Stuck in the Stone Age: A Call for 21st Century Teaching in Rural Schools
This article is part of our Rural Reset series, where we evaluate forward-looking, long-term solutions to the issues and challenges facing the people of rural India. Check out our LinkedIn page every Wednesday to find proposals for innovative solutions in the areas of education, gender and livelihoods.
The problem with traditional subject learning
Rural schools currently provide 21st century students with a 20th century education. The challenges of our modern world require leaders armed with the ability to think in interdisciplinary, innovative ways. The only way to address issues such as climate change, global inequality, widespread technological innovation and the prospect of future pandemics will be through analytical, well-reasoned decision-making. However through their emphasis on rote learning and math/writing curriculum, rural schools aren’t building leaders, but rather followers.
To create well-rounded students that are prepared to face the obstacles that this current moment presents, schools must move beyond the traditional academic subjects taught to students. Rural schools must develop new curriculum and teaching methodologies that integrate cultural, interpersonal and technical understanding into their existing instruction. The rural leaders of the future require this much.
The need for new curriculum
The skills and capabilities currently taught in rural schools are not those that enable students for success later in life. A strict emphasis on math and writing curriculum leaves little room for other subjects such as creative and cultural learning. While math and writing will always be important, a curriculum that includes only those subjects comes up short in the development of well-rounded, socially and academically intelligent students.
There should be a greater emphasis on art, music, dance and those subjects that foster creativity in students. Artistic pursuits are not only a crucial part of creating skilled, well-rounded students. Arts education is associated with higher facilities for sensitivity and interpersonal communication. And creativity should not be segregated to only extracurricular activities. There are clear benefits to encouraging creativity in standard school assignments as well. A Gallup study found that primary and secondary school teachers who frequently create assignments that require students to think creatively are much more likely to observe cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and deep inter-subject connections in their students. As art teacher Kendra Vidvalaya has stated, “Instilling a love for artistic activities in schoolchildren would pave the way for creating creative adults.”
Schools should also build cultural education into their curriculum. Cultural education creates a deeper understanding of one’s own culture and a deeper understanding and acceptance of cultures different from one’s own. By building local cultural events and intercultural lessons into the academic calendar, schools send the message that celebrating culture is important and something to be proud of. India is a country of great cultural diversity in a vast, diverse world. Through an emphasis on connecting with one’s own culture while embracing those of others, cultural education prepares students to be global citizens while grounding them in their own identity.
The need for new methodologies
A culture of widespread rote learning is also holding rural Indian students back from achieving their full potential. Most rural primary and secondary schools’ teaching methodologies emphasize memorization and reproduction of facts and figures found in course textbooks. In fact, a study from the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) concluded that only 14 percent of Indian classrooms use teaching materials other than the textbook. This strict emphasis on rote memorization creates students who are able to recall information without any depth of understanding or critical analytical skills. And it handicaps these students later in life. A report in The Economist found that fewer than 25% of Indian-educated engineers are employable. Rote learning equips students with two-dimensional knowledge to live in a three-dimensional world.
Rural schools must employ more engaging, blended forms of instruction inside of their classrooms. One way to do this is by increasing the “real-world” application of existing topics. Students learning basic math should be asked to solve word problems that build connections between multiplication and interest rates for example. Visual and tactile methods of problem-solving can also be used.
Schools must also provide students the opportunity to become more active participants in their own education. One clear example of this practice is through NITI Aayog’s Atal Tinkering Labs. These ‘maker spaces’ focus on nurturing a spirit of creativity and innovation in students. Participants are encouraged to build their own solutions to presented issues ranging from household inconveniences to disaster management. Spaces such as the Tinkering Labs give students the opportunity to learn by doing rather than listening, and build important understanding of concepts outside of their textbook applications.
Finally, students should also be given opportunities to apply their in class learnings to situations outside of the classroom. By working with local industries to create internship and apprenticeship programs, students will start to build connections between their academic skills and professional opportunities from an early age. Apprenticeships have the added bonus of providing students the opportunity to develop professional and interpersonal skills.
Conclusion: the future leaders of India
The job market in 2020 looks very different than it did 10 or 20 years ago. It is no longer enough for candidates to have merely completed their education in a given subject. Recruiters now look for job applicants who demonstrate applicable professional skills and have the social and emotional intelligence to thrive in a given workplace. However, because of their schools’ sole focus on math and literacy education, many students in rural areas don’t have the opportunity to develop the technical and soft skills required for future success.
Even outside of the job market, studies have shown that well-rounded students are more likely to achieve success in all parts of society. Rural schools must thus adapt their curriculum and instruction methods to the needs of the day, and the needs of their students. The only way to build the future leaders of tomorrow is to start today.