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Published in The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/a-malfunctioning-system-in-need-of-repair/article6408307.ece

Rohit Dhankar

We may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself and then match the systemic efforts…

The unsatisfactory quality of elementary education has been a serious concern for India at the least for the last four decades. Many quality improvement programmes have been devised and implemented at State and national levels; but they all left the quality lower than they found it.

The access in terms of children attending the schools has certainly improved. But it is mainly due to increased awareness of parents and mushrooming private schools that cash in on the parental aspirations.

The BJP, in its election manifesto of 2014, has promised to “meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education” among other things.

Since then there are periodic announcements from HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding curriculum improvement and policy review to ‘reorient education’ to meet the aspirations of the people. However, if we really want to improve the quality of education for all, we may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself; and match the systemic efforts to achieve what we understand by it.

The notion of quality

The popular discourse regarding quality today revolves around reports of certain large-scale achievement tests in language and arithmetic like ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) and the world-wide PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for ranking; even though India does not participate in the PISA. These may indicate an important part of what needs to be achieved, but they also mislead efforts for improvement of quality in education. One, by narrowly focussing and therefore emaciating the very idea of quality; and, two, by creating an impression that one can improve scores in these tests by directly targeting such improvement. Education is a complex affair, the visible achievements often are the result of subterranean processes and belief systems operating in the system. Unless we pay attention to them, direct teaching-to-test may produce no substantial results.

In efforts to rethink quality we should note that, like everything else in education, quality also has a political dimension. Education systems are geared to larger social purposes. The definition of quality we will create for, say, turning India into ‘make-in-India’; whatever that might mean; may be very different from the one we create for ‘inclusive India’. There is no necessary contradiction between ‘make-in-India’ slogan and notion of ‘inclusive India’, but the emphasis does matter; and it is possible to forget the latter in the energetic pursuit of the first. The emphasis on inclusiveness in our education policy needs not only be safeguarded but also be deepened. The ‘make-in-India’ without inclusiveness is neither achievable nor worth striving for. This political orientation of education is an essential part of quality.

The second aspect of quality are the twin problems in our education system which have been lamented in virtually all committees/commissions reports and curricular documents since Independence — one, the plague of rote learning devoid of understanding; two, the disconnect between education and life.

The large-scale testing completely ignores both these aspects, and the noise created around the scores takes the attention away from the essence of education. Israel Scheffler, the well-known American philosopher of education while discussing teacher’s control over learning wrote: “It is where his control ends that his fondest hopes for education begin.” Our education, as it is implemented in the classrooms today, does not provide scope for creativity and independence.

The third, an essential aspect of pedagogy for meaningful education, is the child’s right to “meaning making” and confidence in the truth of what is learnt. This confidence cannot rest on the authority of the textbook or the teacher. It has to be cognitively earned by the child through constructing her own justifications for what she learns. In our zeal for teaching everything as fast as possible we bypass the creative processes of justification that makes confidence and relevance possible.

The fourth — our pedagogy has to learn to respect the child as a person. Corporeal punishment and insulting behaviour in the classroom are already punishable offences. But respect for the learner as a person goes beyond this. It is acceptance of her individuality and judgement. The child’s questioning, failure to understand in the classroom, scepticism and rejection of what we want her to believe, etc. all are part of her self; and the teacher has to engage with them with full respect for her cognitive and moral development.

Unless we see quality in this larger sense our attempts will bear little fruit.

Preparedness of the system

Is our education system prepared to take forward quality understood in this larger sense? No. We have to work towards this preparedness. Some of the most important aspects of this preparedness could be identified as below.

One, we need to create conviction in the political elite, administrative structure and education functionaries to look at education in a broader sense. And to ram the point home that better education is essential for both ‘inclusive India’ and well as for ‘make-in-India’.

We have to face the truth that as a society we do not exhibit concern for providing equal opportunity of good education to all. This would require a large-scale churning in society for consensus-building on this issue. The government, universities and apex institutions like NCERT and NCTE can take a lead in this; and substantial cooperation from media will be required.

Two, we have to recognise the inadequacy of our teaching force; both in terms of numbers and preparedness. Most of our teachers are unaware of curricular demands on them and see learning as the capability to repeat what is written in the textbook. This is because many of them are untrained and most of the trained ones have had very bad teacher education. This demands an immediate programme of in-service teacher education. Unfortunately in-service teacher education is totally discredited by the massive programmes like the District Primary Education Programme and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. We need to understand clearly the reasons why our attempts in the past failed. We should refrain from discarding the very idea of in-service teacher education based on our experience of lacklustre implementation of ill-conceptualised programmes in the past.

Three, we need urgently to sort out the mess that is pre-service teacher education today. The debate on this issue has to go beyond duration of B.Ed. courses and who can and cannot teach there in. We have to reconceptualise teacher education which is coherent with our vision of education and educational quality. At the moment there is a wide gap.

Four, at present we have reasonably good curriculum framework. However, it is already about 9 years old and there is no harm in reviewing it. But that review process should neither be motivated by political agendas like bringing in unfounded and ill- understood ancient cultural elements nor by aligning school curricula with higher education and research needs. Every educationist worth his salt understands that rationale of school curriculum rests on building foundations of being human and participation in democratic life. If it is geared to preparing people for IITs, IIMs and goalposts defined by IITs elementary education will lose relevance in life of most of our children and will also fail to reach those very goalposts.

Five, we need a massive programme for education functionaries right from headmasters to the State-level administrators to understand education, educational reform and build conviction that the government can actually do it.

And finally, we should free education from the whims of the all-knowing demigods called IAS officers. We urgently need Indian Education Services. It could be started with select academics and IAS officers, but finally has to become an independent cadre geared to educational needs of the country.

One understands that the above analysis points to massive changes. But then we have an old, malfunctioning system to repair; no one should imagine that it can be done by mere slogans or cosmetic changes.