What NEP Lacks

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NEP meme

If you are a teacher by profession or temperament, and you sit with a bunch of reformist activists to draft a vision document to rejuvenate the Indian education system, you are bound to come out of the session disappointed. They will talk of the school building; they will talk of the toilets therein; some will mention the playground; at best, some will suggest an ideal teacher-student ratio and teachers’ attendance, but none whatsoever will deal with the most essential of questions: How to teach! The draft of the National Education Policy (NEP) falls short of this advice, too.

Those who share our ideology of individual liberty and free market will say that the methodology adopted for imparting education should be left to individual teachers or schools. Fair enough! But where is the proposal to facilitate that individuality? We are still talking in terms of a school that is basically a building standing on some acres of land, and some qualifications that would make one a teacher in a classroom inside that building. There is no appreciation whatsoever of the vision a philanthropist-educationist can have and the brilliance that an individual teacher can muster, by which geniuses can be produced from inside a hut, under a lamp post or beneath a banyan tree.

When nothing short of a revolution in education was required to see BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s pre-election vision to materialise, his choice of Smriti Irani as the first Minister of Human Resource Development of his government was surprising, to say the least. But this article is not meant to be an anti-Irani diatribe; a minister can deliver if she chooses her team of experts well. It is about the proposed National Education Policy (NEP), for which the choice of a bunch of has-been bureaucrats was shocking.

Why ask bureaucrats?

If you wish to change the face of the country, sarkari babus — the personification of status quo in India — are the last class of people you should be seeking advice from. And which political camp did TSR Subramanian, Shailaja Chandra, Sudhir Mankad, etc belong to? One is not sure, but they did serve the inertial system that gave the country a ‘Hindu’ rate of growth, thanks to the Congress’s socialism, for decades. That is as good as believing that an ‘illustrious’ bureaucrat Manmohan Singh could have made a great Finance Minister without a Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao dictating every move of his.

TSR-Subramanian_player
TSR Subramanian

True to the wont of babus, they proposed an Indian Education Service in tune with a gross failure that is the Indian Administrative Service. The purport behind this proposal is to make the profession of teaching attractive by associating social prestige to the job. That takes us to a fundamental flaw in Indian children’s upbringing. We ask our little ones what they want to “become” when they grow up rather than what they want to do [In contrast, study the interviews of children contesting in the Spelling Bee contest; they speak of a future where they would fetch water from Mars to cope with water scarcity on Earth, and that is just one demonstrative example]. If seekers turn teachers because a certain social status is part of the package, it will be no better than people trying to become teachers and then not caring to teach well thereafter.

Shailaja Chandra
Shailaja Chandra

Praising the fact that the “Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 that inserted Article 21 – A in the Constitution of India envisages free and compulsory education for all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right…” is not enough. The National Education Policy (NEP) document also appreciates that the “Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 which represents the consequential legislation envisaged under Article 21 – A of the Indian constitution entitles every child of the age of six to fourteen year with the right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school till completion of elementary education.” This, even as every educationist worth his salt says that the RTE Act is downright impractical, making education reach India’s child population much less than what could be achieved when this “right” was not in the statutes!

What a child in India gets from this “right” is paramount. Alas, nobody is talking about it!

It is not that these bureaucrats have not proposed improvements in the existing structure. Some measures have been appreciated in recent reviews of the proposed policy in different newspapers and views websites. Indeed, if the system was sluggish, it was rendered impractical by former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s pet, the Right to Education Act. But the correctives proposed by TSR et al will certainly stop far short of realising the vision of Modi (refer to his speech addressing the BJP’s National Council, dated 19 January 2014). One wishes the Prime Minister had asked for better advisers.

Freedom to teach, authority to certify

So, what are the revolutionary — or radical — steps required? First and foremost, the freedom to teach should be of the teacher and the authority to certify should be of the government. The State has messed up the situation by meddling in the first affair, which it is not competent to handle.

