Education Innovation in Ancient Stories

5 Oct


Systemic Response to Textbook Errors

24 Sep

NCERT Textbooks

Women are the cause of unemployment in India – says a textbook for the state of Chhatisgarh. “Ah, must be another private publisher”, came the first comment. “We had a similar uproar last month and it turned out to be a small private outfit that had printed nonsense in their textbook and sold it to schools”

For a moment I wondered if I should plunge down the rabbit hole of sarkaari vs private, and how so many good private players hold up excellent standards and how it is amazing that people spend thousands of rupees per child on private sector published reference and guide books and yet speak disparagingly of private publishers. But regardless of ownership, textbook quality is an issue. This book in question was published by the state, and the news article even quotes the SCERT (State Council for Education Research and Training) representative responding to the criticism with
very little seriousness. Obviously, textbooks by state governments and the national provider NCERT are riddled with errors and prejudice.

Finding misogyny in NCERT and other textbooks is the easiest possible. it shows up in different ways, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect. Often women will be shown in support service roles such as nurses and men in dominant roles such as doctors. Women will be shown cooking, men shown farming. And so on. This is equally damaging to both the genders who are reading the books and being fed this division of roles – what if a little boy is a talented care giver and wants to become a nurse? What of the children of male nurses who are reading the book and wonder whether their fathers are atypical? There are many men who cook for their families but to look to these textbooks you would not believe this was possible. They seem to reinforce the strange belief that women belong in the kitchen. To paraphrase the response doing the rounds on the internet – “Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. We all belong in the kitchen. There is food in the kitchen!”. It is as simple as that – textbooks need to reflect common sense, humanity and equal opportunity at the very least.

This is not the only type of error that has been caught in textbooks. Many have pointed out that these books have a clearly leftist skew. Leftist or right wing – a skew is a skew and is not fair to dump that on young minds. What troubles me more than the skew is that these books state ideas, ideologies and opinions as facts and there is little room in the timetable to debate these points of view. To be fair to the NCERT, some small proportion of ‘factoids’ are questioned within the book itself forming an excellent bridge to critical thinking and independent investigation to form opinions. Unfortunately these are seen only as extension activities because ‘it will not come in the exam’. So in a rote learning culture children are forced to parrot the merits of private hospitals over inadequate public hospitals, or the travails of some sections of rural populations with no references, no process that encourages students to do some research and verify statements and no space for discussion or dissent. The text must be the truth and the assertions therein are to be received and repeated. This is how belief systems are built. Worse, this is how a generation of believers are created – followers who will believe everything they are told without engaging or questioning assumptions and statements. India is a complex country and presenting broad sweeping generalisations as statements of fact may start with inadequate editing but ends up in creating a generation that suffers from the skews.

There are various other types of errors that litter the texts – many grammatical errors make the books a joy for the inner code breaker in us – the errors make the sentences very difficult to understand. Other errors are factual and have been caught time and again. The books have errors both in omission and commission. Many protest at the history that is taught and wonder at the many heroes (all genders) whose stories are left out, others at the omission of much of the history of science and mathematics. While it is not possible to please all and still maintain a reasonable load on students, there really ought to be a mechanism for students to be able to engage with a wider range of knowledge based on their interest.

Undoubtedly the official textbook agencies have a bigger challenge than the private publishers as they must serve the entire curriculum framework while keeping the costs minimal. Private publishers of course are challenged by the fact that they do not have a ready made market like the official book makers and are thus under pressure to invest less in accuracy and readability. It is unfortunate that in both the cases the pressures seem to be on cost and impact quality. There seems to be no agency or mechanism that puts pressure on the publishers to invest in quality. The ones who do are the elite of the industry.

Since education is a concurrent subject, each state needs to engage with the issue of textbook quality or run the risk that their students will fall behind in national and international tests. Education is a clear cause of economic prosperity and a poor textbook today could mean a poorer state for another generation. To postpone textbook reform is to postpone prosperity. At the national level, NCERT has been engaging with errors as pointed out by teachers, tutors and students but the process is painful. Some have even had to file PIL cases in court to engage with the institution. Others have received a response but little action has been taken – reports say that often the errata and changes are not even reflected on the website or online versions of the book in time for the examinations. Paper textbooks are subject to a multi year cycle before changes can be effected – by which time other errors have crept in say frustrated parents.

There is a standard procedure to remove errors in books but it has obviously not proved to be very successful. This clearly needs a review and reform. The standard procedure would include pulling together an impartial team to review all the books and trawl through the books looking for certain types of errors. While this is essential, this is only the middle of the process. What comes before it and what happens after is equally important to be able to deliver a fair service experience to the students and more. This needs institutional solutions that can layer, flex and be responsive. It is not as easy as it looks – for example how does one find a person who is not sexist, partisan, nor an ideologue and is literate, socially and politically aware and above all – who can embed learning without prejudice. It is a daunting task to find a committee of these. Everyday sexism, bigotry and hidden ‘isms’ are so deeply embedded that they are almost unconscious. It is the biased who are not aware of their biases who will be asked to remove biases from books. This is clearly not a fool proof system, nor will it ever be one.

