A weak link in the elementary education chain

October 15, 2020

[Published in The Hindu https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-weak-link-in-the-elementary-education-chain/article32856519.ece?homepage=true 15th October 2020]

Rohit Dhankar


For about three decades now, a large number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are intensively engaged in the task of improving elementary education in the country. A paper (https://bit.ly/3doEEI3) in the Economic & Political Weekly of May 2005, titled “How Large Is India’s Non-Profit Sector?”, estimates about three million paid workers in the voluntary sector through 1.2 million organisations. The paper estimates that 20.4% of this workforce (about six lakh workers) is engaged in education. According to a newspaper report, “India has 31 lakh NGOs, more than double the number of schools” (August 1, 2015), the number of NGOs in the country was more than 31 lakh — more than double the number estimated in the above mentioned paper. With these data, it should be a safe guess to estimate that there are now more than 12 lakh NGO workers engaged in education (even if there could be only 50% of them in school education, and the remainder involved in improving reach and quality). The lower end of the estimated number of NGO staff working for the improvement of quality and reach in elementary education must be over three lakh.

Scope of work

It is most probable that these workers are engaged in direct teaching in classrooms, demonstrating various activities and methods to teachers, conducting teacher workshops and so on. Most NGOs and large foundations believe that these people work as catalysts and influence the functioning of the system. For various reasons, they are supposed to be more effective than regular employees in the government system.

There is a lot of discussion around education and the Continuous Professional Development of Teachers (CPDT). These NGO workers have a significant part in the CPDT, for example, in annual in-service training and pedagogy improvement workshops. We should be asking ourselves whether these workers are adequately prepared for this difficult task. As an example, let us take quality improvement, which is currently the biggest concern in education.

Anyone who can successfully contribute to the improvement of educational quality must have some idea of what educational quality happens to be. A very common notion of what good quality school is in our society is based on a high score in the board examinations. Suppose the curriculum is irrelevant to the life of people (as it is often claimed), would it still indicate high quality? Further, suppose that high scoring is achieved by subjecting children to severe punishment and stress, would it still remain an indicator of high quality? If the response to last two questions is negative, then we can conclude that appropriateness of curriculum and pedagogy also need to be considered in defining quality of education. But how do we know what good or appropriate curriculum and pedagogy are? On what criteria can we decide that?

Key documents, framework

The four documents currently providing a framework of principles, guidelines and legal stipulations to deal with such questions are the National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF), The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education 2009 (NCFTE) and the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020). Even if the NCF and NCFTE change in the near future, the new documents are likely to have much in common with the present ones. Therefore, it is worthwhile to assume that any worker engaged in education improvement should reasonably understand these and similar documents. Let us take an example from each one of these documents to see what is involved.

Regarding pedagogy, the RTE, in Section 29(e), recommends “learning through activities, discovery and exploration in a child friendly and child-centered manner”. To use this definition in school improvement, the NGO worker has to ask himself questions such as : What is discovery? How and what can children learn through discovery? Does discovery method have any limitations as a pedagogy? Further, the NCF recommends constructivist pedagogy. What is the constructivist method of learning? Is it the same as recommended by the NCF?

On curriculum, NEP 2020, paragraph 4.23 says “certain subjects, skills, and capacities should be learned by all students to become good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings in today’s rapidly changing world. … these skills include: scientific temper and evidence-based thinking; creativity and innovativeness; sense of aesthetics and art; oral and written communication; health and nutrition; physical education, fitness, wellness, and sports; collaboration and teamwork; problem solving and logical reasoning; vocational exposure and skills; digital literacy, coding, and computational thinking; ethical and moral reasoning; knowledge and practice of human and Constitutional values; gender sensitivity; Fundamental Duties; citizenship skills and values”.

If we want to use this policy, we need to understand what paragraphs such as the above say. One has to note the complexity and profusion of terms used. What do all these words and phrases mean? Is the paragraph internally consistent? Is this paragraph consistent with the NCF? Do the NCF and NEP need to be consistent with each other?

The paragraph from NEP 2020 also highlights certain aims of education: namely, to make all children “good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings in today’s rapidly changing world”. Are these aims consistent with each other? Do they have any relative weightage? What if some schools produce children who are highly successful, innovative, adaptable, productive, extremely competitive, and uncaring for others? Would we be happy to call them “good” and consider such an education to be high quality education?

The last example, the NCFTE (page 23), says that we need teachers who “[P]romote values of peace, democratic way of life, equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, secularism and zeal for social reconstruction”. Are these two quotes, one from NEP 2020 and the other from the NCFTE, compatible with each other? Are they emphasising the same values or have significant difference with each other?

