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The Admissions Conundrum

7 Feb

The admissions conundrum

Meeta Sengupta
21 January 2014, 11:02 AM IST

In a perfect world there would be enough quality nursery and university places for everyone to be able to get admission into a school of their choice. In that perfect world there would be enough room for students to change their mind and shift across schools with no stress if they felt the need to do so. We do not inhabit this world yet. In our world we have to compete, if that word that can still apply, for university seats. And we often have to settle for second best when we start our education journey.


Delhi has been struggling with both these issues in the past week. The recent decisions and the counter cases only bring the debate to the forefront. There are no easy answers in either case but it does seem clear that few are pleased with the current solutions that are being proposed as admissions policy. Admissions policies need to be balanced and evenly designed to ensure fair access to all. In education, as in jobs, this has been traditionally seen as best served by valuing meritocracy. So high achievers get admission to the school of their first choice and the others maybe move on to their second or third choice. Achievements in academics and sports have been recognised as valuable to universities – other achievements are probably not of academic value. Of course, mere achievements are not enough – other criteria are designed to create equitable access – and these include affirmative action quotas too.


Selection on merit seems to be the fairest way to enroll students till one realises the trauma of three year olds made to perform for a high stakes test that lasts a few minutes and can decide their future. Mere marks too seem inadequate for selection in universities where the objective is mainly gainful employment. On the other end of the spectrum lies a pure lottery based selection system. This may be equitable but can hardly be called fair. For starters it is unfair to those who work harder, or to those who need the seat more. This system displeases both the supporters of meritocracy and the supporters of affirmative action. Seeking the perfect admissions policy is probably like the hunt for a mirage – it seems attractive in the distance but may never be reached. This will remain a journey. In an attempt to get this right many systems have developed complex formulae to identify the right candidates.


The Delhi nursery admissions criteria seems to be a case in point where private schools now do not have the right to select their own students and the admissions are supposed to be on the basis of standardised criteria. Schools have protested this ruling even filing a case in court which delays admissions this year. The situation is fraught, like each year, with poor capacity creating a skewed demand for the few good schools. Some of the criteria seem to be similar to those adopted across the world – for example – the distance from school. Yes of course little children get tired going to school, but that is a tradeoff for parents to make, not for schools to decide. Schools may intervene if students seem over tired in classes, but till there is proof that children suffer from commuting (and Delhi’s school buses are an established system) why should this affect choice? Why should student mobility be restricted? If they are a better fit in a school that is some distance away then why deny them this facility? Looking beyond traditional subjects – suppose a school has a great cricket coach, or a great dance tradition – so much so that they are able to help their students build careers out of it. Should talented students be restricted to a local school that does not understand or foster their abilities?


The other issue in admissions that has always evoked strong opinions is that of affirmative action. About half the seats in Central Universities and a quarter of the seats in (many) private schools are now allocated by quotas. While there may be a justifiable case for affirmative action, there may also be a case to assess the success of these policies. If they have been less than successful in raising their target groups out of poverty, then maybe the criteria or the process need to be revisited.


There is no denying the government its role in some social engineering, and therefore there is no denying some hard trade offs. The way out of these trade-offs is not to create more restrictive policies for admissions but to increase quality capacity. Invest in building good intellectual capacity and allow it to attract funds. The time for mere gate keeping is past if one acknowleges the need to go beyond the zero sum game in education.


Connected Teachers

7 Feb

Teachers should be in tune with times

Thursday, 23 January 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

The technology and teacher inter-connectivity boom in India is still at a nascent stage. It needs to spread for results to be evident

The tide has silently risen — and teachers are better off because they join. I speak of the conversations between teachers across schools, networks and geographies. Teachers are acknowledged to be at the centre of improvements in education — they are the single factor that determines the quality of teaching and learning that happens in a classroom. While much of these have been measured by student achievement, a teacher’s contribution is a lot more in terms of the values, the team skills and the emotional support that they offer to their classroom. Teaching is an act of transformation — it takes a lot out of the teacher and they too need validation and renewal.