However that is no reason for it to remain a slow, inaccessible process that seems to be done on a best efforts basis. Among other possible solutions, here are a few that I propose to serve the twin goals of fairness and responsiveness. This suggestion humbly goes out not just to the state textbook agencies, to the NCERT or the CBSE but also to all the other education agencies who are truly in the business of serving the public. The universalisation of education means that these agencies are in the retail business, no less, and just like any large scale retail effort they must engage with their public at every stage in order to serve them well. Feedback from the consumer (and indeed customer – textbooks are purchased!) must be taken seriously and its response must be tracked in an open and transparent manner in order to hold the service provider accountable. This is best if it is done in the spirit of partnership, for of course all of us want the same thing – better textbooks with (almost) no errors.

Some suggestions here:

Textbook agencies MUST have a transparent and visible section of their website devoted to tracking errors. This must be done on an urgent basis. Crowdsource the identification of problems and receive them as constructive suggestions. Respond to them rapidly – and that means action and not just acknowledgement. Errors can be rectified immediately online within 48 hours, biases and errors of omission may have to go through a far more rigorous process. Assertions and statements in the books that have been flagged by the public must be backed up by evidence if challenged, and the response must be time bound. This is a suggestion for  a simple four column website with hyperlinks that can track and date every query and its response – The query, its response, links to the solution/errata/evidence, and finally acknowledgement of further action or status with a timestamp. (Other agencies too must reach out to the public, for example the CBSE could have an open queries area and a password protected area for each school to resolve their issues – more on that later)
Textbook agencies must incorporate stakeholders in the process of creating books – no retail producer of consumables would ever dream of releasing a product to the market without testing it first to ensure that it will do well. Agencies need to recognise that they are a public service agency and their task is to provide a brilliant customer experience via their products and direct engagement.
Create an ombudsman for textbooks – for all boards, for all private and public publishers. If an issue cannot be resolved between publishers and their public (teachers, students, tutors inclusive) then it must be taken to an impartial and autonomous ombudsman that holds authority similar to a court and can call for evidence and impose penalties. The ombudsman holds the agencies to account for responsiveness and accountability.

Ultimately one wants an open, honest and constructive engagement between users and makers of a product. There is a huge amount of wonderful work that is done by textbook publishers and the support of the teaching community can only make things better. At this stage, let me admit – I would have loved to suggest private publishing or privatisation since the government really does not to be in the business of printing textbooks – its job is to govern and hold them accountable. Sadly, with the exception of a very few, most private publishers have disappointed and cannot be deemed to be worthy of the students they serve. In a full textbook reform process this must be part of the grand debate where private providers can even bid for public service based on quality, not just cost. At that stage one must discuss other options too – such as build your own book pedagogies, open source materials and making textbooks redundant for some levels etc. The time for that will come, but before that it is a priority for autonomous and government agencies including the NCERT, SCERTs etc. to recognise that first and foremost they are in service of the public, the first ask is access to the public. It cannot sit in splendid isolation even if it is the best provider in the world… which in this case it clearly is not. The matter of errors is an unnecessary embarrassment that must be converted into an opportunity for a true partnership between the publisher and the public.

Constructive Disruption: A Redesign Roadmap

20 Aug

It should be simple to pass on knowledge and know-how to the next generation so that they can develop it to the next level. Indeed, if treated like an assembly line, the schooling machine works perfectly efficiently, although it serves very limited goals that leaves students unprepared for both employability and life. People, of course, are not machines, nor is true education a standardised processor-and this is why we stand at this crossroads. Learning outcomes are not rising despite more inputs into education. We need smarter solutions and a radical rethink.

Educate to build communities, schools to grow teams. While schooling is about disciplining cadres into certain behaviours and responses, education is about building competence. True learning can only come about in safe environments where the mind is free to soar. It is time, thus, to end the power play in classrooms, where bullying often substitutes for authority, where examinations rule instead of structured discovery and punishments are used where self-discipline should be wrought. Changing this will take hard work-indeed, every teacher will have to really engage beyond the job-lot, line-of-best-fit teaching that is currently the norm. Teachers will have to be at the frontline of this transformation. Today, the first task is to grow good teachers so that they can grow the next generation to greatness, which is India’s aspiration.

So how does one make it happen? How do we build an education system where individual growth is supported at scale for one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing), with 3.33 per cent of the world economy? Big problems need daring solutions and a steady hand. More so when they involve complex systems and nascent aspirations. So if we are not ready for Creative Destruction, let us at least invest in Constructive Disruption. Here is a road map.

Redesign Schools
Schools are at best assembly lines-and at worst prisons-in the way they are designed. Throw open these institutions to become centres of learning for all. Retain core learning in small groups for a few compulsory hours every day, but for the rest of the time, let there be free access for all to learning for interest or need. There is no reason to either deny older students access to new literacy or younger students to more advanced levels. The four walls of the classroom can be redesigned to accommodate a more fluid learning environment. Open classrooms allow for learning by need and self-motivation, not by imposition. Digital India can deliver much of this if they work with school systems.