Need for deep insights

It seems bringing about improvement in the quality of education is not a simple task that one can accomplish just by desire, hard work and interaction with teachers. It seems to require answers to a plethora of questions. Could it be that our attempts for over three decades have failed, at least partly, because most people working for improvement do not have reasonable answers to such questions?

Just reading these documents may be adequate for a layman not engaged in educational activities and teacher capacity building. But for someone engaged in CPDT, a study of these documents alone will neither answer the questions raised above nor give him/her any better insight into these documents. The positions taken in these and other such documents, as well as in decision making in education, are based on a vast repertoire of theoretical knowledge. A major part of this theoretical knowledge is drawn from the philosophy of education, political theories, sociology of education, psychology of learning and development, and a contextual understanding of the current needs of our society. Understanding an adequate part of all this and their implications for curriculum, pedagogy, and teacher development, therefore, becomes imperative to be effective in quality improvement or to contribute to good education.

An immediate task

If the argument outlined so far is even tentatively acceptable, then a strong programme for capacity building of NGO workers engaged in educational improvement becomes an urgent need.

However, NGOs do not seem to be paying adequate attention to this very important area. Nor are universities and teacher education colleges seem to be offering any short term and/or distance learning courses for this sector. If we want to implement NEP 2020 — presently leaving its merits and demerits aside — and really want to see improvement in the quality of education available to our children, we need to pay very close attention to capacity building of this vast workforce engaged in the field. Without adequate preparation, the assumption that the mere appointment of a person in an NGO and being placed in the field will automatically develop the capabilities of these workers is incorrect, and a case of sheer injustice to them, to the education system, and to children in schools.

Foundations of Education Programme

December 16, 2018

Teaching is not a random activity in the classroom, nor is it making children mug up a textbook, neither is it entertaining children’s whims or stultifying their minds and habits into fixed dogmas. Teaching is awakening young minds to moral principles, ways of knowing and modes of action so that they can find their own path and pursue it with confidence.

Curriculum is not random collection of content straight jacketed into grade wise organisation and guided only by fashion, custom or political winds. Curriculum is a well-considered route map from where the child is to a rationally autonomous person.

Teaching learning material is not a collection of colourful tit-bits to attract children and teachers. It is thoughtfully organised collection of things and actions that provided most meaningful experiences to children so that they can arrive at epistemically sound concepts and principles.

Teacher Education is grinding young graduates into half understood theories of learning and Herbertian classroom practices. It is expending the horizons of would be teachers to entire field of educational thought and practice; and teaching them the art of understanding children’s minds so they they can create a unique path for each one of their students to achieve educational aims.

Therefore, be it teaching, curriculum development, material creation or teacher education; educational practice to be educational at all has to be guided by framework of principles. No principles, no educational practice; it is only habitual routine.

Foundations of Education Programme explores dialogically these fundamental principles and practices; their appropriate relationships and their moral and epistemic foundations. The dialogues are based on participants own understanding and thoughtfully selected reading material that presents most fundamental concepts and ways of thinking.

It is rigorous and demands hard work. Medium of instruction shall be English and Hindi.

During 2019 there shall be two batches (12th and 13th respectively) of Foundations of Education Programme.

For details go to http://www.digantar.org/uploads/pdf/FoE_2019.pdf

To detain or not to detain: Barking-up the wrong tree

September 3, 2015

[A shorter version of this article is published in THE HINDU on 3rd September 2015. it could be accessed here http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/right-to-education-act-beyond-the-passfail-binary/article7608382.ece ]

Rohit Dhankar

The national press is abuzz whether to re-introduce the old pass-fail system or continue with the current automatic promotion (referred to as “no-detention policy”) to the next class brought in in the process of implementation of RTE. The central government is treading cautiously “[i]rrespective of the unanimous outcry for revocation” of no-detention policy and has “decided to get written responses from all State garments”[1]. “Most states in the country … want the Centre to amend the Right to Education Act and revoke its no-detention policy for students of classes I to VIII”, according the state minister of education, Maharashtra[2]. Some educationists, however, see a corporate agenda behind the push to do away with this policy. They think that “The RTE Act clearly spelt out how CCE should be implemented. Just by failing children you do not make them good learners”[3]. The teachers often complaint about no detention and no punishment; as some of them see these two the most effective tools of control over the children; and control, as we all know, is seen as a necessary condition for making the children learn.

