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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:

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

14 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plug the leaks or change the boat?

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

Sanskrit – 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

Who Bears the Risk of Education Innovation

15 Oct

Eyes shining, a young boy walked into a small school. His hair was neatly oiled and combed. His school bag did not seem to weigh him down as he walked with steady steps to his classroom, careful to note the pathways marked. The school was a small, private institute that was known for its innovative pedagogy. Its first batch would take the class X examination this year.

Reflecting upon the challenge of the examination, I was reminded of another study circle I had encountered. “I take on students to help them know things; I can almost guarantee they will lose marks in the exam. If they want marks, they should go somewhere else.” More pedagogical innovations. The students, I am happy to report did quite well in their exams. But it was they who took the chance.

Pedagogical innovations are touted as the path to solving the education conundrum. And indeed, if we do not try new things we will never be able to change the way our children are taught. The current education system is slowly, torturously moving away from the industrial age paradigm that defined our generation. But every slight move away must go through a test of fire to prove their worth or not. Every step in the evolution is watched for enhanced learning outcomes, for effectiveness, for scale, for humanism, for access and more. The rewards of any intervention or innovation must be consistent and sustainable. It is a wonder that any innovation passes the test and gets adopted on a nationwide scale. The successes then belong to the system. The failures are discarded, and the juggernaut moves on.

The reason for putting innovations through the wringer don’t just lie on the rewards side of the scale-risk has much to do with it. The risk of innovations is high and often borne by students and their families rather than society, education systems, school boards or the government. If the child in the innovative school or the study circle does not respond well to the innovation, it is their measured performance that will suffer. Even if the interventions are good for students in the long run, but have a negative impact on immediate learning outcomes or ‘results’, it is possible that the student has to bear a certain cost that cannot be shared by the innovator.

If an innovation is adopted on a systemic basis, some of the risk is mitigated by being spread across the entire cohort. An example of this is the DelhiUniversity cohort that signed up for the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme that was subsequently scrapped. The larger the scale of the implementation, the more diversified the risk-as is true for any systemic risk. For most students at school, different examination boards represent various risk-reward profiles. When you choose CBSE, IGCSE, ICSE or your state board, what you are doing is playing one systemic risk against another to decide which fits your risk profile the best. As one grows older, we keep making choices based on our risk appetite.

There is a joke doing the rounds about engineers in India. It is said that one first becomes an engineer and then decides what he or she wants to do in life. This again is nothing but risk mitigation-an engineer or doctor for that matter is broadly assured of an income stream for life. The choice made between the ‘streams’ in India is often based on risk mitigation strategies.

A high degree of risk aversion is often observed in education, which makes any kind of change difficult. Ask a teacher to do things differently, and there is a high probability of a push back, at least initially. Even if the teacher is willing to try on a new pedagogy or technology, he or she is going to be held responsible on the previous criteria for success. Then why take the risk? They have evolved an efficient method of achieving success in examinations, then why change that. Rote learning has resilience precisely because it is optimised to efficiently deliver the goals of the assessment system while minimising risks along the way. In that sense, rote learning has won the race-its risk-reward profile meets the needs of the mass education system we seek to deliver and maintain.

It is of course up to every free agent to choose his or her own levels of risk in line with the rewards they seek. There is more variety in pedagogies at the nursery and kindergarten level in India than at other levels. Many children go to experimental schools where innovation in learning has often even been codified. But most parents are willing to take a risk in the early years, steadily moving in to more conventional ‘mainstream’ education by the time the child reaches the age close to the national/board examination. Clearly, the risk-taking capacity is higher when the stakes are lower and there is more room for innovation. Flipping that over-one needs to reduce the stakes in order to create an environment where innovation can thrive.

Ultimately the only fair question is-is there a reward for participating in innovation risk? For the designers of interventions, for schools, for school boards, for the system as a whole, there is an expectation of higher learning outcomes. But for an individual who participates in the process, there are few rewards. For them, it is probably more like being the subject of an experiment-where all the upside belongs to the system while the downside belongs to the individual. This skew in the risk-reward naturally pushes students (and parents) to choose the more traditional options in education.

