Since the past 10 years, the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) have shone the light on a worrying issue: A large number of children in the country cannot read fluently or do basic arithmetic even after attending secondary school. Other studies, including those by the NCERT, have raised questions about teaching methods in Indian schools. Pedagogical interventions in response to these studies and surveys — in Punjab, Delhi, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh, for example — have produced mixed results at best. Now, the Odisha government has attempted to address this problem by doubling the teaching time of three subjects — English, Mathematics and Science — in all government schools in the state. On Tuesday, the state announced that it has asked schools to prepare routines in such a manner that these subjects get 90 minutes of teaching time every day while other subjects will continue to get 45 minutes.
The ASER surveys and several other studies have shown that a large percentage of children in the country’s primary schools — including those in Odisha — are first-generation learners. It’s also well-known that the school environment and the role of the teacher are crucial in providing support to children from non-literate homes and communities. But with pedagogical methods in most schools geared towards completing the syllabus, there is scarcely any scope for addressing the needs of students who are not moving ahead at the expected pace, or those who are falling behind. The Odisha government seems to believe that this shortcoming can be overcome if “students spend more time with English, Mathematics and Science teachers and get time to clear their fundamentals”. This seems problematic for several reasons. For a child acquiring foundational skills in a language which is not her mother tongue — English in the case of students in Odisha — is a complex matter. It involves a number of faculties, ranging from comprehending letter-sound correspondence to making sense of texts. Doubling the teaching time could tax the attention span of students, and may end up doing more harm than good.
Science and Mathematics education has been dogged by the longstanding bete noire of the Indian education system — rote learning. Odisha’s classrooms could become harbingers of change if teachers utilise the extra teaching time to stimulate students to discover the laws of nature and Mathematics. But, for that, teachers will have to be provided the autonomy to venture beyond bookish explanations. The litmus test for the Odisha government’s experiment will be the difference it makes in teaching methods.
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