By Rashmi Sharma
Few policy makers, academicians and other professionals concerned about school education in India would argue against the reform of pedagogy envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. The policy articulates the goal of changing the teaching and learning process to foster inquiry, discovery, analysis and critical thinking. However, in India, there is a long history of ‘poor implementation’ of lofty policies, especially if the goals are complex, as in this case. A critical question, therefore, is: Can the pedagogic transformation envisaged become a reality, or will it remain a wishful statement of intent?
NEP 2020 does not lay out specific strategies to operationalise its vision to become a reality in classrooms. Notably, the vast majority of Indian schools follow curricula, textbooks and examinations set by state governments. The intent in NEP 2020 appears to be to lead the pedagogic reforms nationally. The plan is to develop appropriate curricula, textbooks, examination modalities centrally, which state governments can adapt to the local context. However, national curricula and textbooks have been developed with similar intentions earlier too, yet a transformation of pedagogy is not visible in schools. The reason is that changing classroom processes requires not just one-time change in curricula, textbooks and examinations, but continuous engagement with teachers, to encourage and support them to adopt new ways of teaching; the institutional structure in states doesn’t have the capacity for such engagement, as a study undertaken in 2019 by this author in Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Rajasthan shows.
In keeping with the all-India pattern, in both states, setting curricula, making textbooks and planning for teacher training was the responsibility of State Councils for Educational Research and Training (SCERTs), while District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) were responsible for the actual training and providing continuous support for teachers. However, these institutions lacked the needed expertise. SCERTs and DIETs had no specialists in pedagogic areas such as language, math and science teaching, curriculum and textbook formulation, achievement testing, or any researchers. Instead, lecturers from BEd colleges and school teachers were posted in an ad hoc fashion, with little attempt to select the most suitable personnel. For example, one DIET faculty reported that she had taken a post in the DIET because her husband thought it suitable, as she was used to office work. A large number of posts were vacant. The examination boards were largely manned by clerks, who were promoted to various administrative positions. There were no experts in achievement testing, student assessment, etc, and no systematic training plan for the personnel who were promoted.
Consequently, among school administrators and teacher educators, ideas about education and learning were ill-developed. In both states, learning levels were understood through exam results and outcomes of national achievement surveys. In the latter, interviewees mentioned the rank obtained by the state but did not identify areas where the state was strong or poor, and strategies for improvement. The lack of discourse on teaching and learning was visible when, asked to describe characteristics of an ideal school, interviewees identified non-pedagogic attributes, such as appropriate infrastructure, most often. School supervision focussed on enrolment, distribution of textbooks, scholarships, bicycles, etc., and not academic issues. Neither state conducted any research or analyses to improve classroom practices, on issues such as the impact of different teaching strategies, reasons for poor school performance, etc.
Moreover, for classes 11 and 12 in AP, and classes 9 to 12 in Rajasthan, the academic support structure itself was precarious, as responsibilities for different activities were spread across organisations for which these were not the core mandate. The curricula and textbooks were prepared by state examination boards, and the responsibility of teacher training was given to different institutes. Consequently, teacher training was sporadic and attendance in training programmes was poor.
In addition to the lack of academic leadership, initiative and creativity by teachers, was stifled too, through top-down and hierarchical functioning. The academic calendar for schools was prescribed at the state level, which the school had to follow irrespective of the rate at which children learned. In one state, schools were mandated to conduct digital classes, though teachers did not find these useful. Thus, even capable teachers had minimal scope for innovation. No matter how wonderful the curricula, textbooks and exam papers, the capacity within the system in either state to support teachers to adopt appropriate teaching methods was limited.
It is this lack of capacity that lies at the heart of ‘poor implementation’ of policies, so ubiquitous in India. Good education does not emerge through a statement of policy, or ideas contained in a textbook. It becomes a reality when teachers approach the classroom creatively and sensitively, adapting to learners’ needs and aspirations on a day to day basis. In this, they need the support of teacher educators and educational administrators, who understand the principles and processes of learning. This ingredient is missing from our education system.
The NEP 2020 states that it is the ‘first education policy of the 21st century’. Yet, it will be implemented by institutions that do not incorporate even the rudimentary learnings of the 20th century. Unless we strengthen these institutions, it is unlikely that NEP 2020 will bring about the transformation that it hopes to.
The author is Senior Visiting Fellow, ICRIER, and a former IAS officer