Triple Boosters for the 5T Economy

10 Jan

Reviving the economy, the five trillion moonshot, and the state of the slowdown, are all exercising the best of minds across economics and business. We have mulched though the need for structural changes, through systemic effects, and through the nudges required to wake sluggish demand. Suggestions are pouring in from experts, and all of these need money, and more. Given the crunch, it is not going to be easy even for experts to agree on which of the suggested options deserve highest priority.

Indeed, this is the question for now – what are the key criteria for budget interventions. For example, are we looking for rapid impact, or a strong sustainable engine of growth, or both? Given the state of the economy, this may need to step away from tradition, and focus on the now and the obvious. The budget itself has always been a time when economic theory, and policy meet business pragmatism. This year, the economy need to be guided by three very basic, but key principles – Value Chain, Discovery, and Multipliers.

India’s major boost up the value chain was thanks to the IT boom of the late 90s, where our production moved up from the traditional handicrafts, gems and jewellery, two car models, and few behemoths, to a vibrant service economy. Even then, the IT boom was at the lower rungs of the value chain, Indian techies often being called code coolies. Our production, across sectors, remained fairly basic, with the aggregate value add (read GDP) rising more due to volumes, and not so much due to a rise in value. India’s large market delivered a consumption boom after liberalisation, so there was little urgency to move up the value chain. If machines were produced here, it did not have to be the Benz, if phones it was not the Apple. High value added services and products were tiny niches, intended for the export market, and rarely led growth.

Moving national income upwards now is not just an exercise in reviving consumption, which is essential, but also, critically, working to earn higher value add from every next transaction. Moving up the value chain is critical to the high ambition of the five trillion economy. This moving up the value chain is not just about the GDP now, but is also instilling a sense of genuine national pride in higher order earned achievements. Identifying markets of sustained value at higher price points, and credibly delivering to that level of expectations is now an imperative for India.

The ambition may be daunting in the light of everyday reality that we face in the markets – and this is true for both labour and product markets. Despite a surfeit of youth of employable age, many of them degree holders, including engineering, employers are united in stating that they cannot find employable youth. Skills programs have tried their hardest, and continue to do so, but the mismatch between supply and demand remain. The start up system tries to find arbitrage and other solutions to these, but is way away from scale impact yet. The tightening of the economy sees the same discovery problem across sectors, with inventories being reined in, product ranges minimised. This is a classical Discovery problem, when the markets are unable to function efficiently to enable the right kind of match – they are neither headed towards being perfect, nor complete. A consumer will likely be able to find a previously popular, or mediocre product, but not the perfect fit. Anaemic supply chains stunt innovation and limit new pathways for growth. Deals need to find their markets, and working capital needs to be put to work much harder – and for this, deals need smarter discovery pathways.

Investors are wary – whether new or old, for ventures or projects, private or government. They are essential to kickstarting the next growth cycle now – and to them goes the third principle – Multiplier. Financial investors have used this term before, as have monetarists. We need to extend this term across sectors, and add it as a criteria to investments. Does this investment create a multiplier effect on growth? Does this investment spur more investment, to create further value? In seeking positive externalities from our investments, we need to be focused on specific multipliers of new jobs, local economies and new businesses fostered. Till investors are limited, investments need to be tasked with doing more for the economy – they need to be a force multiplier for growth beyond their own projects.

India’s growth stimulus packages must be able to provide a pincer push, working on both volume and value, working on both mass and niche discovery, and working on both internal and multiplier gains. It is now upto the experts to design supportive schemes that enable these double, nay, triple boosters.

(Meeta Sengupta is a speaker, strategic advisor volunteers on boards. She writes across education, skills, economics and business and is @meetasengupta on twitter)


Pivot – Start Up

7 May

Turn 1: What do you see.

I see a world that is new to me

What is remarkable in what you see

I see a pain point known to me

Known to you or can others see?

Seen by many but beyond the scree

Can you stumble past and get it for me
And fix it and nix it and make it free
Till the investors doth its value decree
Bringing the alphabet of the money melee
If so, then go forth, I agree
To be its Angel, Arise, Starter Bee!

Do Men and Women See Safety Differently?

3 Oct

Good and Bad Teachers

5 Sep

If Education was a start up, the Minimum Viable Product would be a teacher. The teacher is the pivot of learning – and all attempts to replace a teacher with technology have learnt this lesson again – you may create a centre of knowledge, you may make it look like a traditional lecture, or even look like fun and games – but so far it has been impossible to re-create the whole impact of a teacher. Good or Bad.

Every teacher’s day is a time to reflect – on the good, on the bad and where we want to be as a teacher. There is no doubt that there are wonderful teachers who can inspire students to greatness with one simple sentence. I have been very lucky in all my teachers – and I still remember that one sentence uttered by a teacher in class 7 that has formed the guiding principle of my life and choices. Her sentence was. “The only freedom you have is the freedom to do good”. Every career choice, every moment of doubt, every response in anger and disgust – and indeed every ethical dilemma has been resolved by this understanding of my freedom to act. So many of us have discovered a love for a science, or a poem, or a skill through a good teacher who inspired us to look beyond the syllabus to our potential. This is what a good teacher does – a good teacher helps us dream a constructive dream and teaches us the habits to achieve the goal. When a teacher insists on regular work in the classroom, it is a habit that is being built for life. When a teacher asks for marks – it is only an exercise in goal setting. It is to build attitudes of success, of learning from failure, of identifying gaps, and rising to fix them again. A good teacher does not need to push for marks, a good teacher is teaching skills for success. For life.

