Is there a learning crisis in our schools?

DISHA NAWANI

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IN my understanding, the term crisis indicates a moment of extreme consequence or calamity when crucial steps need to be immediately taken in order to prevent a potential catastrophe. In the Indian educational context for some time now, there has been discontent expressed relating to both the ‘nature/quality’ of learning conceived of/transacted in schools and the sheer ‘presence/absence’ of it among school-children.

While the concern that we need to seriously reflect on the kind of learning imparted in schools is a relatively old one, the concern that most schools are not even enabling children to acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills to their students is relatively new, and one that has grabbed a lot of media attention. Compared to the former, the latter presents itself as a crisis that needs to be addressed with utmost urgency. Despite the knowledge that there exist multiple conceptions of learning, since this is projected as the least common denominator/skill that all children must learn, its reported absence among schoolchildren acquires the status of a near catastrophe.

This paper highlights two kinds of learning crises in the Indian educational context, both of which have received either periodic or consistent attention but have widely differing implications for curricular, pedagogic and assessment related matters in schools, the importance of teachers – their education and service conditions and role of public institutions and private partners in enabling learning. This paper is divided into four sections. Issues ranging from crisis of not knowing, stratified schools and crisis pertaining to an absence of meaningful learning are discussed in these sections. The last part of the paper concludes with a brief discussion on possible future steps.

Let us briefly first discuss the learning crisis which has almost become a matter of national shame and ridicule. This type of learning is defined by different assessment surveys and has largely emerged from the findings of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) since 2005, which has been shouting aloud that rural children going to schools are not even equipped with age-appropriate basic skills which are absolutely essential for any kind of formal learning to take place. For unpacking this concern, we need to have clarity on the following questions: (i) What is the nature of learning that is being talked about? (ii) How is that learning measured? (iii) How does one factor in differences among individual children/schools? (iv) How do we make sense of these reports?

 

To briefly answer these questions, the nature of learning assessed in these surveys is limited to a minimal knowledge of literacy and numeracy skills which have a bearing on the age of the child and grade that she is studying in. Learning is measured by simple oral tools – questions asked which need to be answered by the respondents. Such tests do recognize context related variations among the children but do not give them sufficient importance. The more fundamental question perhaps is, how one should view the results of these surveys.

* Any kind of educational measurement is only an approximation of particular kinds of abilities. Yardsticks applied to measurement of physical features, such as height or weight cannot be applied equally to the study of mental processes like thinking, abilities and so on. At most, one can attempt to infer cognitive processes based on some evidence but not claim to provide accurate, unassailable accounts of learning.

* All assessment tools have some limitations and even if data drawn from them is reliable and valid, they provide only a partial picture with a certain fixed idea of learning. Each such tool has an underlying theory of learning and attempts to capture a certain kind of evidence based on that theory. While for some, the outcomes alone would be a fair indicator of learning, for others, processes by which one arrives at that outcome would perhaps be of greater value.

* Such assessments can measure only those abilities which are amenable to objective manifestation and standardized quantification. Added to this is the fact that such data is collected within a specified time period and less emphasis is given to either rapport building or allowing the respondents to formulate their answers at ease.

* The visibility, hype and linkages of these surveys with the notion of ‘quality’ education and ‘accountability’ puts enormous pressure on the teachers to ‘teach to the test’ and on schools in turn to produce results. This is because by showing/exposing students’ learning, they make a comment on not only students but teachers, schools and education systems at large. This results in the meaning of learning getting reduced to what will be asked in these tests and quality equated with students’ performance scores in them. Even if these basic skills are absolutely integral to a child’s learning, they capture a limited and fixed idea of learning which violates the fundamental principles of viewing the teaching-learning process as an emancipatory exercise where students and teachers jointly make sense of the world.

