The problem

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WHEN the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) initiated a nationwide discussion on the drafting of the National Curriculum Framework (2005), many people asked: ‘Even if the curriculum is improved, who will transact it?’ Apparently, they were sceptical about the value of curricular reform if it was not going to be followed up by reforms in teacher training. Some thought that teacher training should precede curricular change. Even those who were keen to see a more rational curricular policy and better textbooks in place at the earliest were apprehensive that once a new NCF enabled NCERT to change its textbooks, nothing else would happen. There was no easy way to address this apprehension. One argument worth offering was that improving the capacity and quality of India’s over five million teachers would take a long time, but the quality of textbooks can be improved sooner, so whatever is possible should be done. In any case, teacher training fell under a different body called the National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) which has statutory status, unlike NCERT which is merely advisory.

So the NCF went ahead and prepared a draft that created history by getting the approval of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE). Now that all three phases of the textbook development programme are complete, the question, ‘What about teachers?’ has acquired renewed poignancy. Within the CBSE system of 8000 schools which form the primary market of NCERT textbooks, an awareness that there is something radically different about the new textbooks has begun to percolate to different levels of the school world. Even those who were unaware of the approach underlying the new syllabus have finally noticed in the new textbooks a set of expectation from teachers that the older ones did not make. The old syllabus and textbooks presented the subject matter as information. The spread of information was confined within the borders of the discipline or school subject. The style in which the information was presented reflected the expert’s perspective, rather than the child’s. The prescribed activities were not really intended to be carried out, for the outcome of each activity was already given in the textbook itself.

The teacher’s job, as envisaged in the old style textbooks, was one of a teller who ensured that whatever was told was attentively heard and memorized by everyone, even if only a few might actually grasp it. Such a teacher was essentially a quasi-parent who was worried about the marks children would get in the exam and who patiently exhorted them to rehearse their marks-grabbing ability.

The NCF envisions a very different role for the teacher – as someone who has agency and professional capacity for exercising autonomy. Chapter four describes two facets of the desired teacher. One is the social facet which poses the challenge of creating an enabling classroom environment in which everyone learns to negotiate barriers rooted in the social histories of class, caste, gender and disability. The other is the facet where the teacher recognizes multiple curricular sites and plurality of resources, including more than one textbook. The kind of teacher that the NCF demands needs to be given time and resources to study and reflect on her or his own practice and on the world surrounding the school.

This is the kind of teacher that the new NCF-based syllabus and textbooks require. The new textbooks are based on the premise that children learn from many sources, not just textbooks. It is expected that teachers will share this premise, not merely in principle, but in practice too, in the sense that they will actively look for non-textbook sources of knowledge and also recognize as valid the sources that children might locate out of their own desire to learn.

This difference between the new and the old textbooks is rooted in the bold assumption articulated in the NCF that children want to learn because they are born learners, and that we can learn how to teach by observing how children learn. Of course, this is not an altogether new assumption. It is the bedrock of progressive theory of education associated with the term ‘child-centred’. The only point in mentioning it here comes from the fact that this assumption was not used earlier to develop textbooks.

Earlier processes of textbook generation concentrated on knowledge, its factual correctness and updatedness. Textbooks prepared under earlier programmes expected the teacher to apply child-centred methods, but the people involved in textbook development did not necessarily perceive their responsibility in parallelling and facilitating the teacher’s expected effort. The new textbooks do precisely that. So, one might think that they are easier to teach. But are they?

The answer is neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’, but that they call for a different way of teaching, or rather that they anticipate a realistic effort of child-centred teaching to be made by the teacher. The new textual material does not present knowledge in an exhaustive manner; rather, it is indicative. It invites both children and the teacher to compliment the effort made by the textbook development team. As a group activity, these textbooks symbolize the intention to reach out to the child’s desire to learn by asking worthwhile questions, and not simply learn how to give correct answers.

In this sense, these textbooks have not been ‘written’; nor are they revised versions of any older books. They have been developed by groups which included people, other than experts, who know what goes on in a real classroom, in the minds of real children. The text attempts to exemplify how to contextualize knowledge by embedding information in the living world of news, ecological crisis, conflict of values and interests, and so on.

The skills necessary to observe and document, listen and examine, debate and judge, are incorporated in the so-called ‘content’ of knowledge. The teacher who works with these textbooks should have these skills and also be aware what it means to cultivate these skills in every child, not just the smarter ones. Such a teacher must share the fundamental belief of the NCF that every child can and must succeed, and for this to happen, a vast range is required in the meanings of success and routes to it.

