Pedagogy Revisited: Basic numeracy & reading, learning with understanding, scientific temper through a governance lens - Ensuring a Learning India S5 E.001

[26th post in the series on 'Ensuring a Learning India'. 42 in total. One post per day. 16 more to go.]

The 5th theme starts today. This theme will discuss 8 select issues in school education building on the principles and ideas of governance and state capacity discussed in the 'governance' theme. The first post is about basic numeracy, learning with understanding (anti-rote learning), scientific temper etc. These issues are analyzed from a governance lens.

We have already discussed some aspects of pedagogy, curriculum and assessments in the second theme. One must have been surprised to note that these famously used terms – learning with understanding, critical thinking, scientific temper, problem solving etc. found no place in that theme. The reason being, these are closely related to the concepts of state capacity and governance. This post builds on the principles and ideas discussed in the governance theme to analyze these aspects.

Most of the discourse in the second theme was focused on basic reading and numeracy. All the examples discussed were of basic concepts. Looking at it from the perspective of governance, what is the nature of efforts required to impart these skills? Is the constraint involved in imparting these skills just a matter of some focus and attention of teachers? Do these require high levels of autonomy on the part of the teacher, like a doctor performing an operation? Can these teaching techniques be standardized? Evidence suggests that this is possibly the case. As discussed earlier, when teachers were trained in pedagogy to impart these skills and were working outside the system, students could learn significant amount within few months. Not just teachers, even volunteers with basic education of +2 were successful in teaching basic reading, writing and numeracy skills. Thus there is a case to standardize some of these techniques along with allowing teachers to focus on these without burdening with completing the syllabus or other tasks.

In other words, using Fukuyama’s framework of capacity vs. autonomy, one can standardize these techniques in form of rules in contexts with weak state capacity. Since this doesn’t involve much discretion on the part of teacher, there isn’t the other downside of inefficiency due to rigid rules which generally accompanies rule based systems. The issue of training and supporting teachers regarding these remain, which we will discuss later. There will also be cases of children suffering from dyslexia and similar problems who have difficulty comprehending numbers, which again we will come back later. We are talking about an average child here. Please note that we are also not talking about the emotional needs of the child here. We are just talking about imparting basic reading, writing skills and numeracy.

Is education all about basic numeracy and reading? Even if someone says that I will find students that and cure them of all misconceptions that they have, is this useful? In the initial stages, where the child is vulnerable, this might help child to avoid reaching the state of failure but beyond that? One can cure misconceptions now but what about the future? Who helps them if they form incorrect conceptions? May be some of the existing incorrect conceptions are because students didn’t think critically before forming them. However, the reality is that, we are not able to even do these basic minimum, and the sad being, there is not even realization of this. Hence, these have to be repeated and thus occupy majority of the discourse bandwidth. Overall, there is certainly much more to education other than basic reading and numeracy. The aim of this post is not to go into philosophical debates about the purpose and nature of education but to understand that the scope of education is much beyond reading and writing.

One of the commonly talked about skill is critical thinking and problem solving. In the changing world, it is important for children to have these skills. The other skill is the ability to self-learn, which sometimes is under rated. Anyone working in corporates will tell that this term, self-learning or quick learner, though clich├ęd is an important skill to have or else how can one ever keep up with the pace of the changing world?

The other related skills that are talked about are scientific temper or scientific inquiry and so on. Jawaharlal Nehru first used the term ‘scientific temper’. He famously wrote "[What is needed] is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems." 

The concept of scientific temper and inquiry may seem abstract and not crucial at some times. As the old saying goes, one realizes the importance of something only in its absence. Suki Kim an English teacher from South Korea taught 19 year olds in North Korea for 6 months and has written a memoir. Her narration of the situation in North Korean classrooms is shocking to say the least. She narrates[i]I emphasized the importance of essays since, as scientists, they would one day have to write papers to prove their theories. But in reality, nothing was ever proven in their world, since everything was at the whim of the Great Leader. Their writing skills were as stunted as their research skills. Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of his achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence. A quick look at the articles in the daily paper revealed the exact same tone from start to finish, with neither progression nor pacing. There was no beginning and no end.”  In the absence of scientific temper, we would only be graduating such students. Though we may not go to the extent of instilling blind belief in some specific person; blind belief without questioning claims and hypothesis and similar aspects aren't uncommon. 

The famous document ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’ released way back in 1980 said “there is an erosion of belief in the capacity of human faculties to solve national problems through a systematic critique of the existing social situation. There is a cancerous growth of superstition at all levels. Rituals of the most bizarre kind are frequently performed often with official patronage. Obscurantist social customs are followed even by those whose profession is the pursuit of scientific enquiry. Our entire educational system works in an atmosphere of conformity, non-questioning and obedience to authority. Quoting authority of one kind or another substitutes enquiry, questioning and thought.

