To achieve the objectives of NEP, focus on teachers

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In Finland, the tag line for school education is “less is more”. It is play and discovery-based learning. This is what the National Education Policy (NEP) has visualised, hoping to fill learning gaps and inculcate critical thinking through scientific methods. But it is unlikely to happen with the ammunition of the past.

In the education system, the three critical elements are teachers, students and the ecosystem of the school such as infrastructure, play arrangements, facilities and the underlying compact with the institution. To encourage creative thinking in students, particularly first-generation learners, the teacher is the most critical component, guiding, encouraging and challenging students. Empirically, studies show government teachers are better qualified and trained, and if made to teach, they deliver better outcomes compared to teachers of the average private schools. But that is for business-as-usual. For the new paradigm of education we are seeking, a complete overhaul is needed.

For one, fun and interactive learning at the early childhood stage will require trained para-teachers. The provision of breakfast may be a solution for nutritional problems of early childhood, but not for play-based learning, where trained teachers will be key.

Two, teachers should be completely disconnected from politics, for it changes their incentives. In some states, there are teachers’ constituencies in the bicameral state legislature. Teachers are deeply involved with local politics and that distorts evaluation of the outcomes, assessment of teachers and improving accountability. This relates equally to college and university teachers. By law, it should be proscribed.

Four, teachers and professors should go through a five-year intensive assessment by third parties. Leaving the assessment to state institutions, easily influenced by the government, or to in-house committees, will not work. There must be disciplinary action including removal against those teachers who consistently fare at the bottom. This will result in quick improvement in performance.

The big pieces in NEP are attempts to reduce workload, remove the tyranny of the examination, and reduce teaching duties to enable interaction with students in colleges and universities. This is accompanied by an emphasis on a common admission test. The direction is correct, but it is to be noted that there are very few people trained in psychometric tests in India. A time-frame should be set to get professionals ready like in the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the United States, to ensure questions are not repeated or incomprehensible questions are avoided. Indian examiners often end up testing the informational base, rather than the conceptual base and the ability to analyse and synthesise, and this must be avoided. This should be the sixth reform.

And finally, on a different note, envisioning a university in every district is the wrong trajectory for higher education. This exacerbates the problem as the creation of administrative districts is a political activity and has nothing to do with the demand for education. The critical mass required for universities with a modicum of quality may not exist, and poor quality will continue to reduce the return on education, defeating the purpose of NEP.

NEP’s goals are noble. But the policy framework needs to be refined and its implementation needs more thought.

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