A decade ago, the only place where teachers gathered would be in teacher-training sessions organised by their authority or in consultation meetings — where only the senior teachers had access. Training sessions were designed to be top down, and were often honoured in the breach rather than in actual renewal. Teacher training often became just about compliance. The past year has seen significant changes because of sterling work done by many to address the systemic issues that teachers face on a day to day basis. The first being isolation.

It is not only single-teacher schools in far-flung rural areas where teachers feel isolated. This can happen in a large, populated urban school too. Teachers who wish to innovate in their classroom, or have an idea that they think will work for a school, or maybe an interesting activity or lesson plan do not always find support within their schools. Every teacher has much to share based on their experiences and efforts. But for such sharing to happen teacher communities needed to be enabled both within and outside schools. One of the positives about team-teaching is that all teachers share materials and plans, which makes them effective support systems for each other. The downside is that it takes an initial investment of time from the teachers who will see benefits only once they make a success of it. Team-teaching has been seen to be effective only in schools that are technology enabled and where the teachers themselves naturally integrate technology with their teaching preparation and practice.

It is this technology boom that has enabled teachers across the world to connect with, teach one another and share what they can. This change has been slow in coming to India — many of the schools here barely see electricity, let alone have computers. Those that do find the journey as digital immigrants varied — the schools that have been able to enable open access with well- designed content have benefited the most, other schools find ‘computers’ to be a chore since it is seen as a separate subject and task. Teachers lead the change and those who have had support and are able to adopt it for use as seamlessly as a textbook or a blackboard are those who have more to share.

The technology and teacher inter-connectivity boom in India is nascent. Some of it is via Government networks such as those that link universities across the country. Many of these are enabled via email groups, Facebook and other social media. Large newspapers with significant education supplements have invested in developing communities of teachers across the country, as have social entrepreneurs who help create social learning platforms for teachers to share materials within school networks. The most ambitious of these is the open education resources programme that encourages teachers to share their teaching resources with others, for free, and to access and use other teachers’ shared resources.

Invest in Cybersafety for Students

28 Nov
As an increasing number of children access the Internet, schools and parents alike must invest in cyber-safety training for students

In the land fuelled by the informational technology boom, India seems to be bringing up a generation of digital immigrants in its schools. The rich, of course, have access to computers and the gifts that good internet access brings. Those who cannot afford to have computers at home continue to be educated as previous generations were — with limited (if valuable, in other ways) access to information. Most schools, and even colleges that do have computers and Internet access ensure that these are separate from everyday learning, which continues in the old ways. Computers are restricted to computer laboratories — even the nomenclature reminiscent of experiments that have not quite come to life. And thus, schools falter in preparing their students for life.

At home, many of these students access the Internet with little or no guidance. They find their own way through the maze and there is little to protect them. With parents who grew up in an age when the personal computer was still being created, this is the first generation of cyber-travellers. But the lands they travel are inhabited by all sorts. The Internet is a vast and dangerous place, as much as it is a source of learning, networks and quick information. And children, even if they are adept in the technology, need to be guided to remain safe.

Cyber-safety is not part of the curriculum yet, though the Central Board of Secondary Education plans to include it. If news reports are to be believed, it is being helped by a Bangalore schoolboy who has developed a curriculum that is currently being tested. While this is an opportunity to praise the student and the good work that is being done, it is surprising that this had not been thought through as a regular part of imparting ‘computer science’ education.

Children, barely in their teens, are online now, while iPads are in the hands of infants. State Governments have started issuing free laptops to students, again, without training. Given the rapid rise of smart phone usage in India, connectivity now moves beyond conventional computers and laptops to hand-held devices. Each time a child borrows a smartphone to access the wider world, he sets his own norms and limits — and this needs focussed discussion. The number of students online may be small now, but if the promises of rural broadband connectivity are met, then it will balloon dramatically.

Students often use Internet connectivity to conduct their transactions and share learning. They have accounts on Facebook (sometimes for sharing homework), browse the net researching for their projects and have independent email accounts. McAfee, a provider of Internet safety products, has just released a survey of ‘tween’ Internet behaviour. Coursera, a large provider of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, reported that outside of the US, India has the largest student base for these high-quality, zero-fee courses. Online education, including mobile, is a large industry for the K-12(school) segment.

