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Tutoring and Excellence

15 Jan

Tuition is the underclass of the education sector. I challenge it: they’ve brought quality, accountability, access

It was a gathering of engineers, like many such gatherings. A group of friends meeting after decades. They had studied together, were ranked against each other in the famed JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) for the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology). Amidst much backslapping and ‘abbey-yaars’, came out the stories. Stories of long days and nights spent in preparation. Of books and authors whose names were seared on to their memories including tutors.

And then, one of them said something surprising, “If not for the tutor (named), I would never have understood the concept.”

I stood still for a moment. Tutors are supposed to be those who aid rote learning. They are the lowest in the pecking order of education intelligentsia. They appear everywhere, are resilient, get the job done and are forgotten. And here were people who had used their engineering skills to change the world and were crediting their tutors, not school teachers, for going beyond rote learning to a genuine understanding of the ideas, concepts and their applications.

This was one for the teaching community to reflect upon. This was one for the tutoring system. Flawed as it is, the tutoring system has delivered.

If there is one system that is working to further rigour, accuracy and excellence (of sorts), it is the tutoring ecosystem. Do not mistake this as an endorsement of rote learning, cramming culture, narrow focus on knowledge (rather than understanding) that has been the hallmark of the Indian education system so far. That is a given.

But with that as a given, it is the tutoring system that has added the quality dimension to it. If the goal is better marks, the tuition system has delivered on it. If the goal is smaller classes, the tutoring system has delivered. If the goal is teacher accountability – again, the tutoring system has delivered splendidly.

Tutors are engaged to improve scores. They have a single point goal. As tuition becomes more ubiquitous, one notices a rise in grades too. Often attributed to grade inflation, it is possible, nay likely that this has contributed to better grades. Students are not necessarily becoming dumber or smarter; they are becoming more skilled at taking exams. This is what a tutor does – and they are good at it. Here is the interesting thing: the tutoring ecosystem has delivered on a national goal of improving standards (as measured by marks) without being organised, regulated, scaled or standardised.

There are lessons here for the schooling system – both in the public and private sectors. The tutoring system has been able to deliver much more than a traditional schooling system struggles with on a daily basis. Quality (as defined by goals set), time on task, efficiency, lack of absenteeism – tutoring scores. Tutoring is also a completely self funded system with little pressure on the exchequer. At the same time, the system remains flexible enough to deliver an affordable solution at each price point the market demands – the cost per child is monitored, managed and responsive to the needs of the group they serve. When one looks at delivering to standards, at standardised learning – again the tutorial system makes the grade. Or they go out of business.

The tutorial industry has been written about extensively – from its multi million dollar size, consolidation and branding, near double-digit growth, hot-housing culture, restrictive blinkered learning and much more. There is little to appeal to the educationist or the seeker in a tutorial system. Having said that – it is a tool that turns the machine. When education systems fail (and as I type this, the 2014 ASER report is being released, marking another milestone of failures in schooling) – tutoring comes to the rescue. A raft, not a boat. And it carries people across the certification challenge.

For all the vilification, the tutorial industry has earned celebrity status for some of its teachers. In the far-east many earn far more than they would have in corporate life or in teaching – some boast of a fairly glamorous lifestyle. In India too, a few teachers are spoken of with reverence. The best teachers are able to command a stupendous premium in the market and often scale up to be able to give access to many more (at a more reasonable price point) to their pedagogy. The system does operate more like a shop, and tutors are obviously building their own brands over time.

This is one industry that employs many, provides opportunities for entrepreneurship, and is still growing rapidly. More, it has low entry barriers – and is accessible to all, even allowing for flex working hours. With online and cloud tutorials gaining ground, it could even transcend geographies. One of the strongest features of the tutoring system is the engagement with the community. Not just the students but their parents too, and often their school teachers. Local tutors often know the teachers in the schools in the area and base their tutoring on their weak spots. This feedback loop is constantly reinforced through conversations. Parental engagement in tutoring creates a governance community that often borders on the aggressive – they are purchasing a service and they expect results.

Despite the fact that this is an unregulated part of the highly over-regulated education sector, this has thrived and grown manifold. They have grown in adversity, without support and against the establishment.  To use NN Taleb’s phrase – this is anti-fragile.

The tutoring sector probably deserves kudos for promoting single-minded focus on its goals and accessible economic growth. It is not only the ‘gurukul’ of the present; it is also what the vision of ‘Make in India’ can foster. It will not be denied.

Education Policy: Plug the Leaks or Change the Boat + 2014 Assessed

14 Dec

This year has been interesting for education, not for its grand ideas but for its little fixes. It is time, come 2015 and the Budget, that some significant moves are made

The problems in education in India are akin to a leaky boat. After a while, one counts so many holes that one wonders if the boat itself needs to be changed, or if the leaks could be fixed. The story of education in India is a story of fixing leaks, with the promise of a new boat along the way.

Much has changed, including the Government. However, the principles remain the same — accessible, affordable, inclusive quality education. The goals too remain the same — employability in the short-run while building a foundation for a better person. Here, one questions the goal. Is there a view of personhood, of personal identity that will be imparted via education or will it be a journey of independent discovery through various schools of learning? This is a question that can be answered when a new education policy is formulated and announced ie our new boat.

For now, the only question that was being addressed was the urgent ones — the leaks were being fixed. Many feel that the progress in education has been very slow, many wonder if the priorities are aligned with the national needs and others have commented on the nature of advice and support that is available. The sector is a complex one and it is natural to take a while to come to grips with the inter-linkages. Having said that, a few trends were noted.

The focus on delivery: One of the big decision has been the splitting up of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to carve out a Skill Ministry. This makes sense only if the focus is moving away from holistic solution to seek pure operations. As an operational unit, the Skill Ministry will be focused enough to deliver but one wonders if this will be at the cost of pathways from skill certifications to higher education. This is one to watch.

The need to be above reproach: All the controversial decisions have been defended on the basis of the ‘rules’. The Four- Year Undergraduate Programme of the Delhi University was scrapped on the technicality of one permission not being on paper, the language dispute over German too started off with a contract that would not be renewed. The emphasis on regulations over policies and national goals is a trend to watch.

The escalation of issues: Senior time is valuable and must be used for larger issues. But on a visit to Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to respond to raising a school from middle to secondary. Again, the Human Resource Development Ministry intervened in an issue of a contract between Max Mueller Bhavan and the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan. This lays bare, the gap in the administration and the support system in education — and there is a need for improvement. The gap at tactical level was also exposed when the Government schools consolidation programme ran into difficulties that should have been anticipated by the team. And needs to be addressed.

