Chorus answering encouraged in schools undermines democratic ideals

Teacher education is said to be nationally important, yet it stays hidden from public view. Where it belongs in the system of education is also unclear. It is neither fully a part of higher education, nor is it fully owned by the state. It entails a history of low status and paucity of attempts to reform. Today, it ranks high on the list of sectors that have been corrupted by poorly regulated privatisation. Its problems got so messy that the Supreme Court had to appoint a commission to examine it. Chaired by Justice J.S. Verma, this commission submitted its report in 2012. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) is currently deliberating on these recommendations for further action. If they are implemented with imagination — and not merely with bureaucratic fuss over details — they can bring about functional changes in the system and reduce the scope for corruption in it. But functional changes will not suffice to rejuvenate teacher education in India. The sector has been institutionally isolated for more than a hundred years. Its uncertain position between the university and the state has also caused chronic insularity and insecurity. It urgently needs academic nourishment and recognition as a sensitive and complex area of higher education.

In addition to its own malnourishment, teacher education in India is also afflicted by a larger crisis — the policy vacuum in education. Significant expansion and changes have taken place in the system of school education — especially at the elementary level — since the early 1990s. These processes have culminated in the promulgation of the Right to Education (RTE). A vast amount of hard work has gone into improving the design of curriculum and the infrastructure of schools. The fruits of this vast effort would go waste if the Centre and the State governments fail to change their perception of the relationship between different sectors and stages of education. Lack of leadership and relevant policies have caused widespread cynicism. The systemic and political consequences of sustained cynicism could be deadly. In the specific context of teacher-related issues, there are major causes for worry. One is the ongoing recruitment of more than a million teachers; the other is their training.

Training or education?

The term ‘training’ hides a long history of India’s system of education. Towards the second half of the 19th century, the British colonial government gradually established its control over education and shaped the system we have today. Following the practice prevailing at the time in England, ‘normal’ schools were set up to train teachers. An ‘ideal’ atmosphere was maintained at these training schools and trainees were expected to deliver ‘ideal’ lessons on the basis of pre-designed formats. The trainee’s dress, gestures and posture were supposed to follow a standardised pattern. That is why these institutions were called ‘normal’, i.e. norm-setting. As a result of the policies pushed by teacher unions and labour governments, teacher training eventually became a part of higher education. This integration meant that the curriculum was expanded to include theoretical knowledge drawn from philosophy, sociology, psychology and history.

The new courses, given at universities rather than at ‘normal’ colleges, aimed to impart rational autonomy to the future teacher. The term ‘training’ was replaced by ‘teacher education’ and focussed on building the teacher’s knowledge of the subject matter and of children. The new goal was to impart the capacity to take pedagogic decisions.

These developments eluded us. The hold of mechanical orientation stayed tight despite the liberal curriculum adopted by the Central Institute of Education (CIE), set up immediately after independence to give a fresh direction to the field. Another significant beginning was made by the NCERT, with the starting of four-year integrated courses at its regional institutes. However, these initiatives could not transform the essentially bureaucratic ethos of training institutions in the rest of the country. Primary teachers’ training stayed under the government’s control while secondary-level teacher education (B.Ed.) remained poorly integrated into the university system despite being affiliated to it. And nursery teachers’ training failed to get due recognition, so it was left to the mercy of market forces. Commercially-minded institutions mushroomed across the country and teacher education lost all semblance of public dignity.

Despite its statutory status, the NCTE could not control the rot. The scenario sank into chaos and corruption, compelling High Courts and, ultimately, the Supreme Court to intervene. The latter’s Justice Verma Commission (JVC) has given an elaborate critique and many recommendations. The NCTE will follow these recommendations but legal remedies can at best bring order into financial and administrative practices. Only the professional community representing the sector can restore its dignity and reorient the various courses toward the aim of personal and intellectual development of teachers. The NCTE will have to build professional consensus in a broken community.

Lack of practical experience

There are two sides to the problem teacher education faces. One has to do with the structure and substance of courses; the other pertains to the role of schools where trainees are sent to gain practical experience and exposure to school life. The course structure of most teacher education programmes is obsolete and devoid of theoretical depth. Some people say that teachers need no theory, and their training should be confined to skills and management. This view echoes the old ‘normal’ school ideology. It ignores the range of social and psychological challenges that teachers now face. The far-reaching social goals of RTE can hardly be addressed unless teachers grasp the insights embedded in contemporary social and psychological research and theory. The second aspect of the challenge involved in teacher education concerns the schools where trainees are sent. These schools need to feel responsible for the welfare and professional development of the new entrants to the profession. Letting them take the required number of classes merely serves a formal necessity. The initial exposure to school life must be mediated by opportunities to analyse the school’s own constraints. Noticing links between the theoretical knowledge acquired at the training institute and the experience gained at school is a basic necessity to make the course worthwhile.

At present, trainee teachers go to school with their own memory of school life guiding them to expect nothing new. They prepare written plans and teaching aids for the stipulated number of lessons. Their subject knowledge remains unrelated to the theoretical knowledge they are given in foundation courses. In the absence of any expectation that they will personally explore the meaning of being a teacher, they slip into age-old practices like posing simple questions that elicit a chorus recall of memorised facts.

Occasionally, a teacher will have an individual student raise their hand to answer, but chorus recitations remain the staple feature in a conventional classroom. The sound of children collectively parroting the teacher’s explanation has reassured generations of principals and inspectors that something is going on in the school. A classroom where children are engrossed in solving a problem individually or in small groups does not impress headmasters and visiting officers, no matter how many in-service courses have tried to tell them that this is what modern child-centric education is all about. The officials fail to see that habitual chorus answering at school has cast a long shadow on India’s political culture. By getting small children accustomed to spiritedly copying the teacher’s words, teachers undermine the democratic ideal of individual freedom and equality.

(The writer is a professor at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT)

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