National policy on education 2020 : Is the teaching of ‘basic’ foundational literacy and numeracy skills so basic?

The much awaited national policy on education 2020 has been reviewed multiple times at the draft stage and many individuals and organisations had shared their views on the same. These suggestions were sent to the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) with a view of bringing more clarity in the document in order to see a policy which not only functions as a vision document, but also lays clear actionable points for an effective implementation. The final policy document is an effectively revised version of the draft policy. It has managed to concise its ideas in brief areas of implementation which may function as a broader visioning for the education system. I would not comment on what could have been re-articulated in the document and the few inherent inconsistencies that it carries. I would rather briefly elaborate on what can help bridge the divide between ‘what is articulated in this policy, what is understood by the schools, by textbook writers and civil society organisations’ and ‘what is actually taught in the class rooms’. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the policy is not a curriculum framework. A policy should ideally be a vision that should inform a curriculum framework and its preferred epistemology. To bridge this divide, the suggestion would be to prepare a revised curriculum framework and an implementation plan that would elaborate on many ideas that may look too vague in terms of implementation or may not suit all contexts.

The idea that I choose to deconstruct in this article is ‘what is foundational/ basic’ broadly derived from section 2 of the policy highlighted as  ‘an urgent and necessary prerequisite to learning – Foundational Literacy and Numeracy’ and section 4 highlighted as the ‘Curriculum and Pedagogy in schools: learning should be holistic, integrated, enjoyable and engaging’. Laying the emphasis on these foundational skills the policy mentions –‘The ability to read and write, and perform basic operations with numbers, is a necessary foundation and an indispensable prerequisite for all future schooling and lifelong learning. However, various governmental, as well as non-governmental surveys, indicate that we are currently in a learning crisis: a large population of students currently in elementary school – estimated to be over 5 crore in number – have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, that is, the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with Indian numerals’(P8).

What is ‘basic’?

My concern is to relook at the understanding of this policy of what ‘basic’ may mean and how may it be interpreted or understood in implementation. Without having a common understanding of the content of what may ‘basic’ mean, a lot of people feel teaching of ‘basic’ skills is very easy. It is assumed that children just need to go to the school regularly (access), teachers should teach and assess children regularly and with integrity and beyond that these ‘basic’ skills are generally considered as an easy skill to be taught. Even many of my urban friends in Delhi share with me how they ensure their children’s learning by asking them to do ‘more maths sums’ or listening to their ‘answers from the chapter as ‘revision’, asking them to ‘remember the alphabets from A to Z’. It is so ironical that when a friend read this article at the draft stage, he asked me ‘what else am I supposed to teach my child?’. As parents, many a times people don’t know how they can support their children’s learning in a way that is not drills or rote memorization. Although many urban parents now expose their children to experiences like storytelling, creative writing workshops, puppetry or even talk to them about their experiences, they constitute a very small section of India’s urban population.

These skills are considered so ‘basic’ that even in casual conversations one may listen to an assumption that an early educator teacher’s work is ‘too easy’. After all, all she has to teach is some ‘basic’ alphabets and numbers or ‘basic’ maths operation. A nursery or a primary teachers’ ‘basic’ teaching skills and social standing are reflected in the educational institutions where many refer to them as ‘junior’ teachers and their pay scales as compared to the middle school or secondary school teachers further reinforce this idea. The understanding of ‘basic’ here aligns with the discourse that considers these skills as easier, simpler and inferior but fundamentally utilitarian means to reach the so called actual goal of ‘real academic learning’ to actualise the larger vision of education. Even a policy says – The rest of this policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement (i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic at the foundation level) is first achieved (P8).

