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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: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/three-discussions-in-education-2014/

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

14 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was published on Thursday, 11 December 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped linked here http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/plug-the-leaks-or-change-the-boat.html

Plug the leaks or change the boat?

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

http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/plug-the-leaks-or-change-the-boat.html

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 http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/sanskrit-lessons-in-indian-civilization.html

http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/sanskrit-lessons-in-indian-civilization.html

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 http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-6-principles-that-the-narendra-modi-government-should-adopt-in-the-education-sector-2040252