The National Education Policy, published in 2020, explains that providing universal access to high-quality education is the key to India’s continued ascent, and leadership on the global stage in terms of economic growth, social justice, and equality, scientific advancement, national integration, and cultural preservation. While we must be proud of the great progress India has made towards the goal of Universal Primary Education, the quality of schooling delivered leaves much to be desired. Student learning data emerging from NGOs and government sources over the past decade have been quite disappointing. Approximately half the children in school are not able to display even basic reading comprehension and arithmetic skills. This is a serious concern because mere access to schooling doesn’t guarantee any benefits to the individual and society – the desired outcomes are realized only when the quality of schooling is high and consequently student learning is maximized.
There is no single factor that can be isolated and blamed for the position we are in today. The current reality of schooling in India is a reflection of several factors and their interactions with each other – the nature of curriculum, parent participation, school infrastructure and socio-emotional climate, teacher capacity, and school leadership capacity, among others. Together, these factors comprise an ecosystem that influences school quality. But, if we zoom out further, we can see that these factors reside within a macrosystem of policy and culture. In short, if we want to dramatically improve student learning, then we must first improve school level factors, and if we want to improve school level factors then we must ensure that our policy and culture support a high-quality education.
Now, as an educator, I must say that I am quite impressed with the progressiveness of most major educational policies published over the past decade. Unfortunately, a large gap exists between these policy ideals and actual classroom practice. We are yet to find proven efficient and effective ways to make key school level factors align with policy. More innovation supported by rigorous empirical studies to support their efficacy is needed, and to an extent is underway already. But there is one factor impeding our ability to turn policy into practice that we seldom reflect over – our culture and the beliefs we have espoused from it, specifically those related to schooling.
We as parents, teachers, and educational leaders, have more often than not resisted much needed innovations in schooling, thereby impeding its natural evolution and transformation over time. We are reluctant to change the status quo, to venture away from anything we have experienced in our own schooling growing up and what we were told by our parents, teachers, or society regarding how children learn best and how they must be taught. As a parent, I understand the stakes are high and so change is scary. But, how is it possible that our classrooms today look almost identical to what they did 100 years ago, when nothing else in the world is recognizable over this same time span?
Schools started taking formal structure over the 19th and 20th century, at a time when there was no research on how people learn. Teaching strategies were based primarily around what was considered common sense rather than scientific evidence. At the time, only a handful of career options were available and many of them resembled assembly lines. In that context the person that had the most facts in their head won, because there was no way to get information for troubleshooting or problem solving on the go like we can with the internet today. The person that was most fluent in simple procedures was best because he or she was most efficient and the job at hand was simple and didn’t require creative thinking. The person that was most compliant and just kept quiet and took orders from the supervisor succeeded because the job at hand was straightforward and really just needed you to listen and carry it out as prescribed. This is exactly what schools were designed to support. Similarly, in India, State level education was born in the 1800s under the British Raj, and the system was geared to create a cohort of Indians that could perform clerical work obediently and efficiently, thereby supporting the growth of the British Empire.
But the workplace doesn’t look like an assembly line anymore, and we are not a British colony today. Then why are our schools designed to further these ends? The reason I ask is because our ability to convert policy into practice is not only dependent on scientific, strategic, or tactical developments in the field of education. It also requires us as stakeholders to change our mindsets. Because beliefs drive action. Progress will not be possible unless every key stakeholder right from policymakers to teachers, leaders, and parents unite in our beliefs about what schooling should be in the 21st century. So, let’s take a minute on this 5th International Day of Education to stop and reflect…. Given all the changes in the world, does it make sense that the format of schooling has remained essentially unchanged? Have I tested my beliefs against current evidence from science on how children learn and thus how and what we should teach? And finally, how can I as an individual push for change and support the much-needed evolution of schooling?
(Dr. Siamack Zahedi, Co-CEO and Director of Education and Research, The Acres Foundation)