Linkages between Higher and Basic Education A Personal Perspective

 

A.N. Maheshwari

Chairperson, National Council for Teacher Education

 

The theme of the workshop is identification of linkages between higher education and basic education. There are many inspiring examples when experts in higher education found solutions to intractable problems when a challenge was put to them. The goal of achieving universal elementary education, which has remained elusive so far, is one such challenge that calls for response from the higher education system. For this to happen the experts in higher education would have to willingly accept that issues of basic education legitimately fall within their academic activities, which they normally do in universities. This workshop, which is being attended by experts from across the country, aims at placing the role of higher education in tackling problems of basic education.

 

As I was listening to the addresses of the distinguished persons in the inaugural session, my mind drifted and started tracing the course of my own professional life. To some extent, by change of my mindset, I could manage to cross over to basic education from higher education. When I look back at my career I find that I have been shifting back and forth between these two extreme ends of the educational spectrum. I will, therefore, use this opportunity in sharing candidly my own personal experiences. I hope this will not be out of place in this serious discourse.

 

I am a theoretical physicist with research interests in high energy physics, Feynman path-integration and gravitation. But over the years I developed new academic and professional interests, to wit: teacher education, school education and educational administration. During my career I have had association with institutions that span a wide spectrum of education. Some of these were the University of Chicago; International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy; Regional College of Education, Mysore; Cochin University of Science and Technology, Cochin; National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT); National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). As would be seen from their names linkages between these institutions/organisations, at best, are indirect. It would be interesting to find how I could associate myself with them as their activities spread over from basic to higher education. I would, therefore, try to trace linkages between higher and basic education from my own career.

 

My initial exposure to tertiary education was as a student at the University of Delhi during the period 1959-1964. I did my B.Sc.(Hons) and M.Sc. in physics during that period. As a student then my concern was mainly on learning physics. I wanted to enter the career of research and teaching in physics. It did not cross my mind then that I should take part in activities such as the National Service Scheme (NSS), linked with the community. Physics students at the University of Delhi were too busy understanding deeper truths such as the structure of the atom than the structure of the society in which they lived. With this background I moved on from the University of Delhi to the University of Chicago.

 

I had selected the University of Chicago for my research studies, as that institution was a part of physics folklore. A galaxy of famous physicists, to name a few, Michelson, Enrico Fermi and, of course, S. Chandrasekhar had their association with this institution. My impression was that in this University, linked with the names of more than one hundred Nobel Laureates, the main activity of its teachers and students would be research at the frontiers of knowledge and the pursuit of excellence. For quite sometime I did not know that the University was running a School for children in its campus and that it was being used as a laboratory by educationists such as Bloom and others for their research studies in the field of education including the basic education.

 

I continued to follow at the University of Chicago the rhythm of my earlier life at the University of Delhi. I kept myself occupied with my research studies. I could not help noticing that my fellow graduate students had interests other than that of research in physics. I once asked a friend, who was spending 2 to 3 hours in the evenings at the Student Centre, what he did there? He asked me in turn whether I had seen any black student in the campus. He himself pointed out that it was more probable to find in the campus students from obscure countries in Asia than students from the neighbourhood of the University. The University was an island surrounded by black ghettos on its three sides and the Lake Michigan on the fourth side. According to him, children from the neighbourhood of the University had the disadvantage of lack of support from their parents and of poor schooling. It was, therefore, inconceivable that any black student from the ghettos in the vicinity of the University would ever be able to meet its admission criteria. Therefore, he and many other graduate students spent their evenings at the Student Centre in providing remedial teaching to the children who were living in the slums adjoining the University. They had a hope that some day black students from the neighbourhood of the University might succeed in qualifying the high admission standards and the University would cease to be a place of curiosity to the children and their parents who lived in its vicinity. I did not take part in this activity or in other activities for helping disadvantaged that the American students pursued along with their studies. But I began to question the ivory tower approach of pursuing higher education in isolation. In addition to learning physics I became aware of irrelevance of higher education devoid of societal concerns such as equity in education and attitude of helping the disadvantaged. The period I spent there at least made me sensitive to the need of doing something for the society. I realised that having received generous support from the society that enabled me to pursue my academic interests I owed to it some responsibility. In this background after spending some more time abroad I returned to India in 1972.

