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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 India 2014 – The questions that plague

27 Dec

In addition to the usual ones on quality, scale, access, affordability….


Three discussions in education 2014

December 11, 2014, 12:33 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI

I will call it the year of the battle between tradition and innovation. Globally and in India. It was the year of doubt, a year of taking a stand, and a year of gathering arguments as ammunition. A year of consolidation on some of the questions that have plagued us for long. These debates are not ended yet.

The first manifest itself as the debate on standards and standardisation. The common core in the US and other standardised curricula and exams have been attacked with vigour and defended with equal robustness. Private sector or even corporate solutions that have been used in school systems have improved outcomes in general, especially in initial years. But it is now that the cost of standardisation and incentives have come to the fore. Pasi Sahlberg has been campaigning for a few years to inoculate against the standardised testing virus that kills much of true and varied learning in classrooms by forcing students, teachers and entire schools to focus on a narrow band that will be tested. Others maintain that testing is the only way to understand what worked.

The same conversation needs to be had in India with regulations clearly nipping away at school autonomies (nursery admissions in Delhi, teaching to the text with extra classes banned etc.) so that class rooms are standardised and results in standardised tests improve. But here lies the rub – raising standards has little to do with standardisation. One size does not fit all. Often standards are raised in ways that cannot be measured in standardised tests. Often standards are raised when the fear and focus on standardised tests is removed, so that a student can do their best and discover their potential. The debate took different forms in different countries – for example, a massive campaign in the USA against the common core, a series of litigations in Delhi on Nursery admissions, the debate on improving the CCE system of evaluation and so on. It even showed in the conversations at the largest gathering of educators in the world at WISE, Doha where there was much discussion around play, empathy and creativity – these are things that one can never fully standardise.

The second trend was the play for textbooks and curricula. In many places it was a wave of nationalism creeping into textbooks, and a push back against the change in textbooks. National narratives are a powerful tool of social engineering and school textbooks have often served ‘rulers’ well. In India the battle for the books is on, where the ‘nationalist’ narrative seeks to find its own identity somewhere between the ‘leftist’ and the ‘right-wing’ assertions that have been ignored or overemphasised in past decades. The United Kingdom too had a similar debate when history was to be modified to include perspectives that teachers refused to teach – some even resigning rather than putting themselves in a position where they would have to teach material that they do not believe. Similar discussions have been heard in other countries such as Greece, Turkey etc. – a consequence not just of the recession, but also of the geo-political plates being shifted underfoot.

The third trend has seen consolidation is the steady growth of reliable research on education with a degree of granularity that makes it actionable. This has helped us move away from the uncertain land when decisions had to be made on the basis of Anecdata – thus leaving one vulnerable to blind spots or localisation errors. They too have their supporters – often teachers tell us that it is all very well to quote other studies, but ‘this will not work in my classroom’.  Classes, teachers and indeed colleges pride themselves in being ‘different’, almost immune from any generic solutions that may be applied. It has often been so – most solutions have not been scaleable, and we need more and better research that enables us to identify what really works in education. Better research leads to smarter education design, personalised learning, and of course better governance of education systems as we learn what really matters.

This has moved beyond research universities to corporates, think tanks and Foundations. In the UK one even has a new teacher led movement called ‘ResearchED’. In India it is led by organisations such as Accountability Initiative and others who continue to create evidence based arguments that help devise informed policies. Others too support better research in different ways – Technology (including Big Data Analytics) has given us the ability to monitor better, to consolidate data rapidly and ask good questions that can help formulate government policy. Another way it is fostered is by the ‘Monitoring and Evaluation’ of every intervention that is done by NGOs as they try to prove the impact to the donor’s funding. This is building a body of work that will need curation as a next step to allow it to be applied meaningfully across contexts. The journey ahead is long – but like medicine, it is time that education too moved to evidence based solutions and interventions.

What happened to last year’s grand discussions? Do we not talk about teacher shortages and training anymore? Has conflict education become less important this year? On the contrary, both these issues and a few others continue to rage – they are even more important than every before. They have moved beyond the stage of  understanding the nature of the problems to creating a range of solutions. Vital funds have been moved to conflict education, to rebuild what was destroyed by war, to sustain whatever growth is possible for children amidst long battles. Even in India, building a teaching cohort is a National Mission now.