* Unfortunately, discussions around large-scale assessments mostly revolve around the mechanics of testing, sampling design and efficacy of the tools used and not so much on its implications on learning, pedagogic interactions in classrooms, role of teachers and importance of prior knowledge and experiences of the child.1

 

These tests focus on the non-learning of rural children and have been particularly candid about those studying in government schools. Besides the disputed methodology of such tests, the assumptions underlying them regarding the ‘superior’ learning of private versus public institutions, and the positioning of teachers in these institutions is highly problematic. (i) The ‘finding’ that private schoolchildren perform better than those studying in government schools underplays the extremely constrained and challenging backgrounds that the latter come from. (ii) The ‘proposed’ solution – that private schools should be allowed to flourish without being subjected to the heavy-handed regulations proposed in RTE Act is likely to be misused by the profit making private lobby which promotes private education of the poor as a viable enterprise. (iii) Overall there is an undermining of the welfare oriented public institutions without appreciating that their ‘alleged’ dysfunctionality cannot be resolved by eliminating them. (iv) The faith in the competence and motivation of under-trained, underpaid and contractual teachers vis-a-vis secure government teachers is misplaced and undermines the integrity of the teaching profession. (v) More importantly, the implications of such tests on schooling processes are such that they tend to reduce the meaning of learning to a minimum core where curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are all geared towards ensuring the acquisition of basic skills by students.

 

Having said that, even if a few school going children are unable to pick up basic skills which form the foundation of their formal learning, then it is certainly a matter of concern. However, rather than getting into a blame game and advancing simplistic cause and effect relationships, one must systematically try and examine their reasons.

Before describing the other kind of learning crisis, it is important to recapitulate the nature of fit between it and Indian society for there is a direct relationship between the learning crisis being talked about and the social-cultural contexts of children, whose learning is in question.

 

In line with our hierarchical social structure, the Indian school system is also visibly divided, leading to a fragmentation of experiences of children studying in different schools. Broadly speaking, our schools fall into a four-tiered system. The top tier constitutes the elite schools which include the exclusive unaided private schools, with affiliation to international boards etc. Admission to them is restricted due to their steep fee structure. The next layer comprises of government central schools and ‘good’ quality private aided/unaided schools. Entry to them again is either dictated by some mandatory requirement on part of the child/parent or their capacity to shell out reasonable money as fee. The third tier includes private schools, aided or unaided, of average or indifferent quality. Finally, there is a stratum of provincial or regional government/local body schools and low cost private schools that cater to poorer segments. Just like the varna system, this is not a neat but a very wide categorization and has several intermittent layers of school type within it.

To reiterate, school systems – be they public or private – are internally hierarchized and there is a fairly straightforward direct relationship between the socio-economic backgrounds of children and the kind of schools they have access to. There are several parameters on which these schools differ from each other, ranging from infrastructure to quality of teachers employed in them. On one hand, there are schools which have adequate resources to create a desirable learning environment for children and on the other, there are schools without proper classrooms, teachers and even toilets, leave alone playgrounds and laboratories. The schooling experiences of poor and disadvantaged children is constrained in several respects across schools. Challenging home environments and minimal pedagogic environment/curricular resource support in schools impedes their learning.

This means that blanket statements like there is a learning crisis across all Indian schools are not necessarily true. The reason for this is because the complexities of the Indian social fabric resonates in equal if not more virulent forms in its schools. Consonance between the two provides an ideal breeding ground for social inequalities to not just get reproduced but legitimized through its schools.

The privileged remain cocooned in their protected environment and are nowhere close to the crisis of not learning which is documented in the above mentioned learning surveys. It is another matter that children across schools – from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds have access to a weak foundation of learning and therefore confuse memorizing inert content with learning. The next section draws our attention to the real crisis in learning which needs to be addressed with earnestness.

 

Learning is a ubiquitous phenomenon which does not happen only within the four walls of a school. Interestingly enough, schools as especially established spaces with a monopoly over formal learning make a sharp divide between learning inside and outside school. Besides serving an instrumental value for certified learning, this dichotomy also exacerbates burden of school learning for the child by making it an insular, sterilized experience.

The divide in learning between these two spaces of school and home/community and the need to bridge the two is also another persistent concern which has been periodically highlighted by several commissions, academic bodies and researchers, but is presumably regarded as being innocuous since it does not threaten the very existence/objective of schools, and is therefore, not seen as a crisis. So much so that we even live with non-access, limited access and defunct access of some children to state funded public education as a normal feature of our society. It took almost 60 years from 1950, the year independent India adopted its Constitution to 2009, when the RTE Act was finally enacted, to question this.

