SAADIA teaches mathematics to children in the fourth grade in a rural government school in Punjab. In a conversation with her, where she mentioned many challenges she faced (lack of transport facilities, frequent non-academic duties, unclear career paths, relative lack of training/mentoring support, no method for giving input/feedback in curriculum/books), it was also clear that she had significant gaps in her own knowledge and understanding of basic mathematical concepts.
Saadia could not give adequate intuitive and conceptual explanations of even ratios and division to me. If she does not understand a concept herself very well, how could she explain it to the children in her class? Saadia was aware of the deficiencies in her knowledge and understanding and she mentioned that she wanted to address them. But she also felt that she did not have a way to do so at the moment. When I mentioned to her that the internet now had plenty of high-quality material (eg Khan Academy) that she could access, free of charge, to remedy her knowledge deficiencies, she responded that she never had the time to be able to work on improving her own subject deficiencies.
About 50 odd working days get taken up by non-academic duties (polio duty, election duties, office work and so on), and there is tremendous pressure to complete the coursework every year. Whether her reading of the situation is correct or not, it was clear that she did not have the motivation to address her own issues of comprehension.
Javed teaches English in a government school. He admits his own English is pretty poor. But, more importantly, he feels that he does not have the tools with which to teach English: his training has not been able to remove the deficiencies of his own education.
There are hundreds of thousands of teachers who need to have access to good training.
The Directorate of Staff Development (DSD) in Punjab admits that a significant portion of the current set of teachers has knowledge and understanding deficiencies. DSD monitoring tools show that. But, in addition, an analysis of the Punjab Examination Commission grade 5 results also shows systematic problems with children’s understanding. And this can only be attributable to issues with teacher understanding and/or their pedagogical skills. It is not possible for the DSD to design remedial programmes that would address all issues needing correction if the directorate has to physically bring all teachers to centralised training institutes and to take each teacher away from teaching for extended periods.
The situation is not any better in low-fee private schools. Where DSD is responsible for training of all public-sector teachers, there is no equivalent of DSD in the private sphere. And individual school owners do not find training their teachers to be economically viable: they spend money on training teachers and then the teachers move to better-paying private schools. It is also not possible for individual teachers to get training on their own and use their own funds: there are not too many institutions that provide good-quality training to teachers in the private sector, available training courses are expensive and individual teachers have few incentives to pay for training on their own when there are scant opportunities for recouping their expenses through higher salaries subsequently.
The problem, then, seems, clear. There are hundreds of thousands of teachers who need to have access to good training that can address issues of understanding the subjects they teach. These teachers are there in both the public and private sector. We cannot just get rid of them as there are too many of them and, more importantly, even the new teachers we recruit are likely to have similar issues.
There is no way we can address remedial issues through physically prising public-sector teachers from their classes and moving them to training facilities: we do not have a sufficient number of facilities to do that and teachers cannot be out of classrooms for the length of time that would be needed to address issues in their understanding. In the private sector, there is no institution, like provincial DSDs, that could attempt to address the challenge.
At the same time, we do have a lot of high-quality very relevant material, available on the net and even free of cost that could address issues of teacher understanding. Khan Academy is just one example. There are a number of NGOs, technology companies and even parts of government (PITB in Punjab) that have produced and uploaded good material that could help teachers as well as students improve their understanding in important areas. In some cases, organisations have even gone to the extent of matching the material with individual grade requirements and the curriculum for each grade.
The issue that is left is: what is the vehicle and mechanism through which we can deliver the material to those who need it (teachers and students)? And how do we motivate the teachers and students to benefit from the material. We need to experiment to see if providing this material through DVDs — if internet access is an issue — can happen. Do we need to ensure all schools have at least one computer, with an internet connection, available to teachers? Do we distribute tablets to all teachers? And students? Do we produce material that could be downloaded on smart mobile phones? Beyond access, what would the appropriate motivational means be?
Without addressing teacher training issues on a large scale and a sustainable basis, it is hard to see how we can address access and quality issues in education. We have the basic tools that are needed. We need to experiment with delivery mechanisms and the structuring of motivational issues to ensure we are able to find the right ways of addressing the challenge.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at LUMS, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2015