Redesign Learning
Learning is both a process and an outcome. Learning how to learn is as important as what is being learnt. Learning needs to be dynamic to keep pace with changing content, tools and goals. Both teaching and learning evolve into co-learning, thus engaging teachers, students, and even administrators in new ways. The teacher mentors, facilitates, tracks, sets (and raises) standards. This role is different from the one-way knowledge transfer of the past. Learning today is on the go, connected, real and applied; it follows need, talent and interest and makes lifelong learners of all. New tools enable smart learning. Digital India applied to education enables learning to be arranged differently and to be far more self-directed than in the past. We need to trust and support learners to build forward for the future and enable discovery way beyond mere rote learning of facts.

Redesign Assessments
Smart assessments are un-gameable, or at least involve some thinking, analysis and skill beyond rote learning and mass cheating. It is time we designed intelligent question papers that respect competence rather than just memory. This is the one tool that has the power to transform education by changing incentives, as learning will follow what assessments reward. The purpose of assessments is to inform and include, and they need to be numerous, low stakes and cumulative. We need to stop using assessments as punishments and gates that only create fear and opportunism, and focus on creating assessments to direct learning.Redesign Curriculum
India is at present struggling to ensure basic literacy for its students, but then it is also true that the curriculum separates these literacies from their context and application, which makes it tougher for students. Moving beyond reductionist ‘right answers’ and ‘correct methods’ in learning, we need to raise expectations to make the curriculum more engaging and meaningful. For that, they will have to be supported with mentoring, apprenticeships, tutorials and other open-access resources. A core curriculum will need to include old and new literacies, and will also be supplemented by research and critical thinking as necessary student skills. Curricula need to step up to be nimble, mobile and connected.

Redesign Accountability
Accountability is the spine of a good system, although it can strangle the system if overdone. The purpose of holding institutions to account is to be able to support their growth-and data gathering must reflect this goal. We have no idea whether any system or intervention is effective because the right questions are not being asked. For example, we may know how many textbooks, toilets or science teachers are funded but we have little idea about their use, quality, need or impact. Accountability can well become the means to resolve the debate between education as a public good and a private business. Where the state can provide access and scale, the private sector can provide innovation and outcomes. Good governance via constructive community-based accountability is key to quality education.Both students and employers need to show that the education system is broken enough to need a series of constructive disruptions as interventions. The ones above are essential to move from indifferent mass schooling to build access to a better life that every Indian desires and deserves. India has made one shift away from being the land of snake charmers. It now needs to move away from the land of jugaad to become the land of enterprise and skills.

Meeta W. Sengupta works on the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum

Context Matters! Fix your Content!

20 Aug

Among the global literacies that are useful in this day and age is the ability to be sensitive and responsive to local contexts. It is possible to cheerfully blunder on with massive messaging programmes, hoping for a deep impact in another country, not realising that your messaging could be having the opposite impact.

There is a story that is part of marketing and advertising lore of a famous detergent brand that tried to circumvent language barriers when they went to sell in the Middle East. They had a triptych advertisement, the left panel showing dirty clothes, the middle panel a bucket of soapy water and the final panel showing clothes that had been cleaned. Sales did not go up. To improve the story a bit, let us even say, sales dipped. They wondered—such basic, simple messaging, how could it not be working? Clothes, soap, clean. Committees were set up and meetings lasted nights, puzzling over this one. Till a young local chap suddenly realised what was going on—people in the Middle East read from right to left. Those who saw the billboard were seeing dirty clothes come out of the process in the bucket. As they read it, clean clothes turn dirty. No wonder no one wanted the soap.


I see something similar happen in education: Girls’ education. ‘

The headline messaging that is going out from some multi-laterals is this: “When a girl has seven more years of education, she will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children.”

I am sure that these numbers are sensible and reliable. It must have taken months of work, using data from lots of countries; it is not easy to arrive at such clarity. It is also a useful attempt at defining both the risks and rewards to a girl child if she is denied education. There are other figures that were arrived at after similar extensive research, including how much more will a girl earn for every extra year of education? But that is not being made the headline statement. Posters and info graphics speak of this: Later marriage and fewer children.

Nobody denies that in many parts of the world, especially those with low literacy rates, girls often get married shockingly early. They are expected to take on domestic and sexual burdens before their young bodies are ready for them. Some bear children, rather, start bearing children when they are as young as 12 or 12, and often have over six to seven children. All this puts a huge physical and mental burden on the girl child. It is often a terrible quality of life and a short life span. This is something we should all strive to change. But not this way. It won’t happen this way.

Change, social change, is a delicate process. As every intervention design professional knows, the prime rule is: First, do no harm. The designed intervention may have unintended consequences to society. The lives of human beings are dependant upon each other and the societies they live in. To change one is to impact more than one. This impact may be for long-term good, but may cause short-term harm-and this is one of the possibilities. Second, social change does not happen just because someone came from outside and said so. Missionary zeal and preaching can only go so far, they do not create deep rooted change.

