Teacher training - Ensuring a Learning India S5 E.002

[27th post in 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 in total. One post per day. 15 more to go.]

“Outside ears, and eyes, are important for concert-calibre musicians and Olympic-level athletes. What about regular professionals?”[i], writes Atul Gawande. Indian cricket team has a coach, Saina Nehwal has a personal coach. I always used to wonder, what does a coach do? One answer is that coach teaches to play. It’s true in the case of beginners. While learning hockey, coach teaches you how to hold the stick, how to dribble the ball, changing the position of grip and other necessary stuff. But what does someone teach to Sachin Tendulkar, Saina Nehwal and teams in general. From the little sport that I played at college, I realized that coach has a unique function. For a person unfamiliar with a game like hockey or basketball, it is just a group of people running after the ball but a coach observes even the minute details and can make sense out of it. A coach can immediately spot if someone’s body posture isn’t correct while playing the ball, shortcomings in coordination and advise the players accordingly. If one is playing a sport at a neighbourhood ground, this may not matter but it matters when one is playing in high stakes and highly competitive environment, where every little thing counts. The question Atul Gawande seems to ask is, if Olympic level athletes have coaches, why not regular professionals, in our case teachers? The nature of job of a teacher may not be of high stakes in short term but it definitely is an important role. Why not have then coaches for our teachers? This coaching is also called as ‘teacher training’ in other words.

5.2.1 Areas of support 

Before moving on to the issues in teacher training and other aspects, it is worth understanding the areas where teachers might need a helping hand. As like sport, this also involves both teaching of new techniques and also identifying shortcomings and advising accordingly.

  1. Evocative coaching: This form of coaching aims to improve the motivation levels of teachers, reignite the passion for teaching, by talking through their problems, hearing them out and responding accordingly. Emotional issues, occasional lack of motivation to work are common. In private organizations, there is a reporting manager or an HR representative to talk through such issues. Who is there for teachers? We need such supporting structures in place for teachers too.

  2. Pedagogy: This includes ways of teaching a particular concept, accompanied by focus on the underlying philosophy and updating teachers with latest trends in research and pedagogy.

  3. Understanding how children think: In the ‘pedagogy-curriculum-assessments’ (PCA) theme, we discussed that there can be multiple reasons behind an incorrect answer of a child. In the discussion on scientific temper, we discussed an example of a lesson about air. In order to diagnose children’s mistake and appropriately scaffold them, teachers are to be trained to observe on how children think.

  4. Dislodging prejudices: Some teachers may have prejudices that students of certain gender, caste and income groups are inherently less capable of learning. This affects their approach towards teaching and their efforts too. A form of teacher training should dislodge such beliefs. The advancements of Implicit Association Tests (IAT) is of great help here to identify such prejudices.

  5. Addressing emotional needs of children: The poverty and the conditions at house affect the child mentally. A child, whose parents lost their livelihood due to some unfortunate incident, isn't likely to concentrate like other students in class. Many other such non-academic issues can come up in a real classroom scenario. Teachers should have a place to reach out to, to seek advice on addressing such needs.
5.2.2 History of major teacher training initiatives 

The necessity for teacher training was recognized long ago in India and several initiatives in this direction have been taken.  State Institutes of Education (SIEs) were set up in many states as per the recommendations of the Education Commission (1964-66). The Chattopadhyay Commission recommended mandatory three week training for teachers once in 5 years, which was later withdrawn due to pressure from teachers and lack of capacity to train all teachers.[ii]

District Institute of Education and Training (DIET) were setup in each district as per recommendations of National Education Policy (1986), with the mandate to provide in-service training to teachers. Block Resource Centres (BRC) and Cluster Resource Centres (CRC) were setup under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)’s District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) to provide in-service support to teachers.

5.2.3 Issues in current teacher training programmes 

Justice JS Verma’s report on teacher education lists down the concerns with current teacher training programmes as follows.
  1. “While in-service programmes have been conducted under the DPEP, SSA and the teacher education scheme, a holistic framework on in-service teacher education – its nature, content, duration, periodicity, modality, institutional responsibility, incentives for participation etc. has not been developed.