The outreach from the Ministry of Human Resource Development: This has been its strongest suit. From writing individually signed letters to principals of Central Board of Secondary Education schools commending them for their achievement, to meeting school students and the open conversation on Teacher’s Day, the outreach has engaged the education community directly and has made the hub feel connected. The care shows in responding to issues like the institutional status granted to School of Planning and Architecture to ensure newly minted architects get jobs. Can this be extended further and more meaningfully in the creation of the new education policy as is promised.

This year has been interesting for education in India not for its grand ideas but for its little fixes — but tinkering only takes one so far. It is time, come 2015 and the Union Budget, that some significant moves are made that can power India’s future — by tackling basic issues on a war footing, including teacher shortages, standards in skilling, lifelong learning and alternative models of accreditation. One does hope that these wishes will be granted for the good of the country’s educational system and its stakeholders.

This was published on Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped linked here

Plug the leaks or change the boat?

Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Sanskrit and its Burdens – For Those who did not get it

2 Dec

There has been much discussion around this post. Some praised it, many vilified it.

Oops, sorry, did I use a long word like vilify. It means – made a villian (like in the movies) out of it. Said that it was ignorant, that I had not read enough and did not know much about the language. This is untrue, but the point here is not to show whether I know more or less than them. (There will always be some who know more, some who know less).

The point here is not to defend the piece.

The point here is to show how a certain style of writing works to generate debate. And to point out to places in the piece where there are opportunities to build a strong response that will build support for your cause. Think of it as a workshop in advocacy. A part of one – at least.

Before I start, let me state that Sanskrit is a language that deserves revival. It has enriched me in various ways. But whether I (or even you, the reader) love or hate the language is not relevant, (though an upsurge of emotional connect is clearly important). What is important is how one presents a case in support of the language. Less noise, more reason.

Let us begin: (Comments in italics)

Is the debate really about the Sanskrit language or is it about something that goes deeper? Why is there such insistence, even a furor on teaching a language that has lived it’s time, served its purpose and given way to others that were more robust and relevant?

this is a call to all thinking folk to put on their thinking hats and note down reasons for the reasons for the upsurge of demand/support for the language, for the reasons why it still has relevance, for the reasons for its decline (beyond, even if including blaming ‘outsiders’), the reasons why other languages grew, why Sanskrit did not grow – indeed it’s usage declined. The decline of Sanskrit is a matter of fact, easily verified by a simple count of people who speak it as a first, second or even third language. The call for a revival of Sanskrit is in itself an acknowledgement of the fact that it has decline. Those (of us) who respect the language and want to see more investment in it must first honestly face up to the reasons for the decline without being defensive – this is the first step to recovery. We must know the ailment to cure it. Solutions later, first a documentation of the reasons (and there is much research on this – some rigourous, some biased, some rhetoric presented as research) that needs colllation. The first question- Why did Sanskrit not capture the hearts of the general population?)

Sanskrit is a language of the past, the very same that is glorified. India, the bird of gold that was captured by marauders, her golden wings clipped. India can only regain those past glories when it recreates all that existed before the ‘outsiders’ came. Sanskrit, it is believed, was the language of those glorious times. Bring back Sanskrit, and we will be able to unlock the secrets of our ancestors, the code that made us great. Sorry folks, there is no magic key in this quest, this is not a play or a video game.

The past is always glorified, memory is flawed. History has often been written by the victor, often more hagiography than history. We see that in daily life too, when, for example, people casually say – it was much better in the old days. Often not – there were problems then such as diseases that killed and are curable now – that do indicate that each era has its own issues. The past of India is being glorified but us – and why not? Who else will do it if Indians do not glorify themselves and remind themselves of the good that is a part of the heritage. The risk here is that one can do this too fast, or too loudly and then one loses the battle. Do this well – first establish the facts, then tout them. Do not just say we were great – bring more proof than just hearsay from a few anecdotes retold. There is more to glory than anecdotes, and surely there is enough to find in India if researched well and presented properly. (More on research, presenting, timing later on). There is a movement that seeks to recreate that India of one’s received – unverified- memory. And the call to more Sanskrit is a part of that attempt. But one cannot go back to the past. One can build anew, but one cannot time travel. Bringing back Sanskrit will not bring back the glory. Glory, growth and success are not that simple. Much more work will need to be done. Does Sanskrit have a role in making India great? Maybe it does. Very likely it does. Where is the case for that? Much of what is bandied about in the current debate is rhetoric, and very popular rhetoric. But rhetoric is not reason. If one thinks that Sanskrit is the magic key to accessing and replicating the glorious position India used to occupy in the world, then the question here is: How will Sanskrit unlock the potential of the country? How will Sanskrit restore India to glory? (some parts of the answer are obvious – such as acknowlegement of past achievements – that is a good start, but needs more)

It is true that Sanskrit is a language with rich traditions in literature, drama, philosophy and possibly even the sciences. It is, as every great language, a doorway into a culture and much learning.

This paragraph supports Sanskrit and summarises very briefly all the good that has been spoken about in recent discussions and books. Actually not just recent – the greatness of Sanskrit has been acknowledged by many over the centuries. Since these have been said often, and there are others who say it better than I do, I have not repeated those. Of course we know of the structure of the language, the perfection of the grammar, the stimulus to memory and other capacities of the brain, the ability of the language to allow us to code and write poetry, the witty aphorisms, the tight dense packets of knowledge that have survived the centuries – this is the highest of the high. It needs no endorsement, it is up there.

There can be many gains from learning the language.

The gains from learning the language are also documented. These need no repetition either. What they do need is testing and proof. Proof created with rigor, related with calm confidence, able to withstand questioning by anybody without descending in to a shrill cacophony of the defensive hordes. The language deserves dignity, give it the place it deserves.

As all of us from the financial sector know – gains can really be unlocked only when the secondary market in anything gains depth – that means when there are enough people who trade and exchange in it to create richness in interactions. Once this is started off, it is possible to star discovering more value. The same applies to the language – the more people speak it, the more we will be able to uncover and share.

This is a call to encourage usage of the language. The more the language is used, the more value we will be able to unlock. The number of interactions in Sanskrit needs to increase before we even begin to understand how much value we can create. Till we have this, we may not actually be able to achieve the theoretical possible gains that were listed in response to the questions above. The real gains are going to be understood as they are unlocked – and we must make sure we track and understand these. (It may turn out that we were mistaken and there are no gains at all-this is a risk we take in reviving  language. But this is a risk we may have to take, and the choice is open to us) The ‘secondary market’ refers to those who are not scholars or experts and are daily practioners. Users of the language. The real potential gets unlocked when we have more of these.

More than that, we may be able to build on the body of knowledge.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of investing in Sanskrit is the body of knowledge that has not been accessed fully yet. It is said that we may never be able to access all there is to know. That is possible – there is much depth and density (and everyone here, even the greatest scholar will admit to knowing little – so don’t come attacking me saying – what do you know?) The ability to access even a part of the knowledge is valuable. Once there is a community who can exchange knowledge and engage in robust debate based on the language then we begin to reach the land of building on knowledge. This is where gains begin. (This paragraph is a call to start the thinking process about the knowledge and the various areas where one could start building on it first)

(The next paragraph is phrased like a challenge, but again it is a call to think through all sides of an argument. If we are to build a robust case for (or against-why would anyone be against!) investing in Sanskrit, we must ask ourselves more questions and have solid reasoning to hand)

Can this not be done in other languages? Languages that are in use today? Languages that are global and offer mobility and an ever greater exchange of knowledge? Can we not unlock our greatness though grand debates and inventions in say Hindi, Urdu, Tamil or Telegu or indeed the many written and unwritten languages that inhabit our land? Is the language of the santhals that has no script not equally a repository of knowledge of the medicinal benefits of the trees of the forest? Is the literature in Kannada not rich enough to trigger grand debates about society and people? Why does Sanskrit have such a hold on those who aspire to the glories of the past?

Anyone who is serious about supporting Sanskrit must be able to provide a reasonable answer to the question: What is it that Sanskrit will do that cannot be done in other languages? There has been much literature on this, and by asking this question, one obviously refers to that literature without necessarily having to mention it. It is a call to those who know more in depth about that literature to consolidate those arguments and present them. A call, not a challenge. It would serve the cause of promotion of that language well to have a well presented answer to this question. The last question – again – if answered well- strengthens the case for supporting Sanskrit. Explain it, expound on it, build an argument that says that modern languages cannot connect with past skills, attitudes, processes – keys to success – in the way that Sanskrit can… this sentence is a clue built in that tells you one way to think and answer the question built into the paragraph: What can Sanskrit do that others cannot. (Tell, list, share).

Sanskrit has not always been accessible to all people. It was the language of privilege, indeed of discrimination. Only certain people could learn it and access the knowledge it contained. Sanskrit was the language of an elite erudite club. There was a time when the egalitarian protest movements saw Sanskrit representing the wrongs done to them. In a strange twisted way, once the language has lost its power to drive discrimination, it is now accessible to all – and the demands are to make it compulsory for all. Privilege and access are never handed out that easily – either the calls to make Sanskrit compulsory are an acknowledgement that it does not wield that power any more, or the calls hide the fact that it will obfuscate the debate on real access to power via other learning in schools.

One cannot deny that Sanskrit has not been accessible to all people. Even schooling/learning was not accessible to all people. It is rare that there is 100% access to any learning for all people in any country! Sanskrit, in particular has been cast as the language of discrimination. There are places in India where there is proof to the contrary – many professions used Sanskrit – and I am glad that this article has brought forth many in defense with evidence to state this. The intent of the article was to provoke more documentation, better evidence. Let it not be limited to mere conversation – let there be consolidated documentation (and I know of some pockets where this is being done). At the same time, Sanskrit was clearly not available to all in the middle ages. This was to the detriment of the language since local dialects took hold, incorporating much of Sanskrit to evolve. Ease, Access and Evolution have remained markers of languages that grow, and if one wants Sanskrit to grow, then there has to be a case that shows that this is possible. Once the question is framed, it may actually be quite easy to show the case. Any thing that stands to say that these are difficult, mark out the points where work will need to be done and resources allocated. It is true, is it not that Sanskrit was attacked by many for not being egalitarian? Whether they were right or not isn’t being discussed in this sentence – responses to the previous sentence will prove it or not. Here one acknowledges that Sanskrit carries the baggage of privilege, that this protest has been a part of the history of the language.

Has Sanskrit lost it’s power? That is what many will argue as it offers neither access to a king’s purse, nor any special prestige. The opposite case can also be made – knowledge of Sanskrit may not offer monetary power anymore, but it does allow one to earn a respectable income. At the same time one does not see the clamour to learn Sanskrit as one does for English, since English (mistakenly or not) is percieved to be the language that gives access to better employment, and even social status. Why fight what we see around us all the time – it is a fact, right or wrong. We may not like it and may put in our bit to change it, but Sanskrit used to offer more than it does now. It was powerful, it is not powerful now. To those who would like to see Sanskrit regain some of its traction, it is important to understand what carries power now – is it another language, or a set of skiils, or certain competencies. If Sanskrit is to regain its position – if- then it must be able to serve the needs of the people and bring value to them. Power is one kind of value, there are others too. Making it compulsory – hmm – that is another blog post entirely.

The investments of other countries in education tell us of what they consider as sources of power for the next generation. Countries are investing in creativity and collaboration. They are investing in those skills that will be able to understand the future regardless of the structures of the past so that they can build solutions for future needs and growth. Sanskrit, with its many virtues, has not been taught as a language that fosters either of the two. It can, but that is a long, hard, costly journey for a nation.

This is a paragraph that offers constructive suggestions (and of course surface level – this was not a paid project, if paid, there would be a process, detail and rigour that an article cannot achieve) that tell those who support Sanskrit to look for the things that other countries are investing in so that they can retain or gain a superior positioning in the world. If the objective of accessing Sanskrit (assumption, obviously – the word ‘if’ should tip you off) is to be able to regain India’s glorious position on the world stage, it is useful to know what one’s compatriots or competitors are up to. This is a call to study the investments of the others and ensure that they are built in to the investments into Sanskrit. Other countries are investing in specific goals that ensure that they are able to climb up the value chain and retain wage premiums and achieve higher national growth rates (as an example). Does the study of Sanskrit build future value add into its plans? If not, why not? It is possible. Sanskrit, as it is currently taught is focused on rote learning and replication of prior learning, especially at junior levels. The virtues of this approach have been enunciated above/called for above. Now, this is a call for a different approach to Sanskrit – one in which the access to knowledge has forward facing goals. This means a completely different approach to its curriculum, pedagogy, distribution systems, access networks and lifelong learning support systems. This year’s Field Medalist has spoken of how Sanskrit and music helped him access solutions in advanced maths – this is an excellent example of how it can be done. Not a mass solution, but an example of a possible approach. However, this is costly, needs experts in language and learning who are able to break away from their past traditions and bring an approach that will be seen as radical and disruptive by many. This, done well, could energise the language. This, done to mass scale – it is a whole other question.

