realise are for the betterment of the child. Have you reflected on that unspoken dialectics?
The only way is to actually discuss it in a very conscious and deliberate way and bring up these matters with parents and talk about the attitudes that we see in our children. It is possible that they themselves are not aware about it, maybe unconsciously transmitting these attitudes without realising the implications and I think, we, at school need to act, we cannot wait for parents to act. We have made some small beginnings in the past two three years. We meet all the parents of a particular class by turn and we try and steer the conversations in this kind of a zone as to can there be the kind of relationship we are talking about, about genuine education…
Do parents get involved in academic matters and try and understand the process…
To some extent yes… Some of them offer their academic expertise. Of course they cannot get involved in the educational underpinnings of the school but they see that they can contribute their knowledge and understanding of some subject. We don’t of course have too many parents in academic positions. But yes there are those who are connected with some scientific institutions. By and large the involvement has not been in that direction. Sharing your expertise is the first step… it doesn’t cost too much and parents are only too happy to be doing that. But I think more needs to be done because the primary conflicts between parents and school occur when parents don’t have that kind of feeling about the school and are, therefore, inclined to ‘beat’ the system rather than feel sympathy towards it. So if there are rules that apply to children some of them are inclined to find ways of going around those rules. It is a recurrent theme in our relationship which of course leads to a great deal of friction at times. Another area which is more subtle and more difficult is when the child runs into some difficulty and he himself or herself is the cause of it. In this we find two very different types of parents… no in-between really. One kind of parent is very concerned and come on the side of the school and, together, tries and solves the problem. The other takes the point of view that the school is doing something wrong and in the process the problem is compounded. So we have an antagonistic relationship right away. Once we enter that zone it is almost an irretrievable thing.
Do you find equivalences between mathematics and life in terms of approaches to problem solving?
It is difficult to find direct equivalences but there may be some at a deeper level. I would say that very often that you are battering away at a problem and you get nothing… you throw everything at it and it bounces back or bounces off. And then you go to sleep and when you have woken up in the morning the first thing you realise is you have the answer. You see something that you missed. I have lost count of how many times it has happened with me. This happens in life as well. It is very often the case that when you are wrestling with a problem where you call upon all the forces of reasoning and argumentation nothing seems to hit you. It is only when the brain is not effectively occupied with the problem that it finds the solution to the problem. It finds its own solution which is not obtained through reason. It is one of the most astonishing capacities that our brains have. It is not within the reach of will, you cannot will it into existence. It comes just like that.