  2. Institutions where the training is conducted – DIETs, BRCs, etc. are not adequately equipped in several states, in terms of physical infrastructure (lecture halls, seating arrangements, hostel facilities, etc) and resources (reading rooms/library, learning kits, audio-visual material, etc)

  3. Selection of resource persons for conducting the training programme is crucial for its success. However, there are no uniform framework, and procedures regarding qualifications, selection process, personnel policy vary widely across state.

  4.  Even while training has been made compulsory for every teacher (at elementary stage) , there exists lack of clarity on the basis of teacher selection for a particular programme. As a result, very often a teacher undergoes training in areas which are either not relevant or divorced from his needs, resultantly, the needs of the teacher remain unaddressed.

  5. Problems exist in the preparation of curriculum/modules, which have a top-down approach, in contrast to a needs-based approach.

  6. The short duration of the training has also led to its low effectiveness. The split design model- 10 day training at the BRC, followed by 1 day training for 10 months at the CRC can have limited effect on the development of professional skills of teachers. Long term training courses in a distance-cum-contact mode have not been conceptualized for the in-service teachers.

  7. Despite unprecedented advancements in technology, the modality of teachers’ in-service education has, by and large, remained conventional involving one way transmission of information from the trainers to the trainees, in a cascade model. The limitations of face-to-face training in a cascade model can be addressed to an extent with the use of technology like tele conferencing, using audio and video programmes and using web-based teaching-learning during personal contact programmes.
The concerns with teacher training programmes can be broadly put under three categories.

I. Operational issues: This includes issues like lack of staff at DIETs, infrastructural issues, lack of material etc.

II. Content of teacher training programmes

One, if person is coached, it is generally towards a vision of making that person reach some desired point. What is the vision of the teacher training programmes? What is the broader goal towards which the teachers are being steered towards to? In the absence of such vision, discrete teacher training programmes will keep remaining ineffective.

Two, disconnect between content of teacher training programmes and classroom scenarios. This can be in multiple ways – (i) Teachers are trained in instructional practices without convincing them about the broader underlying philosophy. For example: Peer-peer learning. Teachers can be trained on instructional practices to incorporate peer-peer learning but what if the teachers don’t believe that students can’t learn from each other? (ii) Teachers are taught about philosophy of practices but aren’t supported on implementing them in the classroom; and (iii) sometimes, the instructional practices don’t account for real life class room scenarios.

Three, training programmes don’t address teachers’ needs. The challenges that teachers face in classrooms and their needs may be diverse but same form of training is given to all, which may or may not address teachers’ needs. A teacher might be wanting to seek guidance on handling the emotional issues of children but (s)he may end up getting lessons on instructional practices.

III. Lack of on-going support: The frequency of visits of support personnel, and the quality of support personnel are crucial to transform the training into classroom practices.  Weak state capacity means that either the support staff irregular at times or they aren’t well versed with the programme or they don’t have the necessary skill sets to coach the teachers.

All these three; lack of proper training, disconnect of trainings with classroom and not incorporating teacher feedback and needs in the design of programmes sometimes can lead to training fatigue in teachers. They may no longer see any value addition due to these programmes and hence these may end up just being a ritual, mandated by the authorities. In such scenario, it is hard to expect results from these training programmes.

5.2.4 Way ahead – Rethinking teacher training programmes 

A group of my friends wanted to start a company. Discussing ideas for the startup was their favourite past time. Over a period of few months, they would have discussed hundreds of ideas over many white papers and drawing board. Many ideas sounded superb on paper and each one of those looked like a billion dollar idea. To maximize the chance of success, they picked up the simplest idea of all those. It didn’t need much to do. The list of things necessary for executing that was simple and straight forward. They all knew what to do. Armed with all this, they ventured out of the brainstorming room to try executing those simple steps. After a while, they all realized one thing – ideas are cheap, execution is the key. It doesn’t mean that one doesn’t need ideas. A good idea is always necessary but there are lots of such. When they ventured out to execute, they figured out that things aren’t linear as they seem. They don’t proceed from x to y as the logic says. There are hundreds of impediments and practical challenges in between. If you just boil down the ideas of Flipkart and Amazon, what are they? They just have a website, with objects listed. Customers order and they have to deliver. If it’s so simple, why can’t everyone do it? Execution is the key. This is a lesson that every entrepreneur agrees with.

