There are fundamental issues in our education system that need urgent attention and course correction. India currently has the world’s youngest population with 330 million people still below the poverty line. As per the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 a quality education is no longer a privilege but a basic right in itself. Unfortunately in India we are still very far behind the curve and if urgent course correction is not done we will face a difficult future with an underemployed and unqualified work force.
A global problem but amplified in India.
A recent report by one of the most authoritative voices in educational research – The Brookings Universal Center for Education – has projected that by the year 2030 more than half of the world’s 2 billion children will not be on track to achieve basic skills at the secondary level, including literacy, numeracy, and problem solving. And this is not even considering non-academic skills like critical thinking, collaboration, flexibility, etc. that are becoming more and more relevant for work in the 21st century. In fact, only 53% of industry leaders today are confident in the potential and capacity of incoming employees as per the World Economic Forums report in 2016 and so it is the case with India. The improvement of teaching-learning processes in Indian schools is a current challenge. Many students do not make it past the upper-primary grade levels because of repeated failure or retention in the same grade based on unsatisfactory performance. Additionally, studies conducted by the Indian government’s primary research institution on education reports that a large percentage of students in rural and urban India are not able to display basic reading comprehension and arithmetic skills. Similarly, reports from India’s largest non-governmental survey of student academic performance show that half the children in Grade 5 could not read or perform basic arithmetic operations even at the Grade 2 level, and this performance is getting worse.
Need for a change in approach
The National Curricular Framework of India (NCF) states clear expectations for teachers to move away from teacher-centered instructional approaches to student-centered pedagogy that involves children in “active engagement through inquiry, exploration, questioning, debates, application and reflection, leading to theory building and the creation of new ideas”. Further, the importance of facilitating peer interactions to promote learning is emphasized in the National Council for Educational Research and Training 2005 report. However, there is a gap between this reform policy expectation and the actual practices of teachers in Indian classrooms. In fact, the improvement of teaching–learning processes in Indian schools is a current challenge. Lecturing, along with the chalk and talk method, continue to be the dominant instructional strategies used. Teachers spend a large amount of classroom time in rote teaching and learning methods such as copying content from textbooks onto the chalkboard and then asking students to copy the same into their notebooks. This method of instruction encourages passive individual listening, writing and response as opposed to collaboration and discussion. There is too much focus in Indian schools on theory and encouraging rote learning without basic understanding; reforms are therefore required to relieve students from this tyranny of rote memorization.
Inputs are poor and need fixing
Teacher shortage is an issue being faced in India at present as per the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Also, a fifth of all elementary school teachers in India lack the mandated qualifications to teach their students. Today, there are about half a million elementary school teachers, and the central programme has trained only 19% of them up until 2013-14 as per a recent study completed in 2015. As far as prior education is concerned, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (2014) has flagged inadequate subject-knowledge as a serious concern and impediment to teacher quality in India at present. A 500-page report recently submitted by a special commission appointed by the Supreme Court of India in 2012 laments that, “the existing institutional capacity for preparing teacher educators is abysmally low”. The development of students into “reflective teachers” is an explicit expectation of the NCF 2005 policy. However, lecture based workshops with a one-size-fits-all approach to its content and delivery is the typical in-service professional development engagement found in India.
Curriculum and Instruction is too heavily influenced by textbook development, and thus subjects that do not lend themselves to textbooks are often disregarded from the curriculum. This includes programs like visual or performing arts, citizenship and service related programs, etc. There has been a tendency to put age-inappropriate material in syllabus due to a desire to make learning more advanced, which makes the information difficult for students to negotiate. Teachers and textbooks focus on advanced topics that are of little use in helping struggling students. These students then fall even further behind—eventually so far that no learning whatsoever takes place. Teachers faced with this difficulty are forced to make children learn by rote so that they can meet the syllabus requirements, which opposes the natural method by which children develop and learn as per the Ministry of Human Resource Developments 2014 report. In most cases the assessment of learning achievement continues to focus on rote learning and testing the students’ ability to reproduce content knowledge. The 2016 HRD ministry report goes on to state that the whole assessment system needs to be revamped to ensure comprehensive assessment of the students, including learning outcomes relating to both scholastic and co-scholastic domains.
The way forward
The problem is too large to solve on a policy level and urgent intervention is needed on the ground level in schools. Schools must support and share knowledge and skills with each other and must invest in the development of their teachers. Teachers should be given the confidence to move away from rote learning and actually focus on making their students good learners. Schools must evolve to be high performing organisms that teach and learn at the same time. Schools of today need to constantly evolve to prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow.