International Development students, Anushna Jha and Mehrin Shah, make a convincing case for introducing teaching assistants to government and low-cost private schools in South Asia.
The learning crisis in South Asia needs immediate and innovative solutions before another generation of learners go through years of schooling without having learnt much. That South Asia is undergoing a learning crisis is not a new revelation. In 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in its Education for All Global Monitoring Report, warned that schools in South Asia are failing to achieve basic learning outcomes. It reported that less than half of the children enrolled in schools in India and Pakistan were learning the basics. More recently, in May 2018, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reiterated the low levels of learning students in South Asia are achieving.
Among the range of factors flagged as contributing to this learning crisis, inadequate efforts to improve the quality of teaching may be regarded as critical. Not only because of its direct effect on the learning outcomes of students, the quality of teaching also draws its importance for it reflects the will of the larger education ecosystem to ensure quality learning. When facilitators of learning (primarily teachers) are motivated besides being competent, it reflects a resolve of the larger framework of policymakers, administrators, and other stakeholders to ensure actual learning outcomes. Teacher motivation is a critical determinant of the classroom environment and ultimately of students’ learning outcomes. In turn, it is influenced by the kind of treatment teachers receive in terms of their workload, incentives, training, and impetus for professional development. Learners too face several impediments in their learning process – a high student:teacher ratio being a major one. It inhibits the cultivation of the habit of inquiry among students as it may not be possible for the teacher to cater to the questions of each student in a large classroom.
A step towards improving both teaching and learning could be to have teaching assistants in schools. The model proposed here has been thought of keeping government schools in mind, although they may be replicated by low-cost private schools as well.
Teaching Assistants: The Existing Practice
Conventionally, the role of teaching assistants consists of assisting teachers in the classroom with the aim of academic success and better learning of the students. Teaching assistants, under the supervision of the teacher, provide instructional services to the students. By doing so, they allow more time for teachers for teaching and lesson planning.
The application of teaching assistants to aid the learning of students with disabilities in schools has amplified in various developed countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Finland, and Canada. Today, the utilization of teaching assistants to help students with learning difficulties and disabilities in schools has become a socially accepted practice in the western world. In some cases, students with severe levels of disabilities tend to receive majority of their instructions from teaching assistants rather than teachers. States in the U.S. which have the highest number of their students with learning difficulties and disabilities in schools tend to depend more on the teaching assistants than the teachers – the utilization of teaching assistants instead of being “a way” has become “the way” to help students with learning challenges.
Teaching Assistants in South Asia – A Proposed Solution
In the South Asian region, where a considerable proportion of students go to state-run schools, the practice of having teaching assistants is not common. There is a lack of individual attention given to students as a result of many factors including high student-teacher ratios, the huge amount of workload for teachers, and low levels of motivation among teachers. As a result, students may complete years of schooling without being enabled to identify their strengths, weaknesses, aptitude, interests, or aspirations. This, in a sense, defeats the fundamental purpose of education which is to hone a person’s ability to think and also to prepare her/him for the future.
Teaching assistants could play a constructive role in bridging these gaps and facilitating students fulfil the fundamental purpose of education. They could be recruited from the group of educated unemployed youth in that local area and can be offered some stipend in return for aiding the school to improve students’ learning outcomes. This would give some sort of employment to these teaching assistants, ensure that they do not lose touch with the knowledge and skills they have acquired through their education, and contribute in making education better for the next generation. It may also enhance job prospects for these teaching assistants in the future.
Teaching assistants could be inducted on a short-term basis, after a brief training on pedagogies and orientation to the curriculum. The following are the envisioned roles and responsibilities of these teaching assistants.
- Facilitate classroom interaction– The primary role of teaching assistants would be to increase the scope for students’ participation and to conduct engaging activities in order to enhance learning outcomes. Team-based learning would be beneficial for students to grasp concepts as well as to learn central tenets of teamwork.
- Give support to teachers– Teaching assistants could be present while the teacher is conducting a class and assist him/her in conducting group activities or reinforcing concepts. In cases of teacher absenteeism, these teaching assistants could also lead classes so as to ensure that students’ time is not wasted.
- Provide individual mentoring- Each teaching assistant could be given a small group of students to mentor. Mentoring would include reviewing their academic work, mapping their aptitude and interests, giving extra time to students who require further assistance with coursework.
- Conduct awareness programmes– Given that students imbibe a large part of their behavior and attitude from what they learn at school, teaching assistants could organize awareness programmes. These may include sessions on physical health, gender sensitivity among other relevant themes.
This model is expected to help tackle the problem of high student:teacher ratios that is prevalent in most South Asian schools, increase learner-facilitator interaction, allow for creative pedagogic tools to be applied by these teaching assistants, have motivated classroom facilitators in the form of teaching assistants, organise classroom teaching (since teachers would have to make lesson plans in advance and share them with teaching assistants), and thereby enhance students’ learning outcomes. Simultaneously, it could be considered as a means to provide engagement and employment to those currently unemployed.
Overcoming Potential Challenges
There may be initial apprehension that this would increase the burden on the budget allocated for schools. However, in reality, the proposed initiative would only amount to a marginal share of education budget given that these teaching assistants would only be provided with some honorarium. The cost would be much less than that incurred if trained full-time teachers were to be appointed. Moreover, it would be a rather low-cost employment generation activity on part of the government.
Another challenge that could be foreseen is that of resistance from existing teachers who may not be very amenable to sharing space with these new inducts. Huge amounts of workload and high student:teacher ratios could be used as legitimizing tools to gain the acceptance of these teachers. Moreover, it may be emphasized that teaching assistants would not be replacements of the teachers; they would rather assist in improving the teaching-learning process for students. Their interaction with teachers would be regulated so that they are not used to offload the responsibilities of teachers.
The proposed introduction of teaching assistants is by no means expected to be a magic bullet tackling the learning crisis or the problems that plague education in South Asia. It is envisioned to form part of the solution.
Anushna Jha (@anushnajha) is a Master’s student in the department of International Development at the LSE. She has previously interned with the Department of Social Welfare, Government of Bihar, India and Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a think tank based in New Delhi, India. Her research interests include education policy, gender and education, and public private partnerships in public services.
Mehrin Shah is a Master’s student in the department of International Development at the LSE. She has previously interned at the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Pakistan. Her primary research interest lies in public policy, specially in areas of poverty eradication, education, and gender.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.