Obscurantism and irrationalism practiced by a hierarchy of authorities, has the predictable effect of reinforcing retreat from reason. Voices raised against such a state of affairs get silenced. The decision-making processes are increasingly being divorced from any rational purpose or design. There is no long-term perspective based on ascertained facts and scientific analysis. Adhocism, whims and the narrowest of considerations take the place of well-planned programmes. Priorities, if any, are fixed without sufficient data-base and without any attempt at scientific evaluation of national needs, potentialities and feasibility of implementation. Mere slogans tend to be used as substitute for action and for creating an illusion of achievement. Dramatic crash programmes are launched. These, inevitably, crash. There are no perspective plans. Even Five Years Plans have been reduced to annual exercise of allocating funds.

As our country enters the last two decades of the 20th century, the need to move forward is becoming ever more insistent. We either overcome the obstacles or we shall be overcome by unreason and dark reaction. We must understand the meaning as well as the imperatives of scientific temper, representing as it does, humanity’s assertion of being in charge of its destiny and not a passive victim of malevolence of stars. To do so, we need to actively combat beliefs which erode scientific temper and undermine its growth. Only then shall we illumine our darkening national horizon and provide our people, once again, with a vision and a method for translating that vision into reality. Such a vision must have scientific temper as its integrating bond.”

If all of this was said long back, why isn’t it yet to take life in our education system? What are the hurdles?

One level of debate is that the need for values of scientific temper and questioning isn’t recognized. This may not be completely true. Our Constitution lays down promoting scientific temper as one of the fundamental duties – “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” (Article 51A (h)). It can argued that need for scientific temper may have been recognized but not yet imbibed in our society, which his reflected in our education system too.  How many science teachers today construct their houses disregarding Vaastu Shashtra? This brings us to the second level of debate.

The second level of debate is that, these values are recognized only by few and aren’t incorporated in our curriculum. This is partly true and partly untrue.

The National Curriculum Framework, 2005 recognizes the problem of rote learning – “For any qualitative change from the present situation, science education in India must undergo a paradigm shift. Rote learning should be discouraged. Inquiry skills should be supported and strengthened by language, design and quantitative skills.” It recognizes the nature of science - “The Sciences, like the systems of mathematics, have their own concepts, often interconnected through theories, and are attempts to describe and explain the natural world. Concepts include atom, magnetic field, cell, and neuron. Scientific inquiry involves observation and experimentation to validate predictions made by theory (hypotheses), which may be aided by instruments and controls. Formalisation into theory and model building can sometimes involve mathematics, but it is only with reference to observations and not to mathematical accuracy that truth is tested. The attempt is to furnish a narrative that in some way ‘corresponds’ to reality”. But is that actually reflected in our textbooks? That is debatable. If it is recognized and is also envisioned to be part of curriculum, why hasn’t that been done? This brings us to the third level of debate.

The third level of debate is about state capacity. Lack of recognition of the problem and the inability to act on it and address it even after recognizing are proofs for weak state capacity, which is clearly the case here.

The other perspective of looking at from governance lens is to understand the nature of efforts required to imbibe these skills. What is the nature of efforts required for this task? Does this need intensive and quick feedback loops? Does this involve dynamic and changing situations? Does this need discretion and autonomy for the front line employee to execute? May be some examples will help us understand this better. The following example is from NCF, 2005 on ‘asking questions’ depicting a classroom scenario.

“Asking questions "Air is everywhere" is a statement that every schoolchild learns. Students may know that the earth's atmosphere consists of several gases, or that there is no air on the moon. We might be happy that they know some science. But consider this exchange in a Class IV classroom.

Teacher: Is there air in this glass? Students (in chorus): Yes! The teacher was not satisfied with the usual general statement, "Air is everywhere." She asked the students to apply the idea in a simple situation, and found, unexpectedly, that they had formed some "alternative conceptions".

Teacher: Now I turn the glass upside down. Is there still air in it? Some students said "yes", others said "no", still others were undecided.

Student 1: The air came out of the glass!

Student 2: There was no air in the glass.

In Class II, the teacher put an empty glass over a burning candle and the candle went out! The students had performed an activity whose memory had remained vivid even two years later, but some of them at least had taken away an incorrect conclusion from it.

After some explanation, the teacher questioned the students further. Is there air in this closed cupboard? Is there air in the soil? In water? Inside our body? Inside our bones? Each of these questions brought up new ideas and presented an opportunity to clear some misunderstandings. This lesson was also a message to the class: do not accept statements uncritically. Ask questions. You may not find all the answers but you will learn more.”

The other challenging part of a teacher is to customize the concepts to students’ context. One should be able to use the objects that students see and experience in their daily life and connect them to concepts. Some students might already have some preconceived notions about certain phenomenon due to their experience, which may be incorrect at times. In order to scaffold them, it is important to have a sense of understanding of the context. This example from NCF, 2005 illustrates this.

“What biology do students know?

These students don't understand science. They come from a deprived background!" We frequently hear such opinions expressed about children from rural or tribal backgrounds. Yet consider what these children know from everyday experience.

Janabai lives in a small hamlet in the Sahyadri hills. She helps her parents in their seasonal work of rice and tuar farming. She sometimes accompanies her brother in taking the goats to graze in the bush. She has helped in bringing up her younger sister. Nowadays she walks 8 km. every day to attend the nearest secondary school.