Under the doctrine of freedom to teach, first stop cursing private tutors. Stop looking at those who elucidate the toughest of problems in mathematics, physics, chemistry and the most intricate details of biology at coaching centres as money spinners. If they are making money, it is because their pedagogy involves techniques that mainstream teachers have neither the inclination to pick nor the incentive to keep pace with. On the part of government, what can certainly be done is changing the definition of a “school”. Once anybody teaching anyone anywhere is recognised as a school, the difference between a teacher and a tutor vanishes, and the latter gets mainstreamed.

schoolThe way a good marketing manager does not care to know how his executives are achieving their monthly targets — by meeting a hundred clients a day, or lazing around but making crucial phone calls, or by catching one influential client who influences many in turn — the government should not be concerned about how students learn. The only thing in the State’s interest and, hence, jurisdiction should be what they have learnt, whatever be their place and method of learning. To that end, the focus must move from schooling to certification. Certification for reading skills, writing skills, comprehension, aptitude, acumen, problem-solving ability — and different levels of each! Let a student, regardless of age, decide when he is ready to appear for a test of a certain level.

Having said that, it cannot be denied that government — the state or establishment, if you may — is another name of inertia. It’s not going to shut down schools overnight, but nobody is asking it to. Let the conventional schools continue even as the radical ones spring up into existence.

Bad teachers

Now, if the conventional schools are here to stay, what should be the processes approved or prescribed for the human beings inside these huge buildings? The NEP is silent on it. It has asked for a revival of wannabe teachers’ interest in the B Ed course — for a change, in a four-year format — without recalling the era when Indian teaching was no way close to world class even though every teacher had a B Ed degree. The NEP seeks to make this useless course mandatory for every teacher, which students with lacklustre performance and without high ambition used to once enrol for to land with a masterji‘s if no better-paid job came their way!

Within the B Ed course, there is no prescription for excellence such as a compulsion to research and make presentations on the latest developments in international pedagogy. There is also no advice to innovate. And there is no methodology suggested for elucidation and differentiation between spoon-feeding and igniting a spark in the child’s mind to explore.

Most importantly, how can a democracy, which is governance based on numbers, forget that the education imparted in our schools does not benefit the largest numbers? Every year when the ‘board’ results are out, some reputed schools seek pride in the performance of their highest scorers, who constitute perhaps less than 5% of the total batch strength that graduated from school that year. Whereas society celebrates the motley group of toppers, not even ‘modernist’, ‘liberal’, ‘democratic’ newspapers tell us whatever happened to the millions who scored in the range of 60-90%.

And even the industry never tells us that it hunted down a drop-out whose talent had left them awestruck and whose invention or business brains it is now proud of.

After Prakash Javadekar replaced Smriti Irani as the Minister for Human Resource Development
After replaced Smriti Irani as the Minister for Human Resource Development

Most teachers of this country must admit that their teaching technique — or lack of it — is downright boring. The textbook writers must accept, what they put down in those jaded pages of prescribed textbooks lacks clarity of thought, a structured approach and communication skill. Half way into any lecture session, half the class dozes off! And it is not the students’ fault! The classes are not interactive and inquisitiveness is discouraged. A child’s voice is often muzzled with a refrain, “You ask too many questions!” Contrast this with a message a teacher at the American Embassy School once put up on his notice board: “There can never be a bad question; there can only be a bad answer.”

New HRD Minister has thankfully asked for appreciation of a child’s questions, but if he looks for answers to an average teacher’s animadversion towards her student from the NEP document, he will find none.

How to answer a question

If you find the prime-time debates on Indian television to be as chaotic as discussions in a WhatsApp group, blame the country’s education system that does not incorporate expositions. Objective-type and multiple-choice questions have only reduced a student’s ability to make a longish, step-by-step presentation.

Rote learning is another age-old problem that the NEP has failed to prescribe a formula against. It was not always such a state of affairs, and certainly the much reviled Thomas Babington Macaulay did not do all the harm. The practice of answering from memory came with the madrassas and, when the Hindu gurukulas in hermitages tried to compete with them without the meditation and penance that accompanied theology in ancient India, the era of assembly-line production of robotic students began. Now, in whatever form some gurukulas have been revived, their pupils speak out lines as much from memory as do students of madrassas.

But there is no need to overcome the situation by copying the West. In fact, there is a glaring flaw in the Western approach. You acquire so much of knowledge of a compartmentalised subject that you lose both interest and a rudimentary knowledge of allied subjects. But for knowledge to translate into wisdom, integration of certain subjects is unexceptionable. A few institutions in the country have set some good examples — unfortunately not drawing the attention of the NEP makers.