To take a purely utilitarian view is to doubt the value of Sanskrit from a systemic perspective. How can it make sense to divert resources away from building global skills? It is not just German or any other modern language. The resources can be better used to teach skills of global citizenship, employability, entrepreneurship – so many priorities that urgently claim that space that is being carved out from Sanskrit. Would our students not be better off if they learnt how to transact in the real world comes the counter. What is it about Sanskrit that seems so important that trumps this urgent cry?

So far the approach has been to ask purely utilitarian questions. This is not enough. To take a purely utilitarian view is to to doubt the value of the language. All the answers above put together may not be able to overcome the questions in this paragraph. But one knows – and this is why one seeds the question that there is much here that is beyond mere utility. If one is to take a purely utilitarian approach one has to answer the question about the use of scarce teaching resources. (Again the clues are in the paragraph itself – the global skills can be imparted in any language including Sanskrit if the pedagogy is good). Students can be taught to transact in the real world with or without Sanskrit – it is now a call to those who want to build the language to build the case for resource utilisation.

The last line here refers to the urgent vs. important matrix that is taught as part of every basic decision making class. This is one of the simpler models in decision making, one that many use everyday to resolve both quotidian (everyday) or complex situations. The languages that are in use today will have many arguments in their favour. They are more accessible (duh, obviously), and immediate. The importance of Sanskrit beyond the immediate needs of the present are again understood by many but not articulated in ways that build a case for the language. This is another question, a call to the supporters of the language to add to their arsenal.

The call for teaching Sanskrit compulsorily in schools may not just be about the language and its literature. It is about a country that has grown rapidly, and one with a very young population. This call is a reflection of our fear of rootlessness. Sanskrit is seen as the one language that can bind India’s diversity, its future to its past. It is a quest to seek validation from history, to seek credibility by association with something that may even have been the cradle of knowledge for much of humanity. It is a quest to seek another Idea of India, an identity that can make us whole.

Taking a step back here, one pauses to ask again – is this really about the language? Is this what we are really debating in the country? We have said earlier that it is about (assumption declared) reclaiming past glory. But could it be something more? Something else? Till we know the real reasons for doing something it is impossible to create a program designed for success. We must know what void we are filling. What is the real need? Where is the pain, the gap? What do we want the language to do for us as a people? One possibility is the need for roots – a very human need. This is one language that has been with us for centuries, often connecting us to our ancestors via ritual prayers, at other times connecting us to our mores via shlokas that guide us in daily action. This is one language that gives us a sense of stability in times that seem to be changing very fast. India is a growing nation – it is young, vibrant, energetic, and ready to rush ahead into rapid growth. For anyone who has grown up fast, we know it can get scary and one needs an anchor. Sanskrit can provide that anchor – it can give us a base on which the young India grows its own new identity. The new idea of India. Can it? It depends on how we work it – will it be inclusive? Accepted? Modernised? Useful? This gives rise to a whole set of questions that must be answered before one lays one’s faith in it. A call for more answers – Can Sanskrit fill the gap and provide a sense of one’s roots to a fast paced, high growth, modern India?

But cradles can only show us where we came from, they do not always define where we will go – and Sanskrit can only do so much in this journey of nationhood. To burden a language with so much expectation in the face of all the baggage of our attitudes, behaviours, complexes and structures is to be unrealistic. Sanskrit is a language that deserves better – a support system, a rigourous approach to research and dissemination and a community that loves and cares for it’s growth. Not a diktat that reduces it to a compulsion. Sanskrit need not be the overburdened mother that carries the flag of past glories with the travails of everyday existence, struggling to hold its head high. Let Sanskrit be accessed and taught differently so that it becomes the language of choice, discovery, personal growth and dare I say it – laughter. Let it be not the language of everyday burdens but the language that elevates us above all.

A language is only just that. It is not a religion, a culture, a caste, a creed. It may carry all of these and more. It may have baggage from the past. But a language, however ancient, mature and well designed, is just a language. It has been useful in the past, it has done much to build India – but that does not mean that it can continue to do so without investment. It can only do so much, the rest is up to us. It is unfair to burden the language with the expectation of improving India when it’s people have grown in so many different ways. The language will need so much love and care, investment, resources, support that at this stage it really should not be burdened with high expectations. At this stage it needs to modernise, to align with today’s reality. It needs to be nurtured back to health and active life first before one can expect it represent the glory of India. To that end it must be taught differently – with engagement, enjoyment and choice. As I said above – let it the learning of the language be about choice, discovery, personal growth and laughter.

What Should we do to Improve Learning

15 Oct

There is a deep dark elephant on the table in education, but we do not like to talk about it. The fact is that after at least two centuries of writing, theorising and researching education, we still do not know what works. We do not know how people learn and how to measure the impact of learning except in very myopic ways.

Of course, we recognise the elephant and keep working to identify the beast. The current deployment of technology, the optimism of big data analysis combined with the various sciences is the next hope. This time we expect to crack it so that we can finally answer the question: What should we do to improve learning?

The question is the root cause of billions of dollars spent on education-policy, practice and research. In India, we have not invested enough in understanding the process of education and therefore so much of our education discourse is based on global research, as are the theories of education that are taught to teachers in their B.Ed courses. Almost all theories and views have been debunked at some time or other, and then revived as fresh evidence supporting it crops up in another study. The sorry point is that very little of it is evidence from India (though some excellent theoretical and practical research has been undertaken successfully). For example, the very famous Bloom’s taxonomy. It is a classification of learning styles, and based on this, a teacher is exhorted to design their lesson. So, a teacher needs to identify learning styles in the batch they are working with, and then teach according to the dominant style, and manage the activities and interactions according to the range of styles in the classroom. This is the way research directly impacts the classroom. While this taxonomy may have its supporters, detractors and derivators, the fact remains that we have made no major attempt to understand learning styles in India. How do we know what works? Unless we know that, how do we know what education policies need to be pushed and what must be left out?