 

I started my teaching career at the Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla. I thought that the best way for me to contribute to the society would be through my teaching and research. I was not satisfied with my efforts as there was a mismatch between what I wanted my students to achieve and what they were able to do with their abilities, for they joined the University with weak academic backgrounds. After struggling through their M.Sc. course almost all of them preferred to join school teaching than to joining research in physics. I realised that if the need of the State was that of good teachers then the challenge was to reorient the thrust of the M.Sc. course from preparing researchers in physics to preparing good teachers for teaching school physics. This would have given me more professional satisfaction and also the system would have got better teachers. It was a turning point in my professional life.

 

I joined the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for it was running integrated teacher education programme at its Regional College of Education (RCE), Mysore. Therefore, not by design but more by a twist of circumstances I became a teacher educator. I started teaching integrated courses in teacher education. One of the courses that I experimented with was the M.Sc.Ed. Physics course, for preparing teachers for teaching physics in senior secondary schools. At the RCE-Mysore I had the good fortune of having as colleagues some very exceptional persons. They had the background of higher education and were holding posts with designations of Professors, Readers and Lecturers, but their research interests were in education in general and teacher education in particular. The College had a lab school in its campus. It was called the Demonstration School. I now got the answer why Bloom and other researchers in education at the University of Chicago needed a lab school for their work and their contributions were considered by their peers no less important than the work of those who worked in basic sciences or in social sciences or even in professional fields such as law, business or medicine. Like the lab school of the University of Chicago, the Demonstration School completed the full spectrum of education from the primary to the higher education in the same campus.

 

At the Regional College of Education I came across curriculum reforms in school science education such as the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), which were carried out in the early sixties in the United States of America. These curriculum innovations were not carried out by experts in education following the traditional approach but by scientists from the higher education system. The genesis of this curriculum reform was that the USSR had out performed the US by successfully launching its sputniks. The blame was put on the quality of education imparted by the schools in the US. The system was not giving the type of education to students who could compete in science and technology with the USSR. In such a context John F. Kennedy put the challenge to Dr. Seaborg, then Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, to lead a group of scientists from the universities for bringing in reform in school curriculum so that children could be made problem solvers and creative thinkers. These qualities were considered essential for fulfilling the challenge put by Kennedy for America to land a man on moon and of bringing him back safe to the Earth. We all know that this challenge was successfully met. Did the scientists succeed in influencing school education in the US? The answer is that the experts from the higher education system could provide a fresh approach to the school curriculum and came out with an innovative approach to it that has influenced school education in many other countries of the world.

 

I could easily adjust to my role as a teacher educator because I was teaching pre-service courses in which content, in my case physics, was appropriately integrated with professional skills of teaching physics. But over the years my interests in teacher education widened to broader issues in education and research. This was facilitated by my colleagues at the Regional College of Education. I may add here that when I was at the RCE-Mysore I did not discontinue research in theoretical physics as I could spend three months every year at one of the laboratories of advanced research in physics either in India or abroad. I spent nearly 14 years at the RCE-Mysore before moving to the Cochin University of Science and Technology. At the University my principal task was that of governance of higher education as I was its Vice-Chancellor. My background of teacher education and that of theoretical physics helped me in providing directions for making teaching at the University more effective and at the same time linking tertiary and secondary stages of education. From the Cochin University of Science and Technology I moved to the NCERT at New Delhi. At the NCERT my full time responsibilities were administrative and academic management of an organisation working holistically for school education. The NCERT by its structure has direct linkages between higher education and school education. Its faculty comprises of experts with backgrounds of higher education who have chosen to work in school education. I would not like to dwell on the activities of the NCERT as I expect they would have been covered by others in this seminar. With my experience in teacher education, school education, educational administration I moved from the NCERT to the National Council for Teacher Education as its Chairperson. The NCTE is a statutory body created by an Act of Parliament. Its broad mandate is planned and co-ordinated development of teacher education in the country.

 

There are many inspiring examples of contributions by experts from higher education to different levels of education including basic education. Hopefully, others who are attending this seminar would also share their experiences. According to me, for tackling many of the unmet challenges of basic education such as issues of equity, quality, access and retention in elementary schools, it might be crucial for the experts in higher education to take up the challenge and involve themselves with basic education.

 

I conclude by pointing out that many experts in our country have strengthened linkages between higher and basic education. The Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed.) course of the University of Delhi, an integrated 4-year pre-service course for education of elementary school teachers, is an outstanding example of linkage between higher education and elementary education. The need of the hour is to scale up the partnership between the higher education and the basic education.

 

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