In my previous blog, I wrote about my experience of selection, orientation, and arriving at the host organization, in which I elaborated on my experience of being an AIF fellow so far. In this blog, I am writing about my observations while visiting government schools for my project.
“It is education that is the right weapon to cut social slavery, and it is education that will enlighten the downtrodden masses to come up and gain social status, economic betterment, and political freedom.” Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
There is nothing more to write about why education is important and what difference it brings to one’s life and the community. We are all aware of how education plays a crucial role in our lives and how it shapes our future. This blog will not talk about how and why education is important but will highlight and emphasize how the approach to and access to education for all could be strengthened.
The Right to Education Act and scope for its improvement
The Right to Education Act 2009, which came into effect on April 1, 2010, was a torchbearer in India’s education sector. The act guarantees “free and compulsory education” for children aged 6-14 years old. With this, India has moved forward to a rights-based framework that casts a legal obligation on the central and state governments to implement this fundamental child right, as enshrined in Article 21A of the Constitution, in accordance with the provisions of the RTE Act.
RTE improved the enrollment number of students from ages 6-14 but failed to accommodate all with adequate infrastructure. To date, the majority of the government schools in tribal, rural, and urban areas do not have adequate classrooms to accommodate all the students. Class 1 children are clubbed with class 2 and 3 students in one single room. Now imagine what their learning outcomes could be and what the teacher must be teaching. The student-teacher ratio is also extremely problematic in government schools, where one teacher is allotted to multiple classes of different grades.
The Right to Education Act, which makes education a fundamental right for every child between the age of 6 to 14, specifies minimum norms in elementary schools but still seems like a far-fetched target for many. It is a need of the hour that we transform our schools into centers of excellence. For that, we need to take some concrete steps and let go of some of our traditional teaching methods in order to make learning more fun and effective.
Focus on nurturing leadership qualities
Apart from the traditional subject knowledge of STEM education, it has become very crucial for children to learn and gain 21st-century skill sets for securing better opportunities and coping with the changing times. It is important that we start instilling these skill sets in children at an early age for better decision-making, critical thinking, and problem-solving attitudes. Special classes should be held on soft skills development, moral science, general knowledge, good habits, and a healthy lifestyle for overall behavioral change and confidence building.
In my experience of interacting closely with the children of government schools, I have noticed that these students are extremely underconfident, and there has been very little effort from the teachers to instill the skills of decision-making, critical thinking, public speaking, etc. Using rote learning methods further reinforces these students’ feelings of insecurity, limiting them to memorizing bookish knowledge.
Interactive teaching and learning methodologies are the key to enhancing learning by actively engaging students in the process of learning. This is frequently accomplished through the use of technology, group discussions, or experiential learning. This makes students feel a part of the learning process by widening their horizons and providing a great opportunity to gain different perspectives from their peers and teachers. By making students central to the learning process, it gives them an opportunity to interact, analyze, and apply this subject knowledge by enhancing their interpersonal skills.
Equipping Digital Classrooms
In contrast, despite the country’s aggressive march toward “Digital India,” a student in a government school does not even have access to a smartphone. This in itself explains the current digital divide between the haves and the have-nots. This current digital divide between the two types of India’s realities makes it urgent that we equip our schools with digital learning technology and let go of some of the more traditional teaching and learning methods. Digital classrooms with access to the internet would bring the world and fun learning to the classroom.
The traditional learning of chalk and board limits a child in accessing knowledge apart from their textbooks. With this, they can access the most relevant studies and digital libraries to enhance their learning and cope with the current times. Multiple teaching tools such as videos and animations, make teacher’s job easy to explain the concepts and for students to understand the concepts.
The job is not done only by setting up the digital classrooms; it is equally important to look after their smooth functioning and their maintenance. In my observations so far, the ‘Atal Tinkering Labs’ (ATLs) that have been established at schools across India under the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) of the NITI Aayog, has not been functional since its inception. Just merely installing a tinkering lab, without an adequately trained trainer won’t serve the purpose. I have come across schools where there is no existence of these labs, and also in schools where these labs are set up and locked for years, because of the lack of trained trainers.
Career Development cell, Exposure visits, and Interaction with the Industry experts
Each school should have a “career and development cell” in order to help students prepare for the career of their choice, help them discover new opportunities, and prepare them for a lifetime of employment or entrepreneurship. Nonconventional career options and an entrepreneurial mindset should be encouraged and guided by seasoned professionals. There should be frequent educational site visits to historical monuments, science museums, NGOs, MNCs, etc. to build and nurture the curiosity of the students. There should be organized dialogues between the students and the industry experts and famous personalities for the children to know and understand the process, hardships, and struggle one has to go through to achieve a remarkable and unique feat in their career.
Improving the quality of basic infrastructure
The availability of basic infrastructures such as classrooms, playgrounds, drinking water, and clean washrooms plays a critical role in improving access to formal education and affects retention rates, productivity, and learning outcomes.
So far in my experience, I have come across many government schools that do not have adequate classrooms to accommodate all the students and schools that are not equipped with sufficient benches for the students to sit on. Many government schools do not have fans or enough ventilation, which makes it suffocating for both students and teachers. On interacting with the students from these schools, most of them said that they find it difficult to sit on the floor and study. The floors during the winter are often very cold, eventually making them fall sick. An infrastructurally sound classroom, with enough sunlight and ventilation, fosters a better learning environment. This encourages students to come to school regularly, which would reflect positively on their attendance and retention rate.
Sports are severely underserved in government schools, with inadequate equipment and physical education rooms. India’s success rate in sports has a lot of room for improvement, which could happen by instilling sportsmanship in students from an early age by making it a part of their curriculum. This should be strongly encouraged through a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, as physical fitness and a child’s cognitive aptitude go hand in hand. Students should be trained by professional coaches and encouraged to choose sports as a profession. The schools should be equipped with high-quality sports infrastructure.
Learning outcomes are affected by multiple factors. Factors such as an unattractive curriculum, the inability of teachers to teach in innovative ways, and inadequate infrastructure lead to high dropout rates. Further, the problem is complicated in tribal areas where the teachers are not aware of the local dialects, making it difficult for student-teacher communication.
The caste-based hierarchy and gender-defined rules impact enrollment as well as retention. Lack of teacher training and absenteeism impact the quality of education. Further, the irregularities and corruption in the recruitment process also impact the quality of the teachers that are recruited.
The teachers also face several problems while implementing RTE. The problems are both academic and non-academic. In academic problems, issues such as the unavailability of academic study material impact teaching. Secondly, non-academic work such as election duties, census work, and the pulse polio drive impacts the working hours and energy of the teachers. For the majority of this work, the teachers are forced to travel to distinct geographical locations, which results in the disruption of regular classes, which directly affects the students’ productivity. On these occasions, students are given holidays, some exercises, or free periods. Additionally, but not exclusively, a lack of exposure and access to knowledge outside of textbooks contributes to students’ poor learning outcomes.
To transform our schools into excellence centers, we need a two-way intervention that engages both the student communities and the teacher communities. By introducing new teaching methods, which would be done by engaging in teacher communities and sharing good practices of engagement, support, and guidance, a child would learn the necessary skills and learning outcomes. Our delivery of teaching should not just be limited to theoretical teaching but also have a practical learning approach in order to give students a better understanding of the subject and practical first-hand experience. Last but not least, all government schools should be equipped with adequate infrastructure, such as washrooms, playgrounds, benches, and drinking water facilities, for better enrollment and retention of these students, which directly affects the learning outcomes.