One of the large global debates in education is on whether there is a role for the private sector. Many strongly believe that this is a public good and must be supplied by the government. Others, in an even more extreme position, advocate that education must be supplied only by the government. There is enough evidence to note that the most prestigious high achieving schools have been in the private sector while the best of government and government-funded schools (Kendriya Vidyalayas etc.) have at best achieved competence. We have a large study done in India by the famous Dr Karthik Muralidharan that shows that public and private sector provision provides similar learning outcomes with a very different resource allocation model. Private schools are cheaper (also because they pay their teachers less) and achievements rise in areas where they spend more time compared to government schools. What does this mean for the education policy that is being drafted now? Does it mean that private schools will be recognised for their achievements? Does it mean that parents get better value for money from private schools? Does it indicate a change in resourcing for government schools?

Private sector enables education in many ways, and not just by setting up schools. One such movement has been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has had its share of strong and vocal opposition too. Philanthropists and think-tanks have long tried to improve the quality of education by designing institutional interventions and funding their implementation. This has caused much protest from other activists who do not like the ‘experimentation’ with schools and students. It is true that academies and charter schools have not given the education returns that were expected, but then, neither have government interventions done too much either. Educational attainment and employability levels remain an area of concern for most countries.

The line that is drawn between private sector and public intervention in education is a false and harmful one. Neither has a monopoly on the Holy Grail that is the perfect education system. Each has access to some information on systems and pedagogies that have been tried, and on interventions and their respective success. They have access to the same (small) pool of experts. And they share the same goals-to improve education. What neither of them know, however, is how to improve education at scale. In a self-sustaining manner.

Where does this leave those of us who invest in education? And I include those who invest time, money, resources in this pool. It includes the government, philanthropists, NGOs, educators, educationists, investors and more. It includes all of us who have known good teaching, brilliant moments in education achievement, and yet have to turn to each other and acknowledge-this is hard. It is hard, often impossible, when you want to take the success of a class of 20 and make it work for 20 million students. It is hard when you have little to back you up when a solution that worked for one district struggles when you transplant it to another district (even with contextualisation). It is hard when you know that education technology should have transformed and energised students by now, but are faced with feedback and data that often sends you back to the drawing board.

The solution often offered is to leave it all to the public system. But in chaos, it may not be the smartest thing to allow a monopolistic giant to be left alone to discover equilibrium. Nor does it make sense for smaller players to flounder in the deep. We know that price discovery in markets comes from a large number of suppliers and buyers. This is an analogous situation-where it is a dynamic equilibrium and constant deal flow. If we do not accept monopolies and restrictive trade practices in free markets, why should we accept them in the policy market? How can one body, the government, know it all? How can smaller efforts have enough resources to even discover it well?

If I were a portfolio manager in finance, I would have been taught to manage risk by creating a diversified portfolio. As an investor in education (as each student, parent, teacher, school and policymaker is), I find it daunting that we are expected to solve the learning outcomes puzzle without a diversified approach to education. The only natural solution to arriving at an understanding of what works is to try different approaches by different participants. This of course works well in free markets where both suppliers and buyers are able to exercise choice according to their risk-taking capacity. The solution is not to restrict solutions to one megalith, but to create both transparency and synergies between the outcomes of all the players so that they can work in tandem for good, building on each others’ good work. Simply, practically what it says is: Share every success so that every one gets a chance to have the best education possible.

An incredible story from Newark that illustrates how it pans out when they do – (Zuckerberg did it)

Learning from One Another

16 Sep

“When children teach other, they learn better”. I remember hearing this from a teacher in a simple school in a small town. Then I heard the same last year from Vicky Colbert WISE Laureate – indeed this is what transformed education in Colombia via the Escola Neuva system. Through difficult terrain, poor communities, scarce resources – here was a power to be harnessed – the peer.

Learning from each other is a natural way of picking up knowledge and skills. As children and as adults we learn by watching each other, even more so by copying each other’s actions. The next stage is trying it out – learning by doing. There is an old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” But there is one more step. A recent study of retention in learning marked out a pyramid where ‘learning by teaching’ showed a retention rate of 90%, compared to a 5% retention rate for a lecture or a 30% retention rate for a demonstration.

What does that look like in a classroom? A class full of teachers will be chaotic surely? If all the students are teaching each other, then what is the role of the teacher? The role of the teacher evolves to being so much more than a passive fount of knowledge. A peer learning class needs to be arranged differently. They are given challenges, tasks and resources. They share their learning journey, nudged and directed by the teacher till all the students have reached basic competence in that learning module. This means that the style of teaching must be very different. Not only is it more participative but also engages the teacher in different ways. The learning resources became important but what is most important is the question asked by the teacher that sets the children off on the adventure. Too wide, and there is chaos. Too narrow and they are merely parroting lines to each other, even copying from each other mindlessly. This is a trap the teacher must avoid – the point of peer learning in classrooms is to encourage students to think and engage with the learning. Not just copy from each other or the board.  Designing the question, organising the class, managing the range, channelling energy constructively – the teacher’s focus moves to these in peer learning classes. And learning levels go up more – not only has each child been engaged, each child has received personal attention from the teacher and has been taught using a pedagogy that improves retention levels.

Changing pedagogies midstream is always a bit daunting for most teachers. Only few would have been trained in peer learning, others will have to figure it out on their own. Unless, they have a peer learning group. What is applied to the classroom can, and does work for teachers too. Teaching and learning is enhanced with peers (or why would schools exist!) and the best teachers keep learning new techniques and sharing them with their peers. Not just colleagues.

There was a time when peer learning was restricted to one’s circle of colleagues and the only peer learning network that was active was in the staffroom. Occasional training sessions extended it for a while to peers across other schools or in the same district. Technology has now removed these barriers. Peer learning groups are being supported by tech companies such as google, by newspaper groups such as the Times (UK based, working in India) and others. Facebook groups are a great way of creating peer learning networks across the country and even the globe. Look up a group to join, or even create one of your own. It doesn’t have to be all serious and theoretical for learning to happen. For example, we used to share little stories of what happened in class with the Facebook group. Sometimes we would share laughter and often it would get responses that were very supportive and helpful. Teaching tips can be shared. Another great tool to create a peer learning network is twitter. Teachers and educators come together and discuss ways to improve their teaching practice or other issues in education. The Indian education chat is called #EduIn where one can meet a community of educators. Others are more global and include groups for new teachers, teachers learning to incorporate technology in their classes, mathematics teachers etc. Shared blogs with multiple contributors work as peer learning for both teachers and students, as do whatsapp groups. Both the flipped classroom model as well as peer learning pedagogies can use these tools extensively.

