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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

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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Do we need a single textbook?

2 Jul

Giving one author or publisher of books authority over knowledge dissemination for an entire generation does sound dangerous when you put it like that. But this is exactly what designated textbooks do, especially when organised by a national authority. India is not alone in having standardised textbooks, nor is it the only one to have controversies about the content of its textbooks. Yet, it does seem to be one of the few countries where teachers accept the changes without expressing their professional opinion on them. In countries such as England the changes to the history textbooks were received with much protest against the ‘Stalinisation’ of the curriculum.

Textbooks are one clear way of sharing a single narrative across thousands, nay, millions of classrooms in one sweep. They are also — for the very same reason — a great tool to ensure that all children get the same level of education, regardless of location or economic capacity of the school. But here lies the catch: The best schools do not rely only on textbooks to deliver learning; they have access to great libraries, excellent teachers, Internet-based resources, school tours and exchanges and so much more to add to the perspective that the textbooks provide. Again, it is those with fewer resources who are trapped in the single narrative provided by a national authority.

There is a great deal of good in having a basic low-cost textbook at especially in the younger years. The NCERT textbooks provide vast amounts of knowledge at the cost of a basic roadside meal or the daily wage at the poverty line designated by the Government. But in trying to create a low-cost ecosystem there have been compromises on quality. The rate for editing a Government agency textbook is five-to-10 per cent of a commercial editor’s rate. Peanuts and monkeys come to mind.

Textbooks are an anchor for learning. In distant villages with lone teachers holding the bastion of knowledge and mobility for the children in their classrooms, the textbook is what gives them continuity. It gives them authority and direction. This is what they are there for — to deliver on the textbook. In a way the textbook is where accountability is anchored — the teacher is held responsible on ensuring that at a minimum the contents of the text are communicated to the students, at the same time the students are accountable for reporting back on the contents of the textbook.

Interestingly, a good student is seen as one who can do just that — replicate the textbook in an exam. To that student, much else is forgiven as long as they can demonstrate knowledge of the text via recitation in the classroom or examination in other ways. The internalisation of the textbook, often to the exclusion of all else, is seen as an objective of schooling.

When there is just one textbook all of this is possible. As is the danger of single narratives taking over, and narratives flip-flopping with changes in regimes. This is easily remedied, at least theoretically by a single move — competition in the world of textbooks. While it is tempting to say that the Government has no business being in the business of producing textbooks, it is also sensible to accept that this is unlikely to change soon.

At the same time, many schools have supplemental texts that are changed every few years. The national and State authorities could be tasked with creating books with contra-narratives that supplement the main text. As one goes through primary to higher education the dependance on textbooks must reduce. There can be no room for a single textbook in higher education, especially professional education. And this process of researching across various sources must start in schools.




This was published in the Daily Pioneer on June 26, 2014

India needs a National Education Strategy

24 Jun

With the demographic bulge upon India, there can be little room for discussion on the purpose of education. While good citizenship, personal growth and good values are essential, it is clear that for the most part, education will be about employability.

Surely philosophers and thinkers are valuable for society, but they too need employment. As do the wage labourers and the talented and the less able. There is a whole generation enrolled in schools waiting for teachers to show up in classrooms and do the job they were hired to do. Researchers are wondering how they are going to make their meagre grants deliver global impact, while students in higher education are wondering whether their Indian degrees are worth much after all.

There are shortages everywhere—teachers, faculty, researchers, laboratories—and these are reflected in every assessment of education that has been done, be it the Annual Status of Education Report, the Programme for International Student Assessment or various higher education rankings. The good news stories lie buried under the sheer scale of the challenge ahead. Clearly, the battles need prioritization for the war to be won.

Where does one start? With a mantra: Unbox. Unbind. Un-entangle. Unite.

Unbox learning: While the investment in classrooms and schools is great, it is time to release learning from the tyranny of classrooms. Learning should go to the student and must extend way beyond the walls of a classroom. Build on existing programmes to push content via multiple channels, create open libraries, let village school buildings become community learning centres after school time with open access to solar-powered connected computers. Commission science and reading vans, convert bus stops into educational game corners. Invest in creativity and research attitudes from the very beginning. Let learning be open to all, not just those who wear uniforms. Allow certification of prior knowledge when proven, so that the skilled are not burdened with schooling again. Create and support channels of knowledge flow to build communities of learning.

