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Change needs everyone to learn something new: a view from India’s classrooms

The authors reflect on India's new National Education Policy, what this means for young children, and the new ways of learning required to ensure it's success.

“If I am to run my daily lessons the way the policymakers say I should, I need support from my school administration. Everyone must fall into step for my lessons to work.” These candid statements from a teacher in India capture critical implementation challenges to education policies.

Ensuring quality learning opportunities for all children is a policy imperative and introduction of evidence-informed teaching approaches into the classroom is a key component in education policies. But, to deliver new policy ideas, unlearning as well as relearning are first needed. We explain using our work in India alongside teachers and curriculum developers.

India’s new National Education Policy states that foundation learning will be of high priority. For this, the first steps to learning to read, write, and reason with numbers and mathematical concepts have been pulled together under the title Foundational Literacy and Numeracy and acronymised as FLN. A promise to support high quality learning in these domains is the policy’s single most important statement to the country’s three-to-eight-year olds. The focus on FLN is positioned to be a game changer that can provide direction to a sluggish education system where the collapse is at the foundation.

India’s policy recognises that to meet the goal of all children learning requires high quality teachers, sound pedagogical approaches and a supply of resources that help deepen learning. There is excellent evidence that all three matter to substantially improve teaching and learning in the classroom. However, quality in the classroom is also impacted by processes outside of the classroom. This is because the long arm of bureaucratic decision-making is influential, touching all aspects of the classroom, from what is valued to what is allowed to what is made available: a point alluded to when, at the start of this writing, the teacher refers to the ‘administration’.

Changing expectations and new learning

Strong language foundations in the three-to-eight-year-old child supports literacy development and improves access to the curriculum as a whole. One way to strengthen these skills is to have a classroom where the telling and retelling of stories by teachers and children alike is valued. The aim of such activities is for children to explore in the language, build their sense of audience and gauge if a communication is fit for purpose. Also maturing along the way are children’s skills for making inferences, listening with comprehension, and their grammar and vocabulary knowledge. A language-rich curriculum is a first step to scaffold this learning in an ongoing manner; another is to acknowledge and appreciate the role or children’s oral language in their development. However, a policy that asks for classrooms where children express their thoughts and engage in vigorous discussion upsets an existing equilibrium where an effective classroom is seen as a teacher-led place.

We spoke to teachers about the support they would like to receive to introduce more child-talk in their classrooms. Our conversations were part of ongoing practitioner-academia collaborations in India. Several teachers spoke about visitors to their classroom who expected to hear children recite well-rehearsed, polished narratives. Spontaneous narrative expressions of three-to-six-year olds, for example, were not appreciated as a demonstration of learning. These visitors often were the ‘administration’. They held state-designated roles. They could be a resource person for the area of teaching and learning, the assistants to these resource persons, or teacher-administrators of the senior school who were additionally tasked with managing the day-to-day delivery of the early years, foundation-learning programme. There seemed to be only patchy awareness of the new pedagogies that policy makers and curriculum developers wanted to introduce in the classroom. Since the visitors often had the power to regulate, teachers spoke about an uncompromising push to not upset the equilibrium: they felt they had to align with the expectations of those tasked to monitor them.

India’s new policy recognises these tensions in the classroom and calls for administrators to shift from monitoring teachers to mentoring teachers. This necessitates an attitude and a skill that again requires unlearning old ways of engaging with the teacher and what happens in the classroom. It also calls for new knowledge bases to be created about education and the developing child and why pathways to learning can include methods not seen in the classroom in earlier times.

New education policies are an acculturative force that can disturb deeply enculturated ways of thinking about teaching and learning. Much directed action is needed for key persons outside the classroom to learn anew. A policy that pushes for change needs all concerned to indeed fall into step with the policy’s ideas.

Sonali Nag, Associate Professor of Education and the Developing Child, Department of Education, University of Oxford. Archana Ganesh Raaj and Gideon Arulmani are both at The Promise Foundation (India). The authors are investigators in TalkTogether, the UKRI GCRF Collective Fund project researching young children’s oral language development.

Posted 02/11/2020 15:31