The current mismatch in education is a result of this risk aversion. The reversion to the traditional mode has left students unprepared for the future. The industrial age classroom to examination hall complex survives because the rewards are skewed in favour of the education providers and the risks pushed to the consumers, the students. To break through this, one will have to ensure that the rewards for participating and succeeding in innovative educational practices are shared with the students. Until and unless that happens, we will remain trapped in tradition, unwilling and unready for the brave new world.

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)

Another Chance

7 Feb

Another chance

Meeta Sengupta
03 February 2014, 11:31 PM IST

Sometimes it comes home in personal ways.

This Sunday, a student I knew went to take an examination, and the allocated seating was in a government school. A very good one, in the heart of government officers sectors in central Delhi. The school was large, the building impressive(sort of). He was seated in a class that was designed for children two years older than him. The seats however seemed to be designed for someone much smaller. He sat for 3 hours at 30 degrees to his normal straight posture, those larger than him had to sit at almost 90 degrees to their normal sitting position to be able to fit between the bench and the table.

And we wonder about dropouts?

Of course the school had the right number of chairs and benches. Well, almost. The chalkboard read ‘Class Strength = 50” and there were 48 seats in the classroom. The RTE norms for private schools mandate a maximum class size of 40 students. India is reaching full enrollment in primary schools at least – the pressure on classrooms is natural. Not excusable but natural. Fifty students, seated in a windowless room (other rooms had windows, not this one) in benches that are too small for them. I wonder how many will have the motivation  to bring themselves to sit in such seats, and once they get there how much work can get done. Bad seating can damage developing spines, but then in a place known for its potholes that beat a Disney adventure ride this might be seen as a minor problem. To put it simply, discomfort will drive them away, unless highly motivated.

It is the little things that matter… it really is not enough to have the right number of benches, or the right square footage in a classroom. Measuring quality by inputs is made even more meaningless when the input criteria do not actually speak to their context. How can the qualification of a teacher actually determine whether good quality learning is happening in the classroom? A certificate does not make for a caring, enthusiastic teacher, one needs more than just the certificate to even start building good classroom climate. Of course trained teachers tend to have more tools than untrained ones who may struggle if not supported. But even trained teachers, despite being well paid have turned over batches of non performing students. Even if one wanted to measure quality via inputs (rather than the currently popular call for outcomes driven measurements) the current criteria are not fit for purpose. The last mile problem rears its head here again. Criteria designed far away from the users and consumers will never be able to meet the needs of the users.

Dropouts may happen for reasons other than learning outcomes. There may even be little connection between these two outcomes. It sounds logical that schools will retain the students that are performing well, but that is an untested hypothesis. We do not know how many talented and sincere students drop out due to family circumstances. We do not know  what binds these students to school, and what brings them in everyday. Is there someone watching over their mental health or is their peer group their only support? Is the peer group a reliable mentor or can some be led astray? The rate of dropouts in India is steady after primary school and I would be glad to be informed of a serious study that has investigated the reasons for dropping out. Yes, there are studies that indicate that girls used to leave school at puberty due to lack of toilets. What about schools with toilets? What about the boys? How many had to leave because the curriculum did not reach out to them? Did any feel bullied at school either by teachers or peers – and if they did, was there any recourse? Was it more macho to earn a living like a man rather than go to school like a boy? Was there social pressure to get married a the traditional age? We know that life does not wait for degrees.

At the same time we do know that each year of education enhances the earning capacity of a child by – I believe the estimate is – 5%. The children who drop out of school lose out on higher lifetime earnings.

Which merely reflects on bureaucratic the education system.

Is there any reason for teaching to be managed by age bands? Especially after primary school different children may begin to invest in their abilities and must have a chance to be tutored in those – vocational or academic. Those who were uncomfortable at school at fourteen and dropped out cannot be abandoned – they must have other channels for learning. The sad truth is that there is just one bus for people to learn how to be literate – if you miss that bus, you are left behind. No wonder that 37% of the world’s illiterate population is in India. Adult literacy programs are inadequate, as is the concept of the community college which could easily become a learning hub for the community regardless of age or prior learning.