The meaning of learning across most Indian schools affiliated to both central examination boards or state boards is restrictive and confined to textbooks prescribed by them. In this sense, the privileged and underprivileged child is perhaps in the same boat, except that the former has more support to counter the menace of textbooks/rote learning. Studies also reveal an absence of higher order thinking skills even in students studying in private, elite schools.2

 

It has been seen that the knowledge that children acquire in schools bears little relationship to their experiences, perspectives and world views. The image of an ideal learner is one who is obedient and quiet. It is evident that no singular unified curriculum can possibly represent the diverse childhoods in India and that’s the reason for emphasizing the need of a contextualized curriculum and teaching-learning resources. Time and again, it has been reiterated that children’s voices and experiences need to be recognized in the classrooms so that they, along with their teachers can participate in construction of knowledge.

Learning in most schools is encapsulated in a narrow and focused fashion in curricula, syllabi and prescribed textbooks. More importantly, it is believed that textbooks contain all that is worth teaching, knowing, assessing and certifying. Textbooks are an integral, almost indispensable reality of the Indian classroom. The curriculum framework is a fairly new idea in the Indian education system. While syllabi for different subjects is readily available to teachers and students, often even that is not referred to in the classrooms. It is the prescribed textbooks, which supposedly contain all that there is to be learnt. Besides the fact that textbooks are specially crafted in accordance with the syllabus, almost all formal modes of assessment, be they tests or exams are based on them, thus gracing them with infinite importance and legitimacy. Teachers teach from textbooks, using the same examples, often exclusively relying on them to create boundaries between curricular and co-curricular knowledge.

 

The problem is not that textbooks are used for learning but that they are most often the only resource used to the exclusion of other resources and that they are essentially memorized and reproduced verbatim in exams. While the pedagogy in a majority of schools across the board is textbook driven, teachers in some schools do use additional resources/techniques to teach and those students who are equipped with desirable cultural and social capital are probably better placed to show an enhanced understanding of the knowledge imparted in schools.

It is also a fact that schools through their curricular resources, primarily textbooks and pedagogic processes and interactions with students, commit symbolic violence on those who are different in some respect – smaller in number/from a distant habitation/disadvantaged in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity by either under – or misrepresenting them, thus leading to a prejudiced public perceptions/attitudes towards them. This dehumanizes both the perceived and those who perceive these others in a certain way.

 

Another ‘evil’ repeatedly pointed out concerns the form and objective of assessment practices in our schools. One of the misconceptions around which our education system is built is that: ‘Learning in schools gets established only after it is assessed, measured and certified in a formal standardized manner.’ This approach, where assessment is seen as a tool to test learning is seeped deep into the psyche of formal schooling structures. Indian schools have revelled in the glory of assessing their students through externally conducted public examinations, which was a legacy of the colonial education system.

These one-off terminal exams put excessive stress on students, tested their ability to memorize prescribed content and appropriately rewarded/penalized (promoted/detained) the students. A system which respected the anonymity of both the teacher and taught, which was uniform and seemingly impartial, was posited as being fair and a suitable mechanism for scuttling the aspirations of millions by failing those who were unable to meet the requisite standards.

Several committees/policy documents have pointed out the idiosyncrasies of such a system as violating both the idea of a meaningful learning and children’s right to learn with dignity and suggested alternative school based reforms. Central to this was the proposal of a school based continuous and comprehensive system of assessment which broadened the scope of learning and recognized that teachers were best placed to make such judgments and also, that students were competent to manifest their learning in multiple ways.

Aligned with this provision, which found place in the RTE Act, was another provision, which mandated that no child until completion of elementary schooling would be detained in the same class even upon failing. This provision did not go down well with our policy makers, parents and teachers, who believed that this promoted a lackadaisical attitude among children, who now in a fear-free environment became carefree and stopped learning. Ridiculous as it sounds, this is true – the policy was promptly reversed and board exams reintroduced as early as class V.

 

To recapitulate, the crisis in learning, in my view is at two levels. The first, curricular and pedagogic, addresses the ‘burden’ of school students. A report, aptly titled, ‘Learning Without Burden’3 defined the burden as one of ‘incomprehensibility’ – a system where there was no joy in learning and where, ‘a lot was taught but little was learnt or understood’. Not that this malaise was not known earlier, but it was presented coherently for the first time. The points of intervention suggested by it were largely related to curricular, pedagogic and assessment dimensions of school education. It also laid emphasis on fixing the structural deficits in schools and ensuring robust teacher education programmes. Besides culminating in a National Curricular Framework in 2005,4 followed by new textbooks prepared by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT), this concern was not really viewed as a crisis demanding immediate attention.

