India’s National Education Policy 2016 + my inputs

© Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Government of India is driving a new National Education Policy 30 years since it was first framed in 1986. Unlike most other national policy drafting around the world, this particular policy framing is exciting because it is being designed openly in consultation with the larger education community and has welcomed inputs and feedback from anyone. While this sometimes seems like a breakthrough model in centralized governance, this should very much be the modus operandi for all policy drafting. Write a broad framework for the policy, invite inputs from the community within a short and well-defined time period, and let there be open discussions and debate on each issue in the larger policy. I do, you can be assured, understand this could really water down breakthrough policy ideas if consensus seeking becomes the goal, and so a model where domain experts are shaping the policy through these inputs, as opposed to being replaced by them, should be the norm.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) of India has come up with a list of inputs for the policy drafting process and are welcoming views and suggestions on the same. After going through the major sections and skimming through the rest, I was less than thrilled. Irrespective of whether this is merely an “inputs” document, it still is a major document coming from the MHRD, and it feels extremely incomplete and open-ended. It reminds me very much of the 2005 National Curriculum Framework (NCF) of India based on the Yash Pal committee report which painted a rosy vision from a 30,000 ft view, but fails to delve into any practical implementation details of any high-level learning theory and childhood and literacy development ideas. This inputs document also severely lacks reference and insight from international education policy and successful educational interventions and programs around the world. While it emphasizes focus on the right areas of concern, it lacks emphasis on strategy and deep dives into the complexities that local administrators have faced in the past decade in bringing good education reform to life. This lack of concern of implementation and realization can lead to development of hollow programs, which sound great only in the echo chambers of the parliament house.

Like I do with any such reports, I narrowed my focus and energies onto the section on curriculum and teacher training reform, with a further focus entirely on K-12 education. Let me respond to some of the standout statements and share my list of fresh inputs:

The curricula also need to define the standards of educational performance and learning outcomes through which objectives of education are realized and the attainment of which can be assessed/monitored with a view to revision and upgrading of the curricula.

This is extremely important. But this is just the the tip of the iceberg. The implications of this are far too deep.

Let’s first look at what the government already puts out through NCERT. The NCF was accompanied by “syllabus” documents for all core subject areas from Grade 1 through 12, circa 2005. Having done several deep dives into these documents, I realized that these syllabi were just simply very very weak listings of topics to cover – with no clarity on levels of specificity. For example, while the UK’s curriculum document for elementary school English state learning objectives to the specificity of “Read common exception words, noting unusual correspondences between spelling and sound and where these occur in the word“, and the US Common Core Standards go a step further with clear expectation of performance statements like “Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in three-phoneme (consonant-vowel-consonant, or CVC) words.*(This does not include CVCs ending with /l/, /r/,or /x/.)“, the NCERT document simply had the phrase “Recognize whole words“.

What happens when you don’t clearly define learning outcomes / objectives / targets in clear standards? You guessed it right – all the curriculum and instruction designed upon these frameworks turns out to be completely lacking of any clear goals in terms of student expectations.

But what you probably would not have guessed is that even the very same department’s materials don’t align with their own defined syllabi. In 2014, while studying the relationship the content in NCERT textbooks and the national syllabus documents for middle school math, I discovered a serious deviation from what the syllabi statement in the textbook units. And what do you think happens when textbooks become the curriculum, like in a country like India? Exactly; assessments are based on textbooks, and private publishers basically try to make enrichments of the sequence of units in the textbooks and try to appeal to the assessment gods. Breakdown successful.

The NCERT tried to correct this under the new education administration by creating Learning Indicator documents in 2014 (post introduction of the Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation), but these are still far too disconnected from the materials being used in classrooms).