Has it ever happened to a science enthusiast that he is attending a plenary by scientists at a seminar and he cannot figure out what the scientists are saying? One, it does not happen. Two, on the few occasions where a speaker does not make much sense, another pitches in to fill the gaps. Such a thing also happens at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana. A combined effort by neuroscientists, physicists, chemists and biologists makes the toughest of situations come across as easy for a student seeking a PhD. Why can’t a multiple-teacher model be brought down to the school level? Since it is humanly impossible for an individual teacher to have all the answers that her students seek, why not have two or three teachers for every session from the sixth grade onwards when the horizons of knowledge expand, science branches out into three streams and social studies get distributed into history, geography and civics?

Three demonstrations

Chemistry

Another reason for monotony in our classrooms is the absence of practicality. At our age, we vaguely recall there used to be “what happens when” type of questions in chemistry exams, but clearly remember that memorising all those equations was a pain. What if this section of chemistry is totally removed from theory and moved wholly into the laboratory? You can forget the colour of a precipitate, for example, if you read it in a book. You will never forget it all your life if you were in the lab adding, for instance, an ammonium thiocyanate solution to one containing ferric or iron(III) ions, and you got a blood red solution. Unbelievable? Well, my batch passed out of Class X 29 years ago, and all my batchmates, most of whom switched to arts and commerce after Class XII, still remember it. Because we did not merely read it from the book; we did it in the lab.

Mathematics

Isn’t the concept of three-dimensional geometry at the eleventh grade a quantum jump from the previous year? It is. But it will not look formidable if conic sections are explained using origami. It will not intimidate if the x, y and z axes are visualised as the edges of the corner of a regular room inside a house rather than a two-dimensional diagram drawn by a pencil on a piece of paper where a separation of 120° between axes is desperately imagined as separated by 90°!

rectangle to cylinderIf a rectangle looked easy to you but a cylinder looks difficult, just roll a rectangular sheet of paper to see that it is as good as a cylinder. And if the area of a rectangle is the product of its length (l) and breadth (b), that will be the surface area of the cylinder made out of it. If you rolled the rectangular sheet along its length, joining the two edges of breadth, then the circumference of the circle (2πr) formed by the edge is same as the length of the rectangle (l). What was the rectangle’s breadth is now the cylinder’s height (h = b). Thereafter, even if you forget that the surface area of a cylinder is 2πrh, you arrive at the same result by recalling the formula of area of a rectangle = l x b = 2πr x h = 2πrh. You have also got the radius of the base from 2πr = l from which we get r = l/2π. Finally, since the volume of any regular shaped object is its base area multiplied by its height, multiply the base area (πr2) by the height (h = b) to get πr2h.

How have we been teaching such concepts in schools instead? A teacher draws a cylinder on the board; makes a line segment meeting the centres of the circles in the two ends, labels it as “height”; makes another line segment touching a centre on the one end and the circumference on the other; labels it as “radius”; tries to show what is meant by “surface area” but fails; then tries to explain the “total surface area” and fails again, etc. Finally, you have a figure on the board or your notebook that has a hell lot of lines and labels. In short, a mess! The backbenchers, in the meantime, have fallen asleep.

I could move next to turning a semicircle into a cone and explain the transformation of a circle to a sphere using calculus. Thereafter, parabola, hyperbola and ellipse can be explained using innovative drawings, as can be vectors while dealing with motion. But this article is not a maths or physics class, nor should I induce into readers what I accused teachers of inducing into students: boredom.

History

And how does a school of integrated sciences handle the humanities? Let’s consider the longest running debate: the origin of Indian civilisation. Left to historians, this debate will never reach a conclusion. The Indus Valley coins showing horses, for example, are a great cause of divide between Marxists and new-age historians. Those from one club propose a theory; those from the other immediately post a riposte. On WWW alone, this is at least a decade-old debate. But if we hand over the proposition — did immigrants come to India riding horses or horses were already present in India before many went out of India and many came in — to palaeontologists, and there will be hope that they can end the dispute with satisfactory evidence. For more on this (how to integrate archaeology, archaeo-genetics, anthropology and palaeontology for history), read the next issue of Swarajya in print.

In the classroom and the examination hall, it will be better if the student is not asked to take a position on this never-ending debate of history. Instead, he must be asked what the positions of different historians on the issue are. The lessons for a teacher are simple: learn from the best, think, innovate and communicate.

