Trust teachers to help them deliver better results
Updated on Nov 14, 2018 - 12:33 p.m. IST by Meghaa Aggarwal

Subir Shukla, former Educational Quality Advisor to MHRD and Principal Coordinator of IGNUS, a group dedicated to bringing quality education for the marginalised, speaks to Meghaa Aggarwal about the state of teaching in India’s schools...

Q. It is often said that the root of challenges facing teacher education in India is that teaching has not developed into a ‘profession’. Your 

A. We’re sort of stuck between the 3000-year-old idea of the teacher as a guru who gives knowledge and performs ‘noble’ service versus a professional whose job is to understand his students and design the course of action best suited for each child’s optimal growth, though ironically this is what used to happen in a ‘gurukul’ too. This is also because governments see the teacher not as a professional but as an ‘employee’ whose job is to comply with instructions received from above. On the contrary, a professional is one who conforms to agreed upon standards, but exercises his own judgement.

Q. Do you think increased autonomy in teacher education, appointments and freedom in assessment and pedagogic processes will help to solve the issues, especially in government schools?

A. ‘Autonomy’ needs to be unpacked a little – it is not freedom to do as one pleases but developing a shared vision, understanding the reality as it actually is, setting realistic goals, enabling teachers to acquire effective pedagogical practices through experiential processes, agreeing on performance standards and indicators and supporting teachers as they try to bring about learning. In such situations, you may find teachers wanting to undertake assessment themselves to see how far they’ve succeeded. I’ve always found that trusting teachers and making them partners generates far better results than trying to compel them to follow externally determined pathways. I would say that the kind of teachers now being recruited shows tremendous potential and should be worked upon.

Q. It is coming close to two decades since the implementation of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). However, despite a growing proportion of funds allocated for teachers, teacher performance remains poor. What exactly is the problem?

A. It is a gross over-simplification to say that teacher performance remains poor. If one looks at the kind of agencies which make this claim of poor performance, you might find that many of them benefit from this demonization of the government teacher or are submitting a proposal to the government! A second issue is that – due to relentless pressures from foundations, NGOs, CSR groups – teachers are constantly at the receiving end of multiple ‘improvement’ programmes and trainings and that is beginning to be counterproductive. 

As enrolment has increased, the diversity in our classrooms has increased, and we have not prepared our teachers to address the kinds of students who they actually have now. Nor are our institutions able to provide supportive supervision as they need to. Since teachers’ performance depends equally on their work conditions, we also need to strengthen educational administration, for it has not been expanded even though the number of teachers and schools has gone up steadily.

Q. Last year, Group-IGNUS in partnership with Uttar Pradesh SSA and UNICEF–India, piloted ‘Targeted Enhancement in Learning Outcomes for Students’ for Teacher Support Institutions and the Education Department. How are you proposing to overcome the long-standing challenges facing teacher education?

A. Government teachers already have a secure job – what is missing from their lives is the experience of success. We work with them to enable them to set specific improvement goals, break these down into achievable bits, prepare them as Cluster Resource Coordinators and Block Resource Coordinators with tools for implementation as well as assessing themselves against the targets they have set for themselves. As they experience success in the classroom – in terms of visible improvement in learning – they want more of it. Once teachers start implementing these goals, they ask for very specific things they want to learn – and that is what we provide them instead of something we have decided they should learn. Even though all challenges are not addressed right away, such a process definitely enables us to make considerable headway. 

Q. A majority of teacher-training interventions seem to be at the primary level. Do you think primary teachers need it a lot more? 

A. Poor teaching at the early years has the potential to do the greatest damage. The kind of (curricular) shift required, for example from starting with the alphabet to starting with units of meaning such as whole words, is also a substantial one as it requires giving up what one is so comfortable with. Hence, the preponderance of teacher professional development interventions at the primary level.

Q. Even as NGOs and Social Enterprises heavily involved in in-service teacher education, pre-service teacher training programmes remain largely in the private domain. Is this alright?

A. This continues to remain an area in urgent need of reform. Considering that many teacher training institutions are owned by powerful people, this is not likely to happen in a hurry. The Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) is an attempt to sidestep the negative impact of this situation. It might be worth learning lessons from areas where the private sector is delivering a high-quality output with the government acting more as a regulator.

Q. With the advent of digitisation and ‘smart’ classrooms, do you think technology has become a disrupter in Indian schooling?

A. Technology is mainly competing with the coaching market because that is where the money is. The key issue it is not addressing is the hierarchy involved in the learning process. In the non-tech version, the teacher or the textbook is the ‘Authority’, whereas in the tech version, the screen remains the ‘Authority’, and not the student. Disruption comes from the idea not from the tools – since tech is still stuck on the old idea it is unable to disrupt. 

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