By Ankit Vyas

At the advent of the 21st Century, technology was being looked upon as the silver bullet in improving learning outcomes. Millions of dollars were invested in projects such as One-Laptop per child. However, recent data reveals shows that access to technology in itself has no impact on learning. Children in Peru who were a part of the programme showed an improvement in computer skills, but their learning levels could not be directly correlated to their access to a laptop.

The next big thing in education is assessment. In the United States of America, assessments have been used for years to measure the progress of individual classrooms and teachers. ‘Tests’ have not just been used as a yardstick for assessing students, but are the only instrument available to measure the effectiveness of a teacher’s performance. Realising the pitfalls of this assessment driven system, parents and teachers in the US have mobilised the ‘Opt-out’ movement to opt out of high stakes assessments.

Cause for concern

One primary reason for this chaos in the education system has been the negligence of one of the most important stakeholders in improving learning: the teacher.

One primary reason for this chaos in the education system has been the negligence of one of the most important stakeholders in improving learning: the teacher. Wright, Horn and Sanders (1997) posit that teacher’s effectiveness is the most important determinant of learning outcomes in a classroom. Rowe (2003) argues for the salience of the quality of teaching provisions on learning, regardless of gender or background. In India, our immediate response to such an issue is to blame the lack of training modules for teachers. However, research shows that only seven percent of the training content is retained, raising contentions on the effectiveness of one-off trainings as stop-gap solutions.

Let us take a step back and look at how teachers feel after working in the system for a long time. When I visited a government school and introduced myself to a senior faculty there, she held up 5 fingers and said, “I have 5 years left to retire. Don’t’ bother me.”

This pretty much sums up the situation of schools across India. Teachers are not motivated and encouraged enough. For example, a common scenario at government schools is that of teachers engaged in updating passbooks, handing out bags, filling registers, updating the Mid-Day meal register and numerous such tasks that have nothing to do with teaching.  Teaching is looked upon as the lowest in the hierarchy of government professions. I have personally come across teachers who admit to take up teaching as a career backup, with the intention of quitting the job, once the actual goal is realised.

Proposed frameworks for working out solutions

There has been some work around teacher motivation which has been centred around offering financial incentives to teachers. A J-PAL study found that financial incentives offered to teachers in Andhra Pradesh had a positive impact on teacher attendance and learning outcomes. There is some merit to rewarding performance, but offering financial incentives and evaluating teachers based on student’s academic performance defeats the tenets of effective teaching.

Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan write about the concept of professional capital of teachers. The three kinds of professional capital include human capital (the talent of individuals); social capital (the collaborative power of the group); and the decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise to make sound judgments about learners that are cultivated over many years). A study by Carrie Leana done in New York illustrates the relationship between human capital (qualities of individuals and their qualifications) and social capital (extent of trust and collaboration between teachers towards improving student learning).

352803-schoolThen Leana measured student-math achievement as an indicator of the teachers’ impact. She found that schools with high social capital showed positive achievement outcomes and those with strong social and human capital together did even better. Being in a school where there is a culture of working effectively, rubs off positively on the teachers and engages them.

Hargreaves and Fullan argue that social capital is more effective as a strategy to reduce variation in effective teaching. This means providing teachers with structured opportunities to collaborate, to meet often and discuss issues related to student achievement. This means empowering teachers to make decisions about student learning collectively.  According to Fullan, collaboration is not restricted to inter-school or inter-district collaboration. It’s about creating a culture of collaboration.

Tina Rosenberg also talks about the power of collaboration and peer pressure in her book “Join the Club”. According to Roseberg, the most powerful motivator for change in personal behaviour is the search for status and peer approval. One of her most persuasive examples is about a non-smoking campaign targeted at teenagers in the US. The usual messaging around smoking being dangerous to health proves ineffective when juxtaposed with the value attached to the act in terms of social status amongst peers. A new campaign packaged the message in a way that portrayed cigarette companies as lying about the dangers of smoking. Suddenly, non-smoking was looked upon as a form of rebellion against these companies. It turned the problem on its head. Suddenly, non-smoking became ‘cool’ and an expression of anti-authority rebellion.

There is a need to look at teachers as individuals rather than resources performing a particular function.

Such collaboration would also work in the teaching profession. If social status in the teaching profession meant performance in the classroom and a commitment to learning continuously, peer pressure would work in persuading teachers towards this goal. There is a need to look at teachers as individuals rather than resources performing a particular function.  As the learning crisis deepens, we can choose to standardize curriculum, create learning objectives, and introduce biometric systems and a variety of measures to alienate teachers. Or, we can look at teachers as instruments of change, and prepare them to take their own decisions to improve learning for children in their classrooms.

Ankit Vyas is the Co-Founder of VideosForKnowledge and Programme Manager at STIR Education

Posted by The Indian Economist