A call for contextualized pedagogy

Sociocultural and systemic challenges in Indian education reform

Shutterstock/Travel Stock

The remnants of British colonialism have profoundly shaped the trajectory of policies and reforms in Indian education. There is a need for the Indian educational system to be decolonized to ensure equitable access, inclusion, and quality education for all Indian children. Post-independence, India shifted its priorities in educational policy from a focus on access to an emphasis on quality and relevance. Initiatives like the Kothari Commission in 1964 and subsequent policies—such as the National Education Policy (1986), free midday meals (1995), and the National Curriculum Framework (NCF)—aimed to achieve universal elementary education and reduce dropouts. These policies marked significant milestones towards improving access.

One of the most extensive and longest running national reform efforts, The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) program—which was established in the early 2000s, was focused on addressing quality and also on making the educational experience more relevant for local contexts within India. However, India’s experience with the SSA program proves that when policymakers do not address sociocultural and structural issues, well-intentioned reforms fail to result in the desired outcome. One of SSA’s shortcomings was its assumption that a narrow focus on curriculum reform would change how teachers enacted that curriculum in their classrooms. Subsequent reviews of the program continuously highlighted that classroom reality remained the same despite in-service training programs that advocated for learner-centered pedagogies.

The SSA, aimed at universalizing primary education, included multiple interventions, albeit with varying degrees of success. Some interventions included free textbooks for students, academic and technical support for teachers, and a classroom for every teacher. The SSA gave flexibility to states in determining which interventions to adopt. The program also focused on improving girls education, increasing participation of children from minority populations, and making education more relevant. While the SSA program reduced the number of out-of-school children, absolute enrollment in government schools (the program’s goal) decreased—meaning more children enrolled in private and other nongovernmental schools. Moreover, it struggled to create equitable learning environments and enhance the quality and relevance of education, mainly due to persistent sociocultural challenges deeply rooted within the system. The “chalk and talk”—formal, teacher-centered instruction—still dominated most classroom pedagogical approaches in India. In the case of the SSA program, the gap between policy and practice highlights the need to address other related factors such as curriculum reform and in-service training. Specifically, not addressing teachers’ prejudices concerning marginalized learners, content knowledge (what to teach), and pedagogy (how to teach) resulted in the lack of change in classroom practice.

Overcoming colonial mindsets

British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay once stated that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” From the controlled curriculum that privileges Western forms of knowledge to the marginalization of traditional Indian sciences and languages, the impact of colonization remains embedded in the structures and mindsets of India’s educational system. A 2017 study by the Literacy Research in Indian Languages project showed that teachers associated children’s home language with impurity and mistakes while they believed the language of the school was pure and the language of the educated. This signals that teachers often look at parts of the student population as an “other” that needs to be saved, reminiscent of the British colonial attitudes towards the local population. The same study showed that more than 50% of teachers in their sample believed that children’s caste affected how well they could learn, that children from poor backgrounds were less capable of learning, that boys are able to do better in school than girls, and that the teacher’s priority should be to focus on the “brightest” students who are most likely to succeed academically. These prevailing mindsets persist despite research that showed that many children from deprived social groups (dalit/adivasi) were actually performing well academically. When teachers were presented with these cases, they usually wrote them off as exceptions to the rule.

As policymakers in India continue to pursue pedagogical reforms, it is critical to learn from the experiences of SSA and develop locally relevant reform programs that address how mindsets, values, experiences, systems, structures, and other intangible factors (what the Strengthening Pedagogical Approaches for Relevant Knowledge and Skills [SPARKS] project terms the invisible pedagogical mindsets) influence pedagogical practice in the Indian context. Unpacking the challenges associated with mindsets, attitudes, beliefs, and structures requires dialogue and a nuanced and holistic understanding of pedagogical practice that extends beyond curriculum adjustments and in-service training aimed at changing teachers’ classroom behavior. Pedagogy is a moral, ethical, cultural, political, and technical activity. Shifting classroom practice requires acknowledging and addressing all these complex and multi-dimensional factors. Policymakers need to understand that classroom practices are part of an overall system that is affected by an intricate interplay between sociocultural factors, teacher experiences, institutional structures, and student-teacher interactions. For policies to really bring about change in classroom practice, it is important that reforms—whether they are curriculum changes or in-service training—are seen as interconnected and not as silos or vacuums.

In 2018, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development merged the SSA with two other educational programs under the larger umbrella of Samagra Shiksha. The government hopes to bring a more integrated approach to reform implementation through this larger unified program. A key focus of Samagra Shiksha is to serve as the vehicle for India’s current wave of reforms anchored in the National Education Policy 2020. The practical implementation of this vision through Samagra Shiksha is beginning to unfold. Since its inception, Samagra Shiksha has contributed to increased enrollment, improved infrastructure, enhanced teacher training, and slightly improved gender parity. However, to foster meaningful change towards inclusive, equitable, relevant quality education, Samagra Shiksha must continue to take a holistic approach, address systemic issues such as inadequate funding and teacher shortages, challenge existing mindsets, and embrace localized pedagogies. By prioritizing contextually relevant pedagogical reforms, India can move closer to achieving an inclusive and quality education system for all its children.