It is time education systems outgrew their ageism and created opportunities for everyone to learn in comfort and dignity.


Connected Teachers

7 Feb

Teachers should be in tune with times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elections and the Next Generation

15 Dec


Elections should be discussed in the classrooms and debating forums in schools and colleges. They are essential tools to create awareness in a democracy

An exciting electoral week with five States going to the polls, exciting last minute upsets, unseeded players getting a ranking and animated discussions around tables of every sort. This is the kind of fertile ground every educator dreams of, and often does not find. This is when we can show the next generation the various shades of a democracy. And then, as it often happens — disappointment. There were a few teachers who had spoken of these in their classrooms, but I could find no concerted effort to bring in children into the tradition of choice. Even as a future vote-bank, or as a public service, it would have been good to see a platform where children could learn more and participate in the democratic process.

The duties do not start and end with landing up at a booth and voting. It starts with articulating needs and expectations from Government so that a sensible manifesto can be created. Understanding the manifesto, debating it with reason and structure, are easy classroom activities. Voters must work through the issues of trust in the manifesto, candidate and party — these too translate into rich classroom discussions. Politics is often the art of negotiation between completely opposing points of view, and then finding a path forward. As any designer of pedagogical tools would say, this is perfect for a role-play in the classroom, or even a play presented at a school assembly.

What of the regular curriculum, then? If students spend their time here, how would they learn their lessons? Actually, election arithmetic is a fantastic element to engage with the tools of the classroom and understand the real world. Starting from research skills to creating sophisticated statistical infographics, there is much that can be done at each study level. Simple essays, precis writing, comprehension skills and much more that fills the syllabus booklet can be used to discuss civic duties. Democracy does not need to remain relegated to the civics textbooks of a certain year.

One skill that employers seek, and often do not find in the output of our current education system, is coherence — the ability to deliver on a cogent thought. In an election, the objective is to deliver a vote backed up by a clear reasoning process. It is the business of schools to show students how to make reasoned and reasonable choices. And to understand the possible consequences of such choices. An election is a great opportunity to work on these.

Many schools, and almost all colleges do have internal elections that mimic the process of regional and national elections. If done well, this is probably the best education that can be provided. One of the key characteristics of a mature democracy is to be able to deal with different points of view, and still be able to distinguish between the person and their argument. There are many lessons to be learnt here.

First, an argument is not a fight. All arguments can lead to fights and pulling them back from that line is a skill that needs practice (and some forgiveness, when it crosses the line). Second, the sum total of a person is not just one argument. It is possible for friends to hold entirely opposing points of view, even vote against each other, and still be supportive in other things. Third, it is alright to change one’s mind in the light of better or more information. People evolve, and children and student do this much faster than others — they are in the business of being educated, after all.


This was published in the Pioneer Newspaper on December 12, 2013 and is linked here and

How much do we know about Education in India

28 Nov

Everyone has an opinion on education. Start a conversation at a dinner table, a tea shop, an academic seminar, a global conference, a train, a bus or flight – everyone you meet will have something to say about it. Often, they will know precisely how bad it is, how much worse it has become and what needs to be done to fix the ills. When I say precisely, I don’t mean that – I mean with a great deal of authority. Very definite and well articulated opinions. And they may well be right. Because nobody can really answer (most of) the big questions in education in India with any degree of precision.

The holy grail here is evidence based policy making. It would obviously be great if every decision made had a solid basis in proven hypothesis. If we knew for sure, to take a facetious example, that children study better in white shirts than blue shirts, and this had been tested rigorously, then it would be easy to create a policy that tends towards white shirts as school uniforms. This is also better for policy makers as they have the evidence to fall back upon and even justify their decisions. In practice of course evidence is just one part of the policy making puzzle and may even prove to be inconvenient in some circumstances. Yet, it is what stands closest to fact in the vast unknown.

