Archive | Skills RSS feed for this section

5 Hurdles to Skilling India

9 Jun
Skilling will power the India growth story
Meeta Sengupta, Hindustan Times
June 08, 2014
First Published: 23:03 IST(8/6/2014)
Last Updated: 23:04 IST(8/6/2014)

Skills development for employment and growth is on the front burner with a million new people to be trained and employed each month in India. The rise of this trained workforce is critical to India’s growth story — else who will power the engine? Without this soft infrastructure all investments in hard infrastructure are futile. And yet the skills story remains stuck. There are gaps in the skills story that are still not bridged while others are slow in their progress. Some others are at a standstill, for nobody will own them. There is demand and supply, and yet the conversion to higher value addition  is lagging. What stands in the way?

First, accreditation. Who certifies that the skills that trainers provide are adequate and transferable across the industry? Certification must (i) be mobile, and (ii) provide an income boost. The accrediting body assures the employer of the value of that certificate. The accreditation bodies hold trainers to account via inspections, improvements and programmes that ensure that the training and, therefore, the certificates are valuable in the market. India’s progress on this front has been slow. Where sector skills councils will become accreditors, there is a pathway though benefits are barely beginning to be visible. Till the accreditation network is in place, operational and credible, few skills certificates have a market.

Second, prior learning certification. Most vocational workers have learnt their skills on the job and are often very experienced. They do not need to retrain themselves for months on end to be able to perform to their standard. Across sectors, there is no universal mechanism that certifies the level of their skills within learning frameworks. Certifying learning with credible level markings creates a market for higher-order skills. Experienced workers will not hop on to the skills bandwagon if you equate them with young starters. Give them credit for what they know, help them upgrade.

Third, assessments. The lack of trust in assessments has undermined many certification processes. If employers do not believe that the assessment process was honest and the declared results are valid and reliable, they will not be willing to pay a wage premium. For example, the skills certification for driving licences in India has suffered because few believe it to be a credible test of skill. The distortion has made it a document that is not even accepted by the issuing authority as proof of identity, let alone skill. Without honesty within the process, it collapses.

Fourth, apprenticeships. This is an education programme that is trapped under the history of trade union negotiations with the labour ministry. The legal binds on hiring apprentices have made it all but unviable. No employer would want to enter this minefield though this is the right operational model to revive the skilling sector. Many industries ‘train’ their future employees and then offer them jobs. Much energy is expended working the legal hassles that have suffocated an excellent model for the revival of skills in large and small industries. The apprenticeship model has revived growth in moribund economies and is an excellent scaleable device.

Fifth, and the most important, financing. Often workers are unable or unwilling to pay for training that may not guarantee them a wage premium or even a job. Employers see no reason to invest in people who may leave straight after being trained. An underwriting agency is required along with a repayment plan that aligns with earnings of the trainee. The Australian model deducts repayments from salary in proportion to income. Those who earn more can repay faster. And honest repayments will sustain it for future generations.

While removing these speed breakers to skilling requires institutional interventions, it is critical to align the existing workforce with the training community to ensure steady growth even as they wait for regulations to settle down.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer, speaker and advisor in education and skills and designs institutional interventions

The views expressed by the author are personal

– See more at:

Degrees and Leadership: Smriti Irani and the MHRD post

28 May


In defence of Smriti Irani, India’s new HRD minister

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 – 6:25pm IST | Agency: DNA
  • smriti-irani HRD minister Smriti Irani

Does a leader always need to be an expert? Or is a good leader one who can leverage a wide range of expertise and skills? Ask India Inc, the entrepreneurial and the baronial – and the chances are that their business successes will provide the answer before they need to respond. Of course, an expert in the area will find it easier to process information and will have an easier learning curve when entering the arena. But those who are not experts also prove to be good workers and leaders. Not all good leaders are experts, but all good leaders know how to utilise the abilities of experts.

