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Education India 2014 – The questions that plague

27 Dec

In addition to the usual ones on quality, scale, access, affordability….

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Three discussions in education 2014

December 11, 2014, 12:33 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI

I will call it the year of the battle between tradition and innovation. Globally and in India. It was the year of doubt, a year of taking a stand, and a year of gathering arguments as ammunition. A year of consolidation on some of the questions that have plagued us for long. These debates are not ended yet.

The first manifest itself as the debate on standards and standardisation. The common core in the US and other standardised curricula and exams have been attacked with vigour and defended with equal robustness. Private sector or even corporate solutions that have been used in school systems have improved outcomes in general, especially in initial years. But it is now that the cost of standardisation and incentives have come to the fore. Pasi Sahlberg has been campaigning for a few years to inoculate against the standardised testing virus that kills much of true and varied learning in classrooms by forcing students, teachers and entire schools to focus on a narrow band that will be tested. Others maintain that testing is the only way to understand what worked.

The same conversation needs to be had in India with regulations clearly nipping away at school autonomies (nursery admissions in Delhi, teaching to the text with extra classes banned etc.) so that class rooms are standardised and results in standardised tests improve. But here lies the rub – raising standards has little to do with standardisation. One size does not fit all. Often standards are raised in ways that cannot be measured in standardised tests. Often standards are raised when the fear and focus on standardised tests is removed, so that a student can do their best and discover their potential. The debate took different forms in different countries – for example, a massive campaign in the USA against the common core, a series of litigations in Delhi on Nursery admissions, the debate on improving the CCE system of evaluation and so on. It even showed in the conversations at the largest gathering of educators in the world at WISE, Doha where there was much discussion around play, empathy and creativity – these are things that one can never fully standardise.

The second trend was the play for textbooks and curricula. In many places it was a wave of nationalism creeping into textbooks, and a push back against the change in textbooks. National narratives are a powerful tool of social engineering and school textbooks have often served ‘rulers’ well. In India the battle for the books is on, where the ‘nationalist’ narrative seeks to find its own identity somewhere between the ‘leftist’ and the ‘right-wing’ assertions that have been ignored or overemphasised in past decades. The United Kingdom too had a similar debate when history was to be modified to include perspectives that teachers refused to teach – some even resigning rather than putting themselves in a position where they would have to teach material that they do not believe. Similar discussions have been heard in other countries such as Greece, Turkey etc. – a consequence not just of the recession, but also of the geo-political plates being shifted underfoot.

The third trend has seen consolidation is the steady growth of reliable research on education with a degree of granularity that makes it actionable. This has helped us move away from the uncertain land when decisions had to be made on the basis of Anecdata – thus leaving one vulnerable to blind spots or localisation errors. They too have their supporters – often teachers tell us that it is all very well to quote other studies, but ‘this will not work in my classroom’.  Classes, teachers and indeed colleges pride themselves in being ‘different’, almost immune from any generic solutions that may be applied. It has often been so – most solutions have not been scaleable, and we need more and better research that enables us to identify what really works in education. Better research leads to smarter education design, personalised learning, and of course better governance of education systems as we learn what really matters.

This has moved beyond research universities to corporates, think tanks and Foundations. In the UK one even has a new teacher led movement called ‘ResearchED’. In India it is led by organisations such as Accountability Initiative and others who continue to create evidence based arguments that help devise informed policies. Others too support better research in different ways – Technology (including Big Data Analytics) has given us the ability to monitor better, to consolidate data rapidly and ask good questions that can help formulate government policy. Another way it is fostered is by the ‘Monitoring and Evaluation’ of every intervention that is done by NGOs as they try to prove the impact to the donor’s funding. This is building a body of work that will need curation as a next step to allow it to be applied meaningfully across contexts. The journey ahead is long – but like medicine, it is time that education too moved to evidence based solutions and interventions.

What happened to last year’s grand discussions? Do we not talk about teacher shortages and training anymore? Has conflict education become less important this year? On the contrary, both these issues and a few others continue to rage – they are even more important than every before. They have moved beyond the stage of  understanding the nature of the problems to creating a range of solutions. Vital funds have been moved to conflict education, to rebuild what was destroyed by war, to sustain whatever growth is possible for children amidst long battles. Even in India, building a teaching cohort is a National Mission now.

The debates of this year are about the global citizen of the future. How does one balance tradition and innovation, the old and the new, the known and the unknown – navigating each side with ease.  How does one create an aware, curious, questioning individual, capable of forging their own path in the unknown while not losing sight of their self and their society? The world may be on the brink of a real world version of the “Hunger Games” with institutionalised inequity, with power complexes that simplify to the point of stupidity, with freedoms that give way to conformity. Educating intelligently is now about seeking a way out of this mess – and this is what the debates seek to address.

This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 11, 2014 linked here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/three-discussions-in-education-2014/

5 Mindshifts Required for India’s Education Policy (5I)

27 Dec

India’s education policy needs a complete overhaul

Photo: Getty Images

I was glad I did not know the boy standing on the high diving board, hesitating to take the leap. As I walked past, I realised it was the perfect analogy for India and her education issues. We still have to take that leap. It is known that the waters will be chill for a while, there will be shock; it will take some courage to take the leap, but it must be done. Standing up on the diving board only exposes oneself to fear and vulnerability; it won’t get us to a place where we can at least join the race, forget about winning it.