So here is what I recommend: invest energy in designing clear educational standards, which take into consideration local needs and the national vision and philosophy of education in the country. Invest research and development into this process (Singapore is an Asian country whose research and set of standards are great starting point for inspiration). The outcome should definitely be a lot more than just a list of topics in a reference syllabi document. They should be the most solid basis and guide for curriculum and instruction design. And to begin with, a rewrite of NCERT student and teacher materials should be exemplar models for application of these standards. Don’t deviate; please! Lastly, if coming up with one set of perfect standards that NCERT and the SCERTs can easily adopt isn’t possible, work on some differentiation, but do NOT give up on making a canonical set of standards. Standards, while seeming like a top-down strategy for controlling learning, are, in my opinion, the best tools for distributing autonomy in education innovation.

 

Improving the assessment of student learning assumes greater importance in the context efforts to improve learning outcomes.

This is one of those vague recommendation inputs I was referring to above. ANYWAYS, I’ll get to assessment shortly.

 

Curriculum should be outcome-based and aim for overall development of students through imparting life-skills in an increasingly technology driven environment.

India’s infatuation in the last decade-and-a-half reminds me very much of the love-hate relationship the US has had with the life skills and 21st century skills and deeper learning. I feel like a breakup is coming soon.

Look, I am all for life skills. I was a serious proponent since 2009 which is when I fully understood what they meant. But I think it is time you get over looking at it in it’s microscopic curricular view. Developing life skills fundamentally requires (a) creative liberty and time on the part of teachers to explore some of these ideas, (b) understanding and appreciation of them, and techniques on how they could be taught.

So I recommend this: don’t loose your obsession on the need for life-skills, just focus on the right areas. Work on developing a clear set of focused and limited subject skills (not to be confused with knowledge standards), life skills, and attitudes that you want students to engage with throughout their curriculum. Instead of mandating these ideas as extra-curricular activities that eventually count towards the grade, bake them into major themes across your curriculum. These could be the integration glue across content in different subjects. But life skills are complex ideas, and most teachers struggle to grapple with them. So, most importantly, invest in teachers and good professional development around every detail on bringing these inside their classrooms. Enforce autonomy and depth of student engagement, over coverage of materials. And don’t evaluate for minor signs of their existence in student abilities – this over-optimization has caused such an outcry with CCE. Instead, focus on reinforcing them every day, and for heavens sake, don’t try to grade or assess them. I get the whole “what can’t be measured can’t be improved” idea, but this place is an exception because of where the education system is today.

For science, mathematics and english subjects, a common national
curriculum will be designed.

Very cool! As long as curriculum here doesn’t refer to a word-for-word scripted textbook, but rather a broader framework / scope and sequence alongside performance expectations, this sounds like a good plan.

 

Continuous assessment, standards in paper-setting, transparency in evaluation criteria, etc. are some steps that can be taken in this direction.

So, for starters, this is good. But there are some pitfalls that must be avoided at all costs. The Indian education system has for long been experimenting with different forms and frequencies of examination. But the place where I think its attempts really fall through the cracks are with absence on focus on the quality of assessment questions.

In trying to optimize for some ancient definition of rigor, test setting has become a habitual exercise of unreasonably complex and tricky problem setting. When not copying reproduction of knowledge questions from previous question banks, assessment designers aim for writing questions which are often unreasonable to comprehend due their various interpretations. This ensures the bell curve of grade distribution. The status quo is a very far distant place from a good assessment design, which engages student understanding at various depths of knowledge, is authentic, and does not optimize for student performance resulting from a wider study of an already too-wide text.

More on assessment, later.

 

Here are some other key ideas that are important:

The NCF should be reflected in curriculum, instruction, and assessment

Whether or not a new National Curriculum Framework is drafted, the in-place NCF should be used as a model and guiding light for design of textbook materials, teacher training, and summative and formative assessments. It’s not really necessary to draft an entirely new NCF to reflect the changes in the world in the past decade; the 2005 NCF was a great document when it comes to long-term thinking. However, state and national textbooks far from reflected it’s goals. A policy intervention that mandates the collaboration between various autonomous bodies that drive the implementation of these reforms should be put in place. Otherwise, we are going to experience yet another theoretically brilliant policy document which isn’t going to affect anything.

