Like advanced nations, India must delink classroom teaching from student learning

The objective is not to teach to the student, which happens through classroom contact, but to make the student learn, which can happen outside classroom contact too.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: October 27, 2016 9:12 am
edu Higher education isn’t factory production. (File)

At every discussion on education and/or innovation, there is a standard refrain. The education system makes students risk-averse and kills innovative thinking. By forcing students to conform to a standardised template, it discourages failure and thereby discourages deviation from the standardised average. Outliers are not encouraged.

The refrain is indeed true. Several ingredients result in the outcome the refrain describes, beginning with entry into the education stream at the pre-school level. Let me focus on only one element of that maze — higher education, and within that, on one small aspect. How many hours per week, on average, does a student spend in attending lectures? The answer will be a function of country, course and level of higher education.

In general, in the US and Western Europe, I suspect the answer is about 15 hours. The catch lies in the expression “attending lectures”, there being a difference between learning hours and classroom hours. The objective is not to teach to the student, which happens through classroom contact, but to make the student learn, which can happen outside classroom contact too. Indeed, the norm in those countries seems to be that for every one hour spent through didactic teaching and classroom contact, the student spends two hours on learning indirectly — 15 hours of classroom teaching thus translates into 45 hours of weekly learning.

In 2015, the UGC announced a choice-based credit system. Though this made higher education options more flexible, it was controversial because of other reasons. This new system has the following definition. “Credit: A unit by which the course work is measured. It determines the number of hours of instruction required per week. One credit is equivalent to one hour of teaching (lecture or tutorial) or two hours of practical work/field work per week.” Credits earned by a student per semester are a summation of lecture plus tutorial plus practical work.

Unless I’ve misunderstood, practical work/field work is meant for science subjects. For social sciences, student learning is still equated with contact with a teacher, albeit lectures plus tutorials. I asked some students of Delhi University about the number of hours of lectures they have per week. I was told, around 28 hours of lectures per week and around 40 hours, inclusive of tutorials and practical work. (Lectures are typically 55 minutes duration, not one hour; I’ve glossed over that minor difference). I suspect 40-45 hours will be the norm throughout much of India. This means either (a) a student has no time to learn on his/her own; or (b) the student spends 120 hours (using that additional multiple of two times) per week on learning.

Since there are only 168 hours in a week, that extreme of 120 hours is impossible. Something like 80 hours is more plausible. The Factories Act (applies to those more than 18) tells us no one should work more than 48 hours a week. Why should that principle not apply to students? Why must we turn them (those who slog for 80 hours) into zombies? The norm will be the student who does not learn on his/her own and therefore, never thinks. If it is (a), the student will invariably reproduce by rote. Therefore, my first proposition is of delinking classroom teaching from student learning, a distinction advanced countries have now accepted. Fifteen hours of classroom teaching is good enough. The second proposition is a stronger one.

What has teacher input got to do with the outcome of student learning? In other spheres, we appreciate the difference between input and outcomes. Why not for higher education? That norm of 40 hours of lectures per week emanates from indicative workloads laid down for teachers. There is a marginal difference between assistant professors, associate professors and professors. Roughly, they have to teach for 15 hours a week. Add an additional 30 hours of tutorials and we have 45 hours. Tutorials also involve physical interface with the teacher. They don’t constitute independent student learning.

Paraphrased, students have 40 (or 45) hours of lectures a week because teachers have to “teach” for 45 hours a week. In the US, credits have their origins in Carnegie Units, pioneered by Carnegie Foundation to determine retirement pensions for professors. At roughly the same time, in 1872, Morris Lyewellyn Cooke wrote a report for Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This was titled Academic and Industrial Efficiency. The intention was to standardise faculty workloads and use this as a measure of delivery of education. There are obvious parallels with factories and industrial production, a bit like Ford Motor Company using mass production to manufacture Model T cars: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

But higher education isn’t factory production, or shouldn’t be. To quote Henry Ford again, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual… But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.” Other countries (read Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area 2015) have moved away from such dysfunctional ideas. So should we.

The author is member, NITI Aayog.