Why have textbooks?

The issue with history as explained above brings us to the constraints of a book published in stapled or hard-bound pages. It will turn outdated in no time. Besides, the textbook writers, being politically affiliated, will never allow a variety in interpretations of history. The only way to free this segment of education from politics is to announce that the idea of a textbook is now archaic. Let there only be outlines and students be asked to find out whatever they can from real as well as virtual libraries. Importantly, the student must cite the sources of his findings. The state can give guidelines to the teachers on the permissibility of sources.

There cannot be a question asking, for example, whether Tipu Sultan was a tolerant or a bigoted king. There can, however, be a question asking which historians found him tolerant and which of their peers found him bigoted, and what were the bases of their respective conclusions.

‘Why am I made to learn this gobbledygook?’

This is yet another question that crosses a student’s mind that makes him disinterested in studies. Indeed, the cylinders and horses above are of no worth if not applied in real life. Why does not the relevant manufacturing industry, therefore, walk into the classroom to explain to the young how the dynamics and mechanics taught during the lecture sessions turn useful while working in factories? Why does not an archaeologist give demonstrations during a lecture session on history?

This is an aspect that the NEP has looked into. “Governing bodies of higher education institutions will be made multi-stakeholder, having representations from industry and alumni as well, with clear cut transparent guidelines for the composition and selection of such bodies,” it says. But whether this will translate to engineers walking into BSc (physics) classes and archaeologists handling BA (history) classes is not clear.

That takes us to the other issue with our system: How do the people generally referred to as “ordinary graduates” find their utility in the economy? Not even postgraduates deal with concepts they learnt at the university when they turn to professions other than teaching. Sample this: The eligibility criterion to get into the prestigious Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is an MSc (mathematics) degree, preferably with an MPhil, if not PhD, and most who have this degree do not have the foggiest clue that they are eligible for ISRO’s entrance test!

The regulator is a hurdle rather than a facilitator

For courses dealing with technology, two behemoths must be studied: not only the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), but also the University Grants Commission (UGC). These bodies unnecessarily meddle in training as much as secondary school boards mess up elementary schooling. It’s not just the bureaucratic hassle an educationist has to undergo to get a licence for his college. Meeting the terms and conditions laid down by a government is a herculean task. Here again, the analogy of a marketing manager applies. Whether a seeker is competent should finally be the recruiter’s concern. But the AICTE first limits competition between technical universities in the market and then the people complain that so many years of private universities have still not been able to produce a standard that State-run universities are known for.

Now, the State-run universities do offer some autonomy to the colleges under them. But when the court rules that colleges affiliated to universities need not acquire an additional licence from the AICTE, the States, dissatisfied by the UGC’s minimalist guidelines, intervenes in favour of the AICTE in the name of maintaining standards. While the NEP talks vaguely about technical education (pages 8 – 31), the high-handedness of AICTE is left unaddressed. The document makes the point of inadequacies in this field, has sermons on what should and shouldn’t be done, but ends without taking the licensing body to task.

Of course, our idea of a free market does not mean the Wild West. There’s got to be a regulator, but the multiplicity of authority for licensing — accreditation to be precise — does not serve the cause of technical or vocational education.

One good suggestion that the NEP offers will go a long way in creating skilled labour made of the young who do not have the wherewithal to go for higher education, though. “The present skill based programmes at secondary, higher and technical education will be integrated through NSQF (National Skills Qualifications Framework) with the mainstream education to facilitate greater social acceptability as well as vertical and horizontal mobility,” it says. The economy has to wait and watch how the Skill Development Ministry of the NDA government serves the industry’s needs. It would roughly take a decade to know the results of Rajiv Pratap Rudy’s work; Press Information Bureau’s releases and his social media posts suggest hyperactivity.

NEP document has no annexe!

To give the committee that made the NEP the benefit of the doubt, one may say that descriptions of pedagogy cannot be part of a vision document. That would be a poor defence. There should be detailed annexes (“annexure” in Indian English) with it, one of which would be a full-fledged treatise on “how to teach”. Strangely, there is no annexe at the end of the NEP document.

The author was a teacher of mathematics and entrepreneur in the field of education before he switched to journalism

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Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sirf News Surajit Dasgupta has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life, the first national affairs editor of Swarajya, executive editor of Hindusthan Samachar and desk head of MyNation