Stop blaming teachers; start improving teaching instead

A teacher needs a specific definition of what a proven approach to learning is, as a lawyer knows what our constitution says

Updated: Mar 16, 2018 11:17:15 AM UTC
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Shyamala does not have much to do at home after her two children have grown up, so she takes up teaching at the neighborhood school. The pay is decent and hours manageable. Shyamala scraped through college with a second-class degree. Now, she must finish a vast syllabus filled with difficult topics. She rushes through it by dictating from her textbook while her students take notes. There are days when unexpected houseguests, festivals, and children's examinations mean Shyamala cannot go to school.

Sushmita found a well-paying software job after her engineering degree. But after two years, writing code seems repetitive and lacking in meaning. She resigns from her position and decides to teach in a school in her hometown, taking a big salary cut. Sushmita wakes up excited to go to school, even though most of her students struggle to learn. She has hooked up her mobile phone to her old laptop to show math and science videos on YouTube to her students. She often stays up late to read reference books to prepare for her lessons. Her parents worry how long she can continue in a low-paying job.

Most debates about the falling quality of school education in India end up in two competing narratives. I call them the “Bad Teacher” vs. the “Good Teacher."

The "Bad Teacher" narrative casts teachers like Shyamala as incompetent, under-motivated and delinquent. In contrast, the "Good Teacher" narrative celebrates teachers like Sushmita as hardworking and committed heroes who deliver despite an unrewarding system. However, most real teachers fall somewhere between these fictionalised extremes.

In India, we have mostly tried a stick-and-carrot approach with our teachers. Schools have been trying to hold the so-called “bad teachers” accountable by installing cameras in the classroom. The pay commission raised wages to attract the so-called “good teachers." The results are mixed at best. Teacher pay in developing countries is neither linked to their skills nor students' performance, concludes a recent study by Justin Sandefur at the Center for Global Development. Yet, the evidence is growing that high-quality teachers generate large socio-economic returns throughout a student’s life.

Why is teacher performance such a wicked problem? I urge you to sit in a classroom for an hour and find out for yourself. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job even for a driven person and especially so for a middle-class homemaker with a basic education who is thrown into a classroom to “tell” from the text and get forty children to listen.

What if, for a moment, we stopped obsessing about whether teachers are "good" or "bad"? And instead, we get curious about what "good teaching" is?

Research and practice prove that we can take three practical steps to manifest good teaching in every classroom.

Recipe to teach First, we need a scientific "recipe" for good teaching. Imagine having a step-by-step approach to teach every concept: Students are clear about the lesson’s aim, conduct a hands-on activity to experience it, analyse it deeply by questioning, apply their knowledge to solve a real-life challenge, and are assessed on what they have learned. Teaching is more effective when students are motivated to engage deeply with the subject matter, practice skills, and get useful feedback.

Practical tool-kit
Second, we need to equip every teacher with a practical "classroom toolkit." When teachers go into their class prepared with well-researched teaching plans and learning aids they know precisely how to introduce concepts, conduct purposeful activities, and ask probing questions. Rich curricular content, graded problem-sets, and assessment tools enable them to deepen students’ knowledge and skills.

Showing over telling
Third, "showing" works better than "telling" in all learning, including how to teach. Teaching skills improve when teacher/ coaches demonstrate effective lessons, observe how teachers teach, share actionable feedback and offer practical tips on engaging children. Self-reflection and peer-collaboration can further cement these skills.

Unfortunately, ideological misgivings have held back the large-scale adoption of such pragmatic approaches to teacher preparation.

Some critics argue that "good teaching" is an art that defies precise definition. Research proves otherwise. In America, Doug Lemov has a radical approach to teacher training by videotaping successful teachers and breaking their actions into a taxonomy of effective practices. Studies on Singapore's famed "master-teachers" show that the most effective classes are well-planned, with a clear goal and specific steps for how to reach it, and include tasks that challenge thinking and questions to check understanding. Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond has collated several research papers showing that students learn better when they construct knowledge by researching, writing, and analysing.

Others contend that structured teaching plans straightjacket teachers’ creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lucy Crehan notes in her book Cleverlands that even in Finland, famous for its innovative teaching practices, teachers use well-researched teaching guides to prepare ahead. They engage better with each student because they are not preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of lesson flow. Structured teaching plans supply useful subject-knowledge and pedagogical techniques when teachers’ pre-service training does not impart relevant skills, concludes a University of Sussex study on school improvement in developing countries.

Many believe that longer the teacher training the better it is. Schools invest thousands of hours making teachers sit through in-service workshops. The government has proposed to double the duration of the pre-service Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) course from two to four years. Both are unlikely to have much impact. A recent study in South Africa conducted by Jacobus Cilliers and colleagues show that classroom-based coaching delivered twice as much gain in student learning compared to one-off training workshops. High performing countries like Japan, Singapore, and China invest heavily in model-teaching demonstrations and lesson review by peers.

So, what does a focus on "good teaching" imply for India's teacher preparation system?

We must start by equipping our teachers with the same rigor we do for other professionals. A teacher needs a specific definition of what a proven approach to learning is, as a lawyer knows what our constitution says. A teacher needs a structured plan to go about teaching a concept well, as a surgeon walks through a step-by-step checklist to treat a trauma wound. A teacher needs a coach to show what a great lesson looks like, as a musician learns by watching an expert perform.

Therefore, our pre-service programs must prepare teachers with the practical know-how to succeed in the classroom and not just theory or philosophy. Detailed learning process, well-researched curricular tools, and continuous classroom coaching should become the roadmap to improve in-service teaching year-round. Even an ordinary individual like Shyamala could raise her craft to an entirely new level when equipped with the right process, tools, and coaching.

We must also leave no stone unturned to encourage talented young people like Sushmita to teach in schools. Of course, better compensation is an important consideration. But it is not the only one. A professional working environment that clarifies goals, upgrades skills, and rewards outcomes is equally critical to attract and retain our brightest teaching talent.

Our over six million practicing teachers deserve neither ridicule nor empty platitudes. What they need instead is the professional support to orchestrate good teaching every day.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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