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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

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

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.

Games Schools Play

24 Oct
10/24/2013 |

“Congratulations, you have been promoted to the next class.” The proud student picks up the report card, the badge of honour and the certificate and moves on, bursting with pride. Motivation levels are high. Others watching can see these badges and stars can be achieved and will work harder to achieve them. Some have slipped down the ladder and lost the points they accumulated in the previous year. They will have another chance to play the same round of this game again.

schoolThe segregation of learning into levels was the first act of gamification, with levels, rewards and turns built into school systems. Some schools section off children by abilities—another classic gamification technique. The very concept of schooling is gamified learning, where you have rules, pathways, rewards, sudden incentives, failures, the chance to start again and of course an exit with the highest rewards going to the winner of the game.

Image: Shutterstock

Schooling truly is a game, with wins and losses every day. Not all of us make it out of there in perfect order, but each of us learns from the games we learn to play. Here are some of the games we learn at school as we pursue our education:

Snakes and Ladders: Sometimes schooling is like playing the game of snakes and ladders. Find yourself in a good school, or with a good teacher who is inspiring and knowledgeable, and it is like climbing the ladder and achieving higher levels rapidly. A bad year for whatever reason, and one finds oneself slithering down the achievement boxes. It is a throw of the dice, because one controls very little of the schooling process. Is it possible to control one’s progress and climb up the numbers faster? To improve learning? Yes, sometimes this is done by the simple ability to change one’s school—thus the school choice campaigns across the world. Other times, interventions such as improving teaching techniques, better communications between the learning community, etc. can improve learning and achievement levels. These are like playing with double dice or more pieces in a snakes and ladders game, where changing the rules strategically can lead to significant wins.

Chess: Schooling is clearly a game of chess. Each student recognises his or her skills and abilities and is recognised for them early on. These internal resources and, of course, the resources and opportunities the school can offer you are the pieces you can play with. Yes, it is competitive, but some of us play against ourselves too, mastering the craft as we go along. Tactical use of the right resources at the right time is what the student needs to master. Joining the Maths Olympiad versus participating in the squash championship—which is the right move to make? Notes in class versus borrowing last year’s notebooks for the perfect answers in examinations? Work more on music or on maths—which piece will take one further towards victory? Strategic use of one’s talents and victories, the choices one makes along the way is the game to play to get better education outcomes.

Football: Learning may be a solitary activity if one so chooses but learning at school is clearly a team sport. Apart from the fact that some assignments are group assignments, and some part of the ethos of the school is to introduce the concept of teaming via their sports, plays and school assemblies, learning too is a team activity. It is clearly efficient for some students to take the lead in mastering one subject, completing their work, tracking the activities, etc. and then sharing their learning. Those who are good at mathematics can take charge there, while others good at history lead the process in that subject. Of course, everyone needs to work on their allocated learning portions, but it has always been efficient to share and learn—even if it was to make some of us more competitive than we would have been on our own. We each have our positions on the field, each of us is aiming for the goal, and the game progresses as we add value by passing the ball to each other. Peer learning and group work have long been upheld as valuable pedagogical tools. Both teaching and assessment are improved by using teaming skills and learning becomes far less stressful.

Cricket: While learning and schooling may be a team sport, there is clearly room for personal improvement and individual heroism here. Cricketing legends have worked for team and country and achieved much by their practice and perseverance. Good learning is about understanding what is required, about delivering on the pitch and about practicing one’s techniques—just as in cricket. There are clear rewards for skills demonstrated and instant penalties for mistakes in the school learning process too. Don’t do your homework—miss out on the next chance to learn. Don’t practice your sums, maps and diagrams—perform badly in the test and maybe miss a chance to access the test pitch again. There is redemption via hard work and there is room for innovation in both learning and the game of cricket. The game itself can be changed and achievement levels improved by sheer hard work and talent. As in learning at school.

