Oct-Dec 2011

Teaching India to Learn

Shaheen Mistri, Founder, Teach for India and Akanksha Foundation, spoke to the ISBInsight team on the role of teachers in educating India and her vision for improving the country’s education system.

The Indian government initiated “Right to Education” in 2009 that was mainly geared towards educating elementary school children, but there have been many challenges in its implementation. What do you think are the main hurdles?

I think the government has played a positive role in the area of access. There has been a huge push in the last decade to ensure that through the SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan), that children have access to a school building. Today, children go to school but the quality of instruction is so poor that there are alarming dropout rates. We lose more than half of our children by Class 5 and more than 90% of them by Class 10. We need to look at all the factors that contribute to the quality of education, from the quality of teachers to assessing the proficiency of the children – we still don’t have national or state-level standards across the country. There are many challenges embedded under the umbrella of quality education. And to me, it starts and ends with the teacher. Whatever you do, however much you improve curriculum and resources, if you have the wrong person in the classroom, the children will not get a good quality education. We look for all these solutions in education but I think what really needs to be fixed is: How do we get seven million strong teachers into classrooms?

What do you think about the teacher training programmes?

I think teacher preparation and the professional development for teachers is a critical area that needs attention. We need to change the mindset of teachers and also of how they are viewed. Currently, the bottom 20% of college graduates choose this profession. But, if you look at Singapore, it is the top 10% of college graduates who want to be teachers. So how do you flip that? In our country, the brightest young Indians want to go to the IIMs. There are very limited pathways that they aspire to pursue. So how do you make education and teaching one of those pathways?

In conferences and panel discussions we frequently hear panelists bemoan the inability of our schools to encourage the children to think out of the box. How can we encourage the children to innovate as opposed to rote learning and just gearing up for exams?

I think it just goes back to defining the quality and goal of education. Today, our children are taught not to ask questions. They are taught to think within the box. Students are afraid to take risks. And it really does come back to what we want for our children. What are those learning standards? It is learning to innovate, to think out of the box. Are the teachers even told that these are the goals? And once the goals have been agreed upon then the teachers need to be equipped to teach so that they are able to communicate the goals to the students. This is very difficult. In the Indian classroom, where you have 40-60 children in a class, it is easier to write something on the board and say, “Copy it.” It is much harder to teach in a way that encourages innovation and empowerment.

Recently, education has mushroomed into a lucrative business. Schools are now profit-driven franchises. Do you feel that this takes away from learning?

When you look at the reality, there isn’t really any difference. So, even in schools that are not profit-driven, the quality of education is terrible. So I don’t think being profit-driven is a problem. I think when profit becomes the only driving motive, then clearly the motivation is wrong and that will eventually impact the children. But I also feel that if schools are more commercial and professional, perhaps they will attract better teachers and may pay them better. So I am not entirely opposed to the idea of privatising education, but I think all the sectors of schools must improve. So rather than having a definite view on whether we should have more government schools or more private schools, I just think that all schools need to improve and they need to improve primarily by having a different kind of person involved.

One of the key elements to success, in integrating what a child learns in school would be the role of a parent. How important do you think it is to involve parents in helping the child learn? Do you involve the parents in some way in your programmes?

I think it is really important to involve parents and we very actively involve them. But I think, so many of our children are first generation learners and their parents are not educated. So they can’t help their children at home with homework, etc. I think it is very easy to start using that as an excuse for our children not learning. I found that a strong teacher can compensate for that. It is more difficult and puts a greater responsibility on the teacher because the academic support does not exist at home. But I think you can cultivate another kind of support. Parents, even if they are illiterate, if they show interest in their child’s learning and motivate them, it makes a big difference. This is certainly something that we work on. If you look at our private schools, more education happens at home than in the school between the tuition teacher and the parent. In fact, I think there is the opposite problem where the responsibility is shifting off the school and on to the tuition teacher and the parent.

Most schools in your programme are in urban centres. Is this a conscious decision? Don’t you think there is a greater need for good schools in rural India?

Firstly, I think the problem is everywhere. I think clearly, the majority of children are in rural India and that makes the problem starker in rural India. But, if you look at the issue of inequity, we are not just focusing on quality education in general. We are also specifically looking at how we can bridge the gap between children with a very poor quality education and their wealthier peers who have a better quality of education. Inequity is probably most glaring in our urban centres. In metros, there is a stark contrast between the quality of education that children in IB and ICSE schools get to the education that children in government schools get. Unfortunately, that is the reality of our country. We chose urban India because we wanted to have a better impact sooner. This is only our third year. It is hard enough to have impact in urban centres that it will be much tougher to support and train our Fellows in rural India. Basically, we have taken a decision to start with what is simpler and then gradually add complexity to the model. So you will see us in rural India eventually.

Whatever you do, however much you improve curriculum and resources, if you have the wrong person in the classroom, the children will not get a good quality education.

Is there a connection between low teacher salaries and the quality of people the industry attracts? How can we encourage smart people to take up this profession?

Yes, clearly if you want to attract the brightest people, then you need to pay them more. Also, in teaching, you don’t grow into something very different two to three years from now. Most teachers make a lifetime in teaching. Definitely, finances are an issue in terms of attracting people but I think it is also interesting to note that in the 6th pay commission, the salaries have gone up significantly. So the starting salary in a Mumbai primary school is R20,000 today, which may not be great but it is pretty equivalent to some other starting level jobs. So it is possible for people to teach for a few years and then move on. However, it is interesting to note that the quality of education doesn’t seem to be higher in schools that pay higher salaries necessarily. In rural UP (Uttar Pradesh), I have visited government schools, where the teachers are paid around R15,000 as starting salary. But at the private school down the road, teachers get a thousand rupees a month. It is that stark a difference. The quality of education is better in the private school! So it seems to me that there are other factors. I think salary is an entry barrier but once you are in, there are other factors such as accountability that contribute to how good the teacher is and the retention of the teacher.

Your work involves interacting with the youth of this nation. What impression do you have about their commitment to education?

I don’t really see young people who are not interested in India. I am just amazed continually at the number of young Indians that are so invested in making India better. I have been to countless companies and campuses and met young people and I am unbelievably inspired not just by the vision of doing something but by what they are willing to commit to actually bring about change. I think there needs to be more of it. Our problems are so huge that I think unlike twenty years ago or forty years ago when if you did something good for the world it was sort of a nice-to-do thing. I think today the world has so many problems that it is just a responsibility. Every one of us just needs to do something otherwise I don’t know what is going to happen to our world. Between the environment and education and the whole gamut of issues, I really feel like everybody needs to contribute something because the world is not in a good place. We have created it and we have made it like this and we need to now fix it. But I think that now, there is so much more interest from young people than twenty years ago when I started.

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