Messaging is an essential component of intervention design. It is done via words and other means. Incentives support messaging, stories do, demonstration and proofs are even stronger. The strongest is the lived experience. Messaging in words is both the simplest and the trickiest. Take the case of the example above: Women marry later with more education. Women have fewer children. This is meant to persuade women and their keepers that they should be kept in education for longer.

This is based upon some assumptions:

From the perspective of the audience, it is a good thing that women marry later
From the point of view of the target group, it is desirable to have fewer children
The audience cares about the welfare and health of women
An implicit assumption too-that women have choice and agency in making decisions, or participate in decisions and will be able to influence based on information about risks and rewards to women.
I am not sure that any or all of these assumptions will be valid in the places this message is sorely required.

Take marriage. The appropriate age of marriage is a societal norm, though always aligned with the legal age. This has evolved for a culture over many years and iterations based on its needs and fears. In many cases, marrying one’s daughter off early is seen as desirable. Older girls who have been left on the shelf are seen as damaged goods. Changing this view takes centuries, as even the countries of the West will attest. Early marriage is good for various reasons-apprenticeship for the skills required, safety or ‘responsibility’ of the girl child, economic reasons, etc. The value of early marriage has been proved in these communities and is an established ‘fact’. On the other hand, the value of education has not been established yet. When a community is presented with a statement that seven years of education is going to push back marriage by four years, this is clearly not going to convince the traditional community. Given a choice between the unproven merits of education and the established merits of early marriage, the message merely reinforces marriage. “Who is going to wait seven years to see the girl educated-who knows what might happen in these seven years?”, combined with “Four years of leaving the girl unmarried? Who will marry her then? All the good boys and families would have been taken”. And so on. Adopting the message increases uncertainty and risk for the adopters-often for at least a generation when it comes to social change.

If more education is going to push back the age of marriage by an incredible four years, many parents would brand education as an evil and choose to opt out of it. Very simply, if education is seen as disruptive of social norms, it’ll be seen as an enemy of the community and traditions. Needs better messaging. Many would rather have the girl ‘settled’ into her marriage than run the risk of keeping her unmarried and therefore disruptive of the norm. Not just the traditionalists, if one were to run a simple calculation on the risks and rewards in the local context, it becomes clear that postponing marriage is not something that the community sees as aspirational. The message fails for lack of familiarity with the context.

Similarly, for the argument that claims 2.2 fewer children where fewer children are seen as desirable. In many communities, bearing children (earners) is proven to have greater economic value than education. Where infant mortality was quite high till very recently, each child is seen as a resource. An extra pair of hands and revenue into the household. In many cultures, child-rearing is seen as a cost, and once the child grows up, they are an independent economic unit. In most places in India, especially away from the metros, children are part of the larger family unit till there is a split. This means that each child brings in income and helps out in the household. This is often the only real social security net, especially in the absence of one provided by a government. The more children one has, the safer one is in old age or illness. To say that more education is going to lead to less children is to say that there will be a loss of income. (Even if one assumes that the mother earns, the gain is 1x earnings, and the loss is 2.2x earnings over a lifetime). How does this work as an argument in favour of education?

Fewer children due to more education may be better for the women’s health, but not always supported by the community, especially in a patriarchy. This positions education as a force that will change a community’s way of life, its economics and its balance of power. If education is projected as disruptive of the patriarchy, they will not support it. Why fight two battles and lose both? If the idea is to promote education, only educate. Bring forth arguments that will hold water in the local context without pandering to the patriarchy. For example, a discussion around the economic value of education would have been useful as it would stir a debate and seek proof in the locality. It would start off a quest for role models, for validation. It would, at best, even be aspirational-and that is what we want. We want girls to aspire to a better quality of life and the ability to provision for themselves.

This is a lesson that retailers all over the world have understood-whether they are a McDonald’s or a Nestle. One has to create local stories and local messaging even if you have a global goal. People will not respond to messages that conflict with belief systems. Designing messaging in cultures that do not understand the needs and priorities of their audience is a mistake. Context matters. Fix it.

Trust and Innovation in Teaching

20 Aug

Finland has embarked on another daring and big change. It is set to (partially) abolish teaching by subjects and will move to teaching by theme or topic. The reactions from across the globe are predictably mixed, as befits such a radical change. Teachers are reeling, administrators and evaluators are shaking their heads in doubt and innovators like me are thrilled to the core.

For years we have been protesting ‘industrial age’ education: Where the grid of age and time determines the blocks in which teaching will be delivered. What goes into this grid to feed learners is also structured based on content and level. These two grids come together to form our ‘education system’—where teachers and students are both subject to the (admittedly sustainable and stable) bureaucratic design. Educators have been trying to break through this gridlock for years, though much of the protest is at the transition point where students are moved from one box to another via examinations. Standardised testing is under fire for forcing teachers to teach to the test, encourage rote learning and even incentivise cheating to improve results.

