If you are a teacher by profession or temperament, and you sit with a bunch of reformist activists to draft a vision document to rejuvenate the Indian education system, you are bound to come out of the session disappointed. They will talk of the school building; they will talk of the toilets there; some will mention the playground; at best, some will suggest an ideal teacher-student ratio, but none whatsoever will deal with the most essential of questions: How to teach?
Narendra Modi’s choice of Smriti Irani as the Minister of Human Resource Development was surprising to say the least. And the choice of a bunch of ex-bureaucrats to recommend the recent National Education Policy was shocking. If you wish to change the face of the country, sarkari babus — the personification of status quo in India — are the last class of people you should be seeking advice from.
True to the wont of babus, they proposed an Indian Education Service in tune with the gross failure that is the Indian Administrative Service. The purport behind this proposal is to make the profession of teaching attractive by associating social prestige to the job. But if job seekers turn teachers for social status, it will be no better than people trying to become teachers and then not caring to teach well thereafter.
One wishes the Prime Minister had asked for better advisers.
Freedom to teach, authority to certify
So, what are the revolutionary — or radical — steps required?
First and foremost, the freedom to teach should be of the teacher and the authority to certify should be of the government. The State has messed up the situation by meddling in the first affair, which it is not competent to handle.
Under the doctrine of freedom to teach, first urge mainstream teachers to stop cursing private tutors. Stop looking at those who elucidate the toughest of problems in mathematics, physics, chemistry and the most intricate details of biology at coaching centres as money spinners. If they are making money, it is because their pedagogy involves techniques that mainstream teachers have neither the inclination to pick up nor the incentive to keep pace with.
On the part of the government, what can certainly be done is changing the definition of a “school”. Once anybody teaching anyone anywhere is recognised as a school, the difference between a teacher and a tutor vanishes, and the latter gets mainstreamed.
The way a good marketing manager does not care how his executives are achieving their monthly targets — by meeting hundred clients a day, or lazing around but making crucial phone calls, or by catching one client who influences many in turn — the government should not be concerned about how students learn.
The only thing in the State’s interest and, hence, jurisdiction should be what they have learnt, whatever be their place and method of learning. To that end, the focus must move from schooling to certification. Certification for reading skills, writing skills, comprehension, aptitude, acumen, problem-solving ability—and different levels of each! Let a student, regardless of age, decide when he is ready to appear for a test of a certain level.
Now, if the conventional schools are here to stay, what should be the processes approved or prescribed for the human beings inside these huge buildings? The NEP is silent on it. It has asked for a revival of wannabe teachers’ interest in the BEd course — for a change, in a four-year format — without recalling the era when Indian teaching was no way close to world class even though every teacher had a BEd degree. The NEP seeks to make this course mandatory for every teacher, which students with lackluster performance and without high ambition used to once enroll for to land with a masterji’s job if no better-paid job came their way!
Within the BEd course, there is no prescription for excellence such as a compulsion to research and make presentations on the latest developments in international pedagogy. There is also no advice to innovate. And there is no methodology suggested for elucidation and differentiation between spoon-feeding and igniting a spark in the child’s mind to explore.
Most teachers of this country must admit that their teaching technique — or lack of it — is downright boring. The textbook writers must accept what they put down in those jaded pages lacks clarity of thought, a structured approach and communication skill. Halfway into any lecture session, half the class dozes off. And it is not the students’ fault. The classes are not interactive and inquisitiveness is discouraged. A child’s voice is often muzzled with a refrain, “You ask too many questions!” Contrast this with a message a teacher at the American Embassy School in Delhi once put up on his notice board: “There can never be a bad question; there can only be a bad answer.”
Apart from lack of interaction in the classroom, another factor that induces boredom is the lack of communication.
Has it ever happened to a science enthusiast that he is attending a plenary by scientists at a seminar and he cannot figure out what the scientists are saying? One, it does not happen. Two, on the few occasions where a speaker does not make much sense, another pitches in to fill the gaps. Such a thing also happens at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana. A combined effort by neuroscientists, physicists, chemists and biologists makes the toughest of situations come across as easy for a student seeking a PhD.
Why can’t a multiple teacher model be brought down to the school level? Since it is humanly impossible for an individual teacher to have all the answers that her students seek, why not have two or three teachers for every session from the sixth grade onwards when the horizons of knowledge expand, science branches out into three streams and social studies get distributed into history, geography and civics?
Another reason for monotony in our classrooms is absence of practicality. At our age, we vaguely recall there used to be “what happens when” type of questions in chemistry exams, but clearly remember how painful memorising all those equations was. What if this section of chemistry is totally removed from theory and moved wholly into the laboratory?
You can forget the colour of a precipitate, for example, if you read it in a book. You will never forget it all your life if you were in the lab adding, for instance, an ammonium thiocyanate solution to one containing ferric ions, and you got a blood red solution.
Isn’t the concept of three-dimensional geometry at the eleventh grade a quantum jump from the previous year? It is. But it will not look formidable if conic sections are explained using origami. It will not intimidate if the x, y and z axes are visualised as the edges of the corner of a regular room inside a house rather than a two-dimensional diagram drawn by a pencil on a piece of paper where a separation of 120° between axes is desperately imagined as separated by 90°!
If a rectangle looked easy to you but a cylinder looks difficult, just roll a rectangular sheet of paper to see that it is as good as a cylinder. And if the area of a rectangle is the product of its length (l) and breadth (b), that will be the surface area of the cylinder made out of it. If you rolled the rectangular sheet along its length, joining the two edges of breadth, then the circumference of the circle (2πr) formed by the edge is same as the length of the rectangle (l). What was the rectangle’s breadth is now the cylinder’s height (h = b). Thereafter, even if you forget that the surface area of a cylinder is 2πrh, you arrive at the same result by recalling the formula of area of a rectangle = l x b = 2πr x h = 2πrh.
How have we been teaching such concepts in schools instead? A teacher draws a cylinder on the board; makes a line segment meeting the centres of the circles in the two ends, labels it as “height”; makes another line segment touching a centre on the one end and the circumference on the other; labels it as “radius”; tries to show what is meant by “surface area” but fails; then tries to explain the “total surface area” and fails again, etc. Finally, you have a figure on the board or your notebook that has a hell lot of lines and labels. In short, a mess! The backbenchers, in the meantime, have fallen asleep.
‘Why am I made to learn this gobbledygook?’ This is yet another question that crosses a student’s mind that makes him disinterested in studies. Indeed, the cylinders above are of no worth if not applied in real life. Why does not the manufacturing industry, therefore, walk into the classroom to explain to the young how the dynamics and mechanics taught during the lecture sessions turn useful while working in factories? Why does not an archaeologist give demonstrations during a lecture session on history?
This is an aspect that the NEP has looked into. “Governing bodies of higher education institutions will be made multi-stakeholder, having representations from industry and alumni as well, with clear cut transparent guidelines for the composition and selection of such bodies,” it says. But whether this will translate to engineers walking into BSc (physics) classes and archaeologists handling BA (history) classes is not clear.
One may say that descriptions of pedagogy cannot be part of a vision document. But that would be a poor defence. There should be detailed annexes (“annexure” in Indian English) with the report, one of which would be a full-fledged treatise on “how to teach”. Strangely, there is no annexe at the end of the NEP document.
The author was a teacher of mathematics and entrepreneur in the field of education before he switched to journalism.
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