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The future of education is here

Who should teach?

AM

Ashwin Mahesh

Oct 18, 2020

We have known for a very long time that the education system in the country is badly broken. There are numerous studies by state and federal governments, as well as think tanks and educationists, which tell a uniform story of this failure. Fewer than half the children are completing school, many of those who do graduate, and a lot of the college-bound young people too, are merely going through the motions. It's a disaster and has been that way for decades.

What is new these days is an Education Policy. The NEP, some educationists say, accepts that there are many things that need to be changed, and proposes ways of changing them. They point out that for the next twenty years we can expect this new vision to dominate the landscape of education policy and implementation.

It is also said that the NEP includes a lot of the right emphases, and could therefore signal a change from the past. News articles reporting on the policy have duly picked these up - access to pre-primary care, inclusion, vocational learning, emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy, and more. There's another set of catch-phrases for higher education - multidisciplinary education, the balance between research and teaching, more vocational learning, credit banks for courses, etc.

But will any of this work? Unlikely.

The reason is quite simple. It's fairly easy to write a document that details what things should be done. It's much harder to figure out who should do them, and make that happen. The core problem in our education system is that it discourages teaching, and until we change that, all the other things we do will not make one whit of difference to the poor learning outcomes we now see.

Let's pause to observed one thing in particular. The 'emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy' tells a story. It's an admission that these most basic thresholds of learning that every child should meet have not been met. But this failure itself is not addressed - no one is asking why we failed to meet such a low expectation. More importantly, no one is asking who failed at this.

The 'who' problem is the crux of it.

Who should teach? And how should they teach? Governments love to answer these questions. More specifically, they love a system in which they alone decide who should teach, and how they should teach. And to ensure this they have set up two certification systems - one for deciding who should be allowed to teach, and another for deciding who should hand out school-leaving certificates and degrees.

Let's start with the courses for teacher certification. In the public school system, these are more or less mandatory, and even in the private sector, invariably those who are teaching get one of these, typically a B.Ed., at some point. And there's something to be said for such certification - after all, we don't want children to be taught by unqualified people.

But there's a flip side to this. There are plenty of people who would love to teach, but don't want to get certified to do so. If that's the case, then we are losing out on a pool of talent that is interested in teaching itself but is not motivated enough to clear a course to do it.

We could say, that's their choice. Teaching is a responsibility, and there has to be a system of deciding who is suitable and who is not. Those who are serious about teaching should accept that responsibility. That is correct, but it doesn't mean they have to accept it in the way the government wants them to. Plus, we have a shortage of teachers. If the certification is limiting the number of those who choose the profession, we have to rethink it.

Let's also look at one other thing - certification to teach is considered extremely important for someone to teach 12th standard, but not at all required to teach the 13th standard - the first year of college. What explains that? How can it be that we have an elaborate system of deciding who is suited to teach a child in April of one year, but virtually no system to certify a teacher for the same child in June?

The slide from deciding who teaches to deciding who has been taught is seamless. Kids who go to schools and are taught by certified teachers are considered graduates. On that basis, they are admitted to universities and a few years later, they are given one more piece of paper.

This dodge was sufficient for governments as long as there was no way that parents and students could opt-out and still get an education. But that's changing. It's quite likely that the main motivation for the NEP is not that education reform is finally persona grata. Instead, it worries governments that the way people learn is quickly getting away from their certification-raj.

People are learning online, people are learning from each other, people are learning on the jobs. And the would-be teachers who didn't want to bother with certification are the ones providing these increasingly popular options. Employers too are increasingly willing to accept that these other paths are more realistic indicators of what their hires actually know than the certificates that governments print and hand out.

Our education system has been running on a 'check-box' model - buildings, toilets, uniforms, desks, chalk, board, benches, teachers and their salaries, a few play materials, etc. If these things are present, it is assumed that education is also present. This is a mass delusion that continues all the way up to the higher universities. Only about 5-10% of the investment that we are making in education is productive.

For a very long time, a lot of talented people who could have taught millions of students took a look at this system and decided not to be part of it. Now they have a choice. For any new education policy to work, it has to start by recognising this. Education has a lot to do with who teaches.

(This article originally appeared in Deccan Herald.)

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