Take the example of cricket. What is the approximate area in which the bowler is allowed to bowl? It is a few yards to one side of the wicket and few metres above the ground. It’s a small section, area wise. Any ball bowled by the bowler should pass through that limited area. What’s the big deal then? Isn’t it easy? If that’s the case everyone would have become Bret Lee and Kapil Dev. One knows that it isn’t as simple as it looks. It’s about practice, focus and strategy.

Why are we talking about entrepreneurship and sports here? Because teacher training is also something similar. Who doesn’t know that content and trainers are the key for a training? Who doesn’t know that the training should address the needs of the participants? Who doesn’t know that teachers should have ongoing support? Aren’t all these obvious and common sense? May be yes, they are. The key again here lies in focus and execution, which goes back to weak state capacity.

At the risk of repetition, let us recollect that the discussion in previous section suggests that a teacher training programme should have (i) strong vision towards which teachers are steered towards; (ii) addressing teachers’ needs; and (iii) strong ongoing support. In summary, a good teacher training programme should be based on principles of ‘iterative adaptation’ – clarity of purpose, incentive to perform skill, iterate based on feedback, focus and execute. Any solution which imbibes these principles can become successful. A cursory glance at the design of the existing programmes and the concerns tell us that they fail to follow either one or many of the above mentioned principles.

Trainings based on these principles can be implemented by anyone - government organizations, NGOs, private organizations, research institutes and others. There are numerous ways suggested for improving teacher training programmes – strengthening teacher education (pre-service), DIETs and support structures, use of technology, establishing more teacher training institutes and so on. Repeating any of this would be equivalent to saying, one should bowl properly to prevent batsman from scoring.  The key is focus and execution – iterative adaptationWe have till now tried doing this with government functionaries and experience shows that we haven’t succeeded yet. May be it is now time to think outside the traditional approach and see if the training programmes can be built in other forms adhering to the principles of iterative adaptation.

It is time to give space to external organizations (NGOs, private organizations) to assist with the teacher training programmes. This has several advantages. One, teachers at cluster or district level can put forward their needs for teaching, and an external organization can customize the programmes as per their needs. If necessary, government can specify broad categories of training that one must definitely under go. Two, teachers have a wide range of offerings to choose from rather than being forced to undergo training on the themes decided centrally. Three, external organizations can possibly ensure better ongoing support, since their payment depends on this. Four, since these organizations work entirely on this, there is focus and expertise. Why not try having the likes of Pratham who have conducted administered numerous programmes train the teachers?

It is true that this approach has its own challenges like availability of credible organizations, drafting contract agreements, enforcement of these contracts, accountability and so on but these are no different challenges from any other typical public private engagement. May be there are only few such organizations currently but it’s because they are operating only in a limited space, elite private schools who can afford such external services. The existence of such organizations even for the limited set of schools show that there is potential for many players in this space, if there is opportunity. In any case, government can have a default option available through its existing machinery. This may not be a panacea to all the issues in teacher training, nor it may resolve all the issues immediately but this is an approach that deserves its chance.

In all the discussion above, we didn’t talk about a significant section of teachers, those working in low cost private schools. It is a fact that a significant number of students do attend these low cost private schools and it is also a fact that many of these teachers might not have undergone proper training. In the wake of rising enrolments in these schools, one should also think of ways of training these teachers. Some organizations have come up to tap this space but as anyone who visited these schools know that they don’t have the financial bandwidth to afford such services. Skill training vouchers can be an idea worth trying out in this space, where these teachers can use these vouchers and get trained at certified institutions. One argument against this is that, why should government pay for training of someone, the results of which are for individuals personal gain. If one is ready to subsidize programmes and give vouchers to upgrade skills of carpentry, welding etc., which also result in gains to only private individuals, why not do it for education too? Thi s certainly will have better spillovers than others. We need to think of these as strengthening the ecosystem rather portray them as individual vs. public gains. Aren’t the kids in low cost private schools the same students like everyone else? Don’t they also deserve better education? It is not fair to ignore these kids because they went in search of better opportunities and equipping teachers in these schools with appropriate skills is one way to help them.

[i]Personal Best” by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker
[ii]  Justice JS Verma’s report on teacher education: Vision of Teacher Education in India - Quality and Regulatory Perspective Report of the High-Powered Commission on Teacher Education Constituted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of Indi, Volume I.

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