Feature story

Class apart

Teachers and teaching have primacy in an effort that is sparking worldwide interest in how educators are educated

When Smruti Shovna joined a pharmaceutical firm back in 2018, she had her sights on a career in microbiology research. Her experience turned out to be an eye-opener. While working at the company, she realised that the fresh graduates who came on board did not understand even the most basic of scientific concepts. Clearly, there was a problem with the way they had been taught.

Ms Shovna got further convinced of the learning deficit when she evaluated conventional teacher preparation programmes. The style of teaching during the mandatory Bachelor of Education (BEd) course was, she found, inherently flawed. “The focus was on rote learning to pass exams rather than on comprehension,” she says, showing up a particularly weak spot in India’s educational setup.

The doors to a different, and finer, perspective on pedagogy opened up for Ms Shovna when she enrolled at the Centre of Excellence in Teacher Education (CETE), an independent centre at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) that is designed to strengthen the knowledge and skills of aspiring and current teachers, as well as teacher-educators — those who teach teachers how to teach. “CETE’s student-centric focus equips us to become better educators,” says Ms Shovna.

And better educators are what India urgently needs, given that they are at the heart of what is — with 9.7 million teachers and 248 million students — one of the world’s largest schooling education systems. The availability of teachers is a concern too: India faces a deficit of one million and counting.

Reforming this system has been a slow work in progress, even after the ground-breaking Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009, came into force. The intent behind CETE is to help bring about education reforms that will strengthen the implementation of the Act.

Transforming education

Started by TISS in 2016 as the Centre for Education Innovation and Action Research (CEIAR), CETE was created in 2018 with the Tata Trusts as its founding partner. The Centre offers long-term post-graduate programmes and short-term certificate courses that cater to qualified teachers and teacher educators already working in schools and teacher education institutions. The mode of instruction varies from physical classes to a blended, or purely online, model that uses a digital learning platform called TISSx.

More than 19,000 ‘student educators’ have enrolled with CETE for its online courses, which run in English, Hindi and a host of regional languages. Some 5,000 mostly government schoolteachers — the majority of them from Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Assam and West Bengal — have been trained through certificate courses and the Centre has also conducted more than 250 workshops and research seminars.

CETE’s courses are free of cost for government schoolteachers, with the fees being borne by the state governments deputing them or by philanthropies and organisations such as Unicef. A good number of learners enrol in an individual capacity as well.

New perspectives

New Delhi-based Ashu Threja has been a teacher-educator for 12 years and was a schoolteacher for a decade before that. Yet it’s only in the last year — after a stint at the Centre of Excellence in Teacher Education (CETE) — that she has found her profession more fulfilling. “Being at CETE has taught me how to become a practitioner who learns, explores and reflects,” she says.

Ashu Threja says the CETE course has enabled her to learn, explore and reflect

Teacher education in India has been largely disconnected from modern teaching methodologies and research. “Before CETE launched one, there was no formal programme for teacher-educator development in India,” says Mythili Ramchand, the professor who leads the programme.

The Centre’s postgraduate certificate programme in ‘contemporary education perspectives and research’ was launched in 2017 with two aims: to bring educators up to speed with the latest trends and learning in teacher education and to bolster research capabilities.

Ensuring that teachers are viewed as professionals who need reskilling is a priority for CETE. “We teach educators about the complex cognitive task that is teaching and the need to engage student-teachers in active learning pedagogies,” adds Ms Ramchand.

In keeping with CETE’s vision for education, many of its modules are available for free on TISSx, its learning platform. There is more to all this than money and fees, and Ms Threja is an example. “After all these years, it’s like a new beginning for my own education,” she says of her experience with the relearning that has changed her professional life.

Reimagining teacher education in India, as CETE has tried to do, is a tricky task. Random reforms and poor investments have not helped and then there is the problem of perception. Teachers are seen as ‘technicians’ whose primary job is to help students pass exams, not necessarily to ensure that they learn about the world around them.

Given the narrow view of their responsibilities, it’s no surprise that many teachers are out of sync with contemporary pedagogy and its practices, and even the role of technology in improving education outcomes. A 2021 report by CETE and Unesco found that much of teacher education in India is conducted at below-par private colleges. Fostering teachers in special, vocational, arts and music education, or quality research, gets precious little attention.

CETE has attempted to tackle these issues by contributing to policymaking in the sector; building better career pathways for teachers; crafting partnerships with stakeholders in the system, especially governments; and bridging the research gap in education. “There isn’t much commitment to rigour in the sector because people do not believe that working with teachers produces change,” says the Centre’s chairperson, Padma Sarangapani. “That’s why CETE needs to exist.”

CETE’s pedagogy takes the road less travelled in teacher education in India. Its integrated BEd-Masters programme has elements like adaptive English, which describes how different cultures use the global language to communicate, and theatre classes for new teachers to overcome stage fright. Field practice and experience are critical in long- and short-term courses, with postgraduate students getting to intern for a year in designated schools.

In the short-term certificate courses, working teachers employ a framework known as the ‘constructivist use of technology in learning and teaching’ (CTLT) to enable students to gain knowledge through experience. For instance, a teacher can explain the idea of pollution better by guiding students to measure contaminants in a local water body. Similarly, toy-making, games and experiments are used to simplify complex subjects.

Students and their teacher undertake a science experiment at the government school in Ram Nagar in Jaipur

Learning from mistakes

Teachers training at CETE are expected to learn through mistakes by using reflective practices. Online ‘communities of practice’ have been formed to help participating teachers connect and collaborate with faculty and peers. “Some teachers call this ‘rich people’s pedagogy’,” says Amina Charania, an associate professor at the Centre, “so we cite instances such as children from marginalised sections fashioning projects of their own. That converts them.”

Thinking out of the box is a constant with CETE, an example being the ‘CTLT digital badge' — rolled out with support from the Open University, United Kingdom — wherein teachers take the course in modules and earn badges along the way as markers of their progress.

CETE’s efforts have been gaining recognition from different state governments in India and from abroad too. The digital badges system has been piloted with about 500 teachers in Assam and Unicef has approached the Indian government to impart the CTLT component to 4,000 teachers in 10 states (the project has already been launched in three states).

CETE also designed, in 2017, a two-year postgraduate teacher-educator initiative for 40 teacher-educators in Afghanistan. While a part of the course was delivered by a CETE team in Kabul, the learners also visited the TISS campus in Mumbai.

CETE is closely involved with two pedagogy programmes nurtured by the Tata Trusts: the ‘connected learning initiative’ (CLIx) and the ‘integrated approach to technology in education’ (ITE). CLIx has received a grant that will take the programme to Tanzania, Nigeria, and Bhutan, while ITE’s strategy of ‘each one teaching another’ is slated for implementation in the Maldives, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Students take part in an activity session at the Government Senior Secondary School in Undra in Rajasthan's Sirohi district

“Improving the standards of pre-service teacher education and transforming in-service teacher education through collaboration and technology are the core of CETE’s strategy,” says Ms Sarangapani. It’s the kind of endeavour that India’s teacher education system is crying out for.