Learning via playing games is rather different from the gamification of learning. Games too teach us many skills such as teaming or tactical turn taking. These are valuable lessons and help us in life, in learning and in our workplace. Gamification of learning is the process of building game-like incentives and pathways in learning. The term has been used more frequently recently in the edutech industry as the process of online learning is gamified to make it a more effective learning tool. Gamification involves a move away from delivering content in a linear fashion to building in a higher degree of human engagement. The focus here is the movement within the process of learning—and the emotional tugs and nudges that are embedded in the learning pathways. Schools have been the masters of the gamification process for a couple of centuries—one thing in which they have stolen the march over modern internet-based education technologies.

This was published in Forbes India blogs on October 24, 2013 and can be accessed here:

Why Our Students Disappoint

1 Sep

And what about the students? What do they bring to the table? No, we are not blaming them. They are a product of our investments and choices. But maybe some of the choices we made along the way need a rethink.

Yes, we have the data now that proves that students in class 5 and 6 can often read only upto class 2 level. We know that our students scored badly on a global test. We know that some of our children reach class 8 or even more without being able to read a page of text and make sense of that page, let alone analyse it. And then, in contrast we know of many of our students who managed to ‘crack’ some of the toughest exams in the world, scoring ‘full’ marks in global university qualifying tests.

And yet, the same students often have been found wanting in many ways..

(and I pull out of my bank of quotations overheard and collected over the past two years)

“Yes Ma, I am an engineer. You need a mechanic to repair this” – engineer from a reputed centre of excellence

“Who is Parashurama?”  – A student of a University college famous for its high cut-off marks to qualify for entry to that college

“The teacher has said I don’t need to bother with atomic numbers, it won’t come in the exam”  – a student of a premium school in a large city

“What is a preposition? Why do I need it? ” – a student at a premium reading and language class who should have been taught this three years back at school.

What is the common thread in all of this?

Easy to say – school, teacher, system. Yes, we need to work on those. It is easy to turn this inot a moanfest, complaining about all that is wrong. But let us reflect on our students too.

Students too, have often, too often given up too soon. On their questions, on their desire to learn, on their own exploration and on their drive to know more about more. Student life is about that hunger for knowledge, about understanding their world around them. Sadly, whether it is the ‘best’ or the ‘worst’ – this is getting lost somewhere. The best suffer from too much focus, the worst from too little. Both, and those in between are suffering the consequences of the need to be led.

Which is a phenomenon in itself. The need to be led.

A student is a seeker. The word for this in Arabic has been sadly usurped by violent terrorist groups, and thus deeply corrupted. The word is  – Talib.. a seeker.. someone who is desirous of getting answers. The word for a student in Hindi is vidyarthi, a combination of vidya+ aarthi.. one who seeks and works towards a body of knowledge. The onus of learning in both these words is on the student. The quest, the hunger, the work comes from the student. The teacher provides the structure and the stories.

Our students today have a wide array of resources available to them. The internet is available to many, at least in the cities. And is steadily progressing towards the interiors, albeit slowly. They work and learn differently from previous generations both inside and outside the classroom. Their incentives, their stimuli and their curiosity follows multiple pathways, many that were not known or not available to the previous generation. Accepted. But that can only mean that we expect more from this generation.

What excuse has a student from an urban elite school have for not knowing their history – the story of independence, of the emergency, of economic reforms? This influences their lives even today, and must influence their voting choices. What excuse do students have for not knowing the names of great scientists and their achievements? What excuse can they offer for not being able to summarise great books in the literature of their main languages? What excuse do they use when they know little about their own bodies and how they function when they choose to follow fashions in diet and exercise?

Try this at home today. Ask the young people around you to name their favourite book. And why it enhances their life and thought. Try another: ask them the name of the second prime minister of Israel, or Sri Lanka. Or, even India. And here is a third: Ask them, today, on Independence Day – how the various strands of the Independence movement disagreed with each other, and how one narrative gained dominance. And how they worked separately, yet, towards the same goal. Take it a step further – as them how these translate to lessons for development and civil engagement today. If a thirteen year old, and above, ask them these questions.

And if you don’t find answers, ponder why. What blinkers have these students worn that keep them away from learning and thinking. This is not just about schools and teachers. GK (General Knowledge) tests may help learn facts by rote, but that is barely scratching the surface.