And yet, so many get trapped in mere form, forgetful of the purpose. Memorise the book, for it is the fastest way to get it ‘right’. Read up our notes – because we do not really need you to learn to use your own brains. All we need is proof that you walked through the syllabus. Do not bother with your opnions and your questions, because you are little, and little people do not matter. Power matters, and a bad teacher is all about power play. There are too many of those around. They are dangerous. Not only do the bad teachers squash anything that was good in a child, they teach fear. They show a child that the only way to survive in life is to be afraid. And the only way to beat fear is to be the biggest bully in the yard. Bad teachers are literally breeding dog-eat-dog attitudes and this begins in the classroom. Even the smartest amongst us live in fear of getting things wrong – we excel not because we know the subject, but because we are afraid of getting anything wrong. So we become specialists in less and less – and the least common denominator for success is the ‘perfect answer’. Little do we know that the perfect answer is a lie that is taught to us when we are imprisioned. In the real world, we take chances. Make choices. Have consequences. And we must face up to them.

But a bad teacher would not have prepared us for life. What is worse, often a bad teacher would not even know that we were looking to them for skills that would help us learn and succeed. They believed they were only in charge of a textbook and its tests. And we thought they were in charge of us. We gave them power over us, our children, our students and our future – but only the good ones could see it. The other teachers remained trapped in their own little ways – and maybe did not even know that they were dangerous failures who bred failure. Whether at school or college, these were the teachers who taught us our limits and our limitations. Because they were trapped in their own limitations.

Can we change a bad teacher? Can we show them that they need not be the cage, the limit? Ask a parent of a child trapped with such a teacher and we may not see hope. Ask a student whose confidence was crushed again and again, and we may never see hope. But ask again, and share again and again – the ways to break these limitations. Do not stop asking, because it is only in these questions that there is hope. Release the bad teachers from their limitations – or we will forever remain caged. Rescue the bad teachers from their own traps to save our future.

For DailyO Sep 5

Teacher’s Matter

5 Sep

Teachers Matter

Every year Teacher’s day comes and goes with its range of soppy wishes, bright eyed optimism, wearied cynicism and then come the stragglers with their stories of good and bad teachers. Those who made us, and those who broke us.

What none of us deny is that these teachers mattered.

What teachers deny is that they matter.

And there in lies a problem.

If teachers believe that they don’t matter, that their efforts go unrecognised, that they are just a cog in the wheel and that their actions have no influence, let alone consequence – then they stop caring about what they do in class. They stop caring about their teaching, about their students, about their subject.

Worse, if they feel that they don’t matter, then it is natural to feel lost. It is not something one acknowledges except in therapy – but when is that going to happen for teachers. A lost person is on a quest. And if their work does not offer it to them, then they must seek it in their role. The role of the person who stands powerfully in front of a class. To seek self importance, relevance and validation becomes a personal necessity. And so we have the teacher who will not listen, who will only do things their way. Different teachers handle this in different ways – some seek relevance in rescuing children lost in their classes, others by validating and growing the smart ones. Some by doing things in a particular way (“in my class you only have to copy the notes and write them in the exam”). Some by asserting their position by their presence – and others by their absence. Teacher absenteeism is a symptom of the very same disease.

Yet, we all know they do. We know of children who don’t want to go to school because a teacher will be there asserting their power. We know of children who learn to step up to bullying because the teacher shows them how. We know of students who learn to become bullies and worse, because they are shown its power, and no more. We know of students who suddenly love one subject because of a good teacher, and the opposite too. We know of children who are suddenly wiser, because their teacher tells them stories. We have seen students begin to become organised just because a teacher inspires them. Teachers matter, but they often do not see how they matter. They matter in ways that do not show up in their measurement sheets or learning outcomes. Teachers matter in ways that marks cannot always show.

It is stil up to the teachers. This is the catch here. Children and students need to be shown how to care and show that they appreciate their teachers. Caring and empathy in the classroom is what we have lost – students lose in the present and teachers in the future. If for this selfish reason, teachers need to build more caring classrooms. We need to see much more kindness, much more care, support and sharing in our classrooms if we are to see learning outcomes improve. We know that competition is killing learning, even if it is pushing marks upwards. We know that children learn better socially – peer learning has been adopted by many countries. We know that softer learning approaches help those who are being left behind. And we know that teachers who were firm but genuinely caring are never ever forgotten. I wish we all remembered that.

So for this teacher’s day just gone past, and for every teaching day I have three wishes. One, that we wish our teachers as we do on teacher’s day so that they know they matter. Two, that each teacher discovers their true self and joy. And Three – that each teacher could speak to the hopes and fears of each child that came their way.

I lie.. I have many more wishes…

#IWishEachTeacher spoke to every child for learning, not just that they were ‘taught’.

#IWishEachTeacher used the power of care.
#IWishEachTeacher took a little time to reflect, to think about each moment and how it could have been in the classroom
#IWishEachTeacher was the reason for the shine in each student’s eyes
#IWishEachTeacher respected themselves enough never to lower their standards
#IWishEachTeacher saw each child for the future they would create. Give them nurture, they’ll nurture the future.

#IWishEachTeacher knew how much each student watches them, copies them.

#IWishEachTeacher told stories. Told stories of silly numbers adding up so often that multiplication was born…or of mountains and stars…

#IWishEachTeacher would try something new 

#IWishEachTeacher showed us to value each person for what they can do, not the labels they carry.

but wishes will never end, and we can add our own…so finally,

#IWishEachTeacher knew how much they matter.

For TOi Blogs, Sep 5, 2016

Elements of a Vision for an Education Policy

10 Aug

The NEP as drafted does not present a grand vision for the Future of Education in India. It needs to deliver overarching goals and a sense of what Indian Education must look like in the future. This vision must be a distinct step ahead of what we see today – else why is the NEP of any value – and the document then must continue to unfurl the vision and define guidelines to that vision. That is a policy.

Here is a guideline with examples of the components of a vision that needs to be crafted by a new Education Policy.