The numbers do not need to be reiterated, nor do the problems. The scale is known to all: 12 million people entering the workforce each year, which drives out all other goals and leaves income generation as the primary goal. Get this right and at the very least, taxes from the 12 million will raise India’s standard of living via better public investments. Get this wrong and India could spiral out of control: Young, unemployed and directionless populations are the stuff of civic nightmares. This is not a ‘feel good, let us do better’ kind of exercise anymore. If the youth are not constructive, we would be engulfed with a series of problems.

What needs to be done for these youth? Better schools? Trained teachers? Smarter textbooks? Online lessons? Low-stakes assessments? Skilling? All of that surely, but more needs to be done. The solution to India’s ‘opportunities’ lies in shifting from a constrained resource mindset to feeding unconstrained ambitions. The big leap in education needs different thinking. Though not necessarily radical yet. For example, we are not completely ready to shift all learning out of the classrooms. The new thinking needs to be a step ahead in goal setting for education itself. We need a mindshift to design the new education policy and here are five suggestions for the same.

1) Education as investment sounds obvious, but it is not really as straightforward as the most important things that education provides cannot be measured easily. How does one measure the confidence a good school gives or the friends one makes for life? But most things can-the enhanced earnings for each additional year of education, the value of networks, the returns to investors for professional courses directed towards employability, etc. Even the return on investment to a simple government school can be calculated via proxies-and must- so that we start focusing on the gains to students and society. The shift from expenditure as an input into a dark hole to an investment changes the attitudes and expectations from education completely. This is essential if we want to see results and accountability.

2) Education as an essential infrastructure is the next mindshift required. It is not of much use if one gets bullet trains and information superhighways when there aren’t enough good people to create value out of these. Education is soft infrastructure and must receive priority investments and concessions like the rest of the infrastructure sector. Just as one identifies and supports priorities in infrastructure, one needs to identify priorities in education and implement them through a medium-term national education strategy. If the nation needs more, say, civil engineers, or more accountants, then plan ahead, create the education highways for these to ensure that progress is achieved-the education policy must create institutions and mechanisms for delivery along national priorities.

3) Education as influence: Not just as part of the national narrative for national pride but also as a means to increase the nation’s circle of influence across the globe. Education has been used by many countries as soft power-the fact that you are reading this in English is evidence of such power. Countries extend this soft power by encouraging foreign students to study in their countries and go back with respect and deep friendships in addition to a valuable degree. Others do that by funding departments of study across universities, some of it is done via cultural centres (India does too) with varied impact. Much of this influence is fostered via systematic people-to-people contact and diaspora. This is a subtle, but powerful tool for India’s national goals and must be provisioned for in the national education policy.

4) Education as an industry may not be as controversial a perspective as it is made out to be. While education may be a not-for-profit sector by regulation, it has all the other characteristics of a standard industry. The only, and significant, difference here is that it deals with people and their change process. It is easy to mistakenly say that in education, people are the product, but this is not so-the value addition to people is the task of this industry. Like every other industry, it has supply chain issues, challenges in logistics and constraints in resources. It has similar problems in vendor management, in funding, regulatory compliance and more. While educators have resisted solutions that come from the industrial or corporate world, there is a case for acknowledging that the business of education can learn much from successful toolkits in industry. Even pedagogies are being transformed by the results from evidence and big data analytics-governance tools that have not been used in schools before. The education ecosystem must allow itself the benefits of maturing as an industry. This means allowing consolidation, diversity in the provision of education, a range of positioning and price points, product innovation, operational efficiencies among other things. The sector cannot continue to operate as an agglomeration of local mom-and-pop stores, nor should it be completely a public sector monopolistic behemoth. For education policy design, this means allowing more establishments to start and grow by fostering entrepreneurial energy and then challenging them to continuously improve their service delivery and standards.

5) Education as inspiration. The purpose of education is to raise us to be better human beings who build sustainable societies and civilisations that are respected over a period of time. Education must elevate us in ways we would not even have been able to see before. We need it to create aspirations for us at the very least, and grow us as individuals and people. The word inspiration literally means an intake of breath, the life force. Education is just that, an intake of that life force, prana, that will drive us to be better and create more value. To merely seek employment as a goal of education is not enough; it is only the first step. If education policy is designed to only meet this basic requirement in schools and colleges, then it must add components of lifelong learning for meeting greater aspirations and ensuring progress for its people throughout their lives. To change institutes of higher learning only with grassroots innovation is not enough-education policy must support and demand inspirational research so that generations of learners want to move up the value chain. School learning must allow students to be inspired to explore and learn; teachers must be inspired to lead classes, not just lecture them. Education policy has to be designed to move the sector from banal liturgy to the engine of growth.

These five mindshifts are essential to building an education policy befitting the largest democracy in the world. To do any less would be to disrespect the hopes and ambitions of the demographic dividend- the next generation. And this is the challenge set for the new education policy.

http://forbesindia.com/blog/economy-policy/indias-education-policy-needs-a-complete-overhaul/