Unbind: The education sector is bound by regulations all the way from nursery to higher education. Capacity is restricted because of the binding constraints of impractical and often contrary regulations. The right to education law that was supposed to provide schooling to all children (6-14 years of age) has led to several schools closing down. Central and state universities cannot hire faculty from abroad despite shortages. Unbind the education sector from these regulatory constraints, allow the private sector to participate and compete, and take on the role of good governance via agencies to ensure relentless focus on improving quality.

Unentangle: Build synergies between ministries. Let the digital literacy mission be integrated with the teachers’ mission. They are essential to building efficiencies and scale in teaching and learning, thus freeing up teachers to improve quality. Vocational training and employability are inextricably linked with the labour ministry. The apprenticeship programmes that have revived other economies remain moribund here due to legal tangles. Untangle the threads that do not allow student finance to flow freely, whether as loans, scholarships or vouchers. No able and talented student in India should be denied the education she is willing to work for just because the rules are too complex for delivery.

Unite: The phrase we grew up with in India was unity in diversity and this applies to education too. There is no reason for all universities to be copies of each other. Some may do more teaching, others more research, depending upon their funding and abilities. Standards need to be harmonized for teaching and research quality across nursery to tertiary education. This does not mean creating identical standard units. Students must be able to choose their paths to learning depending on their capacities—offer lifelong learning opportunities and pathways across skills and learning. A plumber can become an economist, an actress may choose to study politics and earn a doctorate. Unite the education ecosystem in a network governed by rigorous and supportive frameworks and agencies. Credit transfers were mooted years ago. Implement them to allow every Indian to add value to their earning capacity.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto and speeches spoke of maximum governance, minimum government. This is what education needs. Let the government provide oversight, not necessarily run operations. “Sabka saath, sabka vikas (progress for all),” thundered Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech in Parliament. This translates to inclusive education with equal opportunities for all to improve their lives via education. This government comes with expectations of better implementation and a better grass-roots understanding of the people. The skills shown in the election campaign need to be demonstrated here too, with a national education strategy that reaches every student in the land. Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed by the author are personal.
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This was published in the Mint newspaper on July 24, 2014 and is linked here:

Is India ready to scale up the IITs and IIMs?

9 Jun


The first few policy announcements in education from the new government have come in, prominent among them the call to increase the number of IITs. The increase in the three types of premier professional institutes has been part of their manifesto and has been discussed across various non partisan fora for a while now. The IITs, the IIMs and the AIIMS are seen as flag bearers of excellence in education. Never mind that much of their success is attributed to the intense competitive examinations for entry that means that the best students study there – given any education they would excel. The fact remains that they do excel because their efforts, their schools and their higher education all combined to give them tools to do well.
The success of these institutions has made them a beacon for the nation – their graduates are respected globally and the number of aspirants per available seat is in the scary five digits. There is talent in the nation that seeks better education which academic universities are unable to provide. What do these institutes offer that the other higher education institutes do not?

* First – they offer more rigour and a drive towards excellence which is certainly not the ethos of most central and state universities.
* Two, they teach their students to slog – really work hard. After the years here any real world challenge may be daunting for other reasons, but hard work is not one of them. It is not for everybody really. Many would fail under this pressure and they really should not be here at all. But for those who can take the heat, they are also taught to bear the load.
* Three: it is a professional course, not academic – this means you are employable at the end of it all. No person who has graduated from these institutes needs to fear being jobless for long except by choice. There is a gamut of useful skills that cannot be learned here that are not taught in other higher education.
* Four: The graduates of these institutes get a wage premium over most others. Not only are they paid more, they often have a faster trajectory at work too. There are many more reasons – one could go on. Easy case for why India needs more of these.

In principle.

In practice it is not so easy. If the plan was to expand the IIT etc., network then work on that should have started two decades ago and it should have been made explicit to all the people who could contribute to this process. If you don’t share national objectives, if you don’t fund them and if you don’t task specific institutes and people with them then the job will not get done. The IITs face a similar predicament – there are not enough people to staff the IITs to the standards of the older IITs.