A document like the NEP must carve a vision for the future of education for a country that is clear enough to become a guideline to crafting annual or regular national education strategies. It must set out goals that are aligned with national interests and ambitions. The vision of a national education policy must include pragmatism such as the imperatives of the demographic dividend – or burden and it’s natural consequences on the economy (the need for jobs and entrepreneurship) and on Foreign Policy (the need to export unemployment by sending Indians abroad to work. It must acknowledge the grand curve of history and its consequences, both positive and negative and call for a path towards the future good of the nation via constructive education policies.

A National Education Policy is the setting out of the ecosystem of the future of education and derives from national ambitions to power national aspiration.

The NEP 2016 therefore needs to include the following, amongst others:

  1. A setting of a time frame. If the duration of the Guideline is upto 2020, 2030 or 2050, it is expected to carve a different grand arc.A duration of upto 2020 is a medium term view that will focus on operational issues and urgent needs.

    A duration of 2030 will ride on goals set for the nation in other documents and the SDGs (the only thing mentioned) to lead the education system to alignment.

    A duration of upto 2050 will give the scope for a truly visionary document that uses education to seed a transformation for the better for the country. All three are essential. (Again, a policy is a guideline, a longer vision does not stop the next policy from being crafted at any time in the future)

  2. A setting of Vision led Goals. Based on the duration selected the NEP document needs to define a grand vision for education that will drive strategies and actions.A policy upto 2020 would seek to set out medium term educational systems goals in terms of (a) Outcomes – such as employability, skills, capabilities, attitudes etc.  (b) resource optimisation (c) accountability (d) information and data (e) Capacities and growth trajectories (f) Networks (g) Reach, Outreach and Influence (i) Funding to ensure equality of opportunity, (j) Investment in education for Soft Power and more.

    A policy upto 2030 will be driven by the Vision Document already drawn up and set goals in alignment and support of that vision.

    An Education Policy of upto 2050 will have to see beyond the demographic inflexion point and build in goals for (a) High Quality and value added outcomes, (b) Progression pathways post universalisation, (c) Funding sustainability and universal funding, (d) Governance and diagnostic governance operations, (e) Global positioning, and more.

  3. A definition of all the Stakeholders and how their interests will be protected and nurtured. To speak merely of students and teachers is to stay at the generic level, and to only mention stakeholders based on popular policy pressure at the time of writing (e.g. disabled) is inadequate. India is a diverse country and has a range of learners. And Teachers. The Education policy needs to identify their rights and role in the system.Only as an example, take learners. From average learners to those who are less able to learn, from tribal learners to the hyper connected city dwellers, from the extra talented mathematicians and sportspersons to those who try and try again, from those who dropped out to those who raced ahead – the policy has to include all. And if one type of learning cannot suffice for all, thenthe policy has to lay down a guideline that provides the same standards, the same opportunities and the same level of support to all the diverse circumstances.

    An education policy includes its administrators, its researchers, its teachers and more. Each needs their role placed in the overview, and their growth path charted for the vision duration of the document.

    As an example, (and there are others), what is the future of libraries in India? (The teacher education system seems to have received an upgrade akin to  Finland. That system relies heavily on public infrastructure such as non school and school libraries) Where do physical libraries continue to have a future – and do they need a revival or should they be scrapped?
    Do school libraries have a role in the community?
    Can community libraries actually begin to work and have a role in schools? (For example, as a part of a research based pedagogy that should be recommended)
    Do digital libraries and physical libraries need similar strategies or are there no synergies to be gained from a combined policy?
    Can one set of librarians serve both? How do digital and physical libraries map to extending the curricula and encouraging curiosity and discovery in students?
    Does a librarian support a teacher?
    Does a library policy engage with schools or run in parallel as part of the lifelong learning systems?
    Do librarians then work as information officials only or engage with other areas too, such as assessment and support?
    Are they governed by the District Education Officers or do they form an autonomous network?

    (Unless questions like these are asked by the policy makers, and until they know where the answers lie, who is held accountable for this delivery, they will never know if there are policy gaps at the ecosystem level. Worse, they will not know the cross connections and the possible synergies, or dissonances within their own policy) 

    This is a sampling of the range of questions that need to be asked to identify stakeholders and have policy guidance to determine future purpose, funding and solutions.

  4. A clear understanding of the Ecosystem, mapped out as a network (not selected mentions as in the current document) and the vision for the future of the ecosystem.For example, the institutional framework for higher education does not currently include an ombudsman that is independent of the operational regulators. This is essential for stakeholder management, a transparent sense of fair play and has implications for India’s entry ticket into the global education arena.

    Again, another example, the funding agency and the operational regulation of higher education lie with the same body, The UGC (University Grants Commission). This needs to be reviewed as part of the policy in light of the new goals and ambitions of Higher Education in India. It may well decide to continue with the same but there needs to be a robust argument to continue with a system that clearly violates the basic principle that any institution cannot be its own regulator, and an institution that serves the general public must have an independent regulator that represents the public interest.

    Similarly, in school education, examples abound. An institution that creates a cadre of support staff independent of the academic upgrades to teacher training institutions is a dire need and a clear gap. This new cadre needs a different pathway – and policy guidance that is responsive to the dire shortage of both quality and quantity of teachers and the complete absence of professional support staff.

    It is incumbent upon the NEP to create institutional solutions to the core needs on the ground, and to set checks and balances on such institutional frameworks.

    Again another glaring example:  there is a clear need for an independent data and research institution that seeks to identify and conduct diagnostic research to create evidence for policy making. This is different from the think tank that is generally suggested in the current draft NEP, and has often been discussed in education circles. A think tank would be a part of the requirements as it will test new boundaries and old efficacies.  But cannot be the data and education research body that will form the spine of the accountability and governance system within education. The state of current research in education is pathetic and the NEP must specifically guide the type and scope of bodies required in the institutional ecosystem that will be required to meet this need. Till these institutions and bodies start delivering quality comprehensive education research, both policy making and decision making will be as lost in the clouds as it is today.

