Does family background affect children’s learning?

There are very many common beliefs about children and learning that we come across during the course of our interactions with teachers, educators and functionaries. Let us examine a few of them:

There are three types of children – smart, ordinary and dull. The main reason for this extreme disparity is the child’s family background.

. Some children are good at studies; a few others are only fit to carry out other routine tasks.

. The family base of children who land in our schools is not good.

. Children belonging to certain castes are very poor at or do very well in studies.

These beliefs should automatically trigger the following fundamental questions in the minds of right- thinking individuals:

. If all children are given equal opportunities to learn, will they able to learn in the same manner?

. When does the child get involved in the process of learning?

. What kind of environment is conducive for learning?

. What is ‘intelligence’? Is there any difference in the intelligence levels of children?

. To what extent does ‘nature’ (genetic factor) shape one’s intelligence? And to what extent does ‘nurture’ (one’s environment) contribute?  

. Which children could we term as fast learners and on what basis?  

Kotreshi’s dream

‘Kotreshi Kanasu’ (Kotreshi’s Dream), a 1994 critically acclaimed Kannada film based on Kum.Veerabhadrappa’s novel ‘Kotreshi Highschoolige Seriddu’, deals with the sensitive issue of equity rather powerfully.

The film, directed by Nagathihalli Chandrashekar (who, incidentally, along with Kum.Vee, the author, does have a teaching background), won two national awards for best feature film in Kannada and best child artiste (Vijay Raghavendra).

The film depicts the story of an intelligent boy and the struggle of his utterly poor parents from a lower caste to further the boy’s studies against the backdrop of the powerful machinations of the village headman, Gowda, who tries to curb the former’s rising to the top (this is set against the poor showing of his own son) through sheer economic and political might.

Gowda, ironically, funds the school to which the boy seeks admission and hence is able to ensure denial of admission to the boy by the school administration on one pretext or another. He severs the delivery of supplies to Kotreshi’s middle school teacher who persuades Kotreshi’s illiterate parents to let their son study and even gets Kotreshi family’s hut burnt to teach them a lesson. In the end, the struggles of Kotreshi’s family and their supporters bear fruit by way of an upright police officer stepping in and forcibly thwarting Gowda in his oppressive methods, and also through Kotreshi’s father breaking his fast and securing admission for his son into the same school which blocked him earlier.

However, what remains etched in the mind is how a deeply entrenched socio-political system defies the law and tries to retain its stranglehold on the weaker section to ensure that the power equations prevailing between two classes remain unchanged.

Mutta, the golden boy

A song by renowned poet and my literary guru HS Venkatesha Murthy in another beautiful children’s film ‘Chinnari Mutta’ (the Golden Boy) lays emphasis on the need for a conducive environment for all species to flourish, in addition to them having the requisite potential.

The song portrays various imageries from nature while posing a few reflective questions along the way - does the bird not need the sky to fly in the space despite having its wings? Does the deer not need the forest to jump around and play though it has legs? Does the flower not need the breeze to radiate its fragrance though keeping it inherently? Does the honey bee not need the flower to draw the honey from, though it has the mouth?  Do the clouds not need the earth to shower rains on ….? Does the stream not need a pond for it to flow from ….? And so on.

What emerges from the above analysis is the pivotal role of the teachers and educators in recognising that irrespective of the constraining backgrounds of their students, there is every possibility for all of them, including first generation learners, to improve their life conditions through education.

Insights from a recent study

A recent study in Shorapur taluk of Yadgir district (“Schooling for all – can we neglect the demand?” – authored by V.Santhakumar, Namita Gupta and Ramamurthy Sripada published by Oxford University Press) indicates amongst other factors that mothers’ literacy, followed by fathers’ literacy, plays a crucial role in girls’ continuing education at the elementary level and beyond. Though poverty and unemployment work against the push for schooling, the more dominant factor is the lack of social development, including female illiteracy.

Though socio-economic contexts vary across districts and even taluks, similar trends could exist in many places. Teachers need to be aware of the specific socio-economic backgrounds of each and every child in their class and try and support the child as much as possible. It goes without saying that children from disadvantaged backgrounds would need more attention than well-endowed children. This is applicable not only in government managed schools but also in private institutions where diversity has increased post the adoption of RtE.