The first hurdle of course is the availability of data. There is some available on the ministry website and some with affiliated institutions. Some data is gathered in large studies such as those conducted by the Azim Premji foundation, Pratham, Accountability Initiative etc. and these answer specific questions each year. The Karnataka Learning Partnership and Centre for Civil Society are taking the lead on compiling some data that are available to all while investors and private consulting firms have their own data sets that are not available in the public domain. Each of these serves a limited purpose and researchers often find themselves stuck because they have no credible information sources or good data unless they set up a data collection process themselves as part of their studies. That is either very expensive and time consuming or forces them to dramatically reduce the scope of their work.

There is a wide range of research done on education in India, only some of it academic. (On a personal note, I wonder if I should still be surprised when one silo has not even heard of the work done in another – oh right, I did say silo) Firstly there is academic work that is being done across schools of education in India and abroad (primarily in the UK and the USA). The quality and impact of the work differs greatly depending upon the access and funding they receive. There is some excellent work of limited scope and reach being published in small journals and post- conference books that gets lost in the sheer volumes of papers being produced in an uncurated world. Then there are rigorous investigations by celebrity scholars – my favourites being Prof. Geeta Kingdom of the Institute of Education and Prof. Karthik Muralidharan of UC San Diego who have told cogent and critical truths about teaching and learning in India. Much research is also done in the investor community – some of it philanthropic, some driven by pure investment principles. Central Square Foundation, for example, incubates many projects that do much good in the education sector and curates information and data that forms the basis of investment (and re-investment) research. Consulting firms with education arms too co-create interesting and useful research in the field of education.

Application of Research:
Useful research? Did I hear laughter in the background? For research to be useful, it not only needs to be rigorous and relevant (and much of it clearly is) but also needs to be accessible. Over and above that – it needs to address real questions that help decision makers at all three levels – policy, institution and the classroom. If education is about benefiting the child (the marginal child as economists would say), then we need to be able to answer the questions schools and teachers ask regularly. In the past forty-eight hours, this is the range of questions I have been asked –

From a school owner – Is there a guide or research that points me to the characteristics teacher quality? In teacher selection – how do I recruit a good teacher? (We all know good teachers, we know their qualifications etc. which is partial knowledge)

From a School trust – What is the right proportion of male and female teachers that will enhance achievements of boys and girls? (K. Muralidharan had a paper that partially answered that question) (Of course, all recruitment has to be regardless of gender – so the question can only be about the impact of gender skew in the teacher cohort)

From a teacher-leader: Is a multi ability class better than streaming into ability sections? If I have been told that I must achieve high performance, and if achievement is my only goal , what are the consequences of my decision?

From the management of a large school group seeking to expand: Is it better to raise the grade level (from primary to secondary) or open another primary school if I want to serve my area better?

From a potential investor: What are the returns to investment to RTE compliance? -If I invest, is there a case for giving loans to ensure RTE (Right to Education act) compliance? Will I get my money back with a fair return?

From the management team of a small Business School: How do I fill seats in my B-School during this slowdown? Numbers in engineering and business schools are seen to be falling – is there a forecast that will help me plan capacity?

The answers are out there. Some have been researched, some await their turn. Most decisions will also depend upon the context, experience and ability of the person in charge. But it is better to have some validation based on good data. There is very little data, and much of it is not very good quality data. And so, we wait, unable to fully answer these questions and decide the our future education path.

11/28/2013 |

Where Will We Find the Teachers

14 Nov

11/11/2013 |

teacherImage: Shutterstock

Globally the cry rises—where are the teachers? Where are the people who led and inspired? The ones who were respected because they built citizens of note in their tiny classrooms? The ones who made their students think and do, so that they grew up confident and competent.

Too much to expect?
We still look for these, but even if we do not find them, at the very least we need competent teachers who can raise literacy and numeracy levels in the classrooms of the world. We need teachers who care enough to land up in class, and we need them to hold the cohort together and push them to achievements appropriate to their level. We do not even expect them to teach as was traditional. In the brave new world of the flipped classroom with edutech resources and blended learning tools to hand, the teacher curates and leads explorations.

Still too much?
Then just teachers to teach the basics and keep the classes productively occupied so that they do reasonably in their tests and examinations? Land up, take attendance, listen to the students and exhort them to do better? Maybe as a support teacher or a substitute teacher?