It has been time to change for a very long time. But innovation in education is very tough because the ‘product’ is people. Unlike other processes where the outcomes depend upon controlling inputs, there are no such guarantees in education. To make it more complex, one has to acknowledge that the wider range of education outcomes are not served by improving efficiencies in the process at all; in fact a more efficient system may actually damage some students and their capacity to learn and adapt in the future. Take, for example, the highly efficient rote learning system common to India, China and the Far East. As a consequence, many students grow up unable to think beyond the boxes described.

Finally, and possibly most significantly, comes the question of risk. The risk of innovation is ultimately borne by the student (and their parents) as discussed here.

Finland has stirred the pot. For the first time an entire nation is seeking to adopt a change that brings learning to the present, and acknowledges that technology has changed the way we need to do things. Students no longer need a pipeline that showers information or even knowledge; they do not approach knowledge in silos. Their journey of exploration no longer is driven by a single text or source. Facilitation in the classroom also has moved on from directing discovery along known, subject-based pathways to curating and corralling to be able to consolidate learning. The job of the teacher now is less about increasing accessible knowledge units, it is now also about ensuring how that knowledge is embedded and usable.

This is where Finland has scored. They have recognised the learning gains from theme-based learning and made room for embedding these gains in their school system. Theme-based learning engages the learner not just with the content, but builds hooks into real life issues to establish relevance. Our school systems had de-emphasised relevance in their quest to gain reliability and accuracy in the transmission of information in rote learning systems; and others—seemingly more progressive—had emphasised validity. The ‘how is this relevant’ piece was pushed back, as was the ‘what shall we do with this’ question. In doing so we had slowly regressed from knowledge to information instead of progressing to engagement. This is what employers have been calling the skills gap: Even if students know their facts they don’t know what to do with it and are unable to engage with real issues and problems.

Innovation in education on a system-wide scale is tricker than smaller interventions at the school or district levels. This is a commitment one makes for a generation, a cohort. Finland has been a relatively stable system, attributing much of its success to education policy stability, autonomy, late testing and the training of its teachers. Other countries have also tried system-wide innovations, such as Peru and, of course, England with its frequent changes. Those were often in response to a problem. Finland had merely seen its lead slow down. Educators still make the pilgrimage to its classrooms to be able to parse and replicate its success.

The change over from subjects to themes is not complete; some subjects will continue as before. It is to be operationalised by allocating regular time in the school to theme-based learning. This includes it in the curriculum in a way mere theme weeks/events are unable to, and formalises it. Finland believes in low-stakes testing and will probably be content with a teacher’s assessment in class. For other systems this is a more challenging exercise. Moving over to theme-based learning requires a serious investment in all three: Teaching, assessment and administration. Teachers will need to now be conscious of embedding learning outcomes into their lesson plans as they craft a conversation around a theme. This shakes up the current administrative system too, but even more than that, it demands a change in the way assessments are embedded in lessons and are managed. In teaching, say, Colonialism, one would have to be aware of the mathematics of trade, the travels of science, the physics of travel and geographies and more. This would have to vary according to the capacities of the students, and we do not know yet whether they will continue to have levels or whether theme-based learning will be responsive. Much of the operational challenge will be about measuring and validating whether a particular ‘unit’ that was a part of the framework has actually been taught and learnt in the relatively fluid theme lesson. Lesson planning just went up meta one level to include choice in content, not just its delivery.

How does this apply to emerging economies, to far flung mountain schools, war ravaged students, schools in prosperous desert villages and more? Can they move past previous structures and engage with themes when their resources are a small fraction of what is available to students in a Finnish classroom? Can this be implemented at real scale, the kind that countries like India and China face, or even the USA?

I think the real question here is: Can we trust our schools and teachers enough, as Finland does? The day we have teachers we can trust across education systems, that is when true education innovation will begin to bear fruit.

The Tyranny of Tests

20 Aug

Testing leads to cheating. We all know that, don’t we? It is human nature to find the shortest path to a goal. Whether it’s relatives climbing a school wall in India to hand over answer chits, or a school in America where teachers erase answers and mark in the right ones or the TV expose of cheating that is ‘rife’ (their headline) in the UK, the fear of testing has led to undesirable behaviour across the globe.

Testing also changes the nature of teaching and reduces the range of learning in the classroom. Teachers must now be focussed on the goal—the test—that determines their worth. It skews the value assigned to different parts of learning. The teacher must ask themselves each time, “Will this activity increase the total marks of the class?” instead of, “Will it enhance understanding, retention and application of the concept?” Teachers are forced to take the short and sure path in their classes without allowing any enhanced engagement. It is only the best of teachers who are able to create a buzz around what they are teaching. It is the rare test that will check for engagement and true learning—most of them will merely check facts.

Teaching with an eye on tests kills creativity in both teaching and learning. It shows us how to repeat, replicate, but not grow in different directions. Worse, it teaches us to be risk averse; we don’t learn to take chances with ideas, we learn to stop asking questions like ‘what if’, stop imagining and start doing as we are told. Imagination may have led to inventions such as the steam engine, the airplane and more, but did it ever get anyone marks? Did imagination ever come first in class?