    The NEP must discuss and direct the larger issues of public service of institutions, the institutional framework and the adequacy (or gaps) in the current educational ecosystem. For example, there are institutions that are clearly not performing to modern standards, and their review mechanisms need to be upgraded. The means to identify, and indeed replace them are often in place, having being driven by market needs. This implies an overlap in functions. The NEP needs to be a guide towards a strategy that will either (a) upgrade, or, (b) eliminate, or (c) merge these institutions in an appropriate context driven mechanism. Often institutions have outlived their usefulness but are not easy to get rid of in a system that protects its own bureaucratic frameworks. Often new institutions are required, and older ones need to be redefined. This is also what the NEP should be directing by asking the right questions at the institutional level.  

  5. The NEP must guide Governance systems not just as an agglomeration of inspectorates but as a system of constructive improvement toward the national goals of education (which it must lay out, as stated above). This virtuous cycle of building for growth not just in metrics but also in scope, reach and global approbation (yes, that sadly must be a goal in the medium term if we are to be honest) among others must be guided by the NEP. The Governance goals, its institutional frameworks, the responsibility for operational mechanisms must all have solutions emanating from a National Education Policy. The current proposals are excellent but do not drive paradigm change – which is the purpose of good governance. These must not be driven by judgements but must only direct better outcomes for the next cycle. There is a distinct attitudinal change that must be driven by the NEP, and it has to drive via governance mechanisms. And this must be led right upfront with the shift outlined in the vision itself.
  6. The NEP must also lay out a Vision to direct the Processes of education,from which many of its later recommendations can be drawn. Without this overarching guideline it is difficult even for the makers of the policy to test themselves for internal consistency, or indeed, to know if they have been ambitious enough in their recommendations. The processes of education systems are at the core of what we do, and this is the only proxy for quality and service delivery in any interim analysis. Indeed, it is the only thing that is tangibly observable and objectively measurable – which is why for the longest time it was used as a measure for quality. While we have advanced quite a way from that in education theory globally, there is little Indian evidence in place yet. Till such agreements on outcomes, goals and even value add are arrived at, it remains essential to retain a certain focus on processes. These are also the pathways for delivering education reform or directed interventionsnot just for education but also for health and more.A clear and complete process map that clearly identifies structural, contextual and occasional roadblocks is a minimum. Currently there are entire parts of the education ecosystem that are not part of the process map as visualised by government agencies.

    For example in service teacher training, or CPD (Continuous Professional Development) processes are mapped only for teachers paid by the government. There is no mapping of CPD for private schools, and no tracking of any such training or upgrades. Thus the complete absence of in-service training for teachers of budget private schools and other small schools such as the Ekal Vidyalayas (Single teacher schools) goes completely unnoticed. There is no provision, no process for such training even though these schools are subject to seat appropriation etc. under the Right to Education Act. A National Education Policy must not restrict itself to a Government System Education Policy. (Though to be fair it has not, but large chunks are missing due to poor mapping, both static and dynamic)  Even for government in service teacher training there is little focus on the process mapping, its evolution, revision cycles, feedback effectiveness and planned systemic shifts. This gap has ensured that on the job teacher training in the country remains inadequate as its process has not been mapped fully. This is but one example, others abound under the radar. The NEP needs to direct the overarching goals, no more. And guide the right body to the task of  mapping processes and their improvement cycles.

  7. Structural Changes: A new National Policy is  not just an opportunity for disruptive changes, it is almost imperative that it explores current challenges and suggests structural solutions.
    For example, the MHRD is divided between school and Higher education departments, and skills has gone to another ministry. Tertiary lags for want of funds and mentorship though it is an easy structure that can cut across many educational gaps. The current structures down the line are deeply embedded but do not necessarily meet the needs and goals of an NEP that goes up to 2030 or even 2050. The division of departments reflects a dependance on educational levels as the pathway to administer education. However, this may not be the only way to look at it.
    Another example: Children are expected to join age appropriate classes regardless of their talents, abilities and accomplishments, while their levels might be more appropriate especially after age 8/class 3. This will remove the very troublesome question of detention or no detention – a side issue that had come centre stage because it was being approached via disciplinarian structures that have no role in today’s education.

    Teaching to a level, individual progression pathways, cross subject pathways (why restrict students from learning new subjects), HE capacities in schools, schools sans walls – these are all structural issues that need a second look and must be led via guidance from a New Education Policy. Old structures have not worked, it is time for the new. The NEP must create a grand vision for these that will lead to meeting individual aspirations and national goals.