Understanding the foundational skills

One of the most prevalent understanding amongst people for skills like learning to read is – to be able to read the textbooks, clear exams and get into good colleges for a good job. Skills like early numeracy are understood as the skills needed to excel in middle school mathematics to eventually clear various entrance exams. Even the policy’s description of ‘basic’ numeracy is limited to the ability to carry out ‘basic’ addition and subtraction with Indian numerals. The ability to ‘mathematise’ is not something that exists as a common widespread goal amongst various stakeholders. It is not only the absence of formal early education care and education to which children’s learning gap in grade 1 and 2 can be mapped to but also it is also how literacy and numeracy are understood as a skill by teachers, institutions and assessments.

Although the policy does not articulate this in a precise way, but for an effective implementation, ‘basic’ should be interpreted as those significant cognitive and psycho-social skills that are necessary to interact with and interpret the world. ‘Basic’ must mean the necessary thinking structures that the children must have or must develop to be able to become the mentioned ‘lifelong learners’. And by lifelong learners, we must understand someone who has and is able to attain social, scientific, mathematical knowledge systems and are growing in their learning. The understanding of these ‘basic’ skills must move from reading and writing to language proficiency from ‘basic’ mathematical operations to mathematical and spatial thinking through a scientifically researched pedagogic practices.

Looking at the foundational skills as absolutely a new set of ‘basic’ skills different from the mainstream education, which need to be focused more will be repackaging the education reform. When the policy says that – Teacher education and the early grade curriculum will be redesigned to have a renewed emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy (P8), it must articulate that emphasis does not necessarily mean inclusion of a new knowledge area. It should rather also imply an efficient transfer of the existing knowledge of scientifically researched frameworks of pedagogies. Teachers should not be just focused on the outcome of teaching ‘basic’ addition and subtraction, they must also understand how numbers are learnt and the importance of concrete experience for acquiring numeracy. They should understand and believe in the process of reaching at these learning outcomes.

Access versus quality debate

One may ask if these skills are so ‘basic’, simple and easy, then why are children not acquiring them in schools and what is the need to teach them on a mission mode? The widespread understanding of what ‘basic’ or ‘foundational’ learning is, lays the onus of acquiring the skills majorly on access to school and teacher’s integrity, ability to transact them and his/her ‘focus on teaching them’. To add to this, the policy further suggests that the ‘disadvantage areas’ with high rates of illiteracy require these ‘basic’ skills the most, bringing the focus back on the issue of access or subtly indicating towards the ability of people living in these ‘disadvantage areas’ to acquire these ‘basic’ skills.

As a policy framework, there is a linear assumption about learning for first ensuring access universally and then focusing on quality. The spiral and integrated nature of how the classroom engagement helps ensure access (did you not attend classes that you liked and felt engaged in) and how access further ensures the continuity of learning (because there was a school in your city that you could go to and afford, you were able to attend one) is not emphasised. While the midday meal is an important motivation for the child to continue her education, the quality of learning and engagement is never emphasised enough as an indicator to prevent dropouts. Unfortunately, the state of education has remained such that even after 74 years, access to education itself becomes a quality achievement.

In reality there are many children who face difficulty in early literacy and early numeracy even in well-resourced private schools. It is assumed that children in private schools are better academic performers and their perceived learning is owed to their dedicated and ‘focused’ teachers, parents and availability of resources. While one may not deny the importance of access to schools and the availability of teachers, in the context of school education, what is being taught (content) and how is it being taught (pedagogy) is assumed to hold very less value. The interpretation of what should be taught is very different from the lens of a publisher, a civil society organisation, a private school and a textbook writer. Sometimes all of them even operate on different epistemological beliefs. The ‘basic’ is different to everyone. In the last nine years of my work, I have repeatedly heard the phrase ‘Agar itna bhi padha de teacher to sabki zindagi ban jaye, hum bhi to aise hi padhe hain’ (Even if the teacher dedicates herself to just the teaching of these ‘basic’ skills itself, everyone will learn, we have also studied like this), implying that the learning gap amongst children is due to unmotivated or untrained teachers who could have at least taught these ‘basic’ skills to children. The issue of training the untrained teachers arises every year to ensure the administrative licensing and qualification of teachers. The certification issued to these untrained teachers also does not ensure their deeper understanding of teaching in a classroom. Ironically, if the ‘basics’ of teaching in a teacher education course, i.e. the pedagogy is taught to the student teacher considering that these ‘basic’ skills are extremely important for an efficient education system, these teachers will teach foundational skills with equal importance, depth and understanding.

