While working with teachers in Medak District in Andhra Pradesh, activist Bharat Bhushan was dismayed to discover that they clung to deep-rooted social prejudices. In an area where discrimination on the basis of caste wasn't uncommon, the teachers were unanimous in challenging him: "Why should we question untouchability?" Recalling the incident, Bhushan, who is the founder-convenor of the Andhra Pradesh Alliance for Child Rights, says, "The teachers didn't even think that discrimination was wrong." It was only after two years and several rounds of discussions that he could bring them to understand that untouchability is unacceptable. "It was a continuous process of reflection and review," he says.

Bhushan's narrative is indicative of the problems inherent in an education system that gets unduly exercised over the academic performance of students but is unwilling to invest time, money or enthusiasm on the cornerstone of holistic learning: a strong teaching community. It's unlikely that educators, divided along caste lines and lacking adequate pedagogic skills, will be able to motivate schoolchildren using the "child-centred way of learning" recommended by the National Curriculum Framework 2005. As Bharati Baveja, faculty member at Delhi University's Department of Education, puts it succinctly, "The assumption that teaching leads to learning is wrong." Experts feel that this is true not only in school classrooms, but also in all portals of learning, including colleges where students train to be educators.

The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), a statutory body that regulates teacher education in the country, seems to have now woken up to this concern. After nearly seven years, the council has decided to revamp the curriculum for teacher education, addressing topics ranging from the content of Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) courses, to socio-cultural challenges that have to be overcome by teachers. The draft, which can be accessed at www.ncte-in.org, is likely to be finalised in a "month or so", according to council chairperson S K Thakur.

A wish-list?

The draft curriculum for teachers lists a range of problems in the country, such as communalism and discrimination on the basis of caste, and the role of teachers in creating a more egalitarian society. "It is with the objectives of raising the professional status of teachers, developing among them greater commitment to society, their students and their profession, increasing their professional competencies and performance skills ... that the National Council for Teacher Education has brought forth this document," it says. It also acknowledges that many of the recommendations made by committees on education could not be implemented, and one important reason for this has been the inadequate attention paid to teacher education.

The draft admits that teacher education programmes are institution-based and that "students need to be exposed more ... to the realities of school and community. Internship, practice of teaching, practical activities and supplementary education activities need to be better planned and organised more systematically." The draft framework goes on to recommend that teachers should play a role in "promoting secular consciousness", in developing "awareness about human rights" and in building "a strong bulwark" against sectarian practices. It mentions that teachers should inculcate values in students and "guard the youth against rootlessness and alienation". Certain concrete suggestions include a section on the need for teacher education institutes to "forge stronger links" with other university departments and school clusters.

The new teaching curriculum, Thakur hopes, will make the teachers more prepared for what's required from them currently and in the future. But some of this forward-looking seems to in preparation for the wrong outcomes. With the growing demand for Indian teachers in the West, the NCTE is looking at ways in which teacher education programmes can meet international standards, says Thakur. "Usually, the teachers have to get fresh certification when they go abroad ... we are hoping that it won't be necessary in the future," he adds. While this may be good news for all those waiting to switch shores, this focus seems quite far removed from the reality in India, where teachers' attitudes have been a primary factor in forcing students to drop out - a fact that the draft framework itself admits. Thakur is quick to add that the new curriculum will make teachers strong on both content and delivery, and also strengthen the practical aspects of training.

The interspersing of teachers' personal aspirations with goals for the education system may be indicative of a larger problem. As Bhushan notes, the document is not "coherent". "It's not presented in an integrated manner," he explains. Baveja concurs that there's no clarity on how the curriculum's ambitious recommendations can be translated into reality.

There is good reason why experts feel that merely mentioning the challenges that teachers have to overcome is insufficient. A UNESCO report released late last year observed that 'higher-caste' teachers in the country physically and verbally abused 'lower caste' students. Recent reports on learning, including the first Annual Survey of Education Report as well as a study conducted by NCERT suggest that children are not exhibiting levels of comprehension commensurate to the class in which they are studying. To find solutions, the curriculum framework would have to suggest clear-cut measures in which teachers can tackle these problems, which it fails to do.

Practical matters

According to R Govinda, professor at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), New Delhi, there is a tendency — even among those training to be teachers — to look at curricular changes only from the myopic perspective of examinations and marks. He also frowns on laying too much stress on the curriculum, arguing that most pre-service teacher education should take place in schools, and not on campus. "In the UK, a major part of the training programme is spent in schools, not in the college. Then you build your theory around reality," he says. All teacher education should follow a cyclical pattern comprising observation, practice and reflection, he adds; that is, teachers should observe students learn, reflect on practices that aid learning and also interact with their counterparts on the subject.

While certain hours of practical training in a school are mandatory under the current pre-service teacher training programme, this is not strictly followed in most teacher education institutes. In the US, each training institute is attached to a cluster of schools, so that those training to be teachers have a variety of experiences of different school conditions, says Govinda. "There's a need for each institute to be attached to a community of schools," he adds.

While certain hours of practical training in a school are mandatory under the current pre-service teacher training programme, this is not strictly followed in most teacher education institutes.