Our students are not only going online to study. They socialise there too. India is reportedly the largest consumer of pornography online (albeit in the 35-49 year age group). Given this data, and that most computers are shared in homes, access to age-inappropriate material is a high risk. Other risks include identity theft, which could even lead to financial loss; online friendships with unsavoury unknowns, again leading to inappropriate exchanges or even cyber bullying by those one knows well at school or at home.

There is much to be gained by traversing the Internet, and our students must be shown how to do it safely. Our schools deal with this by shutting off access to the Internet or policing it stringently. While parental and school controls are a part of the tool-set, this is not the right way to teach our children to deal with the risks. A real life analogy is teaching a child to cross the road — if they are never let on to the road, they will not be able to navigate the roads independently.



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Navigate the world and the web safely

Thursday, 28 November 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped


Cybersafety and Education

28 Nov

Cybersafety and Education

– Meeta W Sengupta 

“If you don’t mind, could you share a copy of the cybersafety policy of your school? I want to compare it with the one I have from my old school”

The slightly defensive, bewildered look in response to that question told me all I needed to know. That school did not have a cyber safety policy, which meant they did not have a consistent way of teaching their children to be safe.

There are two ways a school can look at cyber safety. Either they can ‘keep children safe’ online, or they can ‘teach children to be safe’. Most schools that allow their children to go online freely know that they must adopt the latter – teach children to be safe. But it is also easier to chose the first route – put in restrictions. This of course has its costs, both monetary and in competencies.

Typically, in most schools ICT is still seen as a separate subject, not as a tool to conduct normal schoolwork. In that sense, schools are about two decades behind workplaces where most of our work is conducted in a connected world. This hardly prepares our children for work. Nor does it help our students to have restricted access to school intranets or restricted sites, especially as they grow through secondary school. Often, a school has a few IT teachers, and they decide how much access students should have on the internet. This is often ad-hoc and very dependent on a teacher’s individual training and knowledge of cyber threats. Those who are too cautious restrict access, thus denying students both the benefits of research via the net, and the opportunity to learn to avoid the dangers online. There are the rare few who give their students the tools and guidance to keep themselves safe and active online. There are even fewer who catalogue these to create a consistent and sustainable school policy.

Our children and students are online more and more, and much of this is unsupervised access. School children often collaborate for homework and projects on facebook, they form friendships across continents online. In many schools across the world assignments are submitted as classblogs, and some teachers run open twitter classrooms. As they grow older, many will participate in MOOCs where they will collaborate and work with unknown peers across the globe. Connectivity and collaboration are bound to increase as much for work and study as for social reasons. Our schools need to prepare our children for this future.

This must start with the teachers and administrators of schools. They need to decide collectively how best they can serve student welfare. An enlightened group will soon realise that (i) students cannot be restricted from online activity (ii) Even if they are restricted at school, they will be online from other places, and this will still reflect on the school, and (iii) they, the teachers are best placed to show the students the principles of staying safe online.

First, the school needs to have a cybersafety policy. Some schools will extend this to a cybersafety pledge, or an easily remembered acronym that the students can use to remind themselves or others. Set out the norms, learn to be alert, share no personal information – many of the rules are the same as that of the real world. While it is tempting to set out a set of norms right here, let me use this opportunity to call for a round table (preferably virtual!) where we come together and create a set of norms that can help and support teachers create a fun set of guides for their schools and students.

In the meantime, stay safe online!


This was posted as a guest post on the McAfee Cybermum’s blog:

24 Oct

Being callous with data privacy

Thursday, 17 October 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Does the security of student data require laws or policies to be in place to guide institutions? Or do we depend on online contracts to determine who owns the data?

How many times have you been able to obtain a student’s examination results by simply going to a website and entering the student’s roll number? Or have known that it is possible to find out information about a person’s school records with little difficulty? Have you ever been surprised by the fact that the advertisements on your phone or in the side bar of the Facebook account seem to know the age of your children — and what you may be looking for in study materials?