Need for a revised curriculum and assessment framework and a proper dissemination strategy

Every discussion on pedagogy gets more subjective in its interpretation through its implementation by various educational institutions. Therefore, beyond the policy, a well-defined curriculum framework needs to articulate clear pedagogies of knowledge areas based on rigorous international and local researches. There is a need to realise that only ‘increased focus’ interpreted as ‘more repetition, or more emphasis’ will not help children suddenly acquire literacy and numeracy. The focus should translate into a structured articulation of ways of teaching and the science of that knowledge area. These should inform:

  • Articulation of pedagogies of various knowledge areas (e.g. how should numbers or reading be taught)
  • A reflection on the epistemological, philosophical and social beliefs that these suggested pedagogies are imbedded into (why is there a belief that these knowledge areas can be taught like this, specially deep-rooted believes in pedagogy is like the whole language approach and the phonics)
  • An elaborate and collaborated document for teachers to understand how these ideas are translated into simple language for classroom implementation.

Ironically, the already existing National Curriculum Framework, 2005 fulfils most of these objectives to a large extent but revising it to incorporate teachers’ struggles of implementing the existing curriculum and textbooks should be seen as a part of the implementation strategy. I remember, in many of my teacher trainings, some teachers would often ask me why should they teach in the different ways that the training was suggesting and why shouldn’t they continue teaching in the ways that they have been teaching so far. In such cases, a scientifically researched sound curriculum framework aligned with the policy decisions used to work as a point of reference from where the process of enabling the teachers began.

Similarly only by discovering ways of qualitative transfer of knowledge and bridging the real issues of the cascade of training, will the teachers really ensure whether children will acquire these foundational skills at all. For many years, large number of teachers found it difficult to understand the pedagogic rationale behind the new NCERT textbooks. A sound knowledge dissemination strategy should be assessed in teachers’ ability to teach these fundamental skills in the classroom.

Content versus value systems

Many states’ language or early mathematics textbooks align or at least try to align very closely with the previously existing curriculum frameworks. But at the same time one finds that to teach these skills that early literacy and early numeracy require, teachers, textbook writers and curriculum developers need to recognize that teaching of these skills is embedded in a value laden discourse. Skills like reading are closely tied to the kind of pictures, stories, texts and contexts that are chosen and children’s experience of them. While language proficiency and mathematical thinking can be seen from purely a skills perspective, but at the same time their pedagogies are dependent on the contexts, values and their representation in children’s lives in which they use these skills.

The other challenge in choosing the modalities to teach these ‘basic’ skills is to not only ensure an unbiased content but also an image, text or a context that creatively challenges the children. Whenever a discussion around these issues arise, I have been repeatedly told to not intellectualise something that can be very easily understood by the teachers. Although one of my specialities (thanks to all those years of theatre) was to bridge the gap between developmental psychology, educational sociology and pedagogies such that even a government school teacher in a remote area would understand it, I have often been told not to complicate the things. I often hear the statement let the ‘basic’ be ‘basic’. I never looked at the fact that I was introducing child development or pedagogic principles of knowledge areas to teachers but I saw them as ways to educate a teacher, understand her as an adult and use principles of andragogy and that these are also ‘basics’ of teacher education. Despite many people’s claims that such a discussion around these ‘basic’ skills puts us in the risk of complicating things, I would still advocate for a deeper understanding of what is ‘basic’, till the ‘basic’ is seen as important and not just as a step ladder to the higher grades.

Author Bio

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Vandana Kapoor

Vandana Kapoor has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Education.She has worked in education sector for more than 8 years. She is a passionate teacher, a teacher educator, a theatre enthusiast and engaging deeply with the issues of education, policy and children’s learning are some of her areas of interest.

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