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Published in THE HINDU http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-template-for-teacher-education/article6728577.ece

Rohit Dhankar

All curricula are situated in contexts and are simultaneously guided by ideals. Therefore, an understanding of and a balance between the two is essential.

We have succeeded in creating an education system that discourages good education in every possible way. It is largely apathetic to the quality of education and the fate of children. The mindset that governs thinking and the actions of the functionaries of education in the government are to somehow manage the naukari and to reap the benefits of the job on the basis of seniority. The thought of doing a good job rarely comes to mind if it ever does. The idea of reform and improvement remain at the level of rhetoric. In this system, any teacher who wants to work for good education has to work on his or her own and without much support. He or she also has to overcome varied forms of resistance.

Obstacles before the teacher

In schools, the quality of education revolves around issues such as a school uniform, heavy school bags, mark sheets and some semblance of having the English language and infrastructure in place. Parents are conscious of the need for quality education, with upward mobility in the form of well-paying jobs being uppermost in their minds. This is a legitimate expectation, but parents and schools see the path to well-paying jobs through so-called English medium and high-fee charging schools. From there it moves on to children studying in private universities, now a dime a dozen, and which all proclaim to produce leaders.

Children’s lives, even in the rural areas, now revolve around television and in various activities on the mobile phone. Hence, the motivation to ensure that a child has a worthwhile education enabled by a wholesome learning experience has to be created by the teacher. Even if the child is a natural and enthusiastic ‘learner’, that all learning is equally worthwhile is an unexamined assumption. Therefore, the teacher has to direct the efforts of the child towards this goal. This is a difficult job.

Let’s focus on the teacher. In the general atmosphere of economic competition and consumerism, a teacher legitimately desires leading a good economic and social life. The teacher has to constantly fight with her visibly low status in society, which saps her enthusiasm for good teaching.

Education is increasingly becoming centric to the government’s thinking in order to realise the desire for India’s economic competitiveness in a globalised world. Thus, the purpose of education can be well served by having a layered education system. One part of that system can take the responsibility of mass producing “narrowly skilled” people with a limited vision of life and completely sold out on shining promises of consumerist hedonism. Another part could produce a limited number of people who can think relatively better regarding skills and theoretical knowledge, but still remain wedded to promises of economic growth.

Obviously, in each point mentioned in the system, namely the parent, the child, a teacher’s ambitions and the government, there exists many alternative ideas and serious efforts as well. I have painted this grim picture in order to claim that this is the dominant mood and in spite of there being many people who want to do something better. The purpose of citing these instances is not to deny the positive aspect, but to make the point that a teacher has to work in an adverse scenario and be on the lookout to identify genuine elements in the system to collaborate and work with.

The ideals

The issue is this: what is the kind of Teacher Education (TE) curriculum needed that can help a new teacher enter this scenario with confidence and to work effectively? The context-centric thinking has a natural tendency to privilege status quo without the thinker being conscious of this problem. One starts thinking of ways of survival in the face of adverse elements in the context and loses sight of the larger purpose, thereby reinforcing the context as it is. This is producing a tendency to take the context as given and planning education that seems possible in the given limitations. In the process, the limitations gain acceptance while the quality of education becomes a variable to be adjusted with them. The teacher has to strive for quality; not only for survival.

But why should the teacher struggle? It is much easier and personally beneficial for him to go along with the system. What motivation could there be to challenge it? And, strive for what? What should he try to achieve? What are the kind of tools to be used? These abstract questions are very pragmatic ones if we are to develop an effective TE curriculum.

One definite requirement to work well is to have an idea of what one is working for and an ability to divert one’s efforts towards enabling worthy goals and a vision. Therefore, a personal examination of goals and vision proposed by the system is essential in order to create commitment for a task. This requires a reasonable amount of intellectual autonomy; it may be weak and limited autonomy perhaps, but autonomy nonetheless.

A teacher needs to build an intellectually, ethically and socially satisfactory, if not exciting, life for herself as a thinking being. Also, a possibility for continuous personal development is essential in order to contribute towards creating good education. Usually, creating opportunities for such development is supposed to be the job of the system; but in the situation we have, the poor teacher has to fend for herself.

A commitment to good education will also require an understanding of the need for education in people’s lives and society, and a reasonable dose of dreams. People seem to be creatures of dreams to a large extent, and there is no contradiction between being creatures of dreams and being situated in socio-political reality as embodied creatures. The trick is to create dreams that have intellectual conviction as well as pragmatic possibility.

The need for capabilities to teach is obvious enough. But these capabilities have to be rooted in what one wants a child to achieve through education, an understanding of the child, and the society in which both the child and the teacher live. This demands a serious theoretical understanding of the same, boring and age-old questions: Why teach? What to teach? And, how to teach?

Practical skills

None of our TE programmes has ever seriously tried to achieve a clear and convincing enough understanding of what one tries to achieve through education. It always has been a rhetoric of larger aims and working for myopically understood parental and market aspirations. This confusion has made education non-serious to both — a case of na khuda hi mila na wisaal-e sanam. We are prone to see the failure of TE in the lack of practical skills. However, a deeper analysis is likely to show that the failure is primarily theoretical. Practical skills, however well taught, usually do not answer the question “why” and, therefore, do not generate conviction and commitment — essential ingredients in good teaching. There is a reasonable unexplored possibility that adequate understanding of and conviction in the “why” along with guidance in teaching skills may produce a variety of viable methods. Therefore, the issue is not where to start from — is it theory or from practice? It is to traverse the whole continuum whatever one’s chosen starting point is. If one starts at theory, then it is about bringing it right down to the classroom level and in terms of actual skills; if starting with classroom work, it is about taking it to issues of serious theoretical understanding. A half-finished or half-hearted job, irrespective of the starting point, will remain unsuccessful. A display of bias in any direction will also be counterproductive.

In concrete terms, a teacher has to have a range of capabilities. A tentative first listing could look like this: capability to teach all school subjects at the primary level and at the least, one at the upper primary level. This will involve practical activities, the use of materials, and connecting with children. It will also demand an understanding of the subject in terms of its content, epistemology and rationale in the curriculum; adequate understanding of the curriculum and its rationale. It will necessarily involve understanding the aims of education, the need for education in an individual’s life and in social life; a convincing dream of a desirable society and living a satisfactory life. And situating oneself and the child in this dream; self-confidence and a conviction to work in an either indifferent or adversarial education system; a professional conviction that one can find ways for personal growth and development as a teacher, and a capability to generate episodes of reasonable success in order to keep that hope alive.

What kind of curricular content and institutional experiences will develop these qualities is what will have to be worked out seriously, with care and in detail. It seems that without these capabilities, teacher education is unlikely to have any effect on the system. We also have to discard the rhetoric of “change agents” and replace it with an unglamorous idea of doing one’s job adequately to one’s personal and social satisfaction, and as a plain and simple worker.