This is the results season in India for both students and universities. Those with more marks are better qualified for universities that rank higher on league tables. Or so they say. Hear what the analysts say: The league tables don’t tell the whole story, neither do marks decide your aptitude. If you are interested in reading history, there is no reason why you should be influenced by the fact that your marks suit the cutoff for English or sociology.

If marks are such an inadequate indicator of potential, then why do we still have them? The same question is being asked worldwide: Why do we subject our students to standardised testing when we know that the scores are not predictors of success in life? Slowly but surely, the movement to opt out of standardised testing is gaining ground. Yet, the testing juggernaut has its own momentum and will not go quietly. Parents, students, teachers and education consultants strive to increase scores in test, knowing that this is the only way to open doors to quality education.

However inaccurate the tests are, they are all we have. If we stop these tests, what are we left with? If we give up this yoke, will students know what to work towards? Will universities and colleges know how to admit students? Will they be able to demonstrate fair access, among other things? Will teachers continue to teach or will they see this as an opportunity to slack off? After all, we know that what gets measured gets done. If we stop measuring and monitoring, then we lose accountability too. For many, without these tests, there is chaos.

In India, there have been two grand experiments in testing, though neither was intended to be an experiment, nor have they been universally or uniformly applied. The Right to Education Act had stopped schools from detaining students up to the age of 14 (Class VIII). This was seen by many as a signal to stop testing and many schools followed suit.

The grand experiment was not liked by teachers. They complained that without the power to detain students, they had lost a major tool to discipline students, giving rise to behavioural issues.  This view, of course, had little to do with learning, potential or student growth and is part of the current debate on the RTE Act reforms. The point of testing was missed completely—that it is a tool to identify gaps not only in learning, but also in teaching and must be a trigger for change within the school. They help identify the need for extra support for both students and teachers.

The other grand experiment was with CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation), which was an opportunity to introduce both range and depth in pedagogies as well as to introduce the feedback loop within the academic year. But with much of CCE being implemented as a series of summative assessments, this too needs work.

Testing cannot be avoided at the end of school, when choices have to be made for tertiary education. No institution has infinite capacity—it has to select candidates best suited for success. Nor does everyone have the resources to conduct their own tests. Students, too, have limited capacity to take tests and interviews.

So, do we have an alternative to standardised tests? Can we escape the tyranny of testing? Yes of course, if we choose to. There are various successful models already out there: One of them is to reduce the importance of any single standardised test by including other assessments in the mix. While this will always be controversial if opaque, it is possible to be more transparent and allow different institutions to manage their own weights and priorities.

Another fairly successful solution is to work with student portfolios that include inputs from student projects, their range of non-academic achievements, diverse endeavours and even a personal statement along with academic achievements. Other models and solutions can be engineered for colleges and countries according to their contexts.

The tyranny of testing lasts only till we allow tests to have power over us. Tests are now used to judge us in very limited ways. Their judgement is absolute: Accurate and absolute but erroneous. The test must change, as must the testing ecosystem. A smart test knows that it is meaningless without its partners-in-demonstration. Testing is useful only if it enables success not just for the few who can beat the system but to all who will benefit from the education. Once we design and use tests to enable choice, then we know we have tests to support the learning journey.

The tyranny of tests

Bringing Enterprise and Education Together

20 Aug

“It’s the private sector. Who will stand for them?”

I stared at him open mouthed. It was unthinkable that an entire sector, one that is all about keeping the wheels of the economy turning, could be dismissed in one swift sentence.

“They hate the private sector in Education. Even the parents who send their children there won’t stand up for them. They think it’s all about money for the schools–they don’t see the rest”. This was validated by many parents. Except for the very best of schools, the parent community did often offer throwaway comments like, “It is a business for them, they don’t care about education” or “These schools and colleges are a real estate business. So many will close in three-four years, you’ll see”. And so on.

And yet, over half of the education in India (over 60 percent in professional education) across nursery, primary and higher education is provided for by the private sector. Where learning outcomes have been measured, they have been marginally ahead of government provision. The race to get admission in private schools and universities, the high applicant to seat ratios and the existence of ‘donations’ (though illegal), to ensure access to private institutions, is testament to the fact that the market places a premium on being educated in the private sector. The only exception to this preference for the private sector seems to be at the undergraduate level. Let us not fight this anymore–the private sector has a valuable place in the education sector. Let us also acknowledge that a few private players have abused the regulatory system, and eroded the trust earned by the good people in both education and enterprise.

Yet, this is where opportunity lies, for education, for scaled solutions to education: Bringing education and enterprise together.

Encourage India’s youth to invest to become education entrepreneurs.

India has millions joining the workforce every year, and has millions that need to be educated better and in diverse ways. If we were to encourage education entrepreneurship with support, funding and training–and of course good governance–would we not be supporting Make in India, creating jobs and investing in education all in one fell swoop?

