Written by Tarang Tripathi.
Reeling under the political and economic onslaught of colonialism, in a country of almost 400 million people, with a literacy rate of just 12 percent, the Indian government had to undertake the gargantuan task of creating systems of public education for all. Understanding the importance of education, multiple attempts to universalize education were carried out, most notably in the 1980’s. Since then, India has been in a cycle of constant reforms. One policy that became the focal point of all education reforms was the Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009, that guaranteed free and compulsory education for every child between the ages of 6-14.
Unfortunately, the syllabus reflects a portrayal of a society that subliminally cements social hierarchies in the minds of the students.
While instrumental in increasing access to education, the RTE failed at the design and execution stage in monitoring the quality of education that is provided to the students. The priorities and the assessment metrics of the Act focus purely on the number of schools, working hours for teachers and the teacher-pupil ratio, without regard for measuring the quality of education being provided. Along with this, over the past few decades, there has emerged a gulf in the quality of education provided by government (and government aided) schools compared to private schools. A large part of this has been the difference between the resources and capital at the disposal of private schools.
Acknowledging their inability to provide quality education to all, under section 12 of the RTE, the government mandated a minimum of 25 percent free and reserved seats for children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups (EWS) in all private unaided primary schools across the country. While theoretically a good idea, the implementation of section 12 has left a lot to be desired. At the core of the challenge is the fact that most discussion has focused on how to get students from EWS into these private schools, but there is no concrete policy or framework to support the school, the teachers or even the students. This has led to problems for each of them. Private schools are increasingly becoming frustrated, and are now looking to avoid following a policy that they see as a burden. Teachers are helpless in a classroom with students with different abilities from different walks of life and even the students from EWS are feeling alienated, leading to an alarming drop-out rate. While a grim situation, this creates a fertile area to implement policy reform. This piece concentrates on the possibility of educational reforms for teachers.
It would be wrong to say that the government of India did not foresee these challenges. The Act does specify provisions requiring ‘special training’ and minimum entry requirements for the teacher, as well as guidelines on how to make the curriculum more ‘child-friendly’. However, the implementation of these solutions have been poor. Research has shown that teacher-training only happens irregularly and there are many cases where the heads of school aren’t even aware of the existence of teacher training for inclusion and equitable education. Over the past few years, two reforms or possible reforms have gathered strength: Curriculum Support and Specific Teacher Training modules for inclusion.
Curriculum Support: A curriculum isn’t supposed to cover only what the students are supposed to learn or what teachers are meant to teach. Rather, it is supposed to serve a greater purpose by helping the teacher create an environment conducive to learning in the classroom. Unfortunately, the syllabus reflects a portrayal of a society that subliminally cements social hierarchies in the minds of the students. The depiction of people from low-income backgrounds in a prejudiced form embeds a worldview that leads to the ‘otherisation’ of people from disadvantaged groups. This is why having a curriculum that accepts and integrates different learning styles, and students from different walks of life is essential.
One of the leading examples of such a curriculum is the inclusive one designed by New Zealand for their primary students. Many other similar examples across the world prove that such curriculums not only make learning accessible for students from disadvantaged groups, but also to help teachers by providing them much needed support in the classrooms.
Teacher Training Modules: Logically, one of the first reforms is to increase the level of accountability in the organization of the teacher training workshops. Accountability must be placed not only on the teachers but also the heads of schools. However, merely having regular teacher training workshops will not be enough. A tailored module is required on how to teach diverse classrooms with students ranging from different economic and social backgrounds. Teachers across India in multiple interviews and studies have stated how they feel that they are underprepared to handle diverse classrooms. One of the most discussed and successful techniques in dealing with diverse classrooms is differentiation.
Differentiation as a teaching technique uses multiple tools such as collaborative learning, group work, tailored lesson plans and formative assessment to cater to different students. Differentiation at its core believes that teachers shouldn’t teach to the largest common denominator of the class, rather that they should customize their teaching to each student’s innate abilities and backgrounds, For example, formative assessment believes that all students cannot be assessed the same way and that assessment should be used as a formative feedback tool for students and teachers. This would allow teachers to help students from disadvantaged groups by gathering more data based on assessments and feedbacks. Similarly, the skill of designing a differentiated lesson plan would allow teachers to prepare numerous activities that would suit not only the majority of students but the weaker students too. Keeping in mind the circumstances of India, differentiation as a technique will help both students and teachers.
Aiming to provide free, compulsory and quality education to all citizens in a country of 1.3 billion people is an arduous task. The government has taken the right steps towards this goal; however, the scale needs to be matched with quality and accountability. Interestingly, while policies are made by politicians sitting in their ivory towers, the success of most education policies depends on the people who are implementing it. The Right to Education Act is no different; its success will depend on the teachers who have to implement it in classrooms and schools.
Tarang Tripathi is a former Teach For India (TFI) fellow and is the Co-Founder of Project Aawaaz and Spinning Wheel Internship. His work revolves around trying to innovate and develop new ways of engaging with education and the curriculum. Image Credit: CC by Right to Education/ Wikimedia Commons