The need to focus on teacher education
MILI and SUNIL M. KUMAR
THE recent years have seen a plethora of attempts to raise the standard of school education through reform efforts, alongside a massive expansion of the education system and a subsequent increase in the enrolment at the primary and the upper primary level. At times these reform efforts have also attempted to change aspects of provision and practice.
The areas covered are wide-spanning – governance modes in schools, community participation, changes in conditions of employment for teachers, the nature of curricula, and so on. Yet, somewhat conspicuous by its absence is an issue that has failed to receive the needed attention – though in dire need of such – teacher education. This involves answers to questions about the character of in-service and pre-service training for elementary school teachers and the nature of institutional support they require to fulfil this role adequately, answers that must be shaped in an era when teachers are increasingly being viewed as ‘restricted professionals’.1
It has often been argued that the quality of education in any school or education system is closely linked to the capabilities of teachers who teach in them.2 This encapsulates issues of teacher training and selection, ongoing academic support, and governance and management. Teachers constitute a crucial part of any system of education, and across successive grades. As course content becomes more complicated and specialized into subjects such as physics, chemistry, life sciences, history, geography, language and mathematics, the quality of teaching and learning is increasingly dependent on the ability of teachers to understand these subjects and facilitate students’ learning.
A survey covering 25 OECD countries which presents the general consensus in research points out that ‘raising teacher quality is perhaps the policy direction most likely to lead to substantial gains in school performance.’3 This article outlines some of the experiences and resultant concerns of the ICICI Centre for Elementary Education, which functions primarily as a funding organization in elementary education, with the aim to explain the need for a bedrock of initiatives and ideas in in-service and pre-service education expected in the long run to change educational standards in government schools.4 We also highlight particular instances from a quality improvement project at the district level currently under way in Baran, Rajasthan.
Professional training for teachers is crucial in determining the quality of education – a fact that has been recognized at different instances from the Kothari Commission (1964-66) onwards. Yet, the provisions for professional preparation in India remain poor, as policy documents such as the NCF 2005 have reiterated, underlining that ‘...the hope of revitalizing school education in India... will probably meet with little success, if the central agency of the teacher remains unrecognized’ (emphasis added).5
In India, teachers at the primary and elementary levels (classes I-V and I-VIII respectively) are required to possess a D.Ed., or Diploma in Education, a degree imparted by the large number of District Institutes for Education and Training (DIETs) spread across the country, including erstwhile primary teacher colleges, following graduation from high school. While it is difficult to assume a coherence and homogeneity of ideas and status in the absence of any systematic study in this area, it is well accepted that even as government has been involved at a frantic pace to expand the school system, much still needs to be done in the crucial area of quality of teacher training, both in-service and pre-service. The quality and content of both B.Ed. and D.Ed. degrees offered across these institutions have been criticized, highlighting the need for undertaking revision in the content and delivery.
A key problem associated with the content of teacher education courses is that teachers are both perceived as and trained to be transmitters of information from textbooks, rather than as professionals who can teach students to think, find answers and understand concepts on their own – a conceptualization which provides continued impetus to poor quality schooling.6 Changing the latter, therefore, demands substantial attention to the content and process of teacher education. Existing teacher education programmes do not encourage students to reflect on their own experiences and assumptions, which otherwise would be a way for teachers to set aside their own biases and beliefs. Instead, assuming that the latter can be easily set aside, these programmes ‘fail to empower the teacher as an agent of change...’7 Warning against such thinking, as a Unesco report on EFA notes, ‘both in developing and developed countries, there is a temptation to lower teacher training standards’.8
In the D.Ed. course, for instance, a large number of issues demand attention and change, some of which are outlined here. Broadly speaking, the course content and teaching is oriented towards rote learning, and patterns of evaluation only strengthen this practice. It is insufficiently appreciated that understanding the ideas of Gandhi or Piaget on education implies internalizing what these stalwarts thought and wrote about education, rather than merely engaging, critiquing, or reflecting on them.