  8. Vision for a People. While education may look like a business, it is so only because it has been reduced so. Students have been reduced to products that enter the system like raw materials, are processed by standardised factories isolated from the outer world during their shift hours and then churned out like standardised goods whose price is measured in marks.This reduces education to a business of trading in marks. With a clear and shamefully visible secondary market, and derivatives. Charging fees or ownership do not reduce education – they are access and funding issues outside the core of education and can be dealt with separately via good governance design and implementation.  The business of education is to not be a business of trading marks for a seat in the next stage but a space where each individual achieves their own potential. The New Education Policy must present a vision for people who are offered solutions to achieve their personal aspirations to their best potential – and must foster mechanisms to do that without being trapped in ‘sausage’ factories.Education is not mere schooling or college. Nor is the Policy called School and University Policy, it is an Education Policy.
  9. An Educational Philosophy. This probably comes first. Does the NEP for 2016-2050 merely stand on the shoulders of the past, or does it create for a future of growth and prosperity? Does it seek excellence or does it seek quality for all? Does it seek to create an economy or a civilisation? Each of these questions, and more are essential – the first then leads to answers for the curriculum, the second to access and funding solutions, and the third to setting up pedagogies and governance (accountability) structures.Such grand questions are the task of an Education Policy, and they must then proceed to build the connect with the classroom for each of these. The above three questions are merely illustrative, not comprehensive.
  10. A Vision within current Global Context. For Scope and  Linkages. And thus for Networks and Reach. And Partnerships. Does the NEP seek to educate for the globe, for the cities, or for the villages – what is the scope of the Education envisaged? Which Global and local futures are to be served by this Education? Here is an example. Does the NEP seek to educate for Survival, for Sustenance or for the Seeker? What do global challenges decree?
    Survival-> build local ecosystems, include farming, building, safety in curricula at primary and middle school. School and Higher Education to include compulsory life saving skills.  HE to include Intelligence, Critical Pathways and CodeWork as part of core requirements.
    Sustenance -> Create disciplined cadres of workers via standardised core curricula, short projects and clear goal focus via rewards/incentives.
    Seeker -> Create journeys of discovery in primary schools, more open schooling systems, learning across levels, peer learning digital pedagogies, invest in open ended research at schools and universities etc.)
    As you see, asking these questions in light of global challenges leads to completely different interpretations of policy direction and investments. The Education Policy must take a view on Global Futures and create a vision and guideline for education investments. 

    The NEP must tackle these questions in a world filled with war, and other new challenges. With the second largest population in the world, India’s education policy has global linkages. The grand issues of globalisation vs. xenophobia have arrived in the classroom today and the solution cannot be via jingoism, which only serves to add to the list of things to be resolved via education.

    If the Indian Education system is to be designed for global citizenship (look at the diaspora data, trends in students going abroad for higher education etc.), then the education system needs to pivot towards that. If India is to be the nation that survives in peace while the world is at war, then again the education system needs to teach survival, negotiation, flexibility, patience and critically – networks. Each of these are issues that are real, immediate and must be tackled at the national level. The only forum where these can be done in a meaningful manner is in a National Education Policy – where meaningful guidelines for pedagogy, curriculum and assessment can be crafted. The new realities of the world have to translate to new tools taught in the classroom.


This is a subset of constructive comments on the one aspect of the NEP. There are other parts available that provide guidelines on the glaring gaps in the NEP. Critical amongst them are the lack of a Tertiary Education Policy (look at the demographics!) and the lack of a Digital Education Policy (Scale requirements and Digital India notwithstanding) that must lead to Digital Pedagogies being adapted to context.

These are available on request.

New Education Policy: Draft and Drama

10 Aug

The New Education Policy is turning out to be quite a production. It is taking its time. Surprisingly that came after the tough new innovative part was accomplished. For once, the policymakers decided to listen to the people who actually ran education – the teachers and the administrators. The process for this started over a year ago, and ran to a tight schedule. Thousands of inputs later, the process reverted to the traditional committee format. The release of the report was delayed again and again, much like a movie that is not sure that it will make it – and rightly so. After a mildly less than dignified open declaration that the report would be leaked if it was not released by the ministry, it was suddenly a part of the public domain. Sitting like a Trishanku between an official document and the establishment, the draft New Education Policy was up for public consultation.

Since it was released we have not heard any serious comment. Roundtable discusions on this have been held by small organisations, some halfheartedly cancelled and others not even convened. To summarise: the document is a disappointment. It has clearly done its first job of listening to everybody. As it proudly declares, it went through another round of consultations with ‘experts’, and this is evident in the document that has been produced. All the things that have been repeated ad nauseum in traditional education circles and conferences are repeated faithfully. It is a document that has been heard before. It collates what it recognises as familiar and structures it in a beautifully organised whole. And yet fails to create anything ‘new’ let alone a guideline to the future which was it’s primary job.

A New Education Policy must perform three functions: (i) It must create a vision for the future of education for the country based on the context, constraints and national goals, (ii) It must create a guideline for systemic, institutional and ecosystem reforms, and, (iii) It must be the lead document that drives strategies for all the participants in the education system, whether public or private. This means it should clearly give a sense of direction to students, teachers and funders. If we do not have this grand vision that inspires us, and there is no indication of where we are headed, all the efforts will continue to remain fragmented and have low impact, as we see today. The Draft NEP (New Education Policy) does nothing to define the arc of ambition, nor create a vision that inspires, nor does it guide or drive even define a new paradigm. It does not even recognise the deep and strong force of ambition in the youth and reach out to meet their aspirations via a call to leap forward reforms in access, flexibility and global mobility.

The gaps in the draft policy are glaring. For example, there is nothing in it that indicates that ICT has moved on in the past decade, nothing about the progress in edu-tech and its consequent lessons and no indication of real goals such as Digital Pedagogies led by educators or its ability to redraw learning processes at scale. There is no connect with demographics and its challenges, no recognition of current oportunities e.g. smartphone based learning networks, no sense of future direction – and certainly no call to design a Digital Education Policy that meets education for the future. Again, there is very little on lifelong learning or on Tertiary Education which must form a strong support system going forward. Tertiary Education is essential not only because we are all likely to need to learn new skills, but also – and primarily – because there have been too many drop outs from education for decades. They form over half the population, and cannot be left behind. One could go on about the hits and misses. The NEP has tried very hard to be comprehensive, yet merely mentioning an issue does not form a policy.

The drama with the NEP continues. The draft NEP finds a place on the NUEPA (National University of Education Planning and Administration) website, but the Ministry (MHRD) website has a much tighter document that gives ‘Inputs for the Draft Education Policy 2016’. Clearly there are differences of opinion, and that can only be a good thing for rigorous policy making. Now is the time for the marketplace of ideas to work its ‘Manthan’ and create an inspiring guideline that shifts education from its current doldrums to something of real value.

