Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Let me start with a parable: Once upon a time a very strong woodcutter was recruited by a logging company. 

His salary was really good and so were the working conditions. The woodcutter began work in all earnestness. He was determined to do his best.

His boss gave him an axe and showed him the way to the patch of forest that he was assigned to clear. The first day, the woodcutter brought fifteen trees.

“Congrats!” said the boss, “Carry on with your work!” Highly motivated by the compliments, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring ten trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he was only able to bring seven trees.
The number began to decline day after day even though he was not short on effort.

I must be losing my strength, the woodcutter thought. He went to his boss and apologised, saying he could not understand the reason for the declining output.
“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been busy hacking trees…”
As can be gleaned from the parable, most of us never bother to update our skills, often smug in the satisfaction that we have left our learning years behind. We think that whatever we have learned is very much enough.

Sharpening our skills from time to time is the key to remaining afloat in the profession. If one spends all his time just working hard and being busy, there are chances that he will miss skills that make the work easier through smart tools and skills that technology throws up every now and then. It is why many of us end up like the woodcutter.   

Knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. It is said that knowledge is doubling itself every five years today. By 2050 it will be doubling itself every five hours. How to keep pace with this astounding speed of knowledge is a major challenge. Unless the teachers align themselves with this pace of knowledge, their capacity to transfer the same to their students would, in all likelihood, be in question. 

Futurologist Alvin Toffler who had described knowledge as a ‘superpower’, had predicted that ‘Future illiterates will not be the ones who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’. Herbert Gerjuoy went a step further and said: Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

It is in this context that retraining of teachers and periodical certification of their teaching skills is called for in the changing context of development. Looked at from this angle, teachers in government schools must be the prime centre of our attention.  With salaries of the government teachers skyrocketing, the taxpayer’s money demands a social audit of the public education system which has received scant attention since the onset of globalisation. 

If nothing else, the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by Pratham, an NGO, puts the issues in perspective. Pratham covered 13,000 government schools in 500 districts in  2010.  According to the report, though the enrolment in government schools had gone up substantially from previous years, only 53.4 per cent children in Class 5 could read the text meant for Class 2. 

The gravest concern is the quality of education provided throughout India. The report states that the reading ability of children has remained largely unchanged except in some states. That means there is little or no progress!

Nationally, there is a decline in the ability to do basic math (i.e. recognise numbers and do basic operations). This decrease of a few percentage points is visible across all classes. For example, the proportion of Class 1 students who can recognise numbers (1-9) has declined from 69.3 per cent in 2009 to 65.8 per cent in 2010. 

The proportion of children in Class 3 who can do two digit subtraction problems has decreased from 39 per cent to 36.5 per cent in the same period. The proportion of children in Class 5 who can do simple division problems has dropped from 38 per cent in 2009 to 35.9 per cent in 2010. 

A survey in 2009-10 by this author of 100 government school teachers (both primary and high schools) revealed that 77of them were unaware of the expulsion of Pluto from the planetary league.  Of the 10 public organisations that are popularly known by their acronyms or abbreviations (such as KPTCL, NTPC, BSNL, SBI, UNO, Unesco, HAL, etc.), a great majority of teachers (80 per cent) could not expand more than two of them correctly. 

LIC was the only abbreviation that all of them could correctly expand. No teacher could mention the width of the broad gauge railway correctly. More than 70 per cent teachers could not explain the difference between thermal and hydel power. Around 60 per cent teachers did not attempt the definitions of concepts like climate change, renewable energy, RTI and RTE, Information Technology, Internet etc. 

which have crept into the popular lingo only in recent years.  Of those who attempted them, 60 per cent explained it imperfectly or imprecisely.  Seventy per cent of the teachers were unaware of India’s moon mission Chandraayan. 
Most teachers (mainly female) were frank enough to admit that they virtually had no time to update their knowledge and did not subscribe to newspapers or magazines. They doubled up as housewives as well as bread earners (or ones complementing the family income). 

It could be surmised from the overhearing of their conversations (in common rooms, trains and buses) that most of the communication among them centred around shopping, festivals, marriages and new fixed deposit or insurance schemes, chit funds or availability of flats, plots and sites. Not more than 5 per cent of this content was academic. 

This paints a sorry picture of the state of our public education. No wonder then that private tuition classes are popular all across the country. The ASER provides a depressing picture of our public education particularly in the three states of West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The Report states that in 2010, 75.6 per cent of Class 5 children enrolled in government schools in West Bengal were taking tuition classes. The number for Bihar is 55.5 per cent and 49.9 per cent for Orissa. 

What can be safely concluded is that since the government provides secure jobs teachers feel no obligation to upgrade their skills and learning.  As many government schools receive children who are first generation learners, there is no fear of cross questioning or critical inquiries in the classrooms by pupils.

The public education system has so far failed to develop an academic audit system whereby efficacy of transfer of knowledge can be measured. The first step in redressing the situation could be the introduction of measures to periodically boost and certify teachers’ academic ability.

Continuation of teaching jobs should be essentially linked to recertification. It must be understood by all that a B.Ed is not the ‘be all and end all’ of pedagogy, but only the beginning of a long road to professional development.

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