What about education? Surely in education we need educated leaders? They have to decide on broad issues of education policy, create legislation to revive the sector, identify and clear hurdles to scale and quality. It is a growing nation that must learn to invest in its own talent to participate on the global stage. It might have been better to have a learned greybeard to lead the initiatives rather than the youngest woman in the Cabinet of the Union of India, who, as the cynics and critics point out, has received no higher education. By that logic, no CEO or leader can be allowed to hold a post where they have not gone through the ranks. Nor would there be any conglomerates – for who can be all the things that a GE CEO leads? Or a Tata group CEO?

Smriti Irani, the young Cabinet minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) does hold a complex portfolio. What is more challenging is her inheritance – she faces a wide range of issues that seem to have decided on arbitrary criteria that has had little to do with the broader goals of education. She has to work with policies that impact individuals – and almost every family in the nation. Worse, she has to figure out which of the schemes she now supervises are useful and which ones are actually destroying the fabric of the nation. The nation now looks to her to have the ability to discriminate, to judge and to invest in the future.

So much needs to be dismantled, so much needs to be reconstructed and so much needs to be built. Consider the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Noble in intent surely, when it gave the right to be educated to every 6-14 year old in the country. Yet, so badly constructed that even three years ago, this author called the act a sieve. It is in a shambles today – forcing many budget private schools to close (should they not be supported to improve?), creating incentives for schools to declare themselves minority institutions (how is it inclusive, or even a national act if the it does not apply to a minority institutions) and of course the silent elephant on the table – the nationalisation of private property when 25% of the seats in the private sector were taken over by the act. Does she have the ability to distinguish between a left liberal argument versus a economic right social left argument and decide on the right course of action?

There is no point denying she does not have the academic grounding – but the argument here is precisely this – she does not need to have that if she has the ability to channel good advice. As a leader, her task would certainly have been easier if she had experience in the field of education. At the same time she would have the disadvantage of ideological baggage that would influence her decisions. And the critics would have carped about that. It is true, again, that the ministry of HRD is trapped in the middle of complex legislation and the entire sector is moribund due to regulatory messes. Higher education institutions cannot hire or fire the faculty they need to, talent cannot be nurtured or showcased due to hierarchies and tenure based structures. Research languishes, as does the quality of teaching. Does Smriti Irani have the ability to judge which area of science should receive more funding? Can she chair a meeting of the directors of the IITs and IIMs?

Certainly she can. She is a politician, and is not in that chair to provide the academic expertise. That is the job of the other people in the room including her ministry and advisors. She is tasked with a politician’s role – one of persuasion. Of getting support for ideas that drive through to results. Her leadership will be judged on her ability to get the job done. And the job at the moment is about managing the negotiation between different ideas and priorities. Her task is to involve more partners so that education can leverage the skills and resources that are available outside the government, and indeed the nation.

If this was a personal defence of the minister, one could call on her past achievements too – these are in the public domain. This is not about the person. This is about the sad conflation of degrees and competence when degrees themselves are not designed around competencies. Degrees may be the proof of certain learning but they do not represent the sum total of knowledge, skills and attitudes – each of which are required to be successful in a job.

For long the elitism of degrees has influenced choices in India regardless of talent. And this fascination with a linear education pathway that culminates in more degrees has made it difficult for individuals to follow their talent and aptitudes. Worse, teaching and learning are reduced to the tests that seem to deny that there are other pathways to success, not just academic. And academic pathways need not map to a certain age-line.

There are many who have become successful without following the trodden path, many whose learning has been honed outside academic hallways. There are skills that a Harvard and Ahmedabad cannot teach. Let us give the new minister a chance to step up and show what she has learned. Her competence will be tested in the public eye. The least one can do is be supportive and helpful. After all, we are on the same side if we care for a better educated nation.

One last question remains – would we all not have been happier if, say, Arun Jaitley had been appointed the minister for HRD? Yes, certainly. Erudite, well spoken, a sharp legal brain, proven intellect, the ability to negotiate in tricky land – it would have been ideal. Given the huge challenge in human resources, an experienced hand would have been useful. All the more reason to support the young minister, and call on others, including the cabinet mentors, to help her learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Meeta Sengupta is a writer, and an advisor an consultant in education. She tweets at @meetasengupta.




