The expectations of the job market usually exceed the knowledge and skills young people acquire in schools and later in college. Consequently, employers have to spend time, money, and effort to make graduates employable, sometimes without much success; the process is often burdensome to employers operating under budgetary constraints. Many students graduating from college remain unemployed and struggle to enter the highly competitive job market in India.
Can schools help avoid such a situation? A closer look reveals a gap between teaching-learning in schools and the requirements of successful professionals. In schools, knowledge and skills in school subjects are imparted following a set curriculum. Board results in the past few years prove that schools are successful when it comes to following the curriculum. But even when more students keep getting high scores, there is not much improvement in employability. Is it related to a lack of competency?
Competency is an individual’s capacity to apply domain skills and understanding effectively in educational, professional, and personal life. High scores in board exams are a reflection of how well students have mastered the curriculum. But is this synonymous with developing competencies?
Competencies often correspond to specific roles, for example, student, technician, business analyst, etc., or mastery in a particular field. Mastery is benchmarked by the ultimate demonstration of proficiency in a role or field.
A person is competent when he performs at a predetermined performance level (eg., a successful surgery by a medical practitioner) related to the specified cluster of knowledge and skills (eg., medical procedures) that define the competency in a specific field (such as medicine). In school settings, the definition of competency and the predetermined level of performance depend on the grade level and subjects or domains. A student may demonstrate competence in varying ways and at different times across the K–12 continuum.
Competency is more critical than knowledge or skills in a domain. School subject related skills and competencies acquired during compulsory school years are critical in acquiring skills and competencies required to lead a successful life. Skills and knowledge enable a person to perform tasks; however, the effectiveness of performance is the result of competency.
Competencies are more evident in challenging situations like problem-solving. Problems encountered in the real world are more complicated than the problems young students encounter while studying in schools. Real-life problem-solving competency may be considered as ‘the ability of an individual to find meaningful solutions to solve problems using effective and timely strategies’. After completing a course, young people are expected to acquire competencies to solve problems in their occupational and social lives. The expectations are less likely to be met as the present objective of school education is focused on providing knowledge and skills rather than their efficient application.
Let us take the example of mathematics. The school mathematics curriculum in India categorises mathematics skills as knowledge and understanding, application, and higher-order thinking skills, including reasoning, evaluating, analysing, critical, and creative thinking. Mathematics education focuses on equipping learners with the knowledge of mathematics ─ terms, facts, tools, and procedures.
- In primary schools, students do drill work to strengthen their grasp of mathematics procedures like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
- In upper primary, students learn concepts, such as fractions, integers, and procedures like square and square roots.
- In secondary schools, students focus on board results and try to master the skills assessed in the board examinations.
Most of the questions in board examinations require the application of mathematics knowledge and not higher order thinking skills. As maths teachers already know, for example, the type of trigonometry height and distance problems to be expected in board exams, they make students practise those problems routinely so that they can solve them easily in the final test through the application of formulas. This process of teaching to the test helps students to learn to solve a problem but not the essence of problem solving. The process of problem solving triggers higher-order thinking but solving a problem simply involves applying knowledge and skills in pre-defined/routine problems. Such teaching and assessment practices lead to hundred per cent scores in board examinations but limit the highest mathematics competency attained by students to 'application'.
A high level of reliance on board examination results has repercussions for the future. Firstly, average students can solve mathematics problems of examinations in a few minutes or hours, but the problems in higher studies or professional life may take days, weeks, months, or years to solve. Secondly, characteristics other than the application of mathematics are also required in problem-solving. Flexibility and efficient use of mathematics knowledge are crucial along with persistent efforts.
It had been observed in maths classrooms that students who are conscious of their thinking process are more likely to be persistent in struggles of problem-solving as they can retrace their thinking path to re-evaluate it. Competency is the ability to use factual knowledge and application skills along with behavioural elements – a combination of a person’s attitude and aptitude.
Mathematical proficiency is a mix of conceptual understanding, strategic competence, metacognition, beliefs, and disposition.
- Conceptual understanding in mathematics includes knowledge and understanding of mathematical facts and procedures, and skills like application, analysis, and evaluation.
- Strategic competence is the ability to formulate, represent, and solve problems.
- Metacognition provides control over the thinking process and guides learning as one starts thinking about mathematical facts, concepts, procedures, and strategies.
- Focused thinking helps in the effective use of knowledge. Beliefs and disposition can be considered as a ‘habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one's efficacy’. Belief in one's problem-solving capability and mathematical inclination play a vital role in developing mathematical competencies.
What can be done?
To help students move beyond the application of knowledge, be it in mathematics or any other subject, we have to take another look at our curriculum. A curriculum defines what should be taught and when, along with skills required to learn those topics. The objective is to prepare students for higher studies or career goals by the end of schooling, and at the same time ensure that the introduction of topics across the different content strands of a school subject is synchronised.
An average classroom consists of students learning different subjects at different levels; some may be still struggling with topics of lower grades while others are ready to handle complex topics of higher grades. For effective teaching-learning, instructions should be at the proximal level aligned to a learner's current state of understanding. Rigidly following grade-specific curricula may create learning gaps in students.
Redefining the curriculum in terms of increasingly sophisticated processes of reasoning required to understand deeper concepts could be one solution. In other words, a curriculum aligned with a learning progression can help in reducing the gap between teaching and learning. A learning progression provides a description of skills, understanding, and knowledge in the developmental order. It reflects the learning progress in a school subject from emerging to mastered.
The concept of learning progression is not very evident in most curricula around the globe. A clearly defined progression in school subjects helps teachers to track the development of student competencies objectively. Thus, synchronisation of learning progression, curriculum, pedagogical practices, assessment, and teachers' professional development can lead to supporting the development of competent young adults in the future.
Anu Radha Sharma, Research Fellow at ACER India