The debates of this year are about the global citizen of the future. How does one balance tradition and innovation, the old and the new, the known and the unknown – navigating each side with ease.  How does one create an aware, curious, questioning individual, capable of forging their own path in the unknown while not losing sight of their self and their society? The world may be on the brink of a real world version of the “Hunger Games” with institutionalised inequity, with power complexes that simplify to the point of stupidity, with freedoms that give way to conformity. Educating intelligently is now about seeking a way out of this mess – and this is what the debates seek to address.

This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 11, 2014 linked here:

5 Mindshifts Required for India’s Education Policy (5I)

27 Dec

India’s education policy needs a complete overhaul

Photo: Getty Images

I was glad I did not know the boy standing on the high diving board, hesitating to take the leap. As I walked past, I realised it was the perfect analogy for India and her education issues. We still have to take that leap. It is known that the waters will be chill for a while, there will be shock; it will take some courage to take the leap, but it must be done. Standing up on the diving board only exposes oneself to fear and vulnerability; it won’t get us to a place where we can at least join the race, forget about winning it.

The numbers do not need to be reiterated, nor do the problems. The scale is known to all: 12 million people entering the workforce each year, which drives out all other goals and leaves income generation as the primary goal. Get this right and at the very least, taxes from the 12 million will raise India’s standard of living via better public investments. Get this wrong and India could spiral out of control: Young, unemployed and directionless populations are the stuff of civic nightmares. This is not a ‘feel good, let us do better’ kind of exercise anymore. If the youth are not constructive, we would be engulfed with a series of problems.

What needs to be done for these youth? Better schools? Trained teachers? Smarter textbooks? Online lessons? Low-stakes assessments? Skilling? All of that surely, but more needs to be done. The solution to India’s ‘opportunities’ lies in shifting from a constrained resource mindset to feeding unconstrained ambitions. The big leap in education needs different thinking. Though not necessarily radical yet. For example, we are not completely ready to shift all learning out of the classrooms. The new thinking needs to be a step ahead in goal setting for education itself. We need a mindshift to design the new education policy and here are five suggestions for the same.

1) Education as investment sounds obvious, but it is not really as straightforward as the most important things that education provides cannot be measured easily. How does one measure the confidence a good school gives or the friends one makes for life? But most things can-the enhanced earnings for each additional year of education, the value of networks, the returns to investors for professional courses directed towards employability, etc. Even the return on investment to a simple government school can be calculated via proxies-and must- so that we start focusing on the gains to students and society. The shift from expenditure as an input into a dark hole to an investment changes the attitudes and expectations from education completely. This is essential if we want to see results and accountability.

2) Education as an essential infrastructure is the next mindshift required. It is not of much use if one gets bullet trains and information superhighways when there aren’t enough good people to create value out of these. Education is soft infrastructure and must receive priority investments and concessions like the rest of the infrastructure sector. Just as one identifies and supports priorities in infrastructure, one needs to identify priorities in education and implement them through a medium-term national education strategy. If the nation needs more, say, civil engineers, or more accountants, then plan ahead, create the education highways for these to ensure that progress is achieved-the education policy must create institutions and mechanisms for delivery along national priorities.

3) Education as influence: Not just as part of the national narrative for national pride but also as a means to increase the nation’s circle of influence across the globe. Education has been used by many countries as soft power-the fact that you are reading this in English is evidence of such power. Countries extend this soft power by encouraging foreign students to study in their countries and go back with respect and deep friendships in addition to a valuable degree. Others do that by funding departments of study across universities, some of it is done via cultural centres (India does too) with varied impact. Much of this influence is fostered via systematic people-to-people contact and diaspora. This is a subtle, but powerful tool for India’s national goals and must be provisioned for in the national education policy.

4) Education as an industry may not be as controversial a perspective as it is made out to be. While education may be a not-for-profit sector by regulation, it has all the other characteristics of a standard industry. The only, and significant, difference here is that it deals with people and their change process. It is easy to mistakenly say that in education, people are the product, but this is not so-the value addition to people is the task of this industry. Like every other industry, it has supply chain issues, challenges in logistics and constraints in resources. It has similar problems in vendor management, in funding, regulatory compliance and more. While educators have resisted solutions that come from the industrial or corporate world, there is a case for acknowledging that the business of education can learn much from successful toolkits in industry. Even pedagogies are being transformed by the results from evidence and big data analytics-governance tools that have not been used in schools before. The education ecosystem must allow itself the benefits of maturing as an industry. This means allowing consolidation, diversity in the provision of education, a range of positioning and price points, product innovation, operational efficiencies among other things. The sector cannot continue to operate as an agglomeration of local mom-and-pop stores, nor should it be completely a public sector monopolistic behemoth. For education policy design, this means allowing more establishments to start and grow by fostering entrepreneurial energy and then challenging them to continuously improve their service delivery and standards.