Data privacy is not as much of a concern in India as it should be. Despite the massive brouhaha over snooping, most Indians do not protect their data and information. A part of it clearly is because we have come to ‘computerisation’ later in the day, which meant that we adopted the technology when many of the tools were already integrated into systems. For example, passwords. At the same time, many of us will openly acknowledge that passwords themselves are not protected as per instructions. It is not uncommon to walk into open-plan offices to see IDs and passwords pinned on to personal notice boards, or easily accessible in the drawers of desks. Passwords are also often shared between friends and colleagues.

The first question that arises is one of ownership. Who owns student data? The basic data that is collected by the school or university about the student is not the only information that needs to be protected. Student attendance records, teachers’ notes on their class performance (assuming teachers do their job and actually record student progress), student examination results and even the exam papers are data and information that must belong to somebody. If the school has claimed ownership of all this data, then it must follow that they have taken the responsibility for looking after it. Disclaimers notwithstanding — for we know that they are a cop out — the question remains.

Let us take this to the level of the classroom. Teachers all over the world lead primary school classes to greater global interaction via the Internet — via class blogs. Even geography classes using Twitter are not uncommon, where students connect with people across the globe and ask them questions about their country. What are the privacy policies for these? For discussions in massive open online courses? Are student writings open access? Should real names be allowed on Twitter — as the law wants to mandate? Facebook has myriad school study groups and semi-official school accounts. Do schools feel responsible for that data? Can they conceivably be held accountable for such interactions that fall on the cusp of student and personal lives?

There is, of course, the point of view that says that such data and information does not need protection at all. Does it matter if the information is publicly available? Both students and teachers are vulnerable. The recent furore over a Central Board of Secondary Education circular that asked schools to put details of teacher salaries etc in public domains is a good example. Over sharing such information puts the individual at risk.

As inter-connected technologies become an integral part of our education system, one of the big questions that needs to be asked is: Whether this is a matter of school policy, of individual contracts or of national regulation? Does the security of student data require laws or policies to be in place to guide institutions? Or will the web of contracts that we agree to online define who owns our history and information?

This, then is a question of personal sovereignty.


This was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on October 17, 2013 and is linked here

Do Credentials Matter?

24 Oct


Does it matter if a teacher or a professor has the right credentials for the job? What can credentials tell you anyway?


Just because a person is an expert in a subject area does not necessarily make them a competent teacher of that content. Every holder of a doctorate has spent about half a decade creating their nugget of knowledge to share with the world, often confined to the library, laboratory, research arena and the company of peers. They have been trained in asking a good question and then answering it with rigour. In this process, they know a lot about their PhD domain, but know little about the world of teaching and learning. Would they make good teachers?


Not just recent PhD students. The same question applies to anyone with deep domain knowledge from the industry who wishes to share their expertise with students. Some are excellent teachers, others are not. They, like the PhD candidates, have received little or no training in teaching and mentoring their students. Do their credentials and degrees have anything to do with becoming good teachers? Taking it one step foward – Do academic credentials have any meaning for leadership and administrative roles, such as the directorship of an institution?


At the school level too, one wonders if there is a correlation between good degrees and good teaching. On the one hand we have clear evidence from countries with Finland where every teacher must study both content and teaching for at least seven years before they are allowed to teach. Finland, of course, keeps topping the league tables in student achievement. On the other hand, there is evidence gathered from studies in some states of India where trained teachers were often absent. Para teachers were able to match their output as measured in student achievement. Does this mean we don’t need trained teachers at all for our primary schools? (Not really – further details in the study revealed that trained teachers could turn out higher achievement rates, if given the right incentives. And if they were present)


Again and again we find the certificate that is seen as a pre-requisite for obtaining a job has little to do with the skills required for the job. A vice chancellor of a university is expected to watch over governance, manage the politics and be the ambassador for the university. While the selection criteria clearly include these, the certificates and credentials they are expected to produce are often more academic than anything else. They have little relevance to the job at hand. A professor to a university has far more value in their networks and experience than the mere certificates that they must produce for the selection procedure. A school teacher who holds a B.Ed degree may still be utterly unqualified for the task of teaching a real class despite having spent years on the theory of education and child psychology.


