08 March, 2009

Understanding Quality Education

By C. Radhakrishnan

The goal of achieving universal primary education has been on the international agenda since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed, in 1948, that elementary education was to be made freely and compulsorily available for all children in all nations. Upholding this principle, our constitution makers also made free and compulsory elementary education as one of the major features of the constitution. However, most of these declarations and commitments are silent about the quality of education to be provided. Even people, who heavily invest to start modern educational institutions, sometimes forget the need for quality. Education without quality is meaningless and useless.

Why Focus on Quality?

The achievement of universal education will be primarily dependent upon the quality of education available. For example, how well students are taught and how much they learn, can have a vital impact on how long they stay in school and how regularly they attend. Furthermore, whether parents send their children to school at all is likely to depend on judgements they make about the quality of teaching and learning provided – upon whether attending school is worth the time and cost for their children and for themselves. Schools help children develop creatively and emotionally and acquire the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes necessary for responsible, active and productive citizenship. How well education achieves these outcomes is important to those who use it. This aspect is a major area to be focused by edupreneurs, who invest a lot of money in starting high-fi schools. Merely filling spaces called ‘schools’ with world class infrastructure and facilities would not address even basic objectives if no real education occurred. Accordingly, edupreneurs, educators and policy makers alike should also find the issue of quality difficult to ignore.

Two Key Elements of Quality Education:

1. Cognitive development is identified as a major explicit objective of all education systems. If quality is defined in terms of cognitive achievement, ways of securing increased quality are neither clear-cut nor universal.
2. Education’s role lies in encouraging learners’ creative and emotional development, in supporting objectives of peace, citizenship and security, in promoting equality and in passing global and local cultural values down to future generations. Compared with cognitive development, the extent to which they are achieved is difficult to determine.

Evolution and Different View Points of Quality in Education:

1. The evolution of UNESCO’s conceptualization of quality:

One of UNESCO’s first position statements on quality in education appeared in ‘Learning to Be: The World of Education Today and Tomorrow’, the report of the International Commission on the Development of Education chaired by the former French minister Edgar Faure. The commission identified the fundamental goal of social change as the eradication of inequality and the establishment of an equitable democracy. Consequently, it reported, ‘the aim and content of education must be recreated, to allow both for the new features of society and the new features of democracy’. The notions of ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘relevance’, it noted, were particularly important. The Report strongly emphasized science and technology as well. Improving the quality of education, it stated, would require systems in which the principles of scientific development and modernisation could be learned in ways that respected learners’ socio-cultural contexts.

More than two decades later came ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’, Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by another French statesman, Jacques Delors. This commission saw education throughout life as based upon four pillars:

• Learning to know acknowledges that learners build their own knowledge daily, combining indigenous and ‘external’ elements.
• Learning to do focuses on the practical application of what is learned.
• Learning to live together addresses the critical skills for a life free from discrimination, where all have equal opportunity to develop themselves, their families and their communities.
• Learning to be emphasizes the skills needed for individuals to develop their full potential.

This conceptualization of education provided an integrated and comprehensive view of learning and, therefore, of what constitutes education quality.

The importance of good quality education was firmly reaffirmed as a priority for UNESCO at a Ministerial Round Table on Quality of Education, held in Paris in 2003.

UNESCO promotes access to good-quality education as a human right and supports a rights-based approach to all educational activities. Within this approach, learning is perceived to be affected at two levels. At the level of the learner, education needs to seek out and acknowledge learners’ prior knowledge, to recognize formal and informal modes, to practise non-discrimination and to provide a safe and supportive learning environment. At the level of the learning system, a support structure is needed to implement policies, enact legislation, and distribute resources and measure learning outcomes, so as to have the best possible impact on learning for all.

The aims of education, from the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29 (1) - States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:
(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;
(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;
(c) The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;
(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;
(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.

2. The UNICEF approach to quality:

UNICEF strongly highlights what might be called desirable dimensions of quality, as identified in the Dakar Framework. Its paper Defining Quality in Education recognizes five dimensions of quality: learners, environments, content, processes and outcomes, founded on ‘the rights of the whole child, and all children, to survival, protection, development and participation’ (UNICEF, 2000). Like the dimensions of education quality identified by UNESCO those recognized by UNICEF draw on the philosophy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

3. Quality in the humanist Tradition:

• Standardised, prescribed, externally defined or controlled curriculums are rejected. They are seen as undermining the possibilities for learners to construct their own meanings and for educational programmes to remain responsive to individual learners’ circumstances and needs.
• The role of assessment is to give learners information and feedback about the quality of their individual learning. It is integral to the learning process. Self-assessment and peer assessment are welcomed as ways of developing deeper awareness of learning.
• The teacher’s role is more that of facilitator than instructor.
• Social constructivism, while accepting these tenets, emphasizes learning as a process of social practice rather than the result of individual intervention.

4. Quality in the behaviourist tradition:
• Standardised, externally defined and controlled curriculum, based on prescribed objectives and defined independently of the learner, are endorsed.
• Assessment is seen as an objective measurement of learned behaviour against preset assessment criteria.
• Tests and examinations are considered central features of learning and the main means of planning and delivering rewards and punishments.
• The teacher directs learning, as the expert who controls stimuli and responses.
• Incremental learning tasks that reinforce desired associations in the mind of the learner are favoured.

5. Quality in the critical tradition
Critical theorists focus on inequality in access to and outcomes of education and on education’s role in legitimizing and reproducing social structures through its transmission of a certain type of knowledge that serves certain social groups. Accordingly, these sociologists and critical pedagogues tend to equate good quality with:
• education that prompts social change;
• a curriculum and teaching method that encourages critical analysis of social power relations and of ways in which formal knowledge is produced and transmitted;
• active participation by learners in the design of their own learning experience.
Agreement about the objectives and aims of education will frame any discussion of quality and that such agreement embodies moral, political and epistemological issues that are frequently invisible or ignored. One of the most important challenges India faces even today is providing universal quality education. If we are actually dreaming of Kalam’s ‘Vision 2020’, it’s necessary to chalk out some framework or strategies to guarantee quality of education. In the present Globalised context a joint effort by the Government of India and major edupreneurs is very essential to tackle this issue.