Just bricks in the wall

What does the future hold for teachers in Bangladesh?

It is a common perception that in order to better education, we have to increase the number of teachers. I feel it’s a fairly accepted hypothesis as well. Our rural areas lack teachers. Increase the number, and we’re good.

Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee’s experiments in rural India turned that logic on its head. Through them, he noted that increasing the number of teachers in schools had no discernible impact on the education level -- test scores for students remained unchanged. 

This, naturally, got me thinking.

Now I’m aware that one set of experiments should not be swaying my belief in such an established line of reasoning. But, the man does have a Nobel Prize, so I couldn’t completely discount it either.

Reading about Dr Banerjee’s experiment brought about the obvious question: What was the future of teachers? 

Technology continues to become more prevalent. Online education’s importance and necessity magnifies. The fourth industrial revolution brings inevitable and undeniable changes. Through all this, perhaps the question, “will we need less and less teachers?” is not completely invalid. 

Will we eventually have robots and AI taking our classes? Returning to Dr Banerjee’s experiment, why have we even invested in teachers? Are they even making a difference? The result of his experiment goes against everything that educational institutions have continued to speak about -- that of the importance of teachers, and having enough of them to help students. 

The much touted teacher-student ratio is just a myth then, yes?

It’s easy to jump to those conclusions. 

A closer look at Dr Banerjee’s experiment gives us a very important insight -- far more often than not, it is not the teachers that are at fault. 

It is the system.

Dr Banerjee’s experiments were in schools in rural Rajasthan in India, in 20 schools where he doubled the number of teachers in the school. He repeated the experiment in Mumbai, cutting down class sizes even further. 

No effect. Test scores remained the same.

Dr Banerjee thought long and hard about why it was that an almost universally regarded truth -- that teachers helped students succeed -- was not being replicated in his experiments. 

Now, it’s safe to assume that these experiments are relevant for Bangladesh. The lessons we learn are extremely important for us to shape our own education for the future.

What Dr Banerjee learned was that quantity did not matter. What mattered was the quality of the teacher. Furthermore, if the education system, lesson delivery, planning, and overall pedagogy never improved, what good would teachers do, and how would teachers be flourishing in such an environment? 

To quote Dr Banerjee:

“There is content that needs to be delivered to the child every day. There's a syllabus, you follow that. And then, that's the best you can do. The fact that the child may or may not get it. This is really an extremely underprivileged area. Parents [often] were in no position to support their children. So if the children fall behind, they fall behind. [W]hat's happening is that the teacher was just teaching any child who managed to stay with the teacher, but the rest of the children were behind. [T]here was no mechanism for integrating them. Today's material is, we'll learn these kinds of words, if you don't follow that's too bad for you. We have actually lots of evidence suggesting that that's the right explanation.

“So therefore it doesn't matter if you double the number of teachers ... There are only two or three children in that whole group who were able to follow, the rest of them were lost in any case.”

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Bangladesh always talks about enrolment rates; there are more children now in school than ever before. Our literacy rate has increased significantly. Having more and more children in school is a good thing, and we can and should be proud of these milestones in education.

However, the question of the quality of our education, of the quality of our students and teachers, is always left unanswered. 

The reason for this is simple: We are not ready to have that conversation yet.

We may look to increase the number of teachers. We may want a better teacher-student ratio in our schools. 

What we really need are better teachers. Teachers who care. Teachers who are willing to not just follow a syllabus and deliver lessons, hoping that some students understand them. 

To answer the question at the beginning, the future for teachers are better trained teachers, and an education system and environment which invests in the quality of each teacher. 

We need teachers. Not just bricks in the wall.

AHM Mustafizur Rahman is Joint Editor, Op-ed and Editorial, Dhaka Tribune.