What is it that stops our students from caring enough to learn, think and apply?



This was published in the Times of India blogs on August 15, 2013 and is linked here and


This is a part of a three series published that week across different blogs, magazines and newspapers


Increase the Pool of Teachers

9 May


The Pioneer headline for this was:


Thursday, 02 May 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped
It was interesting how the headline grabbed interest, and the other suggestions in the Op-Ed were paid much less attention!
The text is here:

It is time to bring in trained and proven faculty from all over the world to raise standards of learning in India that can match global levels

The demographic dividend is upon us; let us prepare them for their prosperous future, let us skill them. If we don’t, they will have no jobs, will know nothing and will run riot on the streets. The demographic dividend will turn into a demographic disaster. If these hands don’t earn, what will they eat? Where will the taxes come from to pay for the roads and lights? Who will bear the nation’s medical bills? No, we do not speak of the malaise of dishonesty today —  honest problems are large enough. So, first we must teach them, then we must train them. We build schools in each district, invite public-private partnerships, while silently asking: Where are the teachers? We need all hands to the till, teaching in schools, in colleges, in ITIs, in skills units all over the nation.

Do we have enough hands and heads to teach? Are they good enough? The truth is that the number of teachers and trainers in India falls far short of what is required. We need millions more each year, and we need them to be good. The numbers range from five million to 11 million per year, depending on how you count it — the higher number including pre-school and post-secondary education too. There are two clear hurdles in finding so many teachers and trainers. First, the quality of education has been allowed to suffer so badly in the past two decades that it is very difficult to find literate, articulate people even in graduate schools. Their degrees are no assurance of subject mastery, their crisp presentation to guarantee of their ability to share and communicate. Many studies have shown that the certified are not well educated. Are they worthy of becoming teachers? Second, the quality of teacher training is poor. Very few of the thousands of teacher- training institutes produce good teachers — many of them cannot even pass the Teacher Eligibility Test. While these teacher training outfits are showed up as inadequate in producing good teachers, it is equally true that India does not have enough teacher training institutes. The current capacity is woefully inadequate and lags demand.

Where can we find more teachers? We will have to expand the pool of people that participate in the selection and training process. The Teach for India programme finds and trains teachers among graduates and professionals engaging them in a two-year programme. Government schools are experimenting, with local para-teachers who may not be fully qualified but are engaged in the progress of the community.

The pool needs to diversify to grow. Pathways to teaching practice need to be created for retraining people returning to the workforce. There are thousands, if not millions, who have been performing care-giving duties in their homes and need to find a way to employment once those duties are done. They are educated, competent and keen to participate. Some, who are still committed to other priorities, could engage on flexible working platforms such as job shares, project-based work or fixed-time working. This needs to be done professionally — institutes will need to contract for scope of work, not jobs and employees will need to commit and deliver to results. Job shares are an excellent way of bringing talent back to where it is needed while managing social contracts. Often people who wish to give something back to society volunteer to teach. While the intent is noble, it may do as much harm as good. Teaching is not merely standing and speaking in front of a group of children. It is a skilled job that brings out the best in students in the long run — often the tools in play not visible to bystanders. Holding a group together and taking them on an intellectual journey is not for the layman. Nor for the subject expert, unless they have been shown the ropes of teaching. Experts in their field who want to share their learning must be brought into the pool, but experts do not always make good teachers. They will need to be trained in teaching.

India’s best bet for increasing the number of teachers is imports. Bring in trained and proven teachers from across the world to raise education standards to global levels. Bring in trainers to enthuse Indian teachers and show them different ways of teaching and learning. It is fair exchange. India imports teachers and exports unemployment, our demographic dividend — now-skilled to international levels to meet the projected shortages in many countries.



The link and the comments can be accessed here:



Mean Reversion in Education

7 Apr

Once is Not Enough


04/04/2013 | 0 comments

“We give our teachers training in everything, but it is no use..” bemoaned a co-ordinator.