This was published in the DNA newspaper on May 27, 2014


Who Will Pay the Skills Premium?

7 Mar


Who Will Pay the Skills Premium?

03/06/2014 | 

The market doesn’t want your skills training. That, Sir, is the first and only problem we need to face. The market doesn’t want to pay for the training and does not want to pay a premium for your trained folk.

Does this say something about the product or about the market?

The ‘Skills Gap’ has been discussed for over a decade in various countries across the world. Almost all have come up with some sort of white paper that declares how bad the skill levels are, why these are going to lead to economic decline, why they represent an inherent gap between industry and academia, and how awful it is that their graduates are not employable. India is not alone in this regard.

Nor is India alone in acknowledging the fact that there will not be enough jobs for the sheer volumes that will continue to flood the job market. India used to call this surge the demographic dividend. It is now teetering on demographic disaster. A truth that few wanted to acknowledge publicly was that India would almost inevitably have to export its unemployment problem. There will never be enough jobs per square inch of land in India to feed its teeming millions. (Till the population surge dies down as it is expected to in three decades). Not only does India have to fill a skills gap to meet the expectations of national employers, but those of global employers too. In an economy, that is not quite booming.

This is both a troublesome and a blessing. The best skilled people will be weaned away to better jobs globally leading to a “skills drain” as was seen with the brain drain phenomenon of the sixties. At the same time we can hope that the larger cohort will be trained to global standards, leapfrogging a generation of incremental quality discussions in the production of goods and services. But this is precisely where India is stuck at this point in time: the leapfrogging does not have a defined value. And therefore many are unwilling to pay for it.

Very simply: Why would an individual pay for a certified training programme if they are not convinced that it will significantly improve wages? Why would an employer pay a premium for a certified worker if they are not convinced that they will improve productivity?

(An aside: Who should answer these questions with proof?)

Maybe it is just a question of riding out the storm as we wait for the structures that bring order to be built. Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) are in place and growing. The National Skills Development Agency and National Skills Development Corporation are doing their bit. As we speak, the national skills qualifications frameworks have been drafted and a five-year plan for alignment created.

Without this foundation it is almost impossible to create a clear understanding of value. How can there be one till there is clarity on what the certificate really means? The meaning and value of the certificate can only be proven in the market when the pioneers and the crusaders work together. This must be given time to run its course and the market must be allowed to arrive at a true and fair price. Any prescription at this stage will merely be setting it up for failure. If a level 4 plumber must be paid so much by diktat and a level 5 plumber is paid an additional (fixed) sum, the entire system collapses — it cannot perform two basic functions of price. To give feedback to the supply system (trainers, curriculum developers and creators of operating standards) and to be responsive to demand (employers).

The challenge in the skills arena is the tightrope between standards (not standardisation) and speed. It is a about designing a scaled up system designed to be nimble. About creating a network of moving parts that do not clash with each other. Yes, it is complicated and the hard slog remains. As every start-up knows, the idea and the organisation is much easier than proof of the product in the market. This is where skills certification stands now. It needs to prove its value to customers and investors. It is a start-up that cannot be allowed to fail. The price of failure is the dignified livelihoods of at least one generation.

The question in skills used to be: Who will pay to fill the skills gap? As this has been resolved, the question that now needs to be answered is: Who will pay the skills premium? I am looking at you, employers.

Read more:

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.

Published on




Other Links


Click to access 2013GlobalTeacherStatusIndex.pdf




How I Would Teach History

14 Nov

It started with a discussion over a sentence from an NCERT text:

“The British saw large animals as signs of a wild, primitive and savage society.

They believed that by killing dangerous animals the British would civilise India.”

This was class 9, History.

After the usual outrage on textbooks and social engineering, I was asked a very interesting question –

“When my children come to me and ask me to explain this, what will I tell them?”