Both claims, it seems, have some truth in them; but miss the real issue by a wide margin. Our formal education system has been straddled by the tight grip of exams for more than one and a half century by now. Exams have an unstoppable tendency to become the only motivation for learning, and effectively kill all other motivations. All educated Indians have experienced it, and therefore, are thoroughly conditioned in believing that “no exams, not learning”. This beliefs is easily transferred to the children in a system that has almost no idea of joy of learning in itself. Therefore, the people who believe that children will not learn without the fear of exams have a practical point; even if very untenable from the pedagogical point of view.

The educationists are right when they say that just “by failing children you do not make them good learners”. But they are wrong when they think just by automatic proportion to the next class elementary education can be completed. The often expressed idea that children drop-out because of failure[4] is actually wrong; children drop-out because of non-learning, failure is just the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. The claim that the “RTE Act clearly spelt out how CCE should be implemented” is plainly wrong; the RTE hardly displays any understanding of CCE; leave out how to implement it.

First, we should note that ‘no-detention policy’ and CCE are very closely connected. Admission in age appropriate class[5] is a third issue which may have complicated the situation in some schools. As according to this provision if a child above the age of six years is either not admitted to school or left school without completing elementary education “he or she will be admitted to a class appropriate to his or her age.” We already know that our children are much behind learning in comparison to what is expected in the curriculum.

In such a complicated situation the only thing no-detention policy can ensure is pretention of completing elementary education without any real learning. However, if we want to understand the educational worth of no-detention we have to take into account three important ideas promoted by RTE simultaneously, they are: admission in age appropriate class (AAAC), continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) and no-detention policy (NDP).

The roots

All three of these ideas come from what could be broadly called the progressive education movement in the West, which has many internal forms and variations; but entered India under the name of Child-centred Education. The slogan of child-centred education is a powerful and alluring one. It talks of the classroom process being guided by the child’s interests and learning through activities. The current pedagogical form promoted in Indian education discourse by the name of constructivism is the pedagogy that suits child-centred education perfectly. Constructivism, like progressive education has many forms. One extreme position is that the teacher should facilitate the children to construct their own knowledge and should apply no criteria for the veracity or appropriateness to their constructed knowledge, as all knowledge is a result of individual experiences and meaning making. A more modest form is to start from where the child is and help her actively engage in making meaning through constructing concepts and forming relationships between them; but the goal remains to arrive at the knowledge generally accepted today.

These ideas demand that the children work together in collaboration with each other and progress in rational enquiry in a free atmosphere. It is assumed that interaction and collaboration with children of similar age will help them better in this progressive meaning making. Therefore, AAAC. Similarly, children progress with varied speeds and not necessarily through the same conceptual routes; therefore, one periodic examination on fixed questions for all becomes inappropriate and leaves much of the child’s progress in scholastic as well as moral and emotional development un-assessed. Hence, CCE. Since children progress as per their own speed, which is necessary for conceptual clarity through their own engagement of mind, there is no point in pass-fail in classes. This will only artificially bunch children together. Therefore, NDP.

The three ideas are closely connected through assumptions regarding knowledge, human learning and child’s nature. They are complementary to each other and can only work in any education system if taken together seriously. Separating them and adopting any one leaving the others out will not work.

Deep contradiction

If we accept the assumptions underlying AAAC, CCE and NDP then the organisation of the curriculum and the structure of the school will have to undergo a fundamental changes. The curriculum and syllabi will have to assume a “learning continuum” rather than a “learning ladder”. A continuum imagines a curve of learning which might be an individual path taken by each child and which does not necessarily have any time-bound fixed milestones. The knowledge, skills and values in the curriculum and syllabus may be organised sequentially where need be, but no year-wise rigid packaging can be admitted.

In learning ladder, on the other hand, the curriculum and syllabus are neatly organised in yearly packages, which we call grades or classes, to be learnt in one year. Examinations may come during the year and as many of them as one likes, but results are finally aggregated at the end and decision on whether sufficient learning has happened or not is expressed in the form of a pass or fail. In case of failure the whole chunk has to be learnt again; in case of pass no further opportunity to strengthen learning in the already covered areas is supposed to be needed.

Organising curriculum in the form of learning continuum will immediately contradict the grade-wise structure of the school. Since learning is supposed to be continuous, no rigid year wise division is made; putting children into different grades and pass-fail kind of examination system becomes redundant as well as an impediment to the process of teaching-learning. The only form of assessment that can serve the purpose is CCE then.