Work on growing potential faculty for this generation of IITs should have started in the 1980s or at the latest the 1990s. It takes over two decades to groom strong academic faculty who can deliver to industry and global standards. First it takes them five to seven years to create their first independent work – the PhD. Then it takes them at least another five years to work on their post doctoral projects to learn how to manage a range of research and build quality research teams while managing laboratories etc. Then, it takes a few more years to establish oneself as an expert in the field to be able to build networks with industry to feed the industry academia research to market loop. Some take longer, others seem to be naturally good at doing this. An academic is ready to be independent only after they are capable of sustaining good work and funding for their teams. This cadre is seriously deficient in India.

IITs and other professional institutes offer excellence for various reasons and not all of them have to do with great faculty. Over the past few decades they have had excellent faculty for sure, but very few global superstars – so it is not just about the faculty. Other factors make for a good working environment. Basics like water, electricity, good buildings, good laboratories, libraries, teaching support, research capabilities and much more. Excellence can be wrought only when all else works as it should. This is a rather expensive process. There are stories of great academic directors refusing to let institutes be staffed or accept students till the facilities were perfect in every possible way. This attention to detail is not about comfort – it is about ensuring that all attention is focused on the job at hand and not dissipated away in distractions. Setting up such excellence takes time, money and great resources.

There is not much point in creating more IITs or IIMs if this cannot be ensured. These are known for quality and the entire premise is destroyed if quality cannot be maintained. Having more but of indifferent quality will do one of two things – either create a caste hierarchy between the IITs or dilute the value of the current IITs as well since they will be dragged down with the reputation of the rest.

The setting up of more professional institutes of excellence is a noble intention. But this cannot be done in a rush, nor should it be done at the cost of what has been achieved with a great deal of effort. Plan well, take the time, identify the hurdles, resolve them before implementation and most importantly – nurture them for specific objectives. Do not expect to seed a generic ‘IIT’ – it does not work that way.  Each must have a clear goal and enough autonomy to achieve it.

Better still, set up institutes of excellence in each central university with specific goals. Invest in current institutions for excellence and invest in new institutions to increase quality teaching and learning capacity. Focus on specific needs and achievables to ensure success.



Degrees and Leadership: Smriti Irani and the MHRD post

28 May


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




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


Bilingual Teaching: Dear Natalee from Honduras

4 Mar

Dear Natalee,

Bilingual Teaching is for some a post colonial issue – let us not avoid this part of the issue.


Or do, let us avoid it. Because that really doesn’t bother me anymore.

For most of us in the real and everyday being bilingual is a blessing – we connect with our roots and are mobile – opening up employment opportunities and a chance to join in the global conversation. Like this one. I write this sitting in India about a teacher in the Honduras. Natalee, I do not know you, but here is a teacher waving to another because we share a language. English is not my mothertongue, but it is my first language. And when I teach, I do realise, as you say in your story that children prosper with bilingual teaching.

I hear you too when I realise how you have invested in being a better teacher across decades. Learning how to teach in different ways, helping others become better learners and teachers. This commitment to continuous improvement is special, and if you ever come to India, I would love to tell every teacher you meet about how good was never enough – there is always more to learn as a teacher.

But there is another way your story resonates with India – the complexity.. When you say –

“The English speakers on the Bay islands are descended from Grand Cayman and

Jamaica and we speak English. The others speak Spanish or Garifuna language.

The Garifuna people have lived in Honduras for the past 216 years and have

become very important for the cultural framework. They live in the North

eastern sector of the island and we are trying to revitalize their language. When

people don’t know how to read or write, that’s how a language becomes extinct.”

India too has hundreds of languages, and tens of official languages. Children speak their local language at home and their community. Then, many of them join ‘english medium’ schools because they offer more mobility and access to jobs when you grow up. Many children here suffer because there are few classrooms that are officially bilingual. In reality,  our teachers realise that they must run bilingual classes because that is the best way for children to learn in their early years. But because we don’t have a comprehensive policy on that, most teachers are not trained in bilingual teaching.

The ones who suffer are often the poor, or those in remote areas. Like in your country. I completely understand when you say this:

“Some of the children who are impoverished are black minority people. Their first

language is English and their second language is Spanish. There are attempts to

help them, this is done by developing volunteer programmes where people send

or donate materials, books, pencils, colours, rulers, backpacks, uniforms.”

The attempts to help these children in India too are sincere and well meant. Some programs provide support with teaching, others with equipment. But the big gap in language teaching still remains – which uses tools that have been the same for many decades. Language matters, and we have seen in India how learning outcomes can be improved with local language teaching in early years. In fact the draft policy on this tells schools to teach in the local language. But then, wouldn’t the transition to English later be more diffucult?