Importantly, there is a lack of opportunity for observation throughout the course – be it children in the classroom, how other teachers teach, and the school atmosphere. Instead, school visits during the forty designated days of practice teaching are used to simply carry out the practice teaching session and return to the DIET, missing out on an opportunity to observe and reflect on how children behave, learn, or relate to teachers. More worrying is a conspicuous absence of effort to engage with the learners’ own (in this case learner-teachers’) conceptions of children, teaching, or issues that affect education such as religion or gender. As a result, learner-teachers continue with their preconceptions and rarely dialogue with or question them.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the Government of India’s flagship school education programme, has mandated 20 days of annual in-service training to teachers across the country. Through this, teachers are expected to revise subject knowledge, build their awareness of contemporary teaching methods and, overall, teach better. The training itself is carried out through a ‘cascade’ system wherein designated resource persons at the state level, including faculty from SCERTs and DIETs, academics, retired teachers and NGO persons come together to write the training module and train a set of Master Trainers, or MTs.
These MTs then carry out similar training sessions across districts, blocks and clusters, covering all the (government) school teachers in the system, replicating the state module. Routinely, terminology such as ‘transmission loss’ is deployed to explain why seemingly ‘good’ teacher training content at the state level does not succeed in inspiring or energizing teachers at the school level, let alone improve their teaching capabilities. Basically, in-service training is relegated to the position of a ritualized activity with little scope for contextualizing the content, employing innovative thought and, crucially, any feedback from the teachers who get trained. Successive years of this practice has now ensured that ‘training’ remains a routinized activity which carries little more than the promise of a few days of TA-DA allocation for teachers, and skepticism or worse towards its content.
There have been occasional efforts to break out of the ‘cascade’ model of training, the most notable being the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme of Eklavya, which was part of the sanctioned in-service training for some years before the programme itself was unfortunately closed down. Yet, addressing the widespread problems of teacher capabilities and interest makes it necessary to build similar attempts and techniques to strengthen in-service training. A particular focus of such efforts could be towards building a continuous feedback loop between those who get trained and those who train and determine subject content, a corollary of which would be the establishment of a (stable) group or structure at the state and district level responsible for training content and carrying out training across the year.
One such engagement has been supported by ICEE, and is currently underway in Baran district of Rajasthan. Planned as a five year initiative, the programme implemented by Digantar and Vidya Bhawan Society envisages spanning the different levels of the education system present in the district – DIET, block and cluster resource centres (BRCs and CRCs), and schools.9 A ten day Master Trainers’ (MTs) workshop held during May earlier this year saw nearly 80 of the 120 designated (and invited) MTs of Baran district travel overnight to Udaipur for a workshop.10
Covering topics in maths, science and language teaching, this workshop held parallel sessions for upper primary school (UPS) and primary school (PS) teachers, with joint sessions on issues such as perspectives in education. Following the workshop, MTs were expected to travel back to Baran and train teachers in groups of 30 to 40 over similar successive ten day sessions to be held in parallel across the district. While an ongoing aim of this initiative is to involve DIET faculty and other resource persons in the actual block level trainings with teachers, this was possible in only some instances since the structural changes required for dismantling ‘cascade training’ remain daunting.
An issue which generated much concern at the workshop was that of timing. Since in-service training takes place in a particular spurt and is not a continuous activity across the academic year, Master Trainers are unable to reflect on their past experience or receive feedback from teachers, and couple their own learning with the requirements of the field. This particular workshop included sessions on perspectives in education as well as specific subjects. The former were meant to be thought-provoking, with themes such as the nature and role of the state in education forming a mainstay of discussions, and the aim that every teacher have at least a view on the topic if not an inclination to speak.
In doing so, this training moved away from what is usually designated as ‘training’ for practicing teachers as also provided some insight into the perspectives of many teachers. For instance, a recurrent theme in the discussions was the choice of songs or activities employed to initiate proceedings. The resource persons conducting the training sang essentially inspirational secular songs, and expected everyone present to join in. This managed to provoke some questions about the absence of Saraswati Vandana, which is otherwise an accepted prayer for initiating educational proceedings in the school or classroom. Particularly striking was the ‘freshness’ with which these discussions unfolded, because many teachers had apparently never participated in such discussions before nor, barring some exceptions, thought about these issues and how their behaviour in the classroom might actually encompass themes such as attitude towards religion, the Indian state and education system.
In theory, teachers are required to be reflective practitioners – professionals who are domain experts in both subject content and the ‘how’ of teaching. ‘Teaching’ is thus thought of as a profession, and not merely a vocation or skill. Their role as professionals is what allows them to adapt to the needs of the classroom as they teach, innovating with teaching practice, pedagogical approaches, the design of teaching learning material, and similar such issues which collectively determine the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. Yet, other sectors of the economy that see their work as a profession have somewhat different standards of initial and ongoing training.