Whether peer learning is technology driven or not, there is a great deal of value in peer learning groups. In Punjab, STIR and NISA are working in the Rajpura district of Punjab to bring teachers together regularly to speak about in class innovations, teaching practices, solutions and experiences. The teaching community meet at one of the schools in the district on a regular basis and worked together to share and learn. They were able to improve many outcomes in the school district in a short while, but of course there is a lot more to be done. Similar efforts have been in place for decades in Rajasthan and other places.

Peer Learning Networks do not have to be an overly formal construct – each of us can create a PLN where we identify and nurture our sources of learning. While many of us do so naturally it is more of a conscious effort for others. A PLN gives better results if there is a semi-formal structure around it not the least because it ensures that we put in the time and resources required to make it work. A semi-formal or formal PLN will also set its goals, monitor progress and have a community of care that helps it course correct as required. For example, subject based peer learning networks of teachers could be very useful where they share teaching tools, resolve classroom hurdles, share worksheets and quizzes and even create intra-school events. Sometimes only a peer learning network can help – or even understand what the problem is and how to find your way through the maze.

Peer Learning is not a magic wand that resolves all problems but it does form the basis of sustainable solutions. This is where we tap into all parts of learning – previous knowledge, relevant experience and the adventure of sharing to grow our skills together. The PLN grows together as it encourages and supports the whole group to improve themselves.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer and advisor on education. She designs institutional interventions to improve learning outcomes and bring a sense of fun and movement in classrooms. She can be contacted at or on twitter at the handle @meetasengupta

Time to Recast the RTE Act

8 Sep
Four years after it became an Act and a year of implementation later, it is becoming very clear that the Right to Education Act (RTE) is deeply flawed. The Act was called a sieve by this author in this very publication in 2010, and much of what was predicted has come to pass. It was a significant piece of social re-engineering where the intent was to bring the rich and the poor to the same classroom.
The RTE Act was a daring piece of legislation for two reasons. One, it implicitly admitted that quality education was being delivered in private schools, so they must be co-opted to serve the poorest despite the availability of government schools in their area. Second, the Act virtually nationalized a quarter of the private sector provision in school education for children, with the exception of those that could be certified as minority schools. It could have changed the landscape of learning had it focused on that—learning. Instead, the RTE chose to be an administrator’s tool to standardize schools to look uniform regardless of what was happening within classrooms. It legislated the trappings of education while ignoring the process and outcomes. While neither policy, nor a law is charged with the onerous burden of implementation, they are written to achieve certain outcomes. If one cannot get a sensible answer to the questions “how will this be done” and “what will it look like in reality”, then the formulation itself is suspect and will suffer from failures in implementation—as has largely been the case here, so far.
The new government has spoken of a fresh education policy, but before that it is clear that the RTE Act itself requires some amendments at the very least. We have seen that even four years after its enactment very little has changed in schools. Teachers are not doing things differently, nor has learning improved. The pressure on quality private sector education has increased—reallocating places does not enhance either quality or capacity. The Act needs to be turned on its head so that it starts to measure progress against its goals. While the popular view is that the measure of success of a school and its teachers must be the learning outcomes achieved, it may be wise to take a step forward and work towards value-add measures. Let us try to answer the questions “how much has the student learnt during the year?” and “how many learning levels did the student advance?” This not only brings the focus back to individual student abilities, but is also more fair to the teacher than an absolute measure of learning outcomes at milestones. Let the reformed law ask for achievement to be measured, not just the inputs as has been the case thus far.
The new RTE Act also must ensure that the implicit cross-subsidization of weaker students does not hamper learning. This shows up in two ways—cross-subsidization of fees and of classroom learning time. The current compensation offered by the government does not meet the cost per pupil for many schools, the deficit is necessarily transferred on to fee-paying parents. The cost of extras is a grey area still, and there needs to be some support to fill this gap. But the bigger gap is the learning achievement gap and that is clear at the very beginning. The Act needs to make a provision to provide remedial support. Without this support, academically weaker students slow down the class, thus lowering learning levels for all. This “learning cross-subsidy” is an avoidable cost and can be remedied in the reformed Act.
Age seems to matter more than learning levels in the RTE Act, and this too deserves a serious rethink as the peg to age has consequences. It means that a child with little or no learning may be asked to enter an age-appropriate cohort despite being several levels behind in learning. It has also led to undermining examinations, and indeed the authority of teachers in schools—since there are no adverse consequences of not meeting any required learning levels. One advances by age, not by competence. The RTE as it stands, stands against meritocracy. Surely, that could not have been the intent and needs to change. The most urgent reform required is in the recognition of schools.
There are many that provide adequate learning outcomes but do not meet the input criteria mandated in the Act. Asking these schools to shut down leaves students with options they had rejected earlier as being sub-par, and certainly not constructive when systemic strategy must be directed towards raising capacity. The Act needs to recognize that some schools can achieve full recognition, others need help to meet standards. Any discussion on recasting the RTE must include pathways via secondary recognition to such learning centres.
The Act discriminates between private and public schools and the amendments to the Act must include equal compliance and accountability. A school report card, school improvement and development plans, school management committees and more must be equally applied to all schools regardless of ownership. Similarly, the requirements for recognition that apply to private schools must be met by government schools too. Parity in operating and reporting must be the cornerstone for providing universal quality education. The new RTE Act must hold all schools to similar standards, rather than harp on standardization as it has done so far.
Interestingly, the RTE Act is a good example of a living Act with vigorous and even discordant negotiations with stakeholders over the past four years. Normally the consultation during the writing of the Act is supposed to create consensus; in this case most of the action happened after the Act was promulgated. But the Act needs more than tinkering, it needs to pivot along with the needs of the nation, and for that, it is time to recast the RTE Act.
Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed are personal.

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5 Hurdles to Skilling India

9 Jun
Skilling will power the India growth story
Meeta Sengupta, Hindustan Times
June 08, 2014
First Published: 23:03 IST(8/6/2014)
Last Updated: 23:04 IST(8/6/2014)

Skills development for employment and growth is on the front burner with a million new people to be trained and employed each month in India. The rise of this trained workforce is critical to India’s growth story — else who will power the engine? Without this soft infrastructure all investments in hard infrastructure are futile. And yet the skills story remains stuck. There are gaps in the skills story that are still not bridged while others are slow in their progress. Some others are at a standstill, for nobody will own them. There is demand and supply, and yet the conversion to higher value addition  is lagging. What stands in the way?