5) Education as inspiration. The purpose of education is to raise us to be better human beings who build sustainable societies and civilisations that are respected over a period of time. Education must elevate us in ways we would not even have been able to see before. We need it to create aspirations for us at the very least, and grow us as individuals and people. The word inspiration literally means an intake of breath, the life force. Education is just that, an intake of that life force, prana, that will drive us to be better and create more value. To merely seek employment as a goal of education is not enough; it is only the first step. If education policy is designed to only meet this basic requirement in schools and colleges, then it must add components of lifelong learning for meeting greater aspirations and ensuring progress for its people throughout their lives. To change institutes of higher learning only with grassroots innovation is not enough-education policy must support and demand inspirational research so that generations of learners want to move up the value chain. School learning must allow students to be inspired to explore and learn; teachers must be inspired to lead classes, not just lecture them. Education policy has to be designed to move the sector from banal liturgy to the engine of growth.

These five mindshifts are essential to building an education policy befitting the largest democracy in the world. To do any less would be to disrespect the hopes and ambitions of the demographic dividend- the next generation. And this is the challenge set for the new education policy.

Sanskrit – Build a bridge between the Past and the Present

14 Dec

Sanskrit lessons in Indian civilization

The current controversy about switching from German to Sanskrit will run its course. The bigger issue is: How much of the country’s past should shape its future?

It is not unusual for countries to glorify their own past. Nor is it unusual to include that in the schooling system — one that is normally considered as a quasi-public good, and thus controlled by the Governments. India too has been focused on it’s own past in the curricula that has served an entire generation and more. Yet, it does not seem to be enough. The current controversy on a mid-year switch to Sanskrit from German is going to run its course. It will be debated as a procedural correction, not an ideological position taken by anyone specific. Yet, the bigger issue will remain — how much of India’s past should shape India’s future?

There are good arguments on either side. On one hand, it is undeniable that India has had a glorious and under-researched past in the fields of drama, literature, science, medicine, strategy, economics, architecture and more. It has shared much of it’s knowledge freely in the world; so much so that much of it is deeply embedded in the histories of many countries. Some of it is remembered — such as the work done by Indian artisans in the great Alhambra in Spain, or as India is fond of reminding everyone, the invention of the zero. It is also undeniable that India was a colonised country, and every country that finds itself subjugated for a time, feels undermined. Without going down the cul-de-sac of blame storming, there has been a loss of self-worth, possibly a loss of national pride. Or so it is said, and retold, often by those who have not been able to participate in, or learn about moments of national pride.

The discourse for greater national pride is often undermined by the very same people who espouse the cause. It is difficult to deal with calls for greater attention to be paid to one’s history when the general level of discourse reflects both ignorance of the past, and worse — a lack of rigour in process. For those who seek to vilify some leaders in history and glorify others often speak from hearsay, not research. Having heard a part of the story, and liked it, they add to the noise. This does not help — any shallow argument is soon exposed and gets little respect. To be able to lay claim to anything one must first build a solid credible foundation before laying siege to current beliefs.

This is not to deny the possibility that India may have invented everything that is great and good in the world today. Of course it is possible. The nature of knowledge is to advance itself iteratively, incrementally. One learns something, shares it across the world. Then someone adds to it, shares. It goes on, often with a few people making the same grand discoveries at about the same time without having collaborated or even known each other. The game for credits is important, sure, but only in a world of patents and trade agreements. This is where one must step carefully and build a strong argument rather than allow oneself to become a mocked nation.

It is easy to leap at the slightest link between current scientific discoveries and similar references in Sanskrit texts — both ancient and recent ones. Sanskrit was one of the languages of the erudite. It had a discipline and process that enabled dense conversation and communication of deep knowledge. So much so that unraveling it is a science in itself. This is where there is a huge gap in our understanding of the achievements of the past. Just an assertion in a text, or a verse from a mythological or literary text is not enough to claim it as ‘Indian’ knowledge. There needs to be a much more rigorous research process that builds the arguments towards such claims.

