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Chalk out a new course

Reservations for OBCs will lead to a huge demand for teachers. But unless existing recruitment procedures are changed, we will still be compromising on the quality of teaching, writes Shobhit Mahajan.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2006 00:54 IST

One of the fallouts of the current debate on reservations in institutions of higher learning has been the realisation that there is a need to recruit many more teachers if the number of seats have to be increased. A quick calculation shows that if the 27 per cent reservation is to be implemented without changing the absolute number of general category seats, the total number of seats need to be increased by almost 54 per cent. Assuming that all the teachers currently teaching already have a full teaching load (defined in a classic bureaucratic way by the UGC), it stands to reason that we would need about 50 per cent more teachers.

Leaving aside questions of quantity, like whether these huge numbers are available immediately (in some subjects like computer science, even now it is virtually impossible to find enough qualified candidates), I think the more substantial question is one of quality. Though not a question of compromising quality, the really pertinent question is, are our current recruitment procedures really geared towards picking the best teachers?

Here is how recruitment at the undergraduate level works in the sciences: the typical candidate is a fresh PhD or a postgraduate pursuing a PhD. S/he is also NET qualified, though the UGC has recently dropped this condition for those with MPhil or PhD. (Does it have to do anything with the fact that thousands of teachers will be needed soon?) The candidate is selected on the basis of his/her research work and academic record. The interview tests knowledge of the subject via some routine, bookish questions. At no time is their suitability as a teacher assessed.

Any teacher obviously must possess adequate knowledge of his subject. A rigorous post-graduate course and then several years of research are presumed to have given him enough grounding. Of course, an active researcher brings to the class his exposure to the very latest in the field. But is that all that we need from a good teacher?

To my mind, a good teacher needs to be much more than just a brilliant researcher -- apart from the obvious qualities of good communication, language skills etc. I think the main thing distinguishing a good teacher from an ordinary one is whether that person inspires students, whether he can transmit the excitement of the subject and whether he can teach the students to think. The subject matter per se is easily found in textbooks and so it is not so much a matter of teaching the subject, though that is certainly a necessary condition. And nowhere during the recruitment process do we ever test these things.

For instance, a physics teacher cannot possibly be a ‘good’ teacher if he is not curious about the world around him. How does a microwave or a mobile work? Or how does a solar eclipse happen? More trivially, why do seasons occur? I have asked these questions in interviews for college lecturers and, to my surprise, a vast majority have no clue -- yes, not even the seasons one! What is more disturbing is that almost all these prospective lecturers have never thought of asking these questions to themselves! After all, almost everyone has encountered a microwave oven and a mobile phone. A good science teacher would at least be curious to know how they work.

All the candidates I have come across had brilliant academic credentials -- most of them were PhDs and yet, these simple questions had never crossed their minds. It is difficult to imagine how they would ever transmit a sense of excitement about the subject to their students. And if that’s not the case, we would continue to engender disinterested science graduates who, given the first chance, try to make it to the management or computer institutes.

An interesting sidelight to this issue is the news item about science courses in even the prestigious colleges of Delhi University not getting enough applicants. Various reasons have been given: lack of job opportunities for science graduates; pure sciences losing their prestige in society etc. To my mind, there is another important reason: the science teachers that these students encounter in their schools have been unable to excite them enough about the subject.

Interestingly, in the recent past, I have been to a couple of elite schools in the city to select science teachers and have asked them these very same questions. The result: not a single one has been able to answer them and most of them had never thought of them.

This being the condition in the best schools of the city, is it any surprise that the best students get away from science at the first opportunity?