This issue is coming to a head in India as the provisions of  RTE (Right to Education Act) are being implemented and imposed upon schools with fines and punitive action for non-compliance. There are arguments on both sides. The RTE insists that all teachers have a B.Ed qualification. This is doubly challenging. First, there are not enough qualified teachers in the country. Second – what happens to those teachers who have been doing a wonderful job of teaching for decades without ever needing this qualification? There is no provision in the act for accepting years of competent service as a proxy for the qualification.


Of course our students should have well qualified teachers – they are better teachers, are they not? Err.. sadly, not necessarily. Well, then are they not at least better prepared teachers? In theory yes, but even a good B.Ed program has not exposed them to enough classrooms to actually prove or train them to be better teachers. Let us not speak of the incompetence in B.Ed teaching that allows teachers to receive credentials with minimal learning – it has often been called a scam, a shame. The B.Ed credential has lost value due to such misuse by many colleges.


Even if the schools were willing to recruit, would they be able to afford to do so? Budget schools that often charge as little as Rs. 50 per month as fees from students are unable to meet the RTE criteria regarding teachers – both for pay and qualifications. Teacher pay at the higher level is an absolute amount that works out to more than the total revenue they collect as fees! The fact that children and parents opt to join these schools actively rejecting the free government schools in their areas proves that these schools provide good value – even with uncredentialled teachers. The business model breaks down with the new requirements imposed by law, and a valuable public service will be forced to shut down leaving students with little or no choice in their education.


What does a credential tell us anyway? All it can truly say is that the person named in the credential had access to certain resources for a certain period of time, and was able to secure a decent attendance and examination record. The link between credentials and competence is patchy at best.


The real question that remains to be answered is this: Can learning (read: student achievement)  be improved with better teacher training? If uncredentialled teachers are doing such a good job, wouldn’t teachers with a degree do even better? We do not have definite answers to this question yet, even if the intuitive response (and some studies) is in the positive.


Even if we agree on the basic truism that more training, teaching and experience will turn out better teachers, credentials are not the correct response. They are merely another gate that needs to be crossed creating a hurdle for many – and only makes the scarcity situtation worse. What India needs is a system of teacher appointments and training without an insistence on certification. Teacher training is not a one off process. It needs reinforcement and maintenance. Teachers who have been teaching well for many years need a pathway to receive accreditation of prior learning (APL) via a rigorous process. Para teachers and B.Ed certified teachers need to recognise the need for life long learning for teaching rather than rest on a static piece of paper that may not be of much value when standing in front of a classroom full of possibilities.




This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 17, 2013 and is linked here

Disruption is essential to Innovation in Education

17 Oct

Reinventing Innovation



 Image: Shutterstock

“Yes, he has got the right answer but the method is all wrong. Where is the method?! It was given in the class so many times, but he does not do it! ”

I stared at the teacher dumbfounded.

(No, I was not about to comment on the language or tone used, though that was pretty objectionable too.)

This was against all the principles of good education that had been shared at every conference, teacher training programme and seminar I had ever attended or led. Learning was supposed to be a journey of discovery. This was standardisation to the level of micro management, approximates to learning by rote, and leaves no room for individual growth, let alone individual pace within the system. It is a system designed for efficiency, geared to a specific goal. Change the goalposts, and the system flounders. The goalposts, of course, do not stay the same ever, and this system is clearly not future proof.

The quest is always for higher standards in a system, not mass standardisation at the last mile. If every notebook in the nation is expected to look exactly like every other, then all we are doing is raising a nation of replicators. They are trained to repeat what has been done before, not to create and bring rigour to their inventions or innovations.

Innovation often starts in the classroom where any exploration or creative journey into the subject is clearly inefficient use of class time. The rote learning method with micro standardisation is the most efficient way to demonstrate results, with the consequence of leaving little room to develop the higher faculties of the student. If a child cannot ask disruptive questions, then their learning has been stunted. If they are not appreciated for breaking the mould and creating new solutions, then they are merely being trained to be followers–and that is not where the premiums head.