And my response was – “Tell them there is more than one book”

And that is how history should be shown – it can never really be taught.

As I wondered, I began to plan my perfect history lesson.

(Never having been a history teacher, this was an exercise in pure pedagogy sans content expertise (declaring that upfront). There are many ways to design a lesson, I promise this will not become a workshop on lesson plans!)

First comes the story of the people and the peoples involved. But can there ever be just one story when it is about people, their lives and the grand battles they commanded? Can there ever just be one version of the truth or just one perspective? With a prescribed textbook there is – by definition – a prescribed version of the truth.

Of course the perfect history lesson would have great students (a range of abilities in the class, not all academic) and great resources (libraries and access to materials). And as a teacher, I’d start off the story and then send the students off to find out more. To bring stories back to each other.

What is the risk here? One, cynical students would not bother. Two, if they work individually they may lose their way, if they work in groups they may get lost in the group and be able to shirk work. In this case, I’d send them on their journey of discovery in pairs, or triads. Three, they may all come back with the same story – and that is the risk every teacher takes in an unstructured quest. There are advantages to giving the student groups their head and letting them run wild and find out whatever they can. If the topic is rich in diverse stories – say the Empire of Akbar, World War II, then I would be happy to take the risk. If the thing to be researched is remote from the context of the students or does not have much depth in its tales, then I would certainly partition and direct the students to give structure and boundaries to their quest.

I’d ask them to come back and tell each other the stories they had gathered. I’d add some of my own. I’d ask them questions. I’d tell them to ask each other questions.

(I can hear some experienced teachers voices in my head now – where will you find the time? The class will be chaotic! It will go all over the place. When will you finish the syllabus?

This is when lesson preparation comes in useful. The art of teaching is based on the science of planning. While the class looks chaotic to the casual observer, it is the teacher’s task to ensure that the questions follow a pre-decided pattern. The experience and training of the teacher must ensure that the facilitation of the learning is skillful. If a teacher depends on a general idea of where the lesson should go, it will be less than successful – the pathway of questions and stories must be managed – that is the purpose and task of a teacher)

And then, I would show them sides. If there was time, I’d ask them to act it out, to take sides and tell the tale. I’d let them feel the need to win, the urge of the cause, the power of their tools, their trust and distrust in people and the pathos of loss. The lessons of history are about learning for the future. If these are embedded in ways that they stir questions, reflections and discussions, then a large part of the teacher’s job is done.

Will the lesson end as the bell rings to signal the end of class? I should hope not. There is more to history even if one is limited by one’s prescribed syllabus. Much in history is the art of making connections between societies, civilizations, circumstances and times. There can never be a history lesson isolated from other parts of history, or even separated from geographies, the sciences or even mathematics.

What then is the role of the teacher – is it one of a connector? In these times of access to information via the internet (hopefully to most in a few years) the teacher is not the person who tells the stories. The teacher curates and stimulates. The teacher seeds and watches over to ensure that the seeds germinate. If the teacher has embedded the questions, and shown the path to finding answers, it is enough to start.


How I would teach history

Meeta Sengupta
04 November 2013, 06:19 PM IST


Do Credentials Matter?

24 Oct


Does it matter if a teacher or a professor has the right credentials for the job? What can credentials tell you anyway?


Just because a person is an expert in a subject area does not necessarily make them a competent teacher of that content. Every holder of a doctorate has spent about half a decade creating their nugget of knowledge to share with the world, often confined to the library, laboratory, research arena and the company of peers. They have been trained in asking a good question and then answering it with rigour. In this process, they know a lot about their PhD domain, but know little about the world of teaching and learning. Would they make good teachers?


Not just recent PhD students. The same question applies to anyone with deep domain knowledge from the industry who wishes to share their expertise with students. Some are excellent teachers, others are not. They, like the PhD candidates, have received little or no training in teaching and mentoring their students. Do their credentials and degrees have anything to do with becoming good teachers? Taking it one step foward – Do academic credentials have any meaning for leadership and administrative roles, such as the directorship of an institution?