“We started innovation clusters..and we go back after ten years, and nothing has changed..”, came from a researcher

“I taught the students the same thing in five different ways, they practiced it, and they still got it wrong in the exam!”

There is a pattern here, and a pattern that has been recognised in financial markets – Mean Reversion.

This is a tendency that is observed in large samples or values of assets, especially in stock markets. Over a period of time, while the value of a stock may go up or down, it often tends to revert to its long term mean.

The same happens to learning, or any kind of change.

And certainly to people.

In education systems too it has been observed that the initial gains from new projects are easily eroded, and performance gains lost over a few years.

Take the example of teacher training.

The way teachers are taught is rather antiquated – they read for a degree for three years with little sustained interaction with real classrooms. And then they are thrown in at the deep end with almost no mentoring or support. In rural postings they feel like the last bastion of civilisation, bringing light to the dark corners. Such heroism is commendable, but so difficult to sustain! Without well designed regular interventions, mean reversion is inevitable.

Even those who are in government schools and get regular in service training are unhappy with it. A recent study conducted by the NCERT across 15 states showed that 55% of teachers consider in service training to be irrelevant (79% in Haryana). Clearly there is a problem, one that is evidenced by low teacher motivation in many places. The annual ASER report continues to report high levels of teacher absenteeism that has a negative impact on student achievement.

The reasons for that are not hard to find – teachers have little incentive to keep performing. Many are in tenured jobs where tedium tends to set in rapidly. They have little support even in large schools where team teaching is a little known concept. Motivation levels drop, teachers slip into old habits and their own comfort zones. Some live in the city and are posted to remote rural schools – it is easier to be absent than there for the children. Some just do not care. Of course, some are brilliant – their reversion to mean is about going back to excellence, even if occasionally tired. But others find it a struggle to hold their end up.

Does it mean things will always remain the same? Surely, there have to be some tools that will keep them from reverting to lackadaisical attitudes. Better policing? More training? One of the things that I do is to design interventions in education, and among the first principles of intervention design is reinforcement. All interventions need scaffolding and supportive reinforcement over long periods of time. While the initial intervention in any system, especially education does demonstrate significant results, all change is a slow process since it requires to be embedded in practice. If the new information is not embedded it tends to evaporate rather quickly. This can be observed in simple interventions such as a training program, or a complex intervention – such as a change and transformation program.

Teachers and trainers too need more than a single point intervention for effective performance. It is impractical to expect change to happen just because it was said in a roomful of teachers in a workshop. Or because they went through some exercises on paper. While these are excellent ways to introduce new ideas and start to embed them, it is just that – a start.

Heard the saying – ‘People don’t change’? They do. But not just because they are told to change their ways. Unless there is an eco system that is created that fosters, encourages and monitors the initiative, how can it be sustained? Things will naturally slip to where they were unless there is the will to do it differently. – This will needs incentive alignment, needs good governance, needs reward mechanisms and needs to work with localised networks. Again and again.

Simply put,

Once is not enough.

Read more:


This was published in Forbes India Blogs On April 4, 2013 and is linked here and

Hashtag chats, Social Media and India

22 Feb

In a nation where internet peneration is rather low, where teachers tend to stay away from collaborative media and, where connectivity is often patchy – it was wonderful to host the first twitter social media chat with the hashtag #EduIn.  Despite technical glitches, we managed to engage over two hundred people in the space of an hour and make over two and a half lakh impressions (according to the software hashtracker). A small but superb team led by the moderator, discussants and many participants kept the discussion on track. This is a skill that all of us learn as we do more – many here had participated in a hashtag chat for the first time even though many were social media veterans, others were new to the medium.

Why am I so thrilled that I share it here with you? I have rarely written a personal post here – though I justify this by saying this is not personal, even as it is written in the first person.It is about being prepared for the future of education. I am thrilled because this is the first time the voice of the concerned citizen was shared on an open platform, and we managed to keep it focused on issues. The discussion was to be on the RTE act, an act that has more vocal detractors than supporters. Even those who support the principle are forced to acknowledge some flaws and gaps in the act and its implementation. There was every danger (and I can safely say that now that it has been averted) that it could turn into a national rant. Rants are not productive. Rants, like trolls like to be fed and move away from key issues, or even hidden issues. We succeeded in that – the conversation was very civil as it was passionate.

