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Tutoring and Excellence

15 Jan

Tuition is the underclass of the education sector. I challenge it: they’ve brought quality, accountability, access

It was a gathering of engineers, like many such gatherings. A group of friends meeting after decades. They had studied together, were ranked against each other in the famed JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) for the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology). Amidst much backslapping and ‘abbey-yaars’, came out the stories. Stories of long days and nights spent in preparation. Of books and authors whose names were seared on to their memories including tutors.

And then, one of them said something surprising, “If not for the tutor (named), I would never have understood the concept.”

I stood still for a moment. Tutors are supposed to be those who aid rote learning. They are the lowest in the pecking order of education intelligentsia. They appear everywhere, are resilient, get the job done and are forgotten. And here were people who had used their engineering skills to change the world and were crediting their tutors, not school teachers, for going beyond rote learning to a genuine understanding of the ideas, concepts and their applications.

This was one for the teaching community to reflect upon. This was one for the tutoring system. Flawed as it is, the tutoring system has delivered.

If there is one system that is working to further rigour, accuracy and excellence (of sorts), it is the tutoring ecosystem. Do not mistake this as an endorsement of rote learning, cramming culture, narrow focus on knowledge (rather than understanding) that has been the hallmark of the Indian education system so far. That is a given.

But with that as a given, it is the tutoring system that has added the quality dimension to it. If the goal is better marks, the tuition system has delivered on it. If the goal is smaller classes, the tutoring system has delivered. If the goal is teacher accountability – again, the tutoring system has delivered splendidly.

Tutors are engaged to improve scores. They have a single point goal. As tuition becomes more ubiquitous, one notices a rise in grades too. Often attributed to grade inflation, it is possible, nay likely that this has contributed to better grades. Students are not necessarily becoming dumber or smarter; they are becoming more skilled at taking exams. This is what a tutor does – and they are good at it. Here is the interesting thing: the tutoring ecosystem has delivered on a national goal of improving standards (as measured by marks) without being organised, regulated, scaled or standardised.

There are lessons here for the schooling system – both in the public and private sectors. The tutoring system has been able to deliver much more than a traditional schooling system struggles with on a daily basis. Quality (as defined by goals set), time on task, efficiency, lack of absenteeism – tutoring scores. Tutoring is also a completely self funded system with little pressure on the exchequer. At the same time, the system remains flexible enough to deliver an affordable solution at each price point the market demands – the cost per child is monitored, managed and responsive to the needs of the group they serve. When one looks at delivering to standards, at standardised learning – again the tutorial system makes the grade. Or they go out of business.

The tutorial industry has been written about extensively – from its multi million dollar size, consolidation and branding, near double-digit growth, hot-housing culture, restrictive blinkered learning and much more. There is little to appeal to the educationist or the seeker in a tutorial system. Having said that – it is a tool that turns the machine. When education systems fail (and as I type this, the 2014 ASER report is being released, marking another milestone of failures in schooling) – tutoring comes to the rescue. A raft, not a boat. And it carries people across the certification challenge.

For all the vilification, the tutorial industry has earned celebrity status for some of its teachers. In the far-east many earn far more than they would have in corporate life or in teaching – some boast of a fairly glamorous lifestyle. In India too, a few teachers are spoken of with reverence. The best teachers are able to command a stupendous premium in the market and often scale up to be able to give access to many more (at a more reasonable price point) to their pedagogy. The system does operate more like a shop, and tutors are obviously building their own brands over time.

This is one industry that employs many, provides opportunities for entrepreneurship, and is still growing rapidly. More, it has low entry barriers – and is accessible to all, even allowing for flex working hours. With online and cloud tutorials gaining ground, it could even transcend geographies. One of the strongest features of the tutoring system is the engagement with the community. Not just the students but their parents too, and often their school teachers. Local tutors often know the teachers in the schools in the area and base their tutoring on their weak spots. This feedback loop is constantly reinforced through conversations. Parental engagement in tutoring creates a governance community that often borders on the aggressive – they are purchasing a service and they expect results.

Despite the fact that this is an unregulated part of the highly over-regulated education sector, this has thrived and grown manifold. They have grown in adversity, without support and against the establishment.  To use NN Taleb’s phrase – this is anti-fragile.

The tutoring sector probably deserves kudos for promoting single-minded focus on its goals and accessible economic growth. It is not only the ‘gurukul’ of the present; it is also what the vision of ‘Make in India’ can foster. It will not be denied.

Sanskrit – Build a bridge between the Past and the Present

14 Dec

Sanskrit lessons in Indian civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Pillars that the Narendra Modi Government should Adopt

4 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was published in the DNA