This article was also published here:

From Skills to Value

10 Aug

The two questions that school – and education are supposed to answer are: ‘How much do you know?’, and, ‘What can you do with what you know?’.

Entire school systems are based on answering either one or the other question, or so we believe. The hearsay goes like this – Indian (and countries of the Far East) focus on knowledge, and the countries of the West teach their students to apply this knowledge. So, a physics student will not only have learnt how a circuit works, but would have some hands on experience in building circuits. Or robots. Or more. In India, the ‘circuit wala project’ is likely to have been purchased from a shop specialising in this even if a school attempts to bring this application or skill to the students. This is as far as most go, and yet none of this is enough to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. 

Our students are unemployable, go the reports. Skills gap white papers have been doing the rounds for over two decades where it is made amply clear that schools, and worse, universities are not doing the basic job of training the workforce. Purists in education raise their hands in horror – we prepare students for life, for higher order goals, not mere employment! Well, in times like these, we all have to help our student get employed. We all understand the need, yet our schools do not skill us for life. 

The real questions that schools need to focus on are not Knowledge vs. Skills as we have seen refelcted in curricula and pedagogy. The real question for schools should be – how can the students learn to create value? Value is created in both society and in the workplace when a certain set of behaviours meet specific goals. Value is created when we help an old person across the street, value is also created when we demonstrate our abilty to fix a leaky tap or build a bookshelf, value is created when we demonstrate a knowledge of mathematical theory and learn how to build forward. The goal of value creation is inclusive  – for even rote learning finds its appropriate place. Value is also created when a poem memorised long ago is quoted to soothe and set up a person for their next success. 

School systems often decide that ‘skills’ merely refers to the old fashioned vocational skills that included working in the trades such as building, plumbing, carpentery, hairdressing etc. The skills that we need for the 21st century are not just about what you can do, but also how well you do them, and about how much an employer can rely on you to deliver value to their clients. The skills that forward looking schools are encouraged to include are often called soft skillls – Creativitiy, Communication, Reliability, team working and similar abilties are prime. These are not soft skills or mere fancy add ons to employers. They go to the core of whether the student is a valuable employee or not. If the student does not transform into a value creating employee very rapidly, there is no reason for them to remain in work. 

This is a challenge for schools – how can they train students in creativity and reliabilty, or in professional communication and negotiation, or even cultural sensitivity  – and still maintain their core goals of creating marks machines? Schools that have slipped down the marks ladder have felt the brunt of ‘loss of reputation’ because marks are a tangible demonstration of value. 

Schools face three challenges here: 

  1. Their teachers are so steeped in the old industrial age assembly line rote learning methods that they do not even recognise the new paradigm. Speak to them about including employability skills and many of them are not even able to comprehend the shift. This is a real challenge for school leaders who need to be able to move school teaching (and university too) to meet the real needs of the students for the future. 
  2. (ii) Even if the syllabus and curriculum do make room for these new skills that equip students for professional life, there are practical constriants on the ground. For example, take teamwork. Creating group projects is easy in schools with a lot of technology, in boarding schools where there is time to work together after classes, or for rich families who can afford the technology/transport/space, but it is really challenging in most normal schools. A group project (even if it is a school poster, or a simple report) ends up being split into smaller tasks and each student works a part of the whole because they are not able to communicate in real time and pass the work back and forth, 
  3. (iii) Assessment of course rules our allocation of time and resources, and it is incredibly challenging to give marks for things that really matter in the workplace such as peer mentoring, creativity and work attitudes. Some, such as attitudes and values are so context driven that any attempt at measuring it ends up being a farce. The very good CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation) process run at schools in India tried to assess soft skills. Sadly, most have not been able to actually understand the idea, let alone run it successfully. 

We are asking for a shift in the way we look at schools, at skills and at studies. While some of us want to grow up to be intellectualls, most of us want jobs. And this is the cue to schools – each time you set a task or a test, look at what output you expect from it and ask yourself – Does this create value? Maybe even, will someone pay for this? Does it build towards something that the market will value? If we can build this question into a part of what we do, then I think we would have taken a step towards filling the employability gap. 

If it is difficult for teachers to take the first step, let me call on all the sector skills councils set up by the NSDC to take a step beyond Occupational Standards for training and create a platform for schools and colleges to demonsrate skills that are valued in their industry. Let the NSDC and the Skills Development ministry fund this platform so that the Skills Councils can lead Skills in Schools with a demonstration of industry expectations. Issue an annual RFP to all students on behalf of your industry and help them up their game. Let us make skills real for schools, and students – and let us show them what we truly need and value.

No detention and Systemic Lies

17 Jul

Which is more kind to the student – to give them another chance to achieve and be at par with their peers by learning level or to keep them with their cohort of peers by age?

Does the question not answer itself if asked in the context of learning?

In life, in games, in social contexts age may matter. But when it comes to learning it is irrelevant, illogical and unkind. It is illogical to allow a child to progress just because chronology dictates that they are so many years old – age has little to do with learning levels especially as one progresses along the learning ladder. To group children by age and force them to remain in the same groups for 8-12 years of their learning is as logical as grouping them by height or weight. As children grow up they do not have to be bunched and batched by age. (There may be good reasons to do so for early years education, certainly no reason to be rigid at middle school and beyond). It is easy to suspect that this linking of age to levels was only drawn up by lazy administrators at a time when there was little interest in understanding the learning levels of a child and supporting them. It was used when there were only a few basic subjects and skills.

