After quantity, Nepal's education needs quality

Bikram Rai

Nepal has made dramatic improvements in literacy rates and school enrollment over the past 20 years. The same cannot be said for the quality of education, however.

Teacher training just focuses on how to use existing sloppily-produced text books to prepare for exams rather than the underlying philosophy behind the curriculum. Assessments are used to catch and punish students, rather than to understand if they are learning properly.

Though not perfect, educators agree that Nepal’s curriculum is sufficiently good, and includes details about skills students need to learn in every subject. But ineffective implementation of the curriculum impedes true learning, and jeopardises the future of the country's young minds.

Most teachers are oblivious of the difference between curriculum and textbooks, so teaching primarily becomes making students memorise these books. Rajendra Dahal of Shikshak magazine says the domination of textbook-learning means that curriculum aims do not reach classrooms.

Textbooks have now become a part of the problem, perpetuating the gap between classrooms and the curriculum. Experts say a good curriculum should not be driven by textbooks or exams, rather by an overall vision that tries to identify the country’s needs. Learning should be experiential and related to the students’ world, and what they identify with.

Says one Nepali teacher trainer: “Present teacher training is only about how to use textbooks, not why and how to realise the goals of the curriculum. Teachers have to know how children learn, as well as the purpose and goal of the curriculum.”

Beyond this, textbooks are often shoddy, full of mistakes and poorly written and produced. When teachers focus primarily on such textbooks, the problem is compounded.

Students are therefore deprived of the experiential learning that comes from the world around them. Instead of embracing this, the education system dismisses students’ reality and instills an illusion that rote learning from a textbook and sitting exams is a proper education.

“Classroom models must now change to better facilitate learning. Students themselves are a rich trove of knowledge, not just the empty vessels we have treated them as ,” explains Lava Deo Awasthi, former Secretary of Education. He adds that teachers went through a traditional learning system themselves and have to unlearn the style they learnt at school.

The National Center for Educational Development (NCED) has been launching periodical teacher training programs, bringing teachers up to speed on pedagogy, using of teaching resources and conducting activities.

“Many teachers now have access to training, but teachers must also implement what they learn,” says Diwakar Chapagain of NCED. “Teachers can give excellent model classes, but if one happens to stumble into a regular class of the same teacher, then the quality of teaching is not great.”

Textbook improvement is just a component of overall quality of education. And teachers alone cannot be blamed, they need more support and training to help understand their roles.

“So the focus must shift to mobilising teacher training materials and library books to promote better learning,” says Shanta Dixit of Rato Bangala Foundation, which is involved in upgrading the capacity of teachers in government schools. “Motivated teachers will not just paraphrase textbooks, but foster critical thinking and creativity to fulfill curriculum aims.”

With local governments now in place, the opportunity to improve gaps between classrooms and curriculum is immense. However, Kathmandu has been reluctant to hand over power over education to local governments.

Examining examinations

Every year in June, there are news flashes about who passed and failed the high school SEE tests. But how good are these exams?

Evaluation was changed into grading system to make it more descriptive and holistic, but all that happened was that numbers were converted into letter-grades. Exams still fail to capture the true sense of a students’ ability, and SEE questions are still primarily memory based.

The curriculum also provides guidelines for evaluation, and to receive an A+, a student must possess exceptional skills of ‘problem-solving, creativity, critical expression and participation’. But exams do not measure any such abilities.

Many teachers and parents believe that good exam results indicate quality, so teachers teach to enable students to pass the existing exams, making them memorise facts and practice on past papers. But if exams themselves were to improve to ask analytical questions, students would do even more poorly because they are only taught to regurgitate text book content.

“Without teachers being trained to foster skills and thoughts in students, we are now limited to asking traditional questions,” says Chandra Mani Paudel of the National Examinations Board.

Paudel says he has started work to change this by improving questions so that they will measure application and thinking skills, beyond what is just memory-based. The Board has already started training teachers on better question-setting.

Paudel says he plans to completely change the existing focus by empowering teachers, preparing quality questions and researching about how it affects students. He adds: “This is new and will take time. It will also need support from the Education Ministry to take it forward.”