While many urban parts of India are at par with the best in the world, there are others that are still basic in both infrastructure and pedagogy. The classroom under a tree is a beautiful romantic concept, but it would be nice to have a room to work in when it rains, and even nicer if there was electricity and internet connectivity. A trained teacher who attends to students with care should not be a bonus, it should be the baseline. Interestingly, private sector schools report that they have no major problems in teacher attendance nor do they need to spend every morning rounding up local children to come to school. The owner-principal is there at the school almost everyday ensuring that school operations are not stalled in any way. This also shows us the way forward–owner enterprise driven education institutions may be a small replicable unit that could well drive quality into the heartland. We also know the gaps and the problems here, so we know how to fix it.

One of the bitterest lessons learnt in marketing is about humility towards the market and the consumer. You cannot tell the consumer what they want; you have to respond to their pain and to their needs. Here too you can’t set up these standardised schools and insist that people sign up. No one school fits all. Designing products or education interventions must respond to the felt need of students and their communities. They are clearly telling us that they want access, mobility and employable skills and are willing to pay for it. Look at the rise in private school enrolment. Even more so, look at the rise in short ‘courses’ and ‘certificates’ that require students to pay for the training and then for the examination and certification. These short bursts with free and easy access allow individuals to chart their own learning path to greater earnings. For those who cannot pay, we need scholarships and support mechanisms that maintain the viability of the education enterprise.

There are thousands of these training centres and there is room for many more. Some of them have become massive national and international franchises now. They not only serve their students but are also designed to fuel entrepreneurship. Each of these owner-franchisees makes a decent living wage and maybe a bit more. These are legitimate earnings–not profiteering by any standards. Community power often ensures that fee levels don’t rise too high and if they do, then either the students move to better value elsewhere or they come together to protest. As free markets do. No force, no pressure, no compulsion to sign up for that ‘one’ scarce course and therefore no rent seeking. And where there are restrictions, one sees the market distort.

The skills sector has already invested in training entrepreneurs who are beginning to show results and some maturity in the providers. After school segments have myriad education entrepreneurs feeding the need to move beyond dry curricula and grow the child to their interest and potential. Education innovation needs to move beyond tinkering with pedagogies and give committed entrepreneurs more room to grow student citizens–let them learn how to code, build robots, sell their own apps, pitch for projects, make pots, stitch clothes, just do their homework and even solve local problems. They may even learn how to make their own ‘school projects’. It is not enough to seek to improve industrial-age assembly line systems in education that were not designed either for India or for this age. We need to allow more access to education options for all those who seek to both give and take and help them help themselves and others.

Use News, Documentary to Build Real Skills at Schools

20 Aug

Sometimes, a small episode gives a chance for huge learning based on reflection – regardless of the direction of the critique. And gives us a chance to think through many aspects of our lives. I really care about learning, schools and education – and I wondered – can we build better learning from news into our classrooms?

The small episode for India and its students is the now infamous documentary that has been banned. The Documentary is based on the horrific and inhuman Nirbhaya rape case that happened a few years ago. A case that shook India and the world for its brutality and the simple fact that it could have happened to anybody. The girl was on her way home after seeing a movie with a friend. We do that all the time. The film reminds us of what we fought for- and has garnered much controversy – and maybe is getting far more attention than it deserved.

Why is this a learning opportunity? What does it have to do with us educators (even in offices) and our learners? What can we learn from the episode? How do we share such learning? How do we structure the questions?

Let me try to help – I will not write out lesson plans here but will certainly attempt to mention the questions that can be discussed in a class or group situation. Let us treat this as a case study, and a starter to a masterclass on using news to propel learning and reflection.

(For a more detailed list of questions please look here: and adjust them to the appropriate class level if you choose to use this particular upheaval for the discussion. Many similar issues with multiple discussion points will be available to you, this just happens to be one very rich in debatable topics) Since banned, this is not a recommendation to see the documentary. It is also not advisable to focus on one documentary or episode within the lesson plan – it is just a useful trigger for teacher’s to structure thinking and plan a more appropriate lesson). For each level the content, topics, activities and skills are briefly mentioned.


A simple discussion on media. The difference between news, film and documentary. Most pre primary children in India often sing and dance to film music, have lyrics memorised. They are clearly comfortable with the concept of variety in medium and form. This is a good time to engage in a discussion about content. Even without directly discussing a case it is essential for them to demonstrate understanding of pure news, commentary, analysis and spin. It is very easy to do this via a discussion or a fun activity where they run a mock TV channel in the classroom and report on incidents in the classroom. As part of the School Safety Campaign, I would say that the tools of reportage, role play, and even the ability to tell the difference between truth and add-ons is a valuable skill that we must teach our children.


A discussion on Safety. On rules. On who makes the rules and how they are enforced. Whether rules are different from traditions. Whether rules that are implemented by force (such as a threat to beating other people up, or punishment) are a good thing or a form of bullying. What is the difference between individual and societal bullying?  Are school rules different from bullying and why? The role of violence vs reason in enforcement. Bring it forth with real life stories from the classroom and the society around them. The skills they need to demonstrate are an understanding of bullying, the choices they have when cornered by bullies and simple ability to identify and articulate problems.