Now a child may zoom ahead in mathematics and computers/ICT and require slower paced learning in say social sciences or environmental studies or even the third language. It would be wrong to hold a more talented child back merely to adhere to the age cohort. At the same time, it is unkind to allow a child to feel dumb in a class where the declared peers have understood things and this child is just slower and needs more time – it is unkind to deny this child the extra time. Over the years the gap merely widens, and the child is even more lost as others progress – how much more cruel can a system get than expecting someone to perform at 3-4 levels higher than their capacity just because others who were born in the same solar revolution are able to do so?

Understandably the idea is to shield children from the hurt and humiliation that they will suffer if they are left behind. If the teaching system is designed to shame children who cannot keep up then it will do so regardless of detention or no detention. If a school is unkind enough to allow hurt and humiliation to be felt simply for attempting something one more time then it has deep and fundamental problems that need different interventions. It is not detention that is a failure if there is trauma, it is the teachers who have failed a child if they make them feel that asking for more time is wrong! What children need is an act of support, not an act of judgement. The support required is clearly identified by a well run CCE system. The continuous and comprehensive assessment exercises are designed to inform the teacher to change their ways and perform better. If teachers cannot perform better, why blame the child?

If there are other issues – malnutrition, family pressures, learning disabilities etc, then again, why shame the child? What children need is scaffolded support in order to perform better, not a shield from the truth. Such a shield will only set them up for inevitable failure when it is taken away. Currently it is taken away after Class 8, and the shock reverberates through the ‘failures’ of class 9 where those who have barely learnt to write their name or compose a sentence are expected to analyse and process complex content. How does it help a child to live a lie and then suddenly be asked to face a truth they are unprepared to handle?

Not only does the no detention policy give permission to the system to lie to a child and the community, it also teaches the entire system that the truth is a postponable, indeed trade-able value. That a private truth and a public truth may be different (try that in paying your taxes please!). Truth and kindness are placed in opposition to each other as values. How can that be right when truth and kindness both are good values. To be kind and to create a kind, safe, empathetic learning system is the job of each teacher and principal anyway. If teachers do not have the skills to speak the truth with firm kindness, then this is a teacher training issue – not a choice between detention or a no-detention Policy. What is needed is for teachers to retrain themselves rather than seek false compromises.

To ensure each child is supported and taught till they achieve the learning outcomes is also the task entrusted to teachers – and this must be done supportively and with kindness. To give a child another chance, and another is part of the same values. To give in to the No Detention Policy is a signal to students to stop trying if you cannot achieve in your goals in the first attempt. There is nothing that kills learning faster than this – indeed true learning is attained by trying it differently and figuring out what works. The No Detention Policy focuses merely on outcomes – ironically by declaring them to be irrelevant – and in the process ignores the entire self and assisted learning processes that are the core business of the school. A second chance in the same class, or at the same learning level will give the student a chance to genuinely learn both the content and a different approach to mastery – a chance to learn how to learn. The race to keep up with the age cohort gives no such chances to true learning.

Which of the policies is geared towards better quality, care and achievement? A child who is given another chance to achieve amongst peers who are within 2-3 years of the age cohort (and admissions too could recognise age ranges per cohort rather than being rigid) or the child who is forced to sit day after day in a class not understanding a thing because the foundational content was not mastered and the child rushed ahead to keep up with birthday cake candle counts. The NDP is advocated on the basis of avoiding trauma and shame to the child. But what could be more traumatic or even cruel than to force the child to experience that failure everyday in class. How can it enhance retention if each class is a shameful demonstration of the gap between the slow learner and the ‘good children’ who performed to level expectations.  Is it not cruel if a child is forced to sit in a classroom where others seem to breeze through multiplication or trigonometry when you have not even mastered 3 digit operations.

Put yourself in the child’s place and tell me – what helps the child more. Which child would you like to be? The one lost in a group of equally sized children or one who can feel good about achievement earned with those at the same learning level? Which one encourages one to stay on in school, improves attendance? Surely the child lost at the back of the class is not the one motivated to stay on. Teachers have reported increased aggression and even violence from these students who are now forced to demonstrate abilities that they do not have – they never learnt in the early years. They were never given a second chance.

The real debate in the detention policy is that of child centricity and kindness. While I’ve always agreed that no detention is impractical, the intent was to introduce kindness and a humane approach in education.The no-detention policy is bound to fail if behaviours at school don’t change.  Detention is a tool of power, it is harsh and certainly not an intelligent way of helping students progress. Saying that no detention has failed is really saying – we could not work smarter. Admittedly tough, but change always is tough. The point of a no detention policy is to tell schools to move away from using stick to growing a few carrots-using smart humane incentives. So many schools are so far gone to teaching by bullying, humiliation and force that they’ve forgotten what real teaching looks like. No detention was meant to be a tool of self reflection – but it was the wrong lever to try to bring about this change. Schools rarely made the connection between No-Detention and kinder teaching, then how could it be useful at all?

What shall one do with the schools who failed to learn?

There is a delicious irony in the debate about the no detention policy too. State governments that are now saying that they failed in managing the no detention policy and want it rolled back. They are effectively saying – if a student does not perform well and fails at a task, the student must be detained but we have failed at our task and we really do not want to be detained and held back. We do not want another chance to succeed, don’t give us another year of trying the same. Detain students if they fail to learn, but not us even if we have failed to learn a new way of doing things. Be that as it may, we can smile and move on to the real problems shown up in this debate.

It is strange when the problem is with the industrial age assembly line design of schools that forces age cohorts to be rigid and the solution is sought in an entirely different place – assessments and action on assessments. Supportive school structures that engage the larger learning community would have made this question moot – and that in itself is a goal for the future. Next, if admissions and promotions did not fixate on age, then each learning level would automatically have students that are within a 2-3 year age range. Detention would not be traumatic at all, it would not even be noticed given the age ranges and there would be no need for this sideshow to become a national policy debate. If one discovers that each ‘class’ or learning level is becoming unmanageable with a larger age range in each group then it debunks the theories that correlate age to learning levels anyway and forces a rethink of school structures. In the absence of adequate and scaled national research in education, this is the best alternative to discovery.

