Mathematics Education in India: Does It All Add Up?
How many times have you heard that the U.S. needs students who are good at math in order to produce more engineers and compete with those in India? Yet, as Duriya Aziz, Senior Vice President, International Education, Scholastic Inc., argues below, math is for more than just engineering. She outlines why and proposes ways to improve the overall quality of math education in India—suggestions that have applications in the United States as well.
By guest blogger Duriya Aziz
Mathematics is not taught in India as a subject itself—it is taught to be a tool for engineering and an eventual engineering career. The focus is on getting good grades to get into revered institutes of learning. However, the reality is that math is a critically important skill for a person to feel competent and capable of interacting with and participating in society. The OECD's new Survey of Adult Skills shows that poor mathematics skills severely limit people's access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs. Beyond that, it shows that people with strong skills in mathematics are also more likely to volunteer; see themselves as actors in, rather than as objects of, political processes; and are even more likely to trust others. Fairness, integrity and inclusiveness in public policy thus also hinge on the skills of citizens. In India, changes in the quality and quantity of mathematics education are critical to level the playing field and bring a move towards equality in social and ecomic opportunities available to all.
Quality versus Quantity
Defenders of the quality of education in India point to the large number of globally competitive Indians, while school leaders point to the large number of their students that make it to US colleges and universities. Yet, a 2008 Policy Research Paper points out that "for every ten top performers in the United States there are four in India" and "for every ten low performers in the United States there are two hundred in India." The combination of India's size and large variance in achievement give the perception that India is shining even as it is drowning.
What are some key areas that can be addressed urgently and immediately? The points made below are based on my observations and interactions with stakeholders in math education in India over the past five years or so.
Research in mathematics education
In order for mathematics education to be dynamic and responsive, robust research in mathematics education is urgently needed to look at global trends as well as local innovations and their systemic and systematic application and implementation.
The textbook can serve as a manual for classroom instruction —indeed, when Singapore set off on its journey to reform mathematics education in the early 1980s, this was the path that it took. In an environment where pedagogical content knowledge of teachers is not something to be assumed, curriculum materials can play an important role in bringing a basic level of quality in instruction for the classroom and home.
Currently, Indian textbooks tend to be simply about showing an example, followed by a list of practice items. The emphasis thus is on procedure rather than concept. In order for students to become employable adults in a knoweldge-based economy, the objective of learning mathematics has to change from merely learning computation or solving template based problems to building conceptual understanding and procedural fluency so that learners approach problems with confidence and persevere in solving them. They must also be able to communicate and justify their solutions. These objectives can be achieved by creating stringent standards and guidelines for materials development.
Good mathematics teachers in the required numbers
Good mathematics teachers do exist in India. In fact, as I have conducted workshops on global best practices in mathematics in major cities in India, the one thing I have consistently noted is that mathematics teachers in India know their mathematics. Strangely enough, this is not an assumption we can make elsewhere in the world. However, these teachers usually teach at the top private schools and are too few in number. And, while they may have the required understanding of mathematics, they are lacking in pedagogical content knowledge. In resource-poor national schools, there is neither the required number of teachers, nor the knowledge base. Thus, new modes of teacher professional development are required. One solution is to deploy newly created course materials (as recommended above), first to re-train teachers in an approach that is grounded in developing deep conceptual understanding and makes problem solving the central objective of learning mathematics. Then afterward the materials can be introduced into classrooms.
The diversity and openness of the Indian education scene makes it possible for parties other that the national government to play a role in influencing and driving change. Non-profits and teacher institutes, as well as private teacher training colleges and universities, can play a leading role. In addition, the private education sector can drive change by leading the charge to embrace new ideas and ideologies in mathematics education.
The purpose of learning mathematics has to change from ensuring entry into engineering courses to developing the child's intellectual capabilities to become better thinkers and effective problem solvers. This holds true not only for India, but also for students around the world.
Photo of Indian students courtesy of Bruce Fuchs.