This was published in the Daily Pioneer on Nov 19, 2014 linked here

Six Pillars that the Narendra Modi Government should Adopt

4 Dec

‘India has become a magnet’, Dominic Barton of McKinsey is reported to have said recently, reflecting both the optimism and the aspirations vested in the country at the moment. Six months in, Narendra Modi’s cabinet has shown some sense of its own vision while very clearly not rocking the boat. Building a credible base is essential for every start-up, and this is what this government is – a start-up seeking investments. India Inc. is run by them and India’s needs are clear: growth, inclusion and freedoms.

The path to these is via a sustained, sound and progressive education system. Education i.e. the task of building a range of competencies, skills and abilities –  is the tool that will power the growth engine. While we tackle teacher shortages, learning outcomes, access to resources, school leadership etc. on a daily basis, here are six pillars, or even principles, that will enable sound choices.

Strategy is key to any good implementation. This government achieved one of the strongest mandates based on an election campaign that revealed a sharp sense of strategy, tactics and operational delivery. We need to see more of that. No policy can be implemented without a good strategy that informs all the stakeholders so that they can align their investments to the national strategy. It would be foolish for an individual (or even CSR funds) to invest in, say, community colleges, if the national strategy is going to support skills academies. If there is a goal, let us all pull together to make it happen rather than scatter our efforts because we were shy of investing in, or declaring a strategy. Designing this engine of growth and rolling it out to meet national goals is the first, if not the only task for this government. Unleashing the potential of the country lies not in its passive demographic dividend, but in its systems for an educated and productive people.

Inclusion must be about value addition and can no longer be about handouts, trickle down, low productivity, poor quality or low value added economic activity. It is not necessary that the poorest be stuck with poor quality or shallow opportunities. And this change must be driven via better education and access to fair opportunity. We have enough evidence of the people at the bottom of the pyramid achieving much – whether it is admission to a prestigious IIT or a transformative innovation that goes beyond mere jugaad. Inclusion now must give every student sight of global standards and they must be enabled to deploy their skills in ways that raise the bar for themselves, their school and community. The goal of education now needs to become one of continuous improvement and greater value addition. For each student, each teacher, each school, each college and university – the test has to be the question- “How did you make it better?” (And by how much)

Opportunities for mobility along a quality ladder e.g. via lifelong learning, are essential to enable each individual to grow regardless of missed chances. It is not just the youth, but the others too who must be included in this journey. The charge to improving this has to be led by the educational institutions. But they need to be let out of their regulatory shackles to breed a culture of enterprise, growth and innovation to ‘make it better’ knowing that they will be held accountable for the outcomes. Learning needs to engage with the goal of improving quality and value. ‘Make in India’ is a great slogan, but at this stage it is powerless if delivered to current productivity and quality standards.

Governance, as promised. Which means oversight, supervision, accountability but does not mean either standardisation or micro-management. Education gets stifled if one tries to create a one size fits all template for all individuals. Governance systems need to be minimal, designed for easy and elegant operations so that there is no reason to bypass them. The purpose of governance mechanisms is not to command or control but is to constructively identify areas for improvement and address the gaps. This is not only a call to fund gaps for quality enhancement, but also a call to use funding intelligently to incentivise good performance.

Partnerships are the only sensible way of proceeding given the scale at which education needs to be delivered and the diversity of the contexts and goals. It would be foolish to leave out private investments, solutions, energy and commitment just in the name of an ideology that has not even been able to prove itself as superior. India has some great examples of both (i) sustaining diverse ownership models and, (ii) of collaborations within the government system that helps improve learning outcomes for all.

Freedoms are fundamental to fostering entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity – all of which are essential to the growth that the nation needs. Higher Education Institutions need to raise the bar and focus on finding and working their core speciality, aiming to be the best in the world in that area. There needs to be a diverse range of teaching, research and problem solving institutions, and each needs to have the autonomy to find their own path. They remain accountable for outcomes but cannot be subject to templatisation. In schools too – there needs to be firm accountability and consequences – but much more space to engage in meaningful learning so that students grow up to be productive, value adding individuals rather than rote learning test takers.

India’s demographics are such that for many years it may end up supplying much of the world’s middle management and even leadership, but it certainly does not want to remain at the bottom of the pyramid. The way out is via education for higher order skills. Each of us who goes out, often to return to the country, is an ambassador building the nation’s credibility and therefore in a position and with an ability to negotiate on the world stage. Let India educate a billion ambassadors – each one making India proud, standing tall on the world stage, not because of the past, but because of a productive constructive present. Yes, I have a dream.