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This is especially important in India, where classrooms are far from ideal and where there are often only a couple of teachers in the entire school — a scenario that teacher education colleges have been unsuccessful in recreating during the training course. As Rukmini Banerjee of Pratham, a non-governmental organisation that works in the field of education, says, many of those training to be teachers are simply unprepared for the reality of managing a class with 200-odd students.

Baveja stresses that teacher training programmes should be more "participative and reflective". "Teachers should reflect on their own practices and come out with their own ideas on what's best and not accept everything blindly," she adds.

Too short a course

The framework recommends a longer duration for teacher education courses, suggesting that they be spread over two years instead of one as is the case now. By and large, the consensus is that the one-year B.Ed course rarely runs for the stipulated time, and that it's usually crunched into six or eight months, depending on when the admission process is completed. This also means that the teacher training institutes' calendar does not match the schools' calendar, leading to periods when one is shut while the other is open or vice versa, points out Baveja; as a result the time available for observation and practical training can be very limited. Baveja says that the Chattopadhyay Commission Report (1985) recommended an integrated teacher education programme after class twelve, running for four years, when students would study other subjects along with pedagogic topics. The downside of such a programme is that not many students would know if they want to be teachers at the time they leave school, she adds.

Experts agree that if 'more of the same' is to be taught in the courses, then spreading it over a longer period will serve no purpose. It would be meaningful only if it includes more practical training, across a number of schools situated in different socio-cultural milieus, they add. The NCTE, however, is still undecided on the duration of the course, says Thakur. "Old subjects that have no relevance have to be removed ... we want to save time," he claims.

Going local

To consider a uniform approach to teacher education for the whole country would be a fallacy, says Govinda. "If school education cannot be the same, then teacher education cannot be the same either," he adds. It would be better if the authorities tapped the sources of knowledge in each region, instead of formulating rules and modules sitting in the national or state capitals, explains the professor.

This practice should be followed for in-service training as well, says Govinda. He gives an example of working in Assam's Darang district, where he had to chart out a module to train headmasters. He met with a group of teachers from schools in the area to discuss the subject, and asked them how one could bring about quality improvement in the district's educational institutions. To his surprise, the group members pointed out that no one method could be applied throughout the district, as there were different kinds of schools in Darang itself; some were set in plantations; others were institutions catering to communities living on the banks of the Brahmaputra, and their settlements were routinely washed away every few months; some schools were in tribal areas; and others in the plains. This knowledge was essential to charting a workable module, and this could have come about only with the local community's inputs. Says Govinda, "All training has to be interactive ... ideally, there should only be support from outside."

Banerjee points to further innovations in in-service training concepts that the authorities need to adopt. "In Bihar, Pratham had a 10-day residential master trainers' programme two years ago (across a number of locations). As part of it, each teacher spent one hour in a school nearby every day," she says. Later, they were encouraged to discuss classroom practices with each other; these discussions helped them focus on effective ways of helping students grasp the topic and to identify people from whom inputs for a particular subject could be obtained. Unfortunately, instead of using a similar strategy, the Block Resource Centres and Cluster Resource Centres where teacher training is carried out are used only as halls and not as "labs", says Banerjee. Adds Bhushan, "In-service teacher training needs to be more regular — not once in a blue moon."

It is important that both pre-service and in-service training should not deteriorate into mere lectures, warns Baveja. "A teacher should teach in a way that a child can learn, and should reflect on how children learn ... The teacher should also be competent to modify the curriculum to suit the needs of the students," she points out. This can come only if teachers are encouraged to think independently, she adds.

The real test

The proliferation of private teacher education institutes hasn't helped matters either. As Govinda says, "There's a hands-off approach to private education, which is disastrous." M P Sharma, principal of a South Mumbai school who has been a teacher trainer and is also a member of the Maharashtra State Education Committee Advisory Board, adds that while NCTE is supposed to be the regulatory body, it hasn't been able to stop many of the fly-by-night institutes offering teacher training courses. "Many places continue to offer correspondence courses for students, despite being derecognised," he explains.

However, regulation need not be equated with standardisation, feels Govinda. "In education, you are dealing with people ... to change the system, you have to talk, negotiate and work with people in each state," he adds.

Curriculum changes and better regulation will possibly ensure better teaching in classrooms, but ultimately, schools in general and teachers in particular should be answerable to the local community, says Bhushan. And assessment of teachers is an important factor in ensuring this. According to Baveja, the fact that many students drop out or do not know how to read or write even in secondary schools ultimately points to a failure among teachers. To counter this, a strong assessment system for teachers has to be in place, suggest experts. "The inspection system in schools has been completely dissolved," says Govinda. An effective measure, therefore, would be to evaluate various aspects of the school's functioning, a practice that the NIEPA professor recommended be adopted as part of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. "I had suggested that instead of focusing on enrolment figures of students, we should look at other paradigms. For instance, the number of days a school is open, how many teachers are present ... basically, have a new set of indicators," he says. This would give an idea of whether absenteeism is prevalent and the effectiveness of teachers.

Thakur says that the NCTE is considering encouraging schools to take video recordings of lessons, so that these can be analysed later in terms of content and behaviour. "We are also looking at encouraging teachers by instituting awards," he says. "The best assessment, of course, can be done by students. Parent Teacher Associations can also be active in this." Whether this is a test that teachers will be able to pass remains to be seen.