At the school level too, one wonders if there is a correlation between good degrees and good teaching. On the one hand we have clear evidence from countries with Finland where every teacher must study both content and teaching for at least seven years before they are allowed to teach. Finland, of course, keeps topping the league tables in student achievement. On the other hand, there is evidence gathered from studies in some states of India where trained teachers were often absent. Para teachers were able to match their output as measured in student achievement. Does this mean we don’t need trained teachers at all for our primary schools? (Not really – further details in the study revealed that trained teachers could turn out higher achievement rates, if given the right incentives. And if they were present)


Again and again we find the certificate that is seen as a pre-requisite for obtaining a job has little to do with the skills required for the job. A vice chancellor of a university is expected to watch over governance, manage the politics and be the ambassador for the university. While the selection criteria clearly include these, the certificates and credentials they are expected to produce are often more academic than anything else. They have little relevance to the job at hand. A professor to a university has far more value in their networks and experience than the mere certificates that they must produce for the selection procedure. A school teacher who holds a B.Ed degree may still be utterly unqualified for the task of teaching a real class despite having spent years on the theory of education and child psychology.


This issue is coming to a head in India as the provisions of  RTE (Right to Education Act) are being implemented and imposed upon schools with fines and punitive action for non-compliance. There are arguments on both sides. The RTE insists that all teachers have a B.Ed qualification. This is doubly challenging. First, there are not enough qualified teachers in the country. Second – what happens to those teachers who have been doing a wonderful job of teaching for decades without ever needing this qualification? There is no provision in the act for accepting years of competent service as a proxy for the qualification.


Of course our students should have well qualified teachers – they are better teachers, are they not? Err.. sadly, not necessarily. Well, then are they not at least better prepared teachers? In theory yes, but even a good B.Ed program has not exposed them to enough classrooms to actually prove or train them to be better teachers. Let us not speak of the incompetence in B.Ed teaching that allows teachers to receive credentials with minimal learning – it has often been called a scam, a shame. The B.Ed credential has lost value due to such misuse by many colleges.


Even if the schools were willing to recruit, would they be able to afford to do so? Budget schools that often charge as little as Rs. 50 per month as fees from students are unable to meet the RTE criteria regarding teachers – both for pay and qualifications. Teacher pay at the higher level is an absolute amount that works out to more than the total revenue they collect as fees! The fact that children and parents opt to join these schools actively rejecting the free government schools in their areas proves that these schools provide good value – even with uncredentialled teachers. The business model breaks down with the new requirements imposed by law, and a valuable public service will be forced to shut down leaving students with little or no choice in their education.


What does a credential tell us anyway? All it can truly say is that the person named in the credential had access to certain resources for a certain period of time, and was able to secure a decent attendance and examination record. The link between credentials and competence is patchy at best.


The real question that remains to be answered is this: Can learning (read: student achievement)  be improved with better teacher training? If uncredentialled teachers are doing such a good job, wouldn’t teachers with a degree do even better? We do not have definite answers to this question yet, even if the intuitive response (and some studies) is in the positive.


Even if we agree on the basic truism that more training, teaching and experience will turn out better teachers, credentials are not the correct response. They are merely another gate that needs to be crossed creating a hurdle for many – and only makes the scarcity situtation worse. What India needs is a system of teacher appointments and training without an insistence on certification. Teacher training is not a one off process. It needs reinforcement and maintenance. Teachers who have been teaching well for many years need a pathway to receive accreditation of prior learning (APL) via a rigorous process. Para teachers and B.Ed certified teachers need to recognise the need for life long learning for teaching rather than rest on a static piece of paper that may not be of much value when standing in front of a classroom full of possibilities.




This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 17, 2013 and is linked here

Disruption is essential to Innovation in Education

17 Oct

Reinventing Innovation



 Image: Shutterstock

“Yes, he has got the right answer but the method is all wrong. Where is the method?! It was given in the class so many times, but he does not do it! ”

I stared at the teacher dumbfounded.