This was published in the DNA

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

Education and the New Government: 100 Days

8 Sep

The first 100 days of a government are usually about signalling what comes next. For the Narendra Modi government, the first 100 days were about learning the business, and big announcements have been postponed to the 100th day and beyond. Their actions however have been watched, and this is clearly a government that recognises the last mile problem and seeks to address it. There is a distinct if subterranean movement towards pragmatism which can only be lauded since the greatest need in the Education sector now is good implementation of grand ideas.

There seems to be a will to make education relevant and accessible in ways that meet latent aspirations. Skills have been separated from education with a separate budget and a minister – a clear signal that the government means to press on with the skills agenda and give it as much room as the rest of education. Similarly for schools, there has been little action on fundamentals yet, but a strong signal sent to achievers. The education minister sent personalised letters to CBSE school principals when their students performed well in the examinations. Higher education has borne the brunt of some regulation-mongering leaving many wondering about the future of innovation and indeed pure sciences. Even the seven goals that were given to the IITs were all about innovation at best, with nary a mention of pure research or even invention. The push is towards creating pragmatic solutions for the common man. 

So far so good, let us wait for some real action in what we hear of primary education. The government has had to begin its initiatives with building toilets, a basic necessity for schools. Sanskrit Week received its own share of criticism. All Indian languages do not have Sanskrit roots, nor is Hindi the natural language of transaction for everybody. Massive outrage on supplementary texts that have dubious credibility was brushed aside – this was a state matter anyway. States with surplus teachers in some areas have been asked to transfer teachers to areas with shortages. Should this not have been happening already?

An essay competition has been mooted for the Teacher’s Day named “Guru Utsav” which is being monitored by the human resource development minister Smriti Irani herself. At one level this could be called personal attention to details – and some of the nation’s biggest industrialists do this on a daily basis via great teams on the ground. At the same time, this degree of micromanagement, almost centralisation, is difficult to parse.

One, how does this work with the overall strategy of increased federalism, especially in a sector that is already on the concurrent list? Second, do they have the supportive teams on the ground to enable such initiatives? Should they not be focusing on urgent strategic needs such as increasing the size and quality of the cadre of teachers, or indeed on increasing the capabilities of the administrative teams on the ground?

Many would have liked to see action on the core issues troubling education – teacher shortage, slipping learning outcomes, violence in schools, paucity of lifelong learning in schooling and research capabilities and delivery in higher education. Announcements have been made to plug some big gaps such as learning opportunities for the lesser-abled and the provision of broadband and WiFi networks, each of which resolves some last mile problem. Expanding the network of IITs, IIMs and AIIMS are all worthy goals and will need years of ground work to bring results. Indeed, India does not have a pipeline of soft resources to be able to carry off this expansion.

But some actions in higher education makes one wonder about the quality of the advice they are getting. It started with scrapping the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) of Delhi University. A technical glitch in the permissions process forced the University to back down and revert to a three-year program, which was a terrible thing for a worthy, if badly implemented innovation. But the government and the UGC chose to stick to the letter of the rulebook and insist on a 10+2+3 model of education for all. In a country as diverse in India, one size does not fit all.

Sadly, once having insisted on that rule, this was applied to other successful programs including a prestigious research university and a range of private universities. Each had brought value to students through their program design, yet were forced to conform. The juggernaut travelled to the IITs even though they do not fall under the purview of the UGC at all since they have an act of their own. The only way to put a positive spin on this is to laud the attention to the rule book, but then the niggle really is that the rule book itself is outdated. Program design anyway should be an operational decision left to a university and not subject to a central rule book.

Modernisation is not mere digitisation, though that does increase efficiencies and is almost a hygiene factor. Modernisation is about increasing possibilities to meet the standards of a global market. To make the responses nimble, relevant, timely and reliable, institutions need operational freedom.

The imperatives for education are clear – the school sector needs a stronger backbone of mentoring and support to improve quality and bring more people into the teaching profession. Higher education needs to continue and grow the journey of collaboration in addition to improving its global reputation via rigorous original research and better quality of student outcomes. Lifelong learning institutions need to be built to create bridges between skills and education.

These are massive goals in themselves, and the first 100 days have seen mere tinkering at the edges of the big issues. This may well turn out to be a good thing if the time has been invested well in understanding the opportunities that must be delivered. A new education policy has been announced and everyone looks forward to both the process of its formulation and the policy itself – hopefully it will be a declaration of a strong strategic vision on education for India.

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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