Behaviour change is about learning

“wash hands frequently”, “use hand sanitiser”, “wear mask”, “maintain physical distance (of 6 ft)”, “work and study from home”….a series of instructions have been communicated to all Indians (indeed all citizens around the world) since March 2020, in the face of corona virus

Each of the above messages communicates an expectation of certain behaviour from each of us. For an overwhelming majority of us, the expected behaviour is ‘different’ from one we have been used to in our lives so far.

Most Indians like to give hugs, touch feet, shake hands, stand close to our friends and family, when we meet them. We have learnt over the years that these forms of behaviours are expressions of respect, care, love and affection. The ‘new’ behaviour expected is quite different from the behaviours we have learnt over the years.

Likewise, most of our children, adolescents and teenagers are used to going to school most days of a week. They are used to the practice where most study happens in classrooms. In order to go to school in time, these young people have to get dressed, take some food and catch some transport to reach school on time. These behaviours have been taught to them well, and by end of February of this year, millions of young people had learnt to practice these behaviours as routine. Then in mid March, as lockdown due to corona virus began, these young people were told to study from home. The ‘new’ behaviour expected of them is different from the routine they had ‘mastered’ through practice.

Likewise, wearing a mask outside one’s home is a new way of behaving. As we notice on the streets, most people have made the gesture of wearing a mask by hanging some cloth around their necks; but their mouth and nose are not fully covered. They are used to breathing without obstacles all their lives; many have habit of spitting frequently that they have learnt in life; several find difficulty in speaking through a cover over mouth, because that is what they have done all through their lives, so far. They are now expected to demonstrate ‘new’ behaviour of wearing a mask, properly.

All of the above expected ‘new’ behaviours are meant to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from Covid-19 infection. All of these expected ‘new’ behaviours are scientifically confirmed to be ‘healthy’ practices to follow, diligently. Regular communications on mass media (radio, TV, newspapers, social media, etc.) have been made to ask all people to practice the above ‘safe’ behaviours. Despite that, why millions are still struggling to practice ‘new’ behaviours?

The answer is to be found in principles and processes of adult learning.

As we grow in our lives, we learn certain behaviours; they gradually become part of our habit. I recall how my grand-mother ‘forced’ me and my sister to learn washing hands before meals, and washing mouth after meals. It took some time before these simple behaviours became habit. Once learnt, I followed them all these years almost automatically. But those of us who did not learn washing hands as a habitual behaviour, practicing hand-washing now is to first ‘unlearn’ old behaviour, before ‘re-learn’ new behaviour.

This process of learning-unlearning and re-learning is well established and regularly put to use by practitioners of adult learning.

This is what adult education is all about in everyday life. It is called adult because it is different from early childhood learning theories. These days, adolescents are adults; not only those who have become voters at the age of 18. Education for adults is not merely about acquiring facts and information. Education entails learning new behaviours; the importance of new behaviours first has to be grasped; this grasping requires shifts in our existing personal theories and constructs, learnt over the years. Like, showing intimacy requires hugs, showing respect means bending to touch feet. Once, we figure out that affection can be shown without hugs, we may begin to ‘unlearn’ old behaviour, and move towards practicing ‘new’ behaviour more appropriate to the new context we are in.

Viewed in this way, adult learning and education is a life-long process for us all. We constantly and continuously unlearn and re-learn in order to move ahead in life with satisfaction. This capacity is inherent in all humans, though for some, it has been less valued and practiced than others. This capacity makes us resilient, responding flexibly in the face of unknown adversities.

This process is what has come to be known as life-long learning!

While learning is always life-long for all, some of us make better, conscious use of this capacity, than many others. This is what is meant by capacity of ‘learning to learn’.

The New Education Policy (NEP) announced by the government of India last month has many references to the above. It invokes SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) 4 which requires inclusive education and ‘life-long learning for all.’ The policy aspires to recognise the ‘creative potential of each person’, strongly advocating for simultaneous development of ‘cognitive, emotional, social, ethical’ capacities in each learner. It calls for education to prepare citizens of India to enhance their capacities for ‘learning to learn’.

Despite such lofty principles and ideals, it is quite disappointing that the place of adult learning and education in the NEP has remained unchanged since its predecessor 36 years ago. A small separate chapter on adult education towards the end in NEP relegates it narrowly to learning of literacy for hitherto ‘illiterate’ Indians.

As argued above, adult learning and education is critical for each Indian to practice new safe behaviours demanded due to the pandemic. This is one of the largest national, indeed global, adult learning and education campaigns in recent history. Adult learning and education is life-long and life-wide, for all.
I wish the NEP had found a way to integrate adult learning and education perspective and principles in all its sections and chapters, and learning of literacy and numeracy alone should not be its sole domain.

New learning entails unlearning past frameworks and behaviours, indeed!