I see that your country has the same issues. I am glad to hear you say this:

“Language definitely has an impact on how children learn and how they perceive

themselves as being part of the teaching-learning process. As a young child

growing up in the Bay Islands, there were many times in school when we were

not allowed to speak English. (Bay Islanders are English speakers living in a

Spanish country). To not be taught in your mother tongue, leaves a gap, and

makes you feel that your language is not important. Over the years you tend to

develop certain humps.”

That is true. There are gaps that we feel and this is why I certainly support bilingual teaching in at the primary school level. A bilingual classroom requires different teaching approaches. Yes, I agree – the mindset of the teacher must be more accepting. But the tools are important too. Your guideline on visual clues in teaching is crucial and I agree when you say –

“In classes with children who speak different languages, I tend to use a lot of

visual cues. I divide the class into groups, those who don’t speak the majority

language, those who are beginners, and those who are advanced. “

Do come to India sometime Natalee and see the lovely things we do in our rural schools with seeds and leaves – innovations that connect us to our roots. Come and hear our stories. Come and tell your stories about classrooms that connect with both where we came from and where we are headed.

With warm regards from a fellow traveller on the educator’s train,


Second Chance for Adult Learners

2 Mar


Second chance for adult learners

Thursday, 06 February 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Regardless of where you are on the education ladder, even if you are not on it, there should be a window of opportunity to improve

Two Hundred and Eighty Seven Million. People. Adults. This is the estimated number of people who are denied the dignity of literacy in India. These are people who are dependent on others to read their bank balance, to understand what they sign, and are unable to comprehend the laws they are held to, they cannot read the names of the medicines they ingest. They are handicapped when it comes to seeking opportunities because they cannot realise it. They cannot read. Four in 10 people in the world, an estimated 37 per cent according to the recently released UNESCO Education for All Report Global Monitoring Report, are illiterate.

This is not about the children who have had schools built for them; this is about the adults who are too old to go to school. And they have few other options. Yes, there are designated adult education centres, there are NGOs and there are programmes. Despite that India dominates the world in adult illiteracy. A visit to my local adult education centre revealed that it did not have admission forms, did not know when these would be available and was unwilling to commit to an annual cycle of admissions, if there was any. Being illiterate is a stigma that these people carry through their lives like an illness where seeking help is a matter of privilege. If you are lucky, you are rescued from this, for there are few systemic solutions for your plight.

There has been much invested in school infrastructure and capacity in the last Five Year Plan, and enrollments are said to be at 99 per cent at the primary school level. Without debating the quality of the capacity built, let us look at its utilisation. These buildings are accessible to living clusters. They already have roofs for bad weather, space outdoors and basic learning material. They are also not used for three quarters of a day. Allowing for poor electricity connections, there are at least three hours in a day when school buildings can be used as community learning hubs, specifically for adult education classes. If India wants to solve its literacy problems, it has to start using its resources better in addition to making targeted investments. Again, there is no real need to restrict school learning (and admissions) only to children. People can work according to ability sets, rather than age, which would bring other advantages of scale and opportunity too.

The current definition of school is narrow, and education is seen as an isolated bubble limited to books, examinations, teachers, tutors and buildings. These bounds do not allow in outsiders — such as the adult illiterates who were left behind — nor do they allow students to interact with the rest of the world. It is only in some excellent schools that students work on projects that engage the local area around them. Both groups suffer. Neither do the illiterate people get access to learning and opportunity, nor do the ‘literate’ students begin to understand the real world of life and work. Schools create barriers to engaging with real life problems when they should be doing the opposite — preparing the students for life, not merely examinations.

Schools and the education community need to open up their portals to engage with more sections of society to foster a culture of continuous learning. Regardless of where you are on the learning ladder, even if you are not on the learning ladder, there should be a chance to improve yourself. India needs a caring community college network that engages the local community in disciplined ways and engages the learning communities in ways that work for them.

This is an uphill battle — those who were unable to learn to read and write in their early years may not be suited to the traditional ways of learning. They may not be used to using memory and may need to see results soon. A daily wage labourer is used to instant results. Literacy requires patience, iteration, care, commitment and the resilience to fail and try again. Those who missed out by choice or circumstance in their childhood deserve a second chance and a life where they can live with true independence — that is a life of dignity and informed choice.