Towards Seeing Impact in Education

Four years is a fairly long time in a role. In this time one would expect to have attained a certain level of mastery in the core skills required for that role. I worked as a program manager with Teach For India — an organization that was so much more than a workplace for me — but by the end of my tenure, I felt a certain amount of tension. My core responsibility was to coach Fellows towards their leadership journey and better student outcomes. This tension came from wanting to excel in my role but feeling that I don’t possess the tools to do so and heavily relying on either trial and error or on experiences — mine and others’ . In that moment, it often led to guilt of not doing my best. In this piece, I reflect on that tension and propose ways in which Teach For India and other such organizations can enable their employees to see impact in their role.

There is No Substitute for Contextual, High Quality Research

There is no dearth of talent in India, neither is there a lack of young people who are passionate about creating a better education system. Frequently, their passion is crippled because of a lack of formidable skills that are based in scientific research. As a doctor needs to read, understand and master centuries of research before going anywhere near a patient, same should be true about education professionals, but much is left to trial and error for new educators. Feedback, when provided to them is often based in the experience of their coach or in a book that they read. This contributes to new teachers feeling demotivated and burning out. What’s missing is a body of sound, contextual research that these professionals can use to advance the cause of education. Organizations like Pratham with their Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) have been instrumental in highlighting the condition of learning in India, but research on methods of teaching and learning that work in the the context of India is largely missing or rudimentary. Rigorous research in education still remains largely a western phenomenon. This research is often then copied into developing countries without much thought into their external validity. For any young professional who is looking to read research in order to improve their practice, it is important to have a critical lens and ask questions such as — “How applicable is this research in my context?”, “Which age group of students was this research conducted on?”, “What were the income levels of their parents?”, “Were the teachers who participated in the research mostly from schools that reflect my context?”, “Were the schools involved in this research serving kids from a similar demography as mine?”.

I will go further and argue that organizations like Teach For India, Pratham, and Kaivalya Foundation recruit from the most talented pool of professionals in India, and are well placed to produce high quality research. There should be more emphasis on giving access to quality education research, training people on being good consumers of research in education, and equipping them with tools to produce research. Online learning platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning have so much to offer in terms of skills on reading, conducting, and writing research. This will not only build a formidable body of research for these organizations but will also take the field forward.

Subject Expertise Matters

Not everyone should become a teacher. In the book, How People Learn, published in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences in United States, the authors argue that, “Pedagogical content knowledge is different from knowledge of general teaching methods. Expert teachers know the structure of their disciplines, and this knowledge provides them with cognitive roadmaps that guide the assignments they give students, the assessments they use to gauge students’ progress, and the questions they ask in the give and take of classroom life.” For a teacher to then become an expert teacher, they should have a strong content specific knowledge which allows them to create better learning experiences.

The selection process of teachers hired should then also focus on content knowledge (Math, Science, Geography, History etc.) with other competencies. Often, this aspect of the selection process in hiring new teachers is passed on to an obscure online test. For instance, in Teach For India’s selection process — which is considered one of the most prestigious fellowships in India — the focus is placed more on leadership qualities. On the other hand, it is assumed that if someone comes from a prestigious institution, they will be able to teach Math, Science, English, or History. This needs to change. There has to be more focus on checking for subject expertise which coupled with leadership skills can then create teachers who can be called experts.

The ‘Behavior Management Cycle’ Needs to Go

Often, children from economically disadvantaged communities are considered unruly. The unconscious expectation from them is often to ‘follow’ and not lead when they grow up. Leading is left to kids from international/private schools. So, when teachers are trained to teach kids from such backgrounds, they are often taught to manage behavior through a reward and consequence system. We find that this system works well for children in the age group of 5 to 13, but it hardly works beyond this age. Older children work better when safe adults cultivate healthy relationships with them. This is often not reflected in the training that new teachers receive. Most of their training is focused on a Behavior Management Cycle(BMC) that fails miserably in teenage classrooms, leading to frustration at the teacher’s end.

We see that teachers who are successful in promoting learning with teenaged students often have deep, positive, and trusting relationships with their students. This allows them to work more effectively, promoting learning inside and outside the classroom. These relationships allow the students to be seen as curious individuals who are capable of questioning, thought and deep inquiry rather than empty vessels that need to be filled. The training of new teachers should, hence, move away from mastering the Behavior Management Cycle in favor of experiments in relationship building that lead to learning inside and outside the classroom. More emphasis should be placed on teaching new teachers the skill of cultivating relationships with their students that allows teachers to also feel successful.

Passion should not be taken for granted. It should be cultivated into expertise. We can then, start to change our education system.

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Dear reader,

I hope you are able to relate to my experience. I would love to know your thoughts, suggestions and disagreements. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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