Innovation needs to extend beyond classroom content and classroom processes to school systems. Local administrators and policy makers play a key role here–those that are supportive have found massive improvements in school achievements in their areas. Others, we hear, are keen to maintain the status quo and do no more. These areas tend to stagnate.

This carries through beyond schools, into higher education and research laboratories too, where hierarchies determine the degrees of freedom (and credit) received.

Creativity is a habit as much as it is a discipline. The process of creativity needs to be fostered if innovations are to be scored and used. Strong hierarchies, where research agenda are set by those of a previous generation, may not always be the best way to plan future knowledge building. Fresh entrants are often bubbling with new ideas, many scholars admit their best work was done in their twenties and thirties. The brain, we know, tends to atrophy with age. An innovation culture must do its best to capture the ideas of the young and foster them to create value.

Innovation, by definition is a disruptive process, it needs disruptive attitudes to foster innovation cultures. An excess of respect, lack of humour and continual deferring to those who came before are not always ideal. While I see many go tut-tut and say the young are disrespectful, an excess of ‘respect’ is stultifying. Let me say it straight out–many Indians are over sensitive about hierarchy and respect. And the continual deference to the guru- figure stems the exchange of ideas and the discovery of new pathways. Sometimes (and it is reported in less than hushed whispers), the incentive to innovate is lost when credit is taken by the ‘seniors’.

The process of innovation starts with the meeting of ideas and process. This is where strong structures of mentorship, not just hierarchies of process, are useful. The role of the teacher, research guide and even workplace senior is critical to innovation. Their experience and networks can foster the idea and bring it to fruition in ways the young ideator may not even be aware of, and thus incapable of implementing.

What does this mean for the learning leader? It means they need to change the way they do things. It means they need to include a wider range of opinions and options in what they discuss. It means, they should let students have some fun while they are learning–to take a little side path once in a while, a little self exploration before coming back to what they ought to know anyway.

Things are changing slowly but surely globally and in India. Singapore, as they often are, have realised that creativity that leads to innovation will be the growth engine of the future and have now changed their curriculum and assessments to grow such creativity. Many other countries are investing in fostering a research and innovation culture. India does not speak of creativity and innovation directly in its education policy but the introduction of continuous assessments in class give teachers enough room to foster it, if they choose to–and are able to handle the workload. Unfortunately, this is not enough.

Innovations in the classroom do exist, but many of them remain underexposed, and so under-utilised. Micro-innovations need to be fostered and shared. STiR (disclaimer, I am on their advisory board) does stellar work in gathering, sifting and fostering such classroom innovations and seeding an innovation culture in schools. Little things make a difference–celebrating teachers who find new ways to help students learn, listening and nurturing smarter ways of working, sharing content or a process that increases student achievements. The need is equally great in higher education where innovations are required to jumpstart the process of quality enhancements without which India has no claim to a place at the global table.

It is time to accept dissent as part of the discussion, to be secure enough to deal with change and to be smart enough to create new ways of working.

What is the purpose of Marks?

17 Oct

What is the use of marks?

Meeta Sengupta
08 October 2013, 03:45 PM IST

What happens after the marks are declared?

After the whole cycle of learning, examinations, assessments and exhaustion, come the marks. Then what?  

 From the school gate chronicles:

 Parent:  “Did you get your paper today?”

Student: “Yes, I got 95”

Parent: “Why? What happened to the other 5 marks”

 Student mumbles. 

Bystanders applaud, for the focus is on the lost marks. 


In a workshop, this would be a mini case study. I would pause and ask the participants to ponder this dialogue. 

This is not unusual. This conversation is had between caring parents and students all over the world. 

 On one hand, it is awful that parents seem to focus on the loss rather than on the success. It is a part of good mentoring and parenting that the successes are celebrated first before the losses are bemoaned.  

On the other hand.. what is the purpose of marks but to give feedback for improvement? 

If marks are an end in itself, then they have no value in any education system. The entire purpose of an assessment system, whether at school or at work is to identify development needs, and then to create an individual plan to fill those development gaps. 