Though, as I said, many of us were new to the concept of the hashtag chat. Hashtag chats, especially in education have spawned global collaborations for over three years. Teachers have learnt classroom techniques from each other, have shared lesson plans and even found mentors and friends via these chats. These are always moderated, always run by a core team and therefore are focused on the issues of the day. Off topic issues can always be discussed off the hashtag or at different times. It is a learning process to manage the very very rapid pace of the conversation while keeping it on track. Often there are over twenty micro-posts a minute in a normal hashtag chat. To keep pace with this is challenging for the participants and for the moderator. But it is this very pace that manages to bring out a number of aspects in a very short time. Everybody gets a fair chance to have their say.

The speed is not the only challenge. It is also dependent on technology. We used the twitter platform that has been reliable for at least three years. This happened to be the one time it crashed globally – something that has not happened in months. When things go wrong, often Indians stick at it.. Another global chat on social media abandoned their chat. We stuck at it, frantically keeping it alive in the first precarious minutes. We lost two major participants but were in full swing in under half an hour. Not just is possible that Indians succeed with grit and staying power too. What amazed us was not just the pace and engagement, but also the huge range of issues that were thrown up. The consensus was also surprising – I had expected (and feared) pitched battles.

The other challenge that remains is to ensure that we drive the process of making meaning of collaboration. It is iterative. You need collaboration to break through technophobic barriers so that the contributions are meaningful. At the same time, the design of the collaboration should drive towards meaning. The RTE chat on #EduIn was surprisingly skewed towards concerns on teacher quality despite the wide range of issues thrown up. We need to invest in this process all along the chain for it to yield its multiplier. This is the only way an honest voice gets a fair chance. This is the only way informed policy design gets a chance.

And yes, we are going to keep this up. We will continue to support and encourage collaborations online via the open hashtag #EduIn. And we invite contributions, join in. At least once a month.


This was published in the Times of India on February 11, 2013 and is linked here and

Can India match Finland’s education outcomes

12 Dec

Finland is near the top of the International league tables of countries that do well by their children in educating them, while India lags close to the bottom. While the Finnish system, rather different from the education systems that typically exist around the world, it is also situated in a unique part of the world. The egalitarianism that this country and its neighbours demonstrate has been hard fought over the past few decades. And that attitude shows in their education system too.


While we in India focus on marks and performance in examinations, the system in Finland has no examinations at all for the first few years, the first main exam being at the age of sixteen. Children are then able to learn without having to limit themselves to a syllabus, though of course standards are delineated. In India too we are trying a system with no examinations for the first eight years of schooling. But the differences are huge. Each class has a teacher and a teaching assistant, and there is extra support easily available for the weak students. Teachers are recruited from the top of the class, and while their starting incomes are less than that of their peer group, the incomes rise faster than average. So most teachers earn more than the average income as they get better and more experienced. All of this is very good news for the student who is inspired by those who have seen academic success, and are genuinely competent.


Indian teachers are not always of the highest calibre. While teacher pay has improved in recent years to very respectable levels for government schools, many low income private schools still pay a pittance. Teacher training suffers from the usual problem of a few good schools and thousands of mediocre places for training teachers. Teachers in India rarely get any support after they start working, and often the in-career training is not taken seriously. Teachers have to manage classes of forty students, on average, and they do it alone. Without assistance, with minimal planning and with no recourse to specialist help for the students who are falling behind. For many teachers, this means that they are unable to focus on the bottom half of the class. For the students lagging behind, there is little respite from feeling a failure, and from feeling overburdened by greater expectations each year even as they realise they have not mastered the previous. And this is at the core of the flaws in building citizens for the future.


