Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Making teachers specialists

It is very hard to find any country that by design keeps the subject knowledge bar as low as India

If you haven’t already done it, then try teaching a child who is in Grades 5 to 8. Pick any topic, say volcanoes. Driven by the child’s curiosity and your own desire for her to learn, the conversation will quickly go deeper and broader than the notion of mountains spewing very hot, molten stuff. For example, you will talk about why is the stuff molten; what makes the core of the Earth hot; why don’t we have volcanoes all over the Earth; has it always been like this; what are the other ways rocks are formed.

For such a conversation to happen, many conditions must be met, e.g. a relationship of trust between you and the child, you need to be observant of the child’s emotional state and knowledge levels, and be patient. Let’s focus on one condition: you yourself need to understand all these things related to volcanoes, i.e. have “subject knowledge" on volcanoes. If your subject knowledge is deep and broad, and mine is shallow and limited, the child wouldn’t learn much from a conversation with me, but could learn with you.

Let’s call such deep and broad knowledge, good knowledge of the subject. It’s easy to appreciate that if we want the child to have good knowledge of any subject, the teacher must have better (i.e. deeper and broader) knowledge of the same subject than what we are expecting the child to develop. This is not in any way a contentious issue in education; there is ready agreement on this basic notion. With this background, let’s look at India’s school education.

To be a teacher for Grades 1 to 8 in India, a diploma in education (DEd) is the basic qualification. These norms on qualifications and all other aspects of teacher education are governed by the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). The entry to a DEd programme is after passing Grade 12. It is a two-year programme, and doesn’t have anything to do with subject knowledge of the future teacher. Its curriculum is designed for other educational aspects, e.g. child development, sociological issues of education, pedagogy.

The implication is that by design the teachers who teach students up to Grade 8 are expected to have subject knowledge at the level of Grade 12. There are many other deep flaws in the design and functioning of our teacher preparation system, but let’s just focus on this one aspect of subject knowledge.

Is Grade 12-level knowledge good enough to teach up to Grade 8? Is that knowledge adequately better (using the terminology of the example of volcanoes)? While there may not be a complete consensus on this matter, the overwhelming majority in education would say that the minimal subject knowledge requirement to teach up to Grade 8 is an undergraduate-level education.

It is very hard to find any country that by design keeps the subject knowledge bar as low as us. Most countries expect an undergraduate-level education in subjects, while their specific designs of the teacher preparation programmes may differ.

Till now, we have only talked about the flaw in the design of the system; now let’s look at the reality. We are quite familiar with the very inadequate learning levels of our schools. It’s with this low subject knowledge, even by school standards, that many of our elementary school teachers operate. It’s no surprise that you can find teachers in Grade 8 who don’t have subject knowledge that you would expect in a Grade 6 student. You see this reflected everywhere where teachers’ subject knowledge is assessed, e.g. the percentage of teachers qualifying through the central and state teacher eligibility tests (TETs) is routinely between 2% and 10%. Teachers who teach Grades 9-12 are expected to have a bachelor’s of education and an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject; some teachers in Grades 1-8 also have undergraduate degrees.

However, the quality of our undergraduate education is (in my estimate) worse than our school education. So, an undergraduate degree hardly seems to matter.

Let me point out three things. One, the motivation and engagement of teachers is a completely different aspect, but which is often affected negatively by a lack of subject knowledge. Two, there are many other capacities that are required to be an effective teacher, not only subject knowledge. Three, given that we are talking about eight million teachers, for sure there are some teachers who have good subject knowledge, i.e. there are large variations around a low mean.

Three things that are in progress must be deepened and expanded to address this situation. Teacher appointments, both in private and public schools, must be contingent on qualifying through (improved) TETs. Investment must be increased in effective in-service support for existing teachers on subject knowledge. The design of teacher preparation must be changed such that all teachers go through a five-year integrated programme on subjects and teacher education. NCTE has already taken steps in this direction and the Prime Minister has endorsed this idea publicly. However, given the entrenched interests in the 16,000-odd existing teacher education institutions, this will need some doing.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere-

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