Assessments are traditionally either formative or summative. Mid term examinations, weekly tests, CCE (continuous evaluation) and semester or termly exams are designed as formative tests. They are supposed to provide feedback on progress during the learning cycle. Summative tests are at the end of the year and their purpose is different – even as they give feedback and form the base line for the next cycle of teaching and learning, their purpose is to signal attainment (or not). Did the student make it? Did they learn what they were supposed to learn? Did the resources serve their purpose? 

Students learn from both success and failure. Success needs to be analysed as much as failure does. What went right? What processes should we replicate. How can we make a good thing better? Does it tell us something about our interests and aptitudes? Can this success be converted into something monetisable? Does it help build our portfolio of skills? Can current success be a launching pad for some interesting projects? 

The same with failure? An introspection on what went wrong cannot stop with a moan and a cry. Nor is it the end of the world, because every failure, every lost mark gives information about what needs to be done differently. This is where the attention needs to be – charting a path that improves from the path that lead to failure. What were the gaps? What could have been done differently? What held us back from meeting the target? The failure is only a tool in identifying the path ahead. And the only true failure is not recognising the potential for improvement. 

Do schools consistently use this opportunity? Are school exams during the year (and even at the end) converted to learning plans for children. Each child can be shown the habit of reflection and can be taught the skills of creating a path for themselves. This would be a far more important life lesson than the mere content that they have been asked to memorise and replicate on paper. (What is being assessed is a whole other discussion, ideally examinations should be about thinking (cognitive) and analytical abilities). 

Does this apply to teachers too? Of course it does. And to school systems. They too have goals for the year, and are assessed during and at the end of the year. Such assessments are often seen as a judgement of the teacher and the school. For example, school inspections. It is less important to note what the school achieved in an external assessment than it is to know what it plans to do to improve the school. The same applies to teachers – they would benefit immensely from peer assessments. Teachers who sit in each other’s classes and then point out what they would have done differently. This is not about judgement – this is a constructive way to improve the school and its commitment to better teaching and learning. 

 Children, and teachers go through this intense exercise that is emotionally draining and time consuming  called examinations. Every assessment is rich in embedded information, if only we care to ask the questions. It would be such a shame to waste the results.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 8, 2013 and is linked here:

Schools need a Safety Culture

17 Oct


Thursday, 03 October 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

There must be sensible processes that allow people to concentrate on value-added work without having to look over the shoulder for all manners of crises

We stop noticing things that we see everyday. That can be the only explanation for the pathetic lack of safety awareness in most of our schools, both public and private. That the safety of the children of the nation is not a priority is evidenced clearly by the number of accidents that have happened in school buses, within school premises and during school timings. The worst of these were caused by mid-day meals — not just the cases of multiple deaths due to the consumption of contaminated food, but also instances of children falling into vats of hot food and dying. These are as shocking as they are unbelievable. They highlight so many things going wrong — all to do with simple safety norms. The children were jostling. True, India is a poor country, or at least a country with many poor children who are hungry at the time of the mid-day meal. But jostling is a sign that there is no discipline. Also, the positioning of the vat of food, so that it was accessible to children, and the fact that there was no lid, were all avoidable mistakes. Had any attention had been paid to safety processes, this accident would never have happened.

The callousness is there for all to see. Wires hanging where they should not be, if they are not bunched up in a dangerous cluster; Some do spark. Often, electric wires and switches are embedded in damp walls. Railings and gates, if they exist, will have bits of metal jutting out. School buses almost certainly will have dangerous pieces of metal that can cut through skin. While we may joke about how this makes children more alert to the dangers in the world, it is true that we are placing them in danger each time they use these services.

Safety consciousness can be taught. It is a skill that needs to be a habit. But years of public service advertisements have still not been able to incorporate it into our daily lives. It is time to bring it into our schools. Building safe environments needs to be part of our daily processes. This means that schools must be able to identify problems in and around their premises and at regular intervals. First, one must know what to look for — if one is used to walking over cracked pavements, one may even forget to put it in the list of things to fix. No, it is not enough that the pavement exists — it has to be made good to ensure nobody slip or hurt themselves around it. This must be followed with good processes to ensure that students are safe — in queueing up (do they do that anymore?), in climbing stairs, and even in play. This comes through training and reinforcement. And often shows in little habits, such as the habit of finishing what you started, the habit of leaving a room tidy and the habit of not damaging public property.