Finland’s success comes both from structures and society. There is a genuine belief that people must strive to make society more equal. Even traffic fines depend on income, with millionaires being charged tens of thousands of Euros for the same crime for which students pay a hundred Euros. Schools work the same way – the weakest are allowed to work their way up at their own pace. At the same time, teachers too work hard to ensure that each and every child gets the care needed. Can India ever build such care into its teaching? We have to – else much of our investment in teaching is wasted. We have the chance with the RTE to prove that we have the heart as well as the tools to deliver quality education to the child who needs it most. If 25% of children in each school are going to come from the weakest sections of society, then they are going to need the support – Finland style, outside class. This requires resources – and so far there has been little talk about how this will be delivered.


The children left behind are not just from different economic classes but also those who are less able physically than others. Their academic confidence is fragile, but the competence is clearly waiting to be discovered. With health and nutrition support, there is evidence to prove that achievement levels can match those of more privileged children.


Can India become like Finland in its education outcomes? India has many hurdles to cross. The first is scale, which almost makes competition a tool for survival. The resources and opportunities are a hard battle to circumvent. The range of learning to be designed is vast – across regions we cannot seek and cultivate homogenisation like they have. The most crucial is the teachers – unless we have the best teachers, who put in their best, with the care they give their own children – there can be little hope for the weak. The duty of care is the first ask of a teacher.




This article was published in the Times of India blogs on December 4, 2012, and can be accessed here and is linked here:

MOOCs and the Future of Education

15 Nov


The conversation about the future of education has recently been dominated by the acronym MOOC – Massive Online Open Courses. These are famously run by large Ivy league colleges, often on a common platform such as Coursera, though some are run independently too. These are normally free and are available to anybody who has a good internet connection on a computer.

MOOCs are seen as the most disruptive technology for higher education. Of you have a Stanford professor teaching you something, even if it is online, wny do you need to go to your silly little college at all? Your teachers may not be as good as the Stanford professors, and you may not learn beyond your textbook.

The best thing about the MOOCs is the chance to study with keen students across the world. Students formed their own study groups across continents, explored areas of interest triggered off by the online sessions with the professor. The peer learning networks that we have been speaking of for over two years came alive, triggered by a good professor!

There was plenty of assessment during the MOOCs too – in session exercises, assignments, peer discussions, reports. The work was not trivial either – there was a lot to read and research. The course was not simply about listening to a video. The challenge for these courses that provide assessment avenues is that one cannot verify the honesty and thus validity of the assessment. So far all these courses do is give one a certificate of participation that really does not carry any credits. There have been reports that employers are excited about these, but they do not translate into direct university credits.

The challenge for online courses such as these is clearly in interaction and connection. However wonderful an online course is, there is no substitute for a wise and caring professor. The mentorship of seniors and the escapades with peers are an indelible part of  coming of age journeys. The virtual experience, even one as good as the Khan Academy, can only be a shadow of the real one.

Yet it is a valuable addition to the brave new world of learning. There is much to be said for  these online courses – as is evidenced by their massive popularity. They provide excellent in depth explanations, standardized learning experience and repeat access to the training materials. While nominally the cost of these courses is zero, of course for many the access  to a computer with a good quality internet connection becomes an issue. Some, of course externalise their cost to their workplace. In a perfect world, all college and univerisity libraries would be open to all, 24 hours a day with free internet access. This happens in some cities and countries – there is always a resource available for those who want to learn.

MOOCs bring value in cutting across traditional boundaries. People of all ages, from any background can participate in these lessons. And engineer can study philosophy, a scientist can learn of history. The cross seeding of knowledge and experience is bound to make great things happen in the near future.

So, are MOOCs all good? Not really. There is no substitute for the teacher who facilitates and catalyses intellectual growth. In the absence of such a teacher, this is a good step forward. A MOOC – so far – has been unable to cater to the personalised needs of the student.. it moves on, jaggernaut like, at its own pace. It can neither stop for those left behind, nor are there any built in mechanisms to help people catch up. So far, the success rates even if measured as full participation are rather low. But then, of course, many join a MOOC to learn rather than to gain a certificate or participate in assessments. MOOCs are the face of massification, an invaluable tool in disseminating knowlege. And therefore will be an integral part of learning now and in the future. A part, not the whole.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on November 12, 2012 and is linked here, and