A counter-argument often advanced is that of numbers, according to which it is not feasible to train a few thousand teachers through a handful of resource persons. Yet, this argument holds only so long as we continue with the model of a one-shot, camp-type training. Were the system to display some degree of flexibility, it is not hard to envision that trainings held across the year would allow successive groups of teachers to be trained by the capable teacher-educators and, moreover, allow for regular feedback between the same group of teachers and teacher educators when they meet each other on successive occasions.
The harm done to countless generations of teachers through the pursuit of a regular-as-clockwork ‘cascade training’ model manifests itself in many ways. First, teachers are hesitant to attend any training; in fact demand financial incentives to do so. This could be seen at the scant attendance in the training workshop, even though by the end of it most attendees were pleasantly surprised by how the workshop had unfolded. Second, the stories of fatigue and disinterest that have accumulated as a result of successive training act as effective, or at least temporary, barriers to any actual training. Hence, about a third of the ten day workshop had elapsed before teachers acquired reasonable interest and confidence in the training design and content and began participating to some extent. Before this, resistance to the notion of training itself was visible in discussions and attempts to initiate discussion.
Many reports have advocated the importance of attracting capable and interested men and women to the teaching profession, rather than allowing teaching to be relegated to the bottom rung of potential employment avenues.11 A number of considerations such as existence of a desirable career path, opportunities for continuous professional development and learning, and appropriateness of selection procedures (including quality of applicants) must be accounted for at a policy level while deciding the fate of school education. Yet, as has been often remarked, teaching as a profession in India has plummeted from the ranks of a desirable occupation to one which is taken up as a last resort, when all other avenues are unavailable. This is particularly so in an era when contractual teaching is replacing teachers as recognized professionals, or employees of the state. Contractual appointments of teachers has ensured that teaching becomes a low paid profession, resulting in an extreme casualization of the profession.
As the subject-knowledge of teachers becomes increasingly important at the elementary grades, it is all the more critical that teachers be ‘reflective practitioners’. Understanding, for instance, that mathematics education strives not only to enable children to solve questions and pass examinations, but also imbibe a way of thinking that deals with abstract concepts and their application to real life, is a prerequisite for reflective practice. The ten-day training workshop for Baran Master Trainers dealt with mathematics teaching as a separate theme for a smaller group of 12 MTs (even as 25 had been invited).
The discussion focused on concepts such as abstraction in mathematics, how mathematical arguments and logic are structured, and how particular textbook problems and topics relate to these issues. To this end, participants began by solving mathematical problems in smaller groups, and then presented their solutions and methods of solving to the whole group, with the aim of highlighting what abstraction takes place, what rules are implicitly followed and, overall, how mathematical logic structures are used.
Resource persons coordinating the sessions needed to grapple with two underlying problems – first, that the mathematics content knowledge of MTs was very poor, possibly at a class 4-5 level, and this was apparent when they were asked to apply their knowledge to questions not already practiced from the textbook. The second, that the pre-service course and dozens of in-service training had drilled into the MTs a practice of passively listening to lectures, solving textbook problems, and desisting from discussion. Attempts to involve the MTs into presentations and group work was necessarily a slow process, and only over the duration of the workshop did their involvement visibly improve.
The workshop facilitators attempted to use a set of questions to illustrate the concepts of abstraction, logical argument, algorithms and theorems. The recurring challenge was to desist from merely solving the given problem and moving on to the next, but instead to pause and notice something like the rule that says ‘if you bring a negative number from one side of an equation to the other, its sign changes to positive’, and in turn try to understand the justification for that rule. Using this rule and teaching it to children was an accepted practice, though the aim of the workshop was to explicitly recognize this, and begin exploring how a recognition of this fact could change the practice of teachers – for instance, to desist from defining this rule as a ‘given’, and instead get children to arrive at the rule through understanding the number line.