The No Detention Policy debate is really a signal to focus on the real issues – assembly line administration driven school systems that have not been designed for the needs of the 21st century. Detention itself is a strange 20th century term from the command and control era and is quite unnecessary when we have the capacity to  give children as many chances as they want at learning and assessments till they achieve the level and competence levels that meet their aspirations. The need to stick to static cohorts comes from 18th century administrators and in this day of digital tracking and e-governance of systems it is completely redundant. A smart system will bypass the detention question – it represents an age and an ambition long past and has no role in a child centric, creativity driven, value seeking education system we are trying to build for the future.

The Case for the Counterfactual in Education Policy

17 Jul

There was a statistic in India that puzzled many of us for long. This was the enrolment number in primary school education which was stated to be 116% (at it’s peak) a few years ago. How can 116% of students eligible to enter primary school be at school? Rephrasing: it means that for every 100 children of the age group that was supposed to be at school, 116 were enrolled. How is that physically possible? This was official data – thus the best quality of fact finding that was possible at scale. Few explanations were offered.

This is when a mechanism for dealing with the other point of view becomes useful. Many of us started asking questions – and each of the sets of questions were at a different level. Some asked about the data design, some about the integrity of the collection process, some others spoke to school heads in villages. The ‘other view’ was not seeking to discredit any achievement in access and enrolments, nor was it about creating an us vs. them – it was simply seeking to support a better understanding of ground realities in ways that are difficult for official channels. The general view that emerged at that time built a better understanding of flaws in data gathering and collating as well as some phenomena that the official data had not even thought to capture. It turns out that in many areas children were enrolled in the local government school as well as a private school. They did this in response to the enrolment drives run by the local administration, but also exercised their choice to study in a school that suited their needs and ambitions. There were also issues with ground level data such as children who were out of this age range, often in multi ability single classrooms who were included in this list of enrolments thus pushing up the numbers. It is the alternate voice in education that had the bandwidth, access, curiosity and need to investigate this and other aberrations.

One of the largest counterfactuals to the establishment narrative is the set of ASER reports that is unmatched in the scale of its operations. It tests basic learning outcomes of literacy and numeracy at the primary school level by testing the skills through some simple but sophisticated tools it has devised. It has shown that most students across states (it is a very detailed report) are about two years behind at school. This is indeed a very important finding – if students are being left behind in competencies and dragged forward through learning levels merely based on their chronological age, then it highlights a fatal flaw in education policy and its practice. It builds a strong case for a range of solutions to be deployed such as remedial support, cadres of local para teachers and even questions the no detention policy enforced by the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

Of course the ASER reports are not always accepted by the establishment who counter the findings through their own NAS studies – which truly are in their nascency and not very useful so far. They are also designed in ways that allow for pockets of subjective selection and testing – among other issues that we hope will get ironed out in further cycles. The NAS results have unsurprisingly been far more positive than the ASER numbers leading to a standoff between the two assessments. This is as it should be. The counterfactual has value in the debate, not in silence. In fact the counterfactual must be encouraged to bring texture and a dose of grassroots reality to any scaled narrative – let the debate keep it real. The skills space is poorer for the lack of a similar debate.

Indian mythology speaks of a grand manthan (churning) between opposing forces that gave out valuable byproducts that sustained life. Policymaking too needs its manthans to be able to give out information of value, and this can be done only if there are different points of view in play. For instance – the data and information gathered by government has been driven by the need for tracking the system for administrative efficiency. This means that they seek data such as number of schools, payroll information, examinations attempted and results etc. This point of view has little room to inquire into the range of teaching and learning issues that occur in a classroom, to track pastoral care, or even to find out the kind of support resources a local teacher may need from time to time. Even if it wants to, a grand central (or even state) system cannot peek into these layers without a huge amount of investment that is many multiples of the present budget. The non establishment voices – whether policy, activists, interventionists or support products – are able to do this. This is done because they arrive at their questions from a different point of view. They seek to investigate gaps, because it is these gaps that will help them find out what they can do to help. Their questions will be of a different type, such as –  ‘What is the difference in timetable allocations between schools – and how does that affect outcomes including attendance’, or, ‘What makes a parent (child) choose a private school when there is a free government school at walking distance’, or even, ‘Will providing worksheets to teachers improve learning or should they be trained in planning their own lessons” – and so on. There is value in this point of view developed for the local context. Their point of view can provide information that is not possible to gather from a top down view. And no intervention or policycan be derived without good quality information.

Developing the counterfactual, especially in practice (and not just in academic space) is akin to an exercise in innovation, often best initiated outside of establishment space. Even large corporates have learnt that R&D and product development needs space of its own outside of its regular operations-sales-finance complex. Education too needs these spaces to build on innovation, to test  the its range, its tolerances, its ability to scale and sustain before launching it for all. The counterfactual to current establishment practices is built through trying and trying again – and is an attempt to bring tested realism to mainstream practices.

To place non-establishment voices in opposition to establishment voices is an immature personification of a debate that should be viewed only from the lens of the issues it seeks to tackle. Sure, people build self perpetuating mini empires, get funding from a range of sources, make mistakes along the way but these are governance issues that must be managed. Ideas last longer than persons. The manthan must not be allowed to slow down, especially at a time when India is preparing for its big surge in employment, enterprise and hopefully a lot more. This is the time to invest in the other voices that rise without fear or favour so that real issues are identified and tackled. The first gift of this true manthan will be the ability to trust investments, which is the only backbone required for growth in the future.


This was first published in PolicyWonks