First, accreditation. Who certifies that the skills that trainers provide are adequate and transferable across the industry? Certification must (i) be mobile, and (ii) provide an income boost. The accrediting body assures the employer of the value of that certificate. The accreditation bodies hold trainers to account via inspections, improvements and programmes that ensure that the training and, therefore, the certificates are valuable in the market. India’s progress on this front has been slow. Where sector skills councils will become accreditors, there is a pathway though benefits are barely beginning to be visible. Till the accreditation network is in place, operational and credible, few skills certificates have a market.

Second, prior learning certification. Most vocational workers have learnt their skills on the job and are often very experienced. They do not need to retrain themselves for months on end to be able to perform to their standard. Across sectors, there is no universal mechanism that certifies the level of their skills within learning frameworks. Certifying learning with credible level markings creates a market for higher-order skills. Experienced workers will not hop on to the skills bandwagon if you equate them with young starters. Give them credit for what they know, help them upgrade.

Third, assessments. The lack of trust in assessments has undermined many certification processes. If employers do not believe that the assessment process was honest and the declared results are valid and reliable, they will not be willing to pay a wage premium. For example, the skills certification for driving licences in India has suffered because few believe it to be a credible test of skill. The distortion has made it a document that is not even accepted by the issuing authority as proof of identity, let alone skill. Without honesty within the process, it collapses.

Fourth, apprenticeships. This is an education programme that is trapped under the history of trade union negotiations with the labour ministry. The legal binds on hiring apprentices have made it all but unviable. No employer would want to enter this minefield though this is the right operational model to revive the skilling sector. Many industries ‘train’ their future employees and then offer them jobs. Much energy is expended working the legal hassles that have suffocated an excellent model for the revival of skills in large and small industries. The apprenticeship model has revived growth in moribund economies and is an excellent scaleable device.

Fifth, and the most important, financing. Often workers are unable or unwilling to pay for training that may not guarantee them a wage premium or even a job. Employers see no reason to invest in people who may leave straight after being trained. An underwriting agency is required along with a repayment plan that aligns with earnings of the trainee. The Australian model deducts repayments from salary in proportion to income. Those who earn more can repay faster. And honest repayments will sustain it for future generations.

While removing these speed breakers to skilling requires institutional interventions, it is critical to align the existing workforce with the training community to ensure steady growth even as they wait for regulations to settle down.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer, speaker and advisor in education and skills and designs institutional interventions

The views expressed by the author are personal

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India needs an Education Strategy

28 May


May 16, 2014, 8:12 am IST in EduCable | India, Living

India needs an education strategy

India stands at a cusp today between two governments. The previous one has been serving the nation for the past ten years the new one will hopefully get a mandate strong enough to stand for the next five.

As we stand on this platform between the old and the new (regardless of which party comes back to power, though by now it seems to be fairly clear) it is a time to call for change.

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education. For each of these I can hear critics harrumphing. I agree, not enough has been done. Progress has been painfully slow. In many cases the slow progress has been a boon because the direction chosen was so obviously flawed. A generation has lost many chances. The current one must not be let down.

The good news is that much of the thinking and debating has been done for years. There are clear opinions and choices on most institutional and policy issues. The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Other issues that always get pushed under the carpet are also acknowledged as being awkward – Foreign Direct Investment in education, private sector provision of primary education, the mess that the current community college model presents (when the answer is obvious to some of us) and of course the very troublesome issue of apprenticeships that falls somewhere in the gaps between the ministries of Human Resource Development and Labour. Many of the issues that need to be sorted out are ideological – tradition pulls policy towards treating it as a public good. Pragmatism and resource constraints, and dare I say it – common sense too – negates that view. At the same time one realises that the current structures, behemoths as they are may be flawed, but are the only vehicles for the distribution of the new national policies. These knots will have to be cut before the new government can begin to make meaningful progress.

Of course, some changes are easier than they look, such as the RTE Act that has been attacked by many. It is enough to acknowledge the RTE 2.0 movement that is ready to move past recriminations and chart a path to better education for all. The RTE comes with fundamental flaws that cannot be allowed to continue into the future but has clearly established the principle of social engineering via education policy. Where it fails is in arrogating private property to the state, in discriminating against the majority institutions and in creating a distrust of government aid. These flaws will only strengthen the suspicion that government wants to play big brother and nanny – a creepy thought at best. The RTE itself has many flaws such as the emphasis on input based criteria rather than on value addition during the school year (though activists cry out for output based norms for schools). Many flaws have been patched over, but fundamentally it remains a noble thought that seems to be designed for flaws to show up in operation.

The new government has all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place. They have all been tagged and sorted too. Now it is up to them to create a the picture that they believe will built a better future for the nation. It is time for a national action plan. What India needs is a National Education Strategy.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Degrees and Leadership: Smriti Irani and the MHRD post

28 May


In defence of Smriti Irani, India’s new HRD minister

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 – 6:25pm IST | Agency: DNA
  • smriti-irani HRD minister Smriti Irani

Does a leader always need to be an expert? Or is a good leader one who can leverage a wide range of expertise and skills? Ask India Inc, the entrepreneurial and the baronial – and the chances are that their business successes will provide the answer before they need to respond. Of course, an expert in the area will find it easier to process information and will have an easier learning curve when entering the arena. But those who are not experts also prove to be good workers and leaders. Not all good leaders are experts, but all good leaders know how to utilise the abilities of experts.

What about education? Surely in education we need educated leaders? They have to decide on broad issues of education policy, create legislation to revive the sector, identify and clear hurdles to scale and quality. It is a growing nation that must learn to invest in its own talent to participate on the global stage. It might have been better to have a learned greybeard to lead the initiatives rather than the youngest woman in the Cabinet of the Union of India, who, as the cynics and critics point out, has received no higher education. By that logic, no CEO or leader can be allowed to hold a post where they have not gone through the ranks. Nor would there be any conglomerates – for who can be all the things that a GE CEO leads? Or a Tata group CEO?

