…content and pedagogy.
Hello and welcome to the 52nd edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.
We, at Things Education, have been working with teachers, teacher trainers, school leaders and sometimes students over the last three years. We have been reading, understanding and implementing some of the best practices of teacher professional development over these years. We thought that it would be a good idea to reflect on the process and see where we have reached as an organisation and also the area of teacher professional development in school education, in general.
Before we go any further, a small clarification – this edition will focus on teacher professional development of in-service teachers. There is a lot that can be done to modernise pre-service teachers education, but that is for another day. We will begin by exploring the question – Once teachers are trained and gain their qualifying degrees, what still may hold them back from achieving the highest possible student outcomes?
New teachers coming into teaching are mostly young and definitely inexperienced. Their qualifying training has not encouraged them to explore multiple different ways of teaching a subject or to even take any risks of deviating from norm-based direct instruction. Even after a few years of experience a teacher only gains experience in terms of years taught, and is still not equipped or confident enough to try a novel technique or approach in class. Hence, almost all teachers, experienced or not, are not trained to or encouraged to explore multiple ways of teaching a subject. In our experience, the two major reasons why little exploration happens in teaching are low content knowledge and lack of pedagogical knowledge or skills among teachers.
Low content knowledge among teachers
Low content knowledge here means that a teacher teaching biology or chemistry may not have had professional training in the subject. This means that a teacher teaching grade 8 chemistry has learned just enough to only teach their particular grade. For example, this teacher will need to teach the periodic table to their students. The teacher therefore knows the content matter in the grade 8 textbook. However, what were the topics or lessons taught in grade 5, 6 and 7 which lead up to the understanding of the modern periodic table? Or, how does this lesson on the periodic table connect to the topics in grade 9 and 10? These are a couple of questions that this teacher will not be able to answer very well. Low content knowledge among teachers does two important things: teachers cannot make connections within their subjects and with other subjects, and teachers are not confident.
A common reason for low content knowledge (and maybe confidence) is that sometimes there is only one science teacher who teaches all science subjects even in high school. This means that a teacher trained in physics is also teaching high school biology.
Low content knowledge is almost nationally seen in India – not just in rural areas or low-income schools. In fact, any reports of international agencies will list low content knowledge among teachers as a very big challenge across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Low pedagogical knowledge or skills
An important cog in trying out new pedagogical approaches in class is to know what the different approaches are and how they are different from what one has been doing. Answering questions like ‘How will it help student learning outcomes?’ or ‘Which pedagogical approach would be the most effective for which topics?’ becomes the first step for this.
Even if a teacher understands the different pedagogical approaches, the next daunting step is to know or have the skills to actually apply this understanding in a classroom with 40 students. This step needs skills and confidence.
In our experience, teachers generally lack the knowledge of different pedagogical approaches, except for the basics that they were taught during their qualification degrees. However, we see a general lack of understanding and clarity on foundational concepts like what learning outcomes are or what formative assessments are. Again, these trends are nationally seen in India and also a common feature of educational systems in developing countries.
How continuous teacher professional development can help
We have explored two major trends among teachers in India. This is not to say that there aren’t any exceptions. This is also not to say that other more deep-seated structural problems do not exist. In fact, we believe that the two issues mentioned above stem from the deep-seated structural issues. However, we are not going to focus on those for this piece. Instead, we are going to explore ways in which the NEP 2020 has tried to address these concerns through policy. We will also explore the possible on-ground solutions to these problems.
The table below summarises the ways in which the NEP 2020 looks to address the problems. These are deep issues, and policies can only do so much. So the NEP 2020 recommends schools to ensure that teachers undergo 50 hours of professional development courses in a year, while the management does the same. Then the policy encourages teachers to use government portals like SWAYAM and DIKSHA to find good content so that teachers can build their knowledge base and skills. Apart from the governmental sites, there are a few other sites which help teachers through videos, curated resources, webinars, etc.
Our general observation is that online resources for teachers are mostly focussed on administrative tasks (not included in this article). The ones that are focussed on academics are geared more towards helping teachers build content and pedagogical knowledge to some extent. These sites are also doing decently at developing communities of teachers.
However, what these sites are definitely not able to do is to build teacher skills to implement pedagogical practices to their classrooms. Like mentioned before, having the knowledge and being able to apply that knowledge in front of 40 students are two completely different things. So this is where schools need to focus their 50 hours of continuous professional development – how can teachers become more confident to apply different pedagogical practices that they learned online in classrooms? For this, they need to bring in external experts to ensure that the teachers have understood the new pedagogy well and then hand-hold them to implement them in the classroom.
Another important aspect missing (partially, if not completely) from online teacher support resources is accountability of teachers. Yes, there are certifications for teachers who complete some videos, etc. But real accountability is to check what the teachers are doing with the knowledge obtained from the online resources. Schools would be in a great position to hold their teachers accountable for the online learning that they do. Schools should ask, “How did taking up a course on project-based learning change the way you teach in class?”
We would like to end with a clarification: by saying teachers can focus on building teacher skills (and hence their confidence) to apply new pedagogical approaches to their classrooms and hold teachers accountable, we are not saying that the schools should only focus on these. Schools should at least focus on these. At the same time, we have seen that any in-person teacher training session is better than an online session (all other things being equal). Schools should be encouraged to have more in-person sessions for their teachers, but if they cannot always do that, schools should at least ensure that they can fill the gaps where technology is almost completely absent and qualifying degrees don’t help. And schools must take help from experts for this.
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