The second focuses on the ‘learning deficit’ as indicated by a range of assessment surveys which basically measure the acquisition of minimal skills by children in schools. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment processes in schools were not its concerns. The two central arguments of these surveys seem to be that (i) since government teachers are secure in their jobs and overpaid, they manifest less accountability towards students, and (ii) that government schools are failing miserably in their job. Unsurprisingly therefore, their suggestions are drawn from these findings – employment of contractual teachers (presumably more accountable) and reliance on low cost private schools to teach children of the poor.

 

It would be naive on my part to give new suggestions, other than those which have already been offered in the past. It is ironical that while we have been able to identify and acknowledge problems in our education system and also offer reasonable ways to deal with them, we still have not been able to suitably resolve them.

For instance, it has been reiterated ad nauseum that a singular, standardized resource like the textbook in a large heterogeneous society like ours cannot represent all our children’s lives and consequently a majority of them will always feel alienated and left out. Moreover, it will lead to only a particular kind of learning and likely jeopardize the entire meaning of learning. While textbooks have tremendous advantages, they cannot possibly encapsulate all that the child needs to know and learn. Moreover, children learn in different ways and it is important that they are provided with a range of resources that cater to their needs, learning styles and contexts. Textbook learning is integrally linked to learning by rote, which has an important place but should at no cost be confused with any meaningful learning. It has also been suggested that textbooks should be vetted for both their content and messages – overt and covert – that they convey.

 

In this context, mention must be made of the National Curricular Framework (NCF), 2005. It was a fairly significant document which explicitly linked the problem of ‘dropouts and issues of inequality and quality in education’ to the ‘nature of learning children experienced in schools’. It upfront recognized the importance of a contextualized, vibrant and meaningful curriculum, which not only acknowledges the agency of the child but also pleads for a pedagogy and environment where children can learn without fear.

The NCF reiterated the failure of our curriculum and schools to evoke the interest of children and retain them in schools. It stated that the issue of quality needs to be centrally linked with the educational experience that children have in schools and efforts should be made in the direction of ensuring an all-round development of the children, building on their knowledge/experiences and making them learn in a positive and fear free environment. There are several such solutions suggested pertaining to teacher education and structural prerequisites to ensure meaningful learning in schools.

Then there are also solutions proposed towards a shift in institutional responsibilities. The low cost private school lobby has been making its presence felt rather aggressively, claiming that they are doing a far better job than the government schools, and hence they should be given a greater responsibility in the schooling of primary children. Their central argument is that such budget schools are economically more viable and learning of children studying in them is better than those studying in free government schools. This, I believe, is a dangerous trend in a developing society like ours and has implications for the education of those poor, who can only access free government schools.

Research has shown that low cost private schools which are being offered as an alternative come at a cost and offer education of a dubious quality (where meaning of education is restricted to minimum manifest learning) under constrained circumstances (space and teacher quality). Rather than throwing the baby with the bathwater, we need to work with government schools (not that all public schools are bad, and not all private, good) to make them better, and not disown and abandon them.

 

The larger question is that whatever the schools are doing in the name of learning is clearly not enough – whether this means ensuring an enabling environment in which children make sense of the world around them and their own locations in relation to it or even acquiring basic skills. Almost every aspect of possible educational reform suggested to address the malaise plaguing our educational system, if implemented, will have a meaningful but limited role. If we want to ensure meaningful, equitable and quality education experiences for all our children, then we will need to restructure our schooling system which at the moment is in complete sync with our stratified social structure, and perhaps de-link ‘marks obtained’ in exams with admissions to higher institutions and jobs. Unless and until this congruence is disrupted, no fundamental change will be achieved and different students will continue to have differentiated learning experiences in varied schools that they study in.

 

Footnotes:

1. D. Nawani, ‘Assessing ASER 2017: Reading Between the Lines’, Economic and Political Weekly 53(8), 2018, pp. 14-17.

2. Schools affiliated to international boards are not within the purview of this commentary.

3. Government of India, Learning Without Burden: Report of the National Advisory Committee Appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. MHRD, Department of Education, New Delhi, 1993.

4. MHRD, National Curriculum Framework. NCERT, New Delhi, 2005.

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