By Chhaya Kaul
What is our primary education system, if not an experiment gone terribly wrong? We have been toying with young minds everyday in the hope that someday, our children will learn. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic potion that can make them learn. Picture this – bored and confused children as the audience. And the actors? Yes, they are the school teachers.
The children are thrilled and watch excitedly as the magic unfolds on the stage – the school, to be precise. But there’s a twist. The script is poorly thought out and does not capture the imagination of the children. Unable to comprehend and finding it difficult to stay put, the children get restless – some are sleepy while others break into an incessant chatter. They are no longer interested in the show and wait at the edge of their seats, hoping it would end soon.
The actors are woefully unprepared. But they are somehow pulling it together. After all, there were only children in the audience and so they thought they would manage. At last, the show comes to an end and the actors walk out, feeling a sense of accomplishment at the completion of their task. No one pulled them up for the poor show. The school administration does not care. They need not be accountable to anyone else.
The show went on. Then what was lost? That twinkle in the eye when the children had just entered the hall, the beaming faces as they sat huddled together in anticipation of the great performances by fine actors they looked up to, the thrilled voices…But the show must go on, isn’t it? And so it does. Well. That seems to have become the hallmark of our public education system – the show must go on, regardless of the meaningless drudgery. And what happens to the children – the students? Their fate lies locked in the clutches of this system.
We seem to have made peace with the situation. We have reconciled to the poorly thought out textbooks that are way above the comprehension level of children, to the dismal quality of teaching that treats children more like robots than human beings, who take their own time to assimilate information. Findings from large scale assessments such as ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) have time and again reinforced that improvements in physical infrastructure, have not really translated into improved learning outcomes. The ASER 2013 report states that among Std. V children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children able to read Std. II level text decreased from 50.3% (2009) to 43.8% (2011) to 41.1% (2013). The gap between children in government and private schools has only widened with time. Nationally, among Std. V children in government schools, only 20.8 % children could solve a three-digit by one-digit division problem in 2013. A huge chunk of children are lagging at least two-three grades behind the age appropriate learning level. Upgrading school infrastructure, increasing the number of teachers and constructing more classrooms does not automatically bring about an improvement in learning levels. What the present day education system beckons is a radical shift from the one-curriculum-fits-all approach that completely disregards each child’s unique interests and abilities to a modular curriculum – each module addressing a range of skills which the child needs to master before moving on to the next. The focus must now move from grade completion to skill mastery.
The time has come when we need to give the classroom the primacy that it deserves. Somewhere, we have completely lost sight of the fact that it is not always big but, in effect, small, micro changes that drive improvements in the classroom and can set off a ripple effect in the system at large. We need to make sure that the little time that the child spends in school is time well utilized and brings her back to school the next day with renewed interest and enthusiasm. If the system fails to change, it is doomed to fail. A single committed teacher can make a difference in the lives of her students – all it takes is passion and inclination. Squabbling over for refreshments are usual occurrences at teacher trainings. A former colleague recently recounted her experience at a two-hour teacher training workshop, where a government school teacher furiously ran up to her and said, “We have come all the way from Lucknow to attend this training in Hardoi and you have not even arranged refreshments for us?”
Government schools are usually the last resort for poor parents, who cannot afford expensive private schooling for their children. It would not be an overstatement to say that our public education system is far too regressive and static. International studies show that student performance improves when schools have greater say in defining curricula and assessments, choosing textbooks, determining course content, teacher appointments, service conditions, and dismissal. Any attempt at breaking away from the conventional teaching approach is almost always met with hostility and stiff resistance and it takes a huge effort convincing teachers that they are indeed going to benefit from it. In one of the teacher training workshops, it took incessant badgering from us to get a few teachers up from their seats and on the stage for a teaching demonstration – the discomfort at having to showcase their teaching skills in an audience of 50 was enormous! The success of the curriculum totally hinged on how well it would be transacted in the classroom by the teachers and, therefore, it was only logical to have a mock session. Sample some of the most frequently heard responses in these teacher training workshops and you realize that the lack of intrinsic motivation and resistance to change is so deeply entrenched in the school system that teachers are almost conditioned to think and respond in a certain way: “This is not possible. We have a huge syllabus to complete,” “We can’t do this. We have 60 students in our class” etc. When we do get to hear teachers speak on a discordant note, it sounds nothing less than a miracle.
However, there are exceptions – brilliant and exceptionally motivated teachers doing extraordinary work in less than ordinary circumstances. How do these teachers do it then? Is their situation any different? They face the same constraints and challenges. Yet, they have been trying. They have not given up on their children just because there isn’t enough infrastructures or because there are 60 children in one classroom. What’s so special about them? These teachers could be the driving force in creating an Innovation Platform, where government school teachers facing similar challenges can together brainstorm best practices, specifically micro innovations that have successfully impacted their learners and develop new practices that can help them improve learning outcomes.
IIM Ahmedabad is already doing some interesting work around this. By identifying exceptional Gujarati schools and teachers, the Educational Innovation Bank at IIM Ahmedabad is building a repository of teaching innovations designed to empower and inspire other teachers looking for practical ideas to teach more effectively in India’s under-resourced schools. With a network of 4,000 innovative teachers, the web-based database already reaches out to 100,000 more. However, it is imperative to create enabling conditions that inspire teachers to innovate, which is why work like this must go viral and reach out to teachers across the education spectrum. These teachers have proved that lack of funds or resources can never be a deterrent when the teacher is enterprising, self-driven, and willing to make a difference.
A former colleague, during a casual discussion on the plight of government schools rightly commented that what our education system needs is NOT just an overhaul but a complete reboot, even if that means bringing it to a halt and starting anew.
Chhaya Kaul is a post-graduate in Social Work from Delhi School of Social Work. She has worked as a curriculum developer and trainer at Pratham, Delhi, prior to working at Edulever, a consulting outfit for the social sector where she was managing content. Chhaya’s interest lies in ideating and creating happier learning spaces for the underserved children.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Teach for India: A ‘Movement’ to Uproot Inequality through Education” (Edited by Mary Ann Chacko & Yohann Kunders).