Now, our education system is profoundly authoritarian. The idea of progressive creation of knowledge by the child directly contradicts the idea of knowledge as finished product enshrined in the textbook. The grade-wise organisation of curriculum goes very well with this idea of knowledge, as any finished product can be neatly packages in manageable chunks. The class-wise structure of the school is an administrator’s delight; as it can be used for simple delineation of tasks for teachers and students. And the pass-fail examination system is a natural logical outcome of these ideas of knowledge, learning, curriculum and school.

This is the contradiction between an outmoded authoritarian system and a more enlightened idea of education that is being played out in the form of introduction and then clamour for removal of CCE and NDP. CCE and NDP simply cannot be meaningfully implemented unless we challenge and dismantle the authoritarian education system.

Lacking in courage or understanding?

All the three ideas of CCE, NDP and AAAC are theoretically sound and practically proven. They are much better for quality education than what we have today as fixed grades and pass-fail examinations. That is what makes the current antagonism to NDP barking-up the wrong tree. The fault lies in the authoritarian structure of the school, not in NDP.

But in India we have a history of attempting to introduce half understood ideas without proper preparation in terms of institutional structures and personnel capacity building. The DPEP kind of child-centrism, ideas of BRC/CRC and the farce called annual in-service teacher training are examples. Now this is the time to discredit another educationally sound idea of NDP, and we are busy doing precisely that.

Expecting education administrators to understand the CCE and NDP properly would be a pipe dream. But what of the educationists who advise on policies like RTE? Do they lack the understanding of the sophistication and interconnectedness of these proposed educational reforms? Or do they lack the courage to suggest the above mentioned contradiction, and therefore, dismantling of the authoritarian structure of school? At present we are discussing new education policy for the nation. The issue of a more enlightened vision of education and school should have been in the centre of this discussion. One is dismayed to note that those who are guiding the policy debates seem to have no awareness of this dire need of our education system. And therefore, we will continue basking-up the wrong tree.


[1] The Hindu, in “Govt. treads warily on RTE amendment” dated 21st August 15.

[2] The Hindu BusinessLine, in “States want revocation of no-detention policy in schools”, 21st August 15

[3] The Hindu, in “Panel for phased implementation of no-detention policy in schools”, 18th August 15.

[4] The Hindu BusinessLine, in “States want revocation of no-detention policy in schools”, 21st August 15

[5] RTE section 4.

A malfunctioning system in need of repair

September 14, 2014

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.

Why do we want Universalisation of Elementary Education?

August 11, 2013

Rohit Dhankar

As a nation India is committed to universalisation of elementary education[1] (EE), at the least on paper, even if the action encourages scepticism about this commitment. There is also a push to extend this commitment to secondary[2] level. There is an act called “The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009”, in short RTE Act, to guarantee universalisation of quality education. There is a national consensus on this, stamped by the parliament.

We might feel comfortable about this national consensus and may think the matter settled. But there are debates on ways of achieving universalisation of EE, on whether the private schools should be forced to admit 25% at fee decided by the government, on what constitutes quality, whether no-examination and no detention is a good policy, what continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) happens to be, and so on. We are trying to construct generally acceptable answers to these and a host of other such questions. In this context I want to pose a few old and baring questions yet again. First of them being: why do we want universalisation of elementary education?

This issue is considered debated enough and settled finally, which means we have a generally acceptable and accepted answer to it. That might be true. The policy makers and administrators might have an answer to this, the educationalists and university professors also might have an answer to this. But one wonder if every worker in education does. Does the community worker trying to mobilize local support for school improvement have an adequate answer to this question? Do the teachers have such an answer? Do most of the teacher educators have one? If they all do, are their answers coherent with each other? I am not sure.

Usually the kinds of answers we provide for the basic questions have a great influence on the further questions we raise and on their acceptable answers. There is good reason to believe that the kind of answer we construct and accept for “Why UEE?” will influence all our further questions like whether 25% quota should be mandatory, whether no detention policy is good, how do we define quality of education and so on. If all his be acceptable, the question “Why do we want universalisation of elementary education?” seems to be worth engaging with.

Therefore, I request those who happen to read this post to give their answers to this question in comments or any other way they like. I also request to please keep your answers within 1000 word and out of those 1000 do not in quotations more than 250 words.

So, why do we want universalisation of elementary education?


11th August 2013

[1] Elementary Education means education for eight years, officially defined as from 6 to 14 years of age; in common parlance education up to 8th grade.

[2] Secondary Education is supposed to be from 9th year to 12th year of schooling; or 9th grade to 12th grade. 9th and 10th grades are referred to as lower secondary and 10th and 11th as higher secondary.