 

Framework, guides, and autonomy

I believe the next era of education reform in India should be about setting excellent models and cutting-edge benchmarks alongside distributing exhaustive amounts of tools to school administrators and teachers to bring them to life in classrooms every single day. Specifically, a SINGULAR strong curriculum, instruction, and assessment research institution should scaffold development of textbooks, teaching materials, low-stakes and high-stakes examinations, teacher professional development, and derivative work at local education boards. This requires a large amount of investment from the government, as the aim should be to make it comparable to the top education departments in top-tier education systems. NCERT just doesn’t cut it today; it does too many things, and is severely under-resourced. A new model which gives autonomy to great leaders at every level without letting their egos get in the way, to me, will be the real innovation here.

Irrespective of the structure, the work produced and the tools distributed should include, but not be limited to:

  • Assessment development frameworks and guides across multiple subjects and multiple grade levels. These should go in-depth into covering a variety of best-known techniques for assessment design, and have thorough explanations of the values of different kinds of questions. The temptation of building mere “question banks” should be avoided at all costs, and these should encourage and guide schools to put fresh thought into high-quality and varying models of task and assessment design.
  • Research and evidence-based curriculum and instruction principles summarized and contextualized to be understandable and digestible to teachers. Much of the great work in curriculum and instruction remains inaccessible to most teachers and state and local planners because it is written in far more advanced education systems working with a different set of education policies and classroom environments. Thus, it is extremely difficult for teachers in public schools to digest any of it, even if we assume they had access to all the great literature. Simplifying while preserving the essence of much of this work should be a focus. This should become a continuous and not a one-time or merely cyclical process.

 

Reducing emphasis on textbooks

While this has been stated in one-form or another in every policy input and recommendation made in a large number of Asian and African countries yet, it is important to re-emphasize this. What is less emphasized is how to balance the reduced emphasis of textbooks. What will the teachers do now that they won’t have their best friends in the classrooms to speak based on?

The imbalance created from lighter-thinner-narrower textbooks can be replaced by professional development for teachers, and a significantly larger amount of scaffolding in lesson and unit planning in the form of flexible lesson and unit plans. Engaging in the process of curriculum design at the simplest of levels drives teachers to engage with content better, and target their student needs, as opposed to focusing on “completing the portion”. This process is going to come with hiccups initially; but the education bodies should be ready for and try to mitigate as much of it with training school leadership on changing this very ancient textbook-driven curriculum mindset AND enormous materials and in-person support in the form of instructional mentors.

It will be EXTREMELY interesting to see what student-centricity looks like in such a world; a idea that never had its time in the Indian education system.

 

Reduce content / syllabus

When I speak to some of the very best teachers who are currently or in the past were in the Indian system and ask them about why they do not allocate more classroom time to help students fall in love with the subject, they almost always tell me that they can’t do so because they need to complete the syllabus. The syllabus always seems to be scripted down to the smallest detail in conjunction with the content. Contrast this to what happens in Finland or the US, where the pacing guides are far more fluid, and have enormous room not just for interpretation of the units of study, but also time for exploration of the topics in greater depth. Every teacher has the ability and autonomy to find and make the most engaging materials; unsurprisingly, over decades, it is these progressive education systems that give rise to most literature and teaching materials on what works. Interestingly, the narrative in the US in trying to bring about Common Core was that the curriculum is “a mile-wide and an inch-deep”. If that’s true in any way, Indian curriculum is 10 miles-wide and an inch-deep.

Tied to all the autonomy that many Indian education reformers are pushing for is the need to significantly lower the focus and amount of content, and giving teachers a lot more room and classroom time for going deeper into fewer units, where they can spend more thoughtful time on skill-building. If anything, this reduced emphasis and effort on content should be replaced by ideation, tools, and materials for teachers on how they can make the most of classroom-time and engage all kind of students. This new-found room may result in enormous amount of creativity at a school-level in driving inquiry and project-based learning. I genuinely believe most teachers have exhaustive ideas on what they would do if they had more mindful time with students.

