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Almost everyone agrees that we need good research to help improve education. There are two kinds of research that can be done and have been done. The first one asks research questions from within the field of education. This is informed by educational thought and epistemic issues, the aims of education and its practices, and the perspectives of the students, teachers and communities involved. The second kind takes the aims, concerns and practices of education for granted, and investigates issues in education from the perspective of other disciplines. The anchors and lenses of such research is of that discipline and other areas of social policy, not the field of education. This kind may also have relevance and is usually done by economists, political scientists, sociologists and scholars from similar intellectual backgrounds. In our present Indian context, there is too little of the former and so the second kind gets disproportionate attention of policymakers and the public. Since education is not the primary perspective of such research, it also often focuses on issues of peripheral importance to the reality of education.
For research to help educational policy and practice, in improving the educational experience and attainment of the millions of students in our schools, we need to pay adequate attention to the first kind of research. This requires focus on understanding two important elements in our education system. Firstly, the teacher.
Most teachers in India deal with student groups that present complex challenges. A typical situation is where a teacher has to work with a group of 30-odd children, in the age group of 6 to 10. That means she is teaching students across Classes I to V together. A large number of these children would have parents who have never gone to school; and even for others, the brutal struggle for livelihood leaves little possibility of educational support at home. In most cases, the language that the child knows is different from the language used as the medium of instruction at the school. For many of these children, the only full meal is the mid-day meal provided by the school. Before and after school, most of them are engulfed with their share of daily chores.
How does a teacher deal with this situation? How can she be effective as an educator? How does she tackle the issue of multiple languages? How does she provide required support to those children facing the most acute deprivation? What are her struggles in doing all this, day after day, for years? What support does she require and how can we make that happen? How can she deal more effectively with the local community? These are some of the most important questions. That’s because education in India will improve or stagnate in the reality of the teacher and her students.
There is no one right answer to any of these questions. There are likely to be multiple valid approaches, influenced by the particular mix of factors in any context, which in itself may change over time. Given the extreme variability and fluidity of education because of its social-human nature, there can be no definitive, universally applicable answers to such questions. However, with experience and rigorous reflection, one can arrive at relevant (let’s call them) operating principles that can help in flexibly responding to multiple contexts and situations. Given our dynamic social reality, even these need constant critical interrogation.
The second set of questions requires a deep understanding of education systems in their complex social setting. This research has to take account of, seriously and with empathy, the aims, values and concerns of education revealed by the first set. The kinds of questions that emerge are, for example, how can the capacity of our 8.5 million teachers, who have a full-time job, be improved within the constraints and diversity of our education system and social reality? How does community engagement with schools become effective? How can schools foster constitutional values? How should schools be governed, recognizing fully that simplistic, industrial-mindset governance mechanisms are not only ineffective but also harmful to good education? How do we deal with the rot in the pre-service teacher education system? These and other important questions in Indian education are mostly about “how”, which is why immersion in practice and reality are critical to developing relevant understanding.
Individual educators and organizations, who have grappled with these questions, have developed a deep and nuanced understanding. Some have conducted systematic inquiry and so have been able to abstract the experience into shareable knowledge. However, in comparison to the multitude of these matters and their complexity, such inquiry has been minuscule in India. With a few notable exceptions, the field of education in India faces extreme paucity of research on its most relevant questions.
Research in education must focus on the real and important issues within education. This requires educators themselves to become adept at asking and answering research questions, rigorously and systematically. If educators take responsibility for research, it will definitely cause a quiet revolution in education research and education itself.
Anurag Behar is the chief executiveofficer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
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