Looking at one’s own beliefs about how children develop and learn, questioning and repositioning them wherever needed, and providing supportive environment to children to overcome their genetic or natural limitations are some of the key responsibilities teachers and educators have to take upon themselves earnestly.  

Inspiring story of Madhuri

The case of Madhuri, who recently got admission into PG in Horticulture, is a true story of hope. A typical rural girl hailing from Ainahalli in Hiriyur Taluk of Chitradurga district, Madhuri’s success was narrated recently by Nagarajachar, the head master of the Ambalagere Government high school, (with whom I worked recently on module preparation for in-service teachers) where she completed her S.S.L.C successfully. Madhuri’s is an interesting narrative from the perspective of how the environment plays an important role in shaping a student’s life, despite a challenging family background.

Like many rural girls, Madhuri grew up in a large joint family, studying in a government Kannada medium school up to 10th standard. She developed a keen interest in science while in high school and took part in several science exhibitions at the taluk and district levels, creating experimental models on her own. She had to shift to Bengaluru for her PUC and stayed in her maternal uncle’s house.

She faced severe challenges at this level, as she had to compete with other city bred students in her college. With her determination, hard work and support from her family and immediate environment, she overcame her inferiority complex and continued her studies in the science stream. She once again proved her mettle in the 2nd PUC public exam by scoring a high percentage.

Though Madhuri could have easily got admission in one of the engineering or medical colleges, she preferred to take up the 4-year B.Sc programme in horticulture at the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, Shivamogga. Her college was located in Hiriyur.

Hailing as she was from an agricultural family (her father Prakash owns 20 hectares of land, jointly growing arecanut and coconut with his larger family), she wanted to give back not only to her family but the larger farming community. Apart from her family, her high school headmaster, too, stood by her choice.

During her degree, she had to stay alternatively in her uncle’s house and hostel in Hiriyur. Madhuri came out successful yet again at the degree level by securing four gold medals. She also secured admission into the postgraduate course at the University of Horticultural Sciences, Bagalkote. She dreams of becoming a horticultural scientist, with the noble idea of helping farmers produce varieties of vegetable crops that would generate good yield at low cost.         

It would be fitting to end this piece with the parable of Bonam, a Jew master, who steered hundreds of disciples for years. He had become quite old as the years rolled by. One day, his disciples asked him to provide them with a long lasting message which would guide them for life. Bonam simply smiled at them and conveyed that he would deliver it to them after his death. When his students got perplexed and sought to know how that would happen, he assured them that he would leave the all-important message upon his death, whenever that happened, and that they should check out his palms for it.

Bonam’s message

Bonam died in a few months’ time as expected. His disciples were naturally grief-stricken. However, they were quite curious too, eager to unravel the message he had left behind for them. One of his mindful disciples sat close to the deceased master and opened both his locked palms. Each of them contained a slip.

While the note found in the left hand read “I am merely the clay”, the one on the right hand proclaimed, “the entire world has been created for me.” Apparently a huge contradiction had been generated!  Another smart disciple joined both the slips and turned them over. A clear note was written thereupon, “Dear students, what is mentioned in my left hand is a reality; there is nothing exceptional in that. If one is pessimistic, he will end up only being the clay. However, what my right hand contained implied a possibility. If one grows by utilising his full ability and intellect, the whole world opens up for him. Life is only a journey from reality to possibility.”

Bonam’s ultimate message is a powerful one, especially in the context of some of the deep beliefs carried by teachers and educators alike about children and what impacts learning.  


More About Author


S V Manjunath

S V Manjunath is currently an Associate Director (Kannada Initiatives) at the Azim Premji University. He has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and a PG diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations.

Manjunath made a mid–career shift more than seven years back, after spending more than two decades in the corporate sector as a human resource professional.

He has interests in literature, music and cricket and writes regularly on issues in education in various newspapers and portals. He has authored two books in Kannada - a collection of essays on his experiences as a HR Professional titled ‘Janasampada’ and ‘Sakha-Sakhi’, a photo feature documenting his parents’ 50-year life journey.   




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