Engagement is the Silver Bullet in Education

20 Aug

If there was one thing that you’d recommend that could change education, what would that be?

I get this question a lot.

And I grimace. The question reeks of reductionism. As does an entire assessment system that reduces 12 years of learning, laughter, friendships, rain-soaked schoolbags, underlined textbooks, bruised knees, teary journeys home – and so much more to a set of marks. One number to rule them all.

It is a lazy question, and I am tempted to provide a lazy answer.

How easy would it be to say – change the assessment system. We work hard towards what we measure, we strive for rewards. You want to change the way we work, play around with the rewards. You want students to be employable – test for employability via exams, projects, assignments, internships. You want students to have critical thinking skills – introduce exams for puzzles and games. You want students to be reliable soldiers? Drill them in obedience and repeated delivery of mundane tasks. You want inventors and braniacs? Reward risk taking.

But no, the question is a lazy question. It seeks a lazy answer – nobody wants to hear things that are difficult. Imagine, actually having to shift, move away from the comfy sofa from where all one has to do is repeat the past – or at best automate it. Sorry – digitise.  Another word will come along soon. Changing assessments to ask slightly different questions is  all right if it is only ‘computerisation’, or if the question is like the logic puzzles from books that we buy at book fairs or the railway station. That is easy. But questions that make students think for themselves during the exam? Heaven forbid, the parents would be up in arms!

We want easy solutions, quick fixes. Even better if the answer is – “The system is fine, we did well did we not?” followed by a hearty conspiratorial laugh. Yes, of course we did well. But there are many who are not doing well at all. As someone said – the worth of an education system is not known by those who are at the top but by those who are at the bottom. How are they doing? Did the system serve them well? What needs to change to ensure that the person at the bottom of the class has a better life than they would have had if 3% of the GDP was not invested in education each year. Is that money doing any good? Can we intervene to make it actually do some good?

They ask for the magic pill. The secret sauce.

There is no secret sauce. There is no getting away from the fact that the teacher and the student need to face each other everyday, day after day and share in the journey of growth. They need to engage with each other and with the content in such a way that the content can be used by the student through their life. There – I said it. If there is a single word answer to this question, it is this: Engagement.

Engagement at every level. Engagement between student and subject – so that the student goes beyond what is prescribed and seeks growth. Engagement between teacher and student and subject – so that the teacher facilitates growth beyond the curriculum into becoming a good member of all their communities. Engagement at the systemic level – school administration to student to teacher to owner. And all of these to those who design the curriculum and the books. Employers to curriculum designers to those who deliver. One could go on. Hard work needs to be done at these intersections. With engagement comes sense making – we know what we will get out of what we invest, because the pathways connect. In management jargon, we do call it the systems view, but even that’s not good enough. What we need here is more – we need people within the systems to care, to engage, to pour their energies into getting it right.

Inevitably a sigh of cynicism creeps in at this stage. In a world full of cheats, of profiteers, of scams and falling standards where is there room for fancy words like ‘engagement’ and ‘care’? Two things: One, I did say that there is no secret sauce, it is hard, very hard to change and the hard work has to be done. Two, we know it works. We all know that posh school or that wonderful village headmaster who has put in so much energy in getting it right that every one of their students shines. We know these schools because all want to be admitted there. We know them because their students go back to them and thank them. We know them because there are so few of them left now.

This is what must turn. Rich or poor, private or government, city or village – it is up to the teachers to engage. It is up to us to help them engage with their students and with their goals. Again and again. And again. In turn, engage with the teachers. Watch them – compel them to provide a good example to all those who watch them and learn. Enough lip service to ‘teacher training’ which is given like a tetanus shot every once in a while. That is not how you’d nurture with your family community which is a system of care and engagement too. Then why is it acceptable to (dis)engage so with the teaching community?

Writing this in the middle of despondency, with lies, cheating, corruption and corrosion all around in the education sector, I look for a beacon. And am reminded of the story of Pandora’s box. After all the ills and pestilences had escaped into the world – all that remained was hope. Given all the good work that is being done in small pockets to improve education, the good news is that there is more than hope. Is that enough? Nope. It is a hard climb ahead to fight the apathy and cynicism that has driven us to this ugly, greedy, grasping, mindless chase of marks – so much so that it comes at the cost of it’s own credibility. Restoring trust, and care for true engagement in learning is going to be a battle. Or the demographic dividend is mere zombie dust at school.


Why engagement is the big differentiator in education

July 7, 2015, 1:29 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI

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