(No, I was not about to comment on the language or tone used, though that was pretty objectionable too.)

This was against all the principles of good education that had been shared at every conference, teacher training programme and seminar I had ever attended or led. Learning was supposed to be a journey of discovery. This was standardisation to the level of micro management, approximates to learning by rote, and leaves no room for individual growth, let alone individual pace within the system. It is a system designed for efficiency, geared to a specific goal. Change the goalposts, and the system flounders. The goalposts, of course, do not stay the same ever, and this system is clearly not future proof.

The quest is always for higher standards in a system, not mass standardisation at the last mile. If every notebook in the nation is expected to look exactly like every other, then all we are doing is raising a nation of replicators. They are trained to repeat what has been done before, not to create and bring rigour to their inventions or innovations.

Innovation often starts in the classroom where any exploration or creative journey into the subject is clearly inefficient use of class time. The rote learning method with micro standardisation is the most efficient way to demonstrate results, with the consequence of leaving little room to develop the higher faculties of the student. If a child cannot ask disruptive questions, then their learning has been stunted. If they are not appreciated for breaking the mould and creating new solutions, then they are merely being trained to be followers–and that is not where the premiums head.

Innovation needs to extend beyond classroom content and classroom processes to school systems. Local administrators and policy makers play a key role here–those that are supportive have found massive improvements in school achievements in their areas. Others, we hear, are keen to maintain the status quo and do no more. These areas tend to stagnate.

This carries through beyond schools, into higher education and research laboratories too, where hierarchies determine the degrees of freedom (and credit) received.

Creativity is a habit as much as it is a discipline. The process of creativity needs to be fostered if innovations are to be scored and used. Strong hierarchies, where research agenda are set by those of a previous generation, may not always be the best way to plan future knowledge building. Fresh entrants are often bubbling with new ideas, many scholars admit their best work was done in their twenties and thirties. The brain, we know, tends to atrophy with age. An innovation culture must do its best to capture the ideas of the young and foster them to create value.

Innovation, by definition is a disruptive process, it needs disruptive attitudes to foster innovation cultures. An excess of respect, lack of humour and continual deferring to those who came before are not always ideal. While I see many go tut-tut and say the young are disrespectful, an excess of ‘respect’ is stultifying. Let me say it straight out–many Indians are over sensitive about hierarchy and respect. And the continual deference to the guru- figure stems the exchange of ideas and the discovery of new pathways. Sometimes (and it is reported in less than hushed whispers), the incentive to innovate is lost when credit is taken by the ‘seniors’.

The process of innovation starts with the meeting of ideas and process. This is where strong structures of mentorship, not just hierarchies of process, are useful. The role of the teacher, research guide and even workplace senior is critical to innovation. Their experience and networks can foster the idea and bring it to fruition in ways the young ideator may not even be aware of, and thus incapable of implementing.

What does this mean for the learning leader? It means they need to change the way they do things. It means they need to include a wider range of opinions and options in what they discuss. It means, they should let students have some fun while they are learning–to take a little side path once in a while, a little self exploration before coming back to what they ought to know anyway.

Things are changing slowly but surely globally and in India. Singapore, as they often are, have realised that creativity that leads to innovation will be the growth engine of the future and have now changed their curriculum and assessments to grow such creativity. Many other countries are investing in fostering a research and innovation culture. India does not speak of creativity and innovation directly in its education policy but the introduction of continuous assessments in class give teachers enough room to foster it, if they choose to–and are able to handle the workload. Unfortunately, this is not enough.

Innovations in the classroom do exist, but many of them remain underexposed, and so under-utilised. Micro-innovations need to be fostered and shared. STiR (disclaimer, I am on their advisory board) does stellar work in gathering, sifting and fostering such classroom innovations and seeding an innovation culture in schools. Little things make a difference–celebrating teachers who find new ways to help students learn, listening and nurturing smarter ways of working, sharing content or a process that increases student achievements. The need is equally great in higher education where innovations are required to jumpstart the process of quality enhancements without which India has no claim to a place at the global table.