Now there are a couple of classic arguments against this idea, which I have somewhat touched upon before. The first is that if we give teachers more room, they wouldn’t actually know how to use the time and might naturally gravitate towards more knowledge disseminating rote practices. I admit, this is actually most plausible. But here are a couple of things to understand. If you take any mammal out of the habitat it has gotten accustomed to for decades, it will feel disoriented for quite a while before coming to terms with its new surroundings (reminds me of the Bollywood movie Jis Des Men Ganga Rehta Hai). Similarly, it would take a year or two for teachers and school leaders to understand how to make the most of the new time, where making the most is not the same as giving out more information. But this is an idea whose time has come, and I believe that this need for course correction will create economic and social forces which, when guided by a solid policy and curriculum framework document, will support teachers in this transition phase. During this period, professional development programs with teachers and school administrators is going to be extremely vital, and the government must commit to such resources. It is not just important to do MORE professional development, it is important to do BETTER professional development which is more more student-centric, and not content-centric.

The second popular argument is that central and state education boards actually make the final decisions on syllabus and content, and the government can’t change anything. The first part of that statement is true, but the latter, in my opinion, is something that can be changed with a new education policy. While states should be able to maintain a large amount of control (like with US’s in-works Every Student Succeeds Act), the government should have a tighter ability to rally the education boards to implement reforms in more continuous cycles. This may be done like the US, where federal funding is tied to implementation of specific agendas. There is something beautiful and compelling about economic incentives that promotes the most thoughtful and involved change.

 

Reduced importance of Grade 10 / 12 examinations

It is widely known that the Indian Grade 10 and 12 examinations dictate the future of the largest youth population around the world. Higher education in India needs a mechanism to filter the brightest from the not-so-bright ones, and these ill-designed and ill-graded examinations have over-time become this filter. For mostly economic and scale reasons, the boards of education have struggled to make a lot of change to the design and proctoring or these assessments, or to find alternative assessment models that can test deeper thinking in the students. CBSE’s frustration led them to replace scores out of 100 to grades in the past few years. Unfortunately, because of how high the stakes are for these examinations, most high-performing schools start tweaking the design of their assessments to the style and pattern of grade 10 and 12 examinations from as early as grade 5. The rest of the schools follow.

In light of these constraints and challenges, in the next 5 or 10 years, we need to find alternative means of not letting these assessments determine the fate of learning through middle and high-school grades in the country. Through written policy or more softer communication strategies, schools may be guided to focus on better assessment design that help reflect deeper and authentic student understanding, over trying to make students ready for 30-question pattern papers. More frequent and less rote testing at a classroom level, which have become popular in several parts of the world, may be explored. The further assessment and evaluation moves away from the teachers in early grade levels, the lesser the students will find the feedback relevant, the lesser scaffolding schools will be able to provide students in charting their own life paths.

But this is definitely Plan B. Plan A should involve trying to majorly reform and test newer models of testing for grade 10 and 12 at the central and state levels. The biggest breakthrough the country needs to focus on getting is reforming evaluation of assessments, where measures and rubrics don’t involve observing for regurgitation of textbooks responses. Literally. For a very long period in history we just didn’t have the means to do this at scale, but I believe we have unprecedented technology today to try to make this possible.

It’s important to know that this is not a global phenomena. The widely popular SAT examinations in the US do not severely affect instruction and assessment in classrooms, and while AP scores are often regarded as valuable by most top-tier institutions, the tests are really high-quality in their design and are assessed with the assistance of technology. A lot of this innovation is possible because the organization administering these examinations is an independent body, and can dedicate focus and dollars on improving rapidly.


 

I am optimistic about the opportunity the government has here with a new set of policies, but I fear that we lack the research and experimentation to drive major changes in policy before trying them out. If anything, I think the policy designers should take this challenge into consideration and through policy, try to ensure that we are equipped with this knowledge sooner rather than later.

In case you have any suggestions or thoughts on these inputs, please write to me at varun [at] opencurriculum [dot] org, or write a comment below.

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