Even if the NCF 2005 initiative had never been taken, nor any major attempt made to prepare new textbooks, India would have sooner or later recognized the need for a vast number of kind, competent, professionally qualified teachers. The NCF phenomenon has merely exacerbated that need, starting with the small number of CBSE schools and moving on to the vast number of schools affiliated to state boards.

The NCF-based new syllabi and textbooks are already in use in more than 15 per cent of schools in India. This figure includes schools run by several state governments, apart from the CBSE. The latest state to prescribe the NCERT textbooks is Andhra Pradesh – the first large state to do so. Neither the CBSE schools nor the state schools where NCERT books are being used have yet recognized the immediacy of their need in terms of the teachers’ role. Rather, both CBSE and state boards have displayed no urgency to reform the examination system to bring it in line with the NCFs vision and discourse.

The old Darwinian approach which makes examination an instrument of weeding out is carrying on, creating the impression that the demand for the old kind of marks oriented teaching will continue, and that the new emphasis on child-centredness will remain what it has been: rhetoric. Such an assumption is putatively wrong, but the crisis in teacher recruitment and training could well deepen to a level where NCF and earlier reform oriented documents remain mere rhetoric. Let us visit this crisis before closing.

The crisis is neither new nor unfamiliar. Anyone interested in educational reform in our colonial system knows that the status of teachers has been declining for a long time, and that the institutionalized training of teachers has never received sufficient attention to keep pace with the need, both in terms of the number and quality of teachers required. Neither of the two aspects of the crisis has been addressed, despite a substantial effort made in the Chattopadhyaya Commission (‘Teacher and Society’, Government of India, 1983) to create a focus on teachers and their training.

The initiatives taken in the wake of the National Policy of Education (1986) in the shape of District Institutes of Education and Training (DIET) and Institutes of Advanced Study of Education (IASE) have proved inadequate on account of the want of serious state-Centre understanding and efficient planning. Neither of the two institutional structures named above have proved worthy of the names they carry. It appears inappropriate to use the title ‘District Institute’ for a place whose principal’s status is lower than that of an ordinary undergraduate college. No IASE is doing any ‘advanced study’ of education.

Hyperbole is not a metaphor in the self-deceptive world of teacher training; it is a reality, and university departments of education are no exception. In the wider space outside these institutions, market forces have grabbed the teacher education sector, treating it as a source of money. Universities have shown little interest in, or awareness of, the Kothari Commission’s mid-1960s vision which asked them to help in improving school education.

Everybody wants a break but no one knows who will invent it. Possibly the NCTE will, some people hope, if it institutionally collaborates with NCERT. May be the Tatas or the Birlas will realize that teacher training is as important an area deserving generous investment as the natural sciences, technology and the social sciences. Or perhaps, the Government of India will agree to spend IIT-level funds to run at least four National Institutes of Teacher Training. Maybe these hopes are too wild, and all that will happen in the immediate future is that some of the more creative non-government organizations like Eklavya and Digantar will rise to the occasion and transform themselves into deemed universities of teacher education.

My best memory of an in-service programme for village teachers comes from Eklavya’s mother institution, Kishore Bharati. I recall with nostalgia and excitement a hot afternoon when I saw a group of teachers measuring a table and realizing with frustration and amazement that the measurement each one of them had personally taken and secretly noted was different. They had loudly denied such a possibility at the start of the activity. Till late in the evening they worked on statistical analysis of their measurement of an ordinary wooden table’s length to figure out the standard deviation and error margin in the data, and gradually learnt to appreciate that science does not deal with facts, but rather with observations. The trainer in this case was Anil Sadgopal whose Kishore Bharati sowed the seed of a new kind of science teaching and training.

I have seen similar in-depth work with teachers at Rohit Dhankar’s Digantar and in the Jesus and Mary College of Delhi University where the B.El.Ed. programme started. (It has now grown to cover seven colleges, without succeeding in persuading the Delhi government to forge a rational recruitment policy which might permit the professional capacities of B.El.Ed. graduates to be recognized.) This kind of stray capital must suffice for now to give us the hope that one day India will have a few million teachers who enjoy being teachers of the young and deserve to be respected by the adult society. In the interim, we might have to choose between a lesser evil and continued kitsch and chaos, and essentially focus on training teachers to resist the temptation and systemic pressure to give up all higher goals for the sake of marks.