Safe habits and attitudes need to be inculcated in virtual spaces too. Most progressive schools have information and communication technology as part of their curriculum. With the national broadband programme in place, even remote schools in deprived areas will be connected in a few years. More children will be going online looking for information, signing up to educative websites, writing assignments collaboratively across the world and creating their digital footprint. They need to know how to keep themselves safe in this world that will be a part of their lives but largely unseen and unverified. Good safety habits will be as essential to survival, if not more than they are now.


Both in the virtual and the real world, safety is about having sensible processes that allow people to carry on with value-added work without losing time and energy in managing avoidable crises. Safety is not just for the rich and elite. Strong safety protocols is what makes them the elite, since they can concentrate on higher-order, value-added learning. Staying safe is not a large investment, but the returns, in terms of better public well-being, are huge. It is time to inculcate safety into the school curricula to grow a generation with a strong safety culture.

Trained to not Trust

19 Sep




They don’t want to trust others

Thursday, 19 September 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Beginning with nursery admissions right up to taking professional examinations, India’s education system is suspicious of teachers, students and parents alike

We, in India, start the distrust young. And it carries through to everything we do in our lives here. Nothing is valid without a piece of paper certifying it, nothing is deemed possible unless it has been tested. Children seeking admission to nurseries are trained to prove themselves in tests and in drawing rooms, or their parents assessed through the classic three tests — the written, the oral interview and, of course, their networks — proved through a letter or a phone call from a ‘contact’.

This is not the habit of red-tapism. Let us call it by its true dirty name: Distrust. Or, mistrust, if you will. When did it start? Who fuelled it? Did user behaviour reinforce mistrust? The genesis is unimportant now — we are landed with it. And it is true that each time a trust-based system is installed, there are enough people who lie and cheat to sabotage that nascent trust. Income certificates required for school admissions — sure, but can the schools trust them? Affirmative action reservations — it is all a piece of paper and some surely have it ‘arranged’ for them. We cannot deny that anyone who has the job of designing a system has to worry about untruths and can’t trust the individual.

It is not just in school admissions; mistrust is common even during school years. The rampant tuitions industry is proof that we do not trust teaching and learning at schools. Examinations will invariably have some children trying to cheat — so invigilation here becomes a policing task rather than the supportive role it could have been, and is in many other countries. Just the simple act of stretching the neck or going for a bio-break is often seen with suspicion. This is a stressful environment and not just because it is seen as high-stakes testing. Of course, some examinations here have ‘extra’ support from assigned invigilators where they are accomplices. This has been accepted as a risk by the examination system. This means students’ examination centres are shuffled and situated away from their base school at immense cost and stress to everybody. Distrust has been institutionalised.

The distrust seeps through to higher education too, and often with good reason. There have been reports of invigilators being threatened by goons to ‘allow’ certain candidates to cheat. Even massive open online courses, that are available globally where Internet is available, are finding it difficult to find a viable certification model. It is only recently that a few have announced credits and certification. While technology is part of the solution, with iris recognition and keystroke recognition software that will help identify the student, it too is not foolproof where people have been trained well in distrust and beating smart systems. Who is to say that the student facing the iris camera is not being fed information from another person helping them meet the test? This is not unknown in real life. Trained medical doctors have been caught taking the medical entrance examination on behalf of others for a fee. A complete circle of distrust, sustained.

There is, of course, the larger issue of testing itself. Bringing children to the test is an expression of mistrust in itself. We all know, and there is supporting research that grades and marks may actually mean very little especially in younger years. Two children may have very similar abilities, similar potential, and even may go on to achieve similarly in life — but may have different grades at school. Asking them to prove themselves in a test is sending them a strong signal of mistrust. Not just the child, this also means that the whole school, especially the teachers, are in a place where they are implicitly not trusted. The best learning, of course, happens when students, teachers and parents form a circle of trust and sharing.