Home / Opinion / Revamping teacher education

One of the few matters in Indian education on which there is substantial consensus is the urgent need for a complete overhaul of pre-service teacher education—that is, the B.Ed (bachelor of education) and D.Ed (diploma in education) college system. The Union government has agreed to implement the recommendations of the Supreme Court-appointed Verma Commission on teacher education. While some of the envisioned changes are inadequate, many fundamental changes are to be made; for example, institutional, curricular and regulatory.

The committed changes are happening at a glacial pace, constrained by inadequate financial resources and human capacity, and resisted by entrenched players with direct commercial and political interests. Be that as it may, the importance of the matter and the directions are set. This should immediately make it clear that developing the capacity of the existing eight million teachers is critical, since they have all gone through the same woefully inadequate teacher education system. But there is no consensus and agreement on this matter.

The estimated average teaching tenure left before retirement for the existing population of teachers is between 20-25 years. So, even if pre-service teacher education were to miraculously improve immediately, unless the average capacity of the existing teachers pool goes up, we will not see clear improvement in education for 20-25 years. Other efforts to improve the existing situation in schools are like tinkering at the edges or are limited by the capacity of the teacher.

Teachers are not in any way an unusually disengaged or truant lot. As I have repeatedly written in these columns, and everyone who works on the ground experiences, the large majority of teachers try to do a decent job. A sizeable minority of teachers are deeply committed and engaged, while a noticeable minority is completely disengaged.

This distribution is not very different from any large organization and system. If anything, there is a greater proportion of deeply committed teachers than the proportion of workers with comparable commitment in any other sector. This is probably because of the natural human reaction of the teachers to the inescapable responsibility of children’s present and future placed in their hands.

Some teachers through sheer determination tackle their own capacity issues, but for the vast majority, it becomes the key limitation to their effectiveness. The other equally significant challenge is the environment they operate in. Individual capacity and the environment also have a significant impact on motivation and engagement. If someone can’t do something, leave alone do it well, they inevitably become disengaged.

Even those (not all) who have a valid assessment of the issues of our teachers shy away from prioritizing the actions to help improve capacity of existing teachers. Some others have such a naive notion of what needs to be done that most people within education write them off immediately. Those who shy away, often do so because of a realistic understanding of the extraordinary complexity of the issue. What is this complexity and what causes it?

First, it is the sheer scale and distribution. We have eight million teachers across a few hundred thousand villages and towns, with the attendant geographical challenges. Second, we must remember that they are all in full-time jobs, leaving little time to be invested in their own development. Third, they have differing needs, and even within that, a wide range. Fourth, they are adults with already formed priorities, views and personalities. They can’t be herded to a place and told what to do with any real effect. Fifth, the gaps between required capacities and the actual are vast as a result of the woeful teacher preparation programmes; this is not a situation which can be corrected by some narrow and superficial continuing professional development efforts. These vast gaps are in content knowledge of subjects and pedagogical matters, as also on overall social and educational perspectives, which deeply determine the way they play their roles.

All standard training approaches, with their centralized determination of curriculum, cascade model of training the trainers, rigid modules and modes of interaction, have been abject failures in dealing with the teacher capacity issue. In fact, the generally understood notion of training in itself is very inadequate.

What is required is difficult. It requires offering teachers multiple modes of learning as options, for example, workshops, in-school support, long-term projects and exposure visits. It also requires creating platforms for peer learning and support with the proximate availability of experienced mentors. And all this must tie together in a coherent curricular framework. The only way to make all this happen is to have small, distributed, high-capability teams across all the districts in the country. That is very hard to put together and sustain. Even harder is to let the teachers determine their own path of development, which is the heart of the matter. This requires trusting the teachers. In our culture, this is harder than almost anything else.

Being very difficult is not a good reason to avoid this all too important of tasks. For the sake of the generations ahead, we must muster the grit to begin and sustain the effort.

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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