Smriti Irani, the young Cabinet minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) does hold a complex portfolio. What is more challenging is her inheritance – she faces a wide range of issues that seem to have decided on arbitrary criteria that has had little to do with the broader goals of education. She has to work with policies that impact individuals – and almost every family in the nation. Worse, she has to figure out which of the schemes she now supervises are useful and which ones are actually destroying the fabric of the nation. The nation now looks to her to have the ability to discriminate, to judge and to invest in the future.

So much needs to be dismantled, so much needs to be reconstructed and so much needs to be built. Consider the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Noble in intent surely, when it gave the right to be educated to every 6-14 year old in the country. Yet, so badly constructed that even three years ago, this author called the act a sieve. It is in a shambles today – forcing many budget private schools to close (should they not be supported to improve?), creating incentives for schools to declare themselves minority institutions (how is it inclusive, or even a national act if the it does not apply to a minority institutions) and of course the silent elephant on the table – the nationalisation of private property when 25% of the seats in the private sector were taken over by the act. Does she have the ability to distinguish between a left liberal argument versus a economic right social left argument and decide on the right course of action?

There is no point denying she does not have the academic grounding – but the argument here is precisely this – she does not need to have that if she has the ability to channel good advice. As a leader, her task would certainly have been easier if she had experience in the field of education. At the same time she would have the disadvantage of ideological baggage that would influence her decisions. And the critics would have carped about that. It is true, again, that the ministry of HRD is trapped in the middle of complex legislation and the entire sector is moribund due to regulatory messes. Higher education institutions cannot hire or fire the faculty they need to, talent cannot be nurtured or showcased due to hierarchies and tenure based structures. Research languishes, as does the quality of teaching. Does Smriti Irani have the ability to judge which area of science should receive more funding? Can she chair a meeting of the directors of the IITs and IIMs?

Certainly she can. She is a politician, and is not in that chair to provide the academic expertise. That is the job of the other people in the room including her ministry and advisors. She is tasked with a politician’s role – one of persuasion. Of getting support for ideas that drive through to results. Her leadership will be judged on her ability to get the job done. And the job at the moment is about managing the negotiation between different ideas and priorities. Her task is to involve more partners so that education can leverage the skills and resources that are available outside the government, and indeed the nation.

If this was a personal defence of the minister, one could call on her past achievements too – these are in the public domain. This is not about the person. This is about the sad conflation of degrees and competence when degrees themselves are not designed around competencies. Degrees may be the proof of certain learning but they do not represent the sum total of knowledge, skills and attitudes – each of which are required to be successful in a job.

For long the elitism of degrees has influenced choices in India regardless of talent. And this fascination with a linear education pathway that culminates in more degrees has made it difficult for individuals to follow their talent and aptitudes. Worse, teaching and learning are reduced to the tests that seem to deny that there are other pathways to success, not just academic. And academic pathways need not map to a certain age-line.

There are many who have become successful without following the trodden path, many whose learning has been honed outside academic hallways. There are skills that a Harvard and Ahmedabad cannot teach. Let us give the new minister a chance to step up and show what she has learned. Her competence will be tested in the public eye. The least one can do is be supportive and helpful. After all, we are on the same side if we care for a better educated nation.

One last question remains – would we all not have been happier if, say, Arun Jaitley had been appointed the minister for HRD? Yes, certainly. Erudite, well spoken, a sharp legal brain, proven intellect, the ability to negotiate in tricky land – it would have been ideal. Given the huge challenge in human resources, an experienced hand would have been useful. All the more reason to support the young minister, and call on others, including the cabinet mentors, to help her learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Meeta Sengupta is a writer, and an advisor an consultant in education. She tweets at @meetasengupta.




This was published in the DNA newspaper on May 27, 2014


On Cheating and Morals

17 Apr

Thursday, 20 March 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Cheating and bribery are becoming habits at the school level itself. Students copy in examinations and pay for leaked papers. The trend carries over into politics too

Is India really supportive of dishonesty? Should we give up the pretence of being an honest country where truth and equality are valued? Because, often, India gives enough data to prove that we do not believe in truth enough to be able to demonstrate our leaning towards it. Be it the elections or the exams, whenever we are put to the test, many of us crack under the pressure and use questionable means.

Consider this chilling piece of news: A boy in Uttar Pradesh committed suicide because he could not pay a bribe to be allowed to cheat in the examination — his dream of becoming a teacher was, therefore, lost. There is so much that went wrong here: Bribe, cheating, limitations on opportunities to a career, and the bullying of the poor; the mother had to mortgage her ring to arrange for the bribe.

This is not a unique example. Cheating has been rife and is almost institutionalised in many parts of the country. It is a rare examination room where cheating does not occur in some form or the other. While as an educationist I constantly argue for smarter examination designs to eliminate this evil, one has to admit that there is an element of training for a corrupt future going on here.

Examinations that merely test for rote-learning are bound to be gamed — and we see that they are by millions of people. If the objective is to win, and the underlying principle is the survival of the fittest, then of course the laws of the jungle will begin to apply. If the examinations were not such a high-stakes hurdle, then the situation might be different. As things stand, the marks will determine whether you have access to a decent education or whether you have to chart your own path through unguided waters. The price of purchasing that certainty is often paid by crossing the ethical divide.

Things do not get better as one climbs through the education ranks — as a student one often uses pirated or photo-copied textbooks (and the cases are still in court), essays and thesis assignments are often either plagiarised or outsourced for a fee, and, one hears that laboratory test results are ‘arrived’ at in various ways. Another example: Professor Muralidharan, who has worked for years on education in India and published serious academic papers, tweeted out a case of his entire paper being copied and cited by an academic in southern India, as shown on his webpage. Brazen plagiarism must have its roots in a history of not being caught out and shamed.

Academics now are charged with producing a given number of research papers per year to get their increments and promotions. With poor research training and little time and support, many plagiarise. Others often sit on the ethical fence and split their work into the required number of papers — just to meet the rules. Honesty is clearly not a way of life even as we learn.

This shows in choices made at election time too. As a nation, we do not vote for honesty. The number of criminals in Parliament has been widely reported. The number of criminals who are getting to stand on behalf of significant political parties is known too. And yet such people will continue to get elected. A recent paper by Milan Vaishnav (for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) estimates that the chances of winning elections for a candidate with no criminal charges against him or her is a mere seven per cent (rising to 25 per cent if there is at least one serious case against the individual). From the voters’ point of view, in a survey, a whopping 48 per cent indicated that they would be okay voting for such a candidate.