But where shall we find the teachers? The shortage of teachers is a global reality. This year, Unesco estimated that 1.6 million new teaching posts need to be created to meet the goal of universal primary education by 2015, and this rises to 3.3 million by 2030. (Source:  To this, one needs to add the number of teachers that need to be replaced due to the high rates of attrition from this profession. This in itself should be a warning signal to policymakers and educationists for high rates of withdrawal from a vocation can only mean that something is deeply wrong and needs careful attention. India, too, has a large chunk of the shortages. Without trying to reconcile these with the global numbers (for education statistics is a whole new minefield) I just repeat the reported shortages to be between 1.2 million and 1.4 million currently. (Source:, The story of teacher shortages is repeated everywhere— states in America, Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) and Arabia.

With 57 million children out of school, many of them in remote inaccessible areas or in conflict zones, the teacher shortage is an even more complex issue than simple supply and demand. The teaching profession is in turmoil, with many countries reporting high levels of dissatisfaction among teachers due to administrative workloads, relatively lower pay and unsafe working conditions. At the same time, teachers face pressure from administrators to prove performance in classrooms as measured by student achievement. This in itself is a controversial issue that does not enhance the desirability of the teaching profession.

The biggest minefield here is the debate over trained teachers or untrained ones being recruited to government systems. While some experienced teachers have succeeded without training, this clearly cannot be a systemic response to recruitment. At the same time, ‘contract’ teachers (or para teachers, and even substitutes) have been seen to perform adequately in the classroom. They are seen as a way to boost the numbers—and this has seen mixed reactions. However, it is generally acknowledged that underqualified teachers are likely to end up in lower cost schools (as they do) and it is richer students who will be able to take advantage of better qualified and experienced teachers.

The current solutions for meeting the teacher shortage are largely local or national. Globally, the trend seems to seek to fill the gaps with education technology solutions. While everyone is agreed that not even the venerated (and now on trial) MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can replace teachers completely, there are a number of charter schools and academies that have nascent proof that certain blended learning models do improve student achievement. So, with teachers and with graded pathways, education technology does reduce teacher workload and free them up for other things. Does this mean that they can handle multi-grade cohorts and reduce the number of teachers required? Will this help reduce the shortage? It may well be the way forward till we find and train the right teachers.

So, for now, if there are fewer teachers than we need and standalone e-learning technologies cannot fill the gap, then what can we do? A few suggestions:
1.    Technology has a role to play in education to reduce teacher workload, to introduce standardisation and to mechanise the process of assessment. It is a great feedback tool even though it may not be the best source of inspiration to learn. The issue with most edutech tools so far is that they have been created by developers distant from the classrooms and sold to teachers. This is like the computers of the eighties when only a few ‘trained’ personnel could enter the hallowed halls of computing. E-learning solutions must be demand-led, not supply-driven. It is up to the e-learning community to invest more time in understanding pedagogies, understanding the needs of the students in their various contexts and then building support systems for core teaching. All learning takes place in social contexts, so the materials must adapt or be customised to new situations—not merely translated or transliterated.

2.    Teachers need to be grown, and then supported. If the teaching profession is seeing a shortfall, then this needs urgent attention. More and better people need to be drawn into the profession, trained as they teach and supported through their teaching careers. Teachers need to remain motivated to be able to inspire generations of learning. More on increasing the pool of teachers here . This needs to be seen as a global crisis that needs immediate attention and funding.

3.    A crisis often is an opportunity to innovate. The teacher shortage forces us to find other solutions to educate and skill our youth. Tools such as peer-to-peer learning, flipped classrooms etc need to be deployed to support higher student attainment. Other innovations such as travelling teachers, mobile and online events, among others, need to be brought into the mix to create solutions for teaching and learning communities.

Bringing in teachers, training and supporting them well is essential to educating our next generations, but this is not a simple recruitment drive. Finland, known for its excellence in teaching and learning, invests seven years per teacher—as much as a doctor or a surgeon. It takes national commitment to build a strong cohort of teachers, and it takes even more to retain them in the profession—an investment that is essential to our futures.

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Click to access 2013GlobalTeacherStatusIndex.pdf