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Teaching and Learning: An International Experience in North East India (Interview)

Tim Allchin currently consults in instructional design, advanced facilitation and Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) consultancy with a focus on Early Childhood Services. In addition, he writes a variety of other training materials for different clients.

Relatively recently, Tim returned from living in North East India for 2 years assisting a local aid and development organization think through their training methodologies and develop specific training using their cultural landscape.

Q. Can you give our readers some examples of how training in the Indian culture differs from American or Western cultures?

This is not an easy answer because the Indian culture varies quite dramatically across India, though I guess there are some similarities. Quite a few of these have come through the colonial system and the cultural changes that have taken place on the basis of this.

Consequently it is as well to explore some of this history and then move on to some of its consequences. This is not an easy thing to understand and so this, as with any explanation, will be flawed but may serve to give some insight into responses to training.

North East India is a series of 7 states above Bangladesh and next to Burma. They are quite separate from the rest of India and are viewed by a significant number if not the majority of those in the “central” part of India as backward and tribal, which are both euphemisms for uncivilized and, in many people’s eyes, stupid.

They are peoples with over 250 distinct languages across their tribal groupings as well as many dialects. They are wonderfully creative and musical, adept at sport and survive regular natural disasters with aplomb.

The tribal aspects linger in some tribes more than others with internecine rivalry leading to bloodshed at times. Political turmoil between factions and against the central government is a constant part of life in some of the states. This leads to the view that it is a place where not much good happens.

Unfortunately corruption is quite prevalent in some areas with the result that a good deal of the money that is poured into these areas goes into the pockets of politicians and others in positions of power.

Some of the policing decisions are made on the notion of keeping those in power happy or acting through bribery rather than a notion of absolute justice, which also tends to undermine freethinking and speech. This then provides a backdrop to some of the thoughts and ideas by which people live and which appear in training sessions, as people are encouraged to think and reflect.

Q. What does the education system look like in North East India?

The education system is largely colonial in nature with the rote learning system prevalent. The teacher is the expert and one writes down questions and answers to regurgitate during repeated exams from a very young age.

The hierarchical cultural framework allows an understanding of respect that we, in the west, don’t quite understand. We tend to view it as a duty while in India it is a joy and an honor. Western schools reap the youth discontent and disrespect that our free speech generates, while the Indian system lays the way open for corruption and nepotism.

Q. What are the implications for training in North East India?

The implications for training in North East India are:

• Passivity in training sessions waiting for the answer from an expert • A difficulty in visioning an answer or solution • An unwillingness to be singled out therefore an unwillingness to suggest responses • An unwillingness to explore options • When asked questions, a nervous pause and quiet discussion for a time with close neighbors to try and figure out what the facilitator wants and then a hurried ‘I don’t know’ even if they do know • A focus towards the ‘front’ of the training space because that is where the expert will be • A wariness of other participants and their ‘position’ in society

This is a brief overview of a very complex situation.

Q. While teaching the students, was there something that particularly stood out?

The passivity was something that was repeatedly experienced throughout school and in the political arena with corruption, meaning personal thoughts had little to do with the outcome, and in policing where again all too often corruption meant that there wasn’t any absolute right or wrong.

It was a real blessing after a couple of years there to note a lady (who had been a very typical trainee in terms of being very passive and concerned about appearing silly) respond one day in a training session to a question posed directly to her by starting to look away and begin the normal cycle of non response and then seem to shake herself almost and proceed to respond with a crystal clear well reasoned response.

It was a bit unrealistic to expect to see significant cultural change after only 2 years but there it was and as indicated a real blessing to see it at work. It was a real learning experience for me and an amazing thing to be part of.

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