It is time to accept dissent as part of the discussion, to be secure enough to deal with change and to be smart enough to create new ways of working.

Trained to not Trust

19 Sep




They don’t want to trust others

Thursday, 19 September 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Beginning with nursery admissions right up to taking professional examinations, India’s education system is suspicious of teachers, students and parents alike

We, in India, start the distrust young. And it carries through to everything we do in our lives here. Nothing is valid without a piece of paper certifying it, nothing is deemed possible unless it has been tested. Children seeking admission to nurseries are trained to prove themselves in tests and in drawing rooms, or their parents assessed through the classic three tests — the written, the oral interview and, of course, their networks — proved through a letter or a phone call from a ‘contact’.

This is not the habit of red-tapism. Let us call it by its true dirty name: Distrust. Or, mistrust, if you will. When did it start? Who fuelled it? Did user behaviour reinforce mistrust? The genesis is unimportant now — we are landed with it. And it is true that each time a trust-based system is installed, there are enough people who lie and cheat to sabotage that nascent trust. Income certificates required for school admissions — sure, but can the schools trust them? Affirmative action reservations — it is all a piece of paper and some surely have it ‘arranged’ for them. We cannot deny that anyone who has the job of designing a system has to worry about untruths and can’t trust the individual.

It is not just in school admissions; mistrust is common even during school years. The rampant tuitions industry is proof that we do not trust teaching and learning at schools. Examinations will invariably have some children trying to cheat — so invigilation here becomes a policing task rather than the supportive role it could have been, and is in many other countries. Just the simple act of stretching the neck or going for a bio-break is often seen with suspicion. This is a stressful environment and not just because it is seen as high-stakes testing. Of course, some examinations here have ‘extra’ support from assigned invigilators where they are accomplices. This has been accepted as a risk by the examination system. This means students’ examination centres are shuffled and situated away from their base school at immense cost and stress to everybody. Distrust has been institutionalised.

The distrust seeps through to higher education too, and often with good reason. There have been reports of invigilators being threatened by goons to ‘allow’ certain candidates to cheat. Even massive open online courses, that are available globally where Internet is available, are finding it difficult to find a viable certification model. It is only recently that a few have announced credits and certification. While technology is part of the solution, with iris recognition and keystroke recognition software that will help identify the student, it too is not foolproof where people have been trained well in distrust and beating smart systems. Who is to say that the student facing the iris camera is not being fed information from another person helping them meet the test? This is not unknown in real life. Trained medical doctors have been caught taking the medical entrance examination on behalf of others for a fee. A complete circle of distrust, sustained.

There is, of course, the larger issue of testing itself. Bringing children to the test is an expression of mistrust in itself. We all know, and there is supporting research that grades and marks may actually mean very little especially in younger years. Two children may have very similar abilities, similar potential, and even may go on to achieve similarly in life — but may have different grades at school. Asking them to prove themselves in a test is sending them a strong signal of mistrust. Not just the child, this also means that the whole school, especially the teachers, are in a place where they are implicitly not trusted. The best learning, of course, happens when students, teachers and parents form a circle of trust and sharing.

The Other Report Card: Grading Teachers

1 Sep

“Your son is lucky, he has a good teacher this year. We are stuck with the worst one ever” – Overheard at the school gate.

“As if they teach anymore! Parents have to teach everything these days… I have to sit with my daughter for six hours every day after school” – Reported by a parent after a writing workshop for children.

teacher“It’s alright for them to goof off at school, they go to tuition for four-five hours every evening. That teacher does all the subjects with them. I still don’t like the thought of tuitions” – From a social gathering.

“Our teachers are the best! They have been trained in the latest methods” – From the head of a school.

And as I was writing this one, I get a distressed call from a parent-teacher, “Meeta, What do the teachers at school actually do?”

The question was a big one, but more than that was the  the pain of the parent. Many of us, it seems, have gone through the trauma of having to explain to our children what the teacher meant when they said, “Don’t worry about this, it won’t come in the examination.” How can knowledge be lobotomised so? Does the teacher even know what damage it does? Is this a teacher who helps their wards focus, or is this one who limits their world view?