This experience highlights the need for teacher education courses and institutions to recognize the profile of persons who become teachers, and structure content accordingly. As the Yashpal Committee Report points out, existing programmes of teacher education are inadequate to deal with the (poor) quality of teaching and learning, implying that programme content should be revised, keeping in view the changing requirements of school education. ‘The content of this (B.Ed.) programme should be restructured to ensure its relevance to the changing needs of school education... The emphasis in these programmes should be on enabling the trainees to acquire the ability for self-learning and independent thinking’.12
The experience of the OECD countries, too, recognizes concerns about the content and delivery of teacher training courses, including issues pertaining to the field experience component of courses, which is ‘often short and disconnected from coursework’, and a disconnect between trainees and teacher educators on account of diverse backgrounds and orientation.13 In response, governments and teacher organizations have developed professional standards of responsibility, reflecting demands made on the teaching profession, which in turn determine teacher education and professional development.14
Concern for teacher training can, therefore, be classified into two essential categories. The first deals with the nature of training ‘delivery’ (in contrast to content), and this includes the ‘cascade’ model of in-service training currently in practice, and how pre-service courses such as the D.Ed. are structured. The second deals with the content of in- and pre-service training and, through this, take into account the profile of persons who adopt teaching as their profession in the current context, the requirements and understanding of teaching – whether it indeed is a profession which includes a specialized set of knowledge and skills, and if so, what all must teachers know about pedagogy, subject content and learning.
Institutions designated by the government – namely SCERTs and DIETs – are envisaged as playing a key role in answering both these questions. While DIETs provide in-service courses in the form of the D.Ed., SCERTs are supposed to play a role in determining the content of both in- and pre-service training. This responsibility in turn demands strong faculties in these institutions so that they may function as centres of research and action. A major policy focus, therefore, must be on strengthening these institutions through capacity building partnerships with existing universities or NGOs who have the requisite experience and expertise, as well as by attracting faculty who actually want to work in the institution and have the required academic expertise.
For instance, the state of Chhattisgarh has recently initiated a process of revising the D.Ed. curriculum, and the SCERT has collaborated with other NGOs for doing so. In addition to a number of other changes, it has been decided to increase the number of practice teaching days from 40 to 50 and, prior to practice teaching, students are expected to spend 10 days in the school simply observing and discussing their observations rather than launching straightaway into teaching.
In addition, there is a need to revisit course content. While institutional capacity building at the level of DIETs and SCERTs is a necessary condition for improving the quality of teacher education in the long run, an immediate improvement can be brought about by involving academics, practitioners and others in revising the course content and structure of courses like the D.Ed. An example of such action is the establishment of the B.El.Ed., or Bachelors in Elementary Education, a four year integrated professional degree programme which was developed by a group of leading academics, and is now offered by six colleges of the University of Delhi. Similar efforts could lead to the development of the D.Ed.
As a relevant course, funding organizations could support the development and trial efforts of such a course in collaboration with universities, research institutions and NGOs. Such action will still require flexibility in state policy to allow ‘innovative’ course content to be accepted across DIETs, as also sustained flexibility if innovative course content is to become the norm. Coupled with a recognition that cascaded in-service training is nothing but a routine, delinked from any actual capacity building or training of teachers, such flexibility and innovative action may well yield systemic improvement for school education in India, provided innovative models for change become the accepted norm, and not infrequent exceptions.
* The authors would like to thank the Quality Improvement Programme – Baran team for sharing documents and their thoughts on some of the ideas discussed in the article. The views expressed are strictly personal.
1. E. Hoyle, ‘Professionality, Professionalism and Control in Teaching’, in V. Houghton et al. (eds), Management in Education: The Management of Organisations and Individuals, Ward Lock Educational in association with Open University Press, London, 1975.
2. UNESCO, Education for All: The Quality Imperative (EFA Global Monitoring Report), Unesco, 2005, pp. 161-185.
3. OECD, Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2005.
5. Teacher Education for Curriculum Renewal, Focus Group Paper of the National Curriculum Framework, NCERT, 2005.
7. Op cit., Unesco, 2005.
8. Op cit., Unesco, 2005, pp. 161-185.
9. Digantar and Vidya Bhawan Society are education resource organizations located in Rajasthan, working in areas including elementary education pedagogy and curriculum and material development through theoretical and action research. They work to improve the quality of mainstream elementary education through training, capacity building and reform initiatives with government as well as non-government institutions.
10. Baran is one of Rajasthan’s least developed districts located in South East Rajasthan bordering Madhya Pradesh, and has a large tribal population. Educationally, Baran fares poorly with only 41.6% of female literatacy, lower than national and Rajasthan figures. (Source: http://baran.nic.in/dprofile.htm)
11. R. Halperin and B. Ratteree, ‘Where Have All The Teachers Gone? The Silent Crisis’, Prospects 33(2), June 2003.
12. MHRD, Learning Without Burden, Yashpal Committee Report, MHRD, GOI, 1992.
13. Op cit., OECD, 2005.