Janabai maintains intimate links with her natural environment. She has used different plants as sources of food, medicine, fuelwood, dyes and building materials; she has observed parts of different plants used for household purposes, in religious rituals and in celebrating festivals. She recognises minute differences between trees, and notices seasonal changes based on shape, size, distribution of leaves and flowers, smells and textures. She can identify about a hundred different types of plants around her — many times more than her Biology teacher can — the same teacher who believes Janabai is a poor student.

Can we help Janabai translate her rich understanding into formal concepts of Biology? Can we convince her that school Biology is not about some abstract world coded in long texts and difficult language. Rather it is about the farm she works on, the animals she knows and takes care of, the woods that she walks through every day. Only then will she truly learn science.”

These two examples illustrate that teaching science imbibing questioning skills, scientific temper requires efforts from a teacher to understand the concepts to their depth, let students ask questions, carefully scaffold concepts, probe students, identify their difficulties, and address their queries and so on. The context of students can be different, the questions can be different, and the teacher should be ready to address these. Thus, imbibing these skills by all means requires lots of autonomy and discretion to teachers and may not be possible to standardize like everything else. Of course, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be any guiding principles. Certain frameworks can definitely be made up but at the end of the day a lot is dependent on the teacher. How can one find out if teachers don’t go through this long and effortful form of teaching science but just teach the definitions and read out the text? Who will monitor the teacher daily in the classroom? Evidently, this also requires lots of support structures to teachers. One has to also note the necessity of small class sizes here. It may not be practically feasible to use these approaches effectively in contexts with large class sizes. Thus investments on this front are necessary, though that alone may not be a sufficient.

In summary, we have a situation which demands high levels of autonomy and discretion for the frontline workers but in the context of weak state capacity. Going for a rule based approach as per Fukuyama’s framework isn’t going to work in this situation, while giving completely autonomy may not be useful either as it can be misused. It becomes more complex because teachers need constant support structures who can lead them towards a vision. This needs someone with focus and executing it (iterative adaptation). This curious mix of metrics is the core of the problem - how do we handle situations requiring autonomy and iterative adaptation in contexts with weak state capacity? Again, there may not be ready made solutions to this but it is essential to recognize the root-cause else it is easy to get carried away by perceptions which can consume the precious discourse bandwidth.

The fourth level of debate is the incentives. The problem may not have properly recognized and also not being acted up on due to weak state capacity. But what about contexts where this capacity is stronger, the elite private schools?  Elite private schools have lower class sizes, stronger monitoring mechanisms, resources to put together the material and support structures in place. Is the situation in a desirable state there? Quality Education Study (QES) conducted by Educational Initiatives Pvt. Ltd, Ahmedabad of 89 elite schools in India has some pointers towards it. “Performance of class 4 found to be below international average. Students seem to perform on par with international average in class 8, mainly due to their higher achievement in procedural questions (i.e., questions that require straightforward use of techniques or learnt procedures to arrive at the answers).”  Consider this question.

Only 45% students answered this correctly, while 24% students chose option A, which shows improper understanding of the concept of area. This particular question may not be testing all abilities of a child but is certainly an indication.

Why is the situation so, even after all the necessary structures in place in these schools? The problem is with the incentives.

We must note that students perform on par with their international counterparts, but due to performance in procedural questions. This is again because this is expectation of the system from them. The results on which the students and schools are recognized (board exams) don’t demand these skills. Today if one decides to take the effortful approach to imbibe critical thinking skills, scientific temper etc. in students; it has to be merely by intrinsic motivation of the school administration. There is no external incentive for an average school to do so. Instead, doing this might be costly to schools because in a highly competitive environment, when the scores are reaching near 100%, even losing a mark can become costly. This increased the necessity of another skill called, exam writing. Investing on approaches building other skills have opportunity costs, and even if some students have critical thinking and problem solving skills, they might lose out in the competition because they don’t have the exam writing skill or these students may remain unrecognized at schooling stage because the board exams don’t distinguish such students. This underscores the importance to reform our board examination systems, as discussed earlier in the second theme. The availability of necessary pedagogical techniques and support structures will improve over the time once there is a demand for these from schools and there is an incentive for schools and teachers to take them seriously (sometimes school administration takes initiatives but are not supported by teachers. Hence incentives to both teachers and schools are necessary).

In summary, imparting basic numeracy & reading skills can be achieved by standardization and helping teachers to focus on these by easing them of other burdens like syllabus completion and providing necessary support structures. But imbibing scientific temper, helping build critical thinking and problem solving skills is a problem of governance and weak state capacity at the core; a curious mix of requirement of autonomy and iterative adaptation in a context of weak state capacity. Portraying curriculum, pedagogy and teaching practices as root cause is misleading. The fundamental question is, why are these the way they are today? There may not be ready made solutions to this but it has to be recognized that the root cause is weak state capacity else one may get carried away by other visible superficial issues, thereby consuming the precious discourse bandwidth. Strong incentives to take this approach should be created for contexts with stronger capacity by reforming our board examination systems, which signal the demands of the system and also by being able to distinguish students with such skills from others.

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