The eternal question has been: How does one know whether a teacher is good? There can never be a simple answer to this one. Some teachers are remembered for life just because of that one thing they said that changed a child’s life. Others are remembered for the hard training they provided that set up a person with excellent work ethics and habits. Some are remembered for the warmth they brought and the security they wrought. Most, are forgotten. But it is these teachers who worked daily, balancing the needs of the moment and the needs of the future in every sentence they spoke in class.

Some got it right, others struggled.

Many struggled to even know what right or good teaching practices meant.

Of course they were taught how to teach. And that is part of the problem–it is never the same when they come to the classroom. In India, for example, I have rarely seen a lesson plan that marks out the lesson in 5-10 minute chunks. Honestly, I may even agree with the teachers that it would be an unnecessary administrative burden given the potential for chaos in the class. Power cuts? Cannot use the audio visual equipment. Internet? Not connecting, buffering. Textbooks? A student spots a mistake. Accidents? Possible; when were the desks and chairs last subject to a health and safety check?

Yes, teachers have many excuses. But the excellent ones don’t. They are able to get things done, balance the requirements, and deliver a good lesson. Rare, but true.

What are the marks of a good teacher? Most of us can answer this question in our own way. More importantly, can good teaching be measured? Ever. Even more interestingly, should it be measured? Pragmatically, if one does find the magic formula to measure teacher value, what does one do with the information?

Teacher achievement and teacher value-add are the simplest and the most complicated questions at the same time. Not really a case of you-know-it-when-you-see-it. More a case of you-know-when-the-teacher-is-terrible.

In India, we first identified the problem as one of pay. Teacher pay was abysmal and teaching conditions awful. The Sixth Pay Commission rectified that, and government school teachers are paid a fair wage. But still no improvement in results. Teacher absenteeism is still an issue, student achievement does not seem to have moved significantly.

Pause. We were talking about teachers. Why did we suddenly speak of student achievement?

This is the question that has been at the centre of the teacher quality debate for a very long time. There have been the Chicago strikes, and the current New York debate where teachers push back on being measured by others’ achievements. Student success is a function of many things, not just teacher inputs. Simple things like early nutrition, safety at home and peer group influence student results dramatically. Should teachers be held responsible for that?

But if not by student achievement, then how does one assess teacher performance? This is what they are responsible for, this is what they have been tasked with in the first place. Does one need a more complex formula for teacher performance? Do we need a Duckworth Lewis formula for measuring teaching performance? Maybe. But complex formulae have a way of not being very effective. Maybe one needs to simplify and understand what teacher performance really means. If we were to go by the logic used in the Right to Education Act, they should be measured on their inputs. That means, if teachers attend school, write up their plans, prepare their material, stand and deliver and then write up their assessments, they are good teachers. I don’t think any parents or school system will be happy with just that.

Which neatly leads us to the next question: Who should be a judge of teacher performance? The student, the peer group, the paying customer (government or parent), the agent of the stakeholders (the head teacher, a composite)?

Maybe, one could look at teachers through the lens of a business. Businesses are often used to looking at complex deliverables. As I ignore howls of protest from the academic community, the question that must be (and has been asked) is: What is the role of a teacher in the businesses of education?

Does a teacher enhance the value of the business? In measurable ways? Can the marginal teacher add value to the business of the educational establishment? Can a single bad one damage it? Can a teacher start a virtuous cycle of best practice and care in a school?

The answer, clearly, is yes. And the clue to figuring out teacher value addition is to look beyond the classroom and to the overall contribution to the school. Some of the gains will be tangible, others not. Some will be short term, and thus measurable, others will keep giving over the years. Maybe teacher performance must be assessed, and rewarded based on a broader measure of the value addition to the ecosystem, to the business of education. A business that is not just about profits, costs and revenues.

This was published in Forbes India blogs on August 13, 2013 and is linked here and

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