Older Primary-Lower Middle School:

A conversation on our role in society, societal norms, history, traditions and nationhood. At this age students have a clear notion of environmental consciousness, about campaigns for change (water/firecrackers/soil conservation etc. are in the syllabus), about how individuals form society. They are also ready for their first lessons in ‘civics’ and have a clear sense of nationhood – whether learnt at school or elsewhere. The discussion at this stage must still be gentle and constructive and can focus on building safer spaces for all. The discussion must also include elements outlined for the younger year groups.
It is essential that this age group have a discussion about critical thinking, truth, and build skills to respectfully question the values we live and claim. They may have seen their books and teachers praise Gandhi’s non violence, they may have even dressed up as Gandhi on occasion. Then, in contrast, they see violence in films, on the streets and maybe even at home. They hear of Nirbaya (even if they pretend not to). Many have heard of the Arushi murder, and hidden it away in fear. There are dichotomies that the children are dealing with everyday and it is up to us to give them tools to understand human frailty, strength and the bridge between them.

Middle School:

It is an edgy age. These are children who are beginning to test their boundaries actively and the teachers know how much skill and effort they invest in corralling the talents, questions and restlessness of this age. This is where they begin to test and define their limits. The syllabus for these years includes pre and post colonial history, includes civic and executive structures, includes an understanding of the judicial process. It is the age where we make peace with history and make a pact with the nation we will grow up to build. Ideally.
At this stage the discussions should centre around choosing right and wrong, using freedom well and most importantly – about self control.
The documentary has thrown up many questions about national culture, societal mix, criminal vs. pervasive mindsets etc. It also has enough to start discussions about gender discrimination, law enforcement, judicial process, news making, documentary as commentary, and maybe – if the class is mature enough, about creating connected stories. There is plenty to discuss about the colonial hangover (on both sides) and the consequent hate fostered by media (including television serials) where characters are shown as pure good or pure evil whereas in real life including politics and news, people are a victim of their circumstances or interests.
The skills that they need to hone at this age are the ability to research, observe, sort, analyse critically – stripping out assumptions, hearsay and leaps of faith beyond reason. Any meaningful discussion around culture, citizenship and nation building must have these elements and therefore must be triggered off by a controversy such as the current one.

Secondary School:

Learners at this age must be ready to analytically and critically report on the key issues in a national debate and must be able to demonstrate two skills – (i) the ability to report without emotion and only based on research (ii) the ability to form an opinion based on facts that they can defend. Debating is often the route used by schools to develop these skills (though other tools can be used). It would be good not to focus on a specific documentary at this stage (unless you are a film making club or class – then there is much to critique) and to build debates around (a) Critical thinking and its role beyond tradition; (b) Building culture or receiving culture; (c) How the past shadows the present – e.g. the slower pace of a change in social norms than physical needs of cities (roads, housing, streetlights, policing); (d) Can anything be really banned in the age of interconnected technologies, etc. Do ask your students to bring real live examples into the debates, and do please ensure that the debates are not stunted by formal procedures. These are debates that will build the thinking and learning muscle of the students.

Senior Secondary:

Learners are ready at this age to discuss every aspect of the case – whether it be the banning of a documentary, the restrictions put on sub-judice cases, the limits (or not) to Freedom of Expression, the discrimination of men and women in everyday life and institutions (both face it differently). They are even ready to discuss the implications of cross border commentary and the reactions to such a discourse especially when there is shared colonial history. (for the thousands planning to go abroad, you may need to do this anyway). The age group is also ready to discuss rape, power and societal sanction of evil.
This group should already be self directed learners and should be able to build arguments based on data, facts, reports and shared anecdotes. They should be able to connect it to their lived reality and identify decisions that will be expected of them and their ecosystem as they grow up. If they are not, do use this opportunity for them to start learning these skills.
The skills they need to demonstrate include critical thinking, analytical research, ability to organise and design an argument and to build an un-emotional defense for their statements while acknowledging human frailty and political implications.

Can they do this much?

(Don’t you know how difficult it is to find those who can even construct a single sentence? And you expect them to create coherent arguments? Have you not read the reports by ASER and others that say that our children cannot read or do math at school?)

This is why moments of grand national or even local debate are great learning opportunities provided the teachers have the skills to design a meaningful lesson. Any qualified teacher who is assigned to these levels should be able to deliver on this, or acknowledge incompetence and seek help. Any student who cannot deliver on the skills listed (even at beginner level) is not going to be ready either for higher education or for university.

Our students, the children we teach are actively engaged in the society they live in and are more likely to hone their skills if engaged in real world issues that go beyond their textbooks. Try it – you might be surprised how much the students learn and engage this way. It may not work the first time, try again. And again. Till they start feeling safe with you and the class and start speaking. You may even be surprised at the positive impact on attendance and other learning. Limiting them to their textbooks has robbed them of their context, both in the learning and in the application.  Use this, use local conversations to fuel real learning in the classroom and it will not take that long for the skills gap to be eliminated. The gap between education and employment is the tough touch of reality. Let us not shy of making that connection in the classroom.

Use the documentary, news to foster real skill building in schools

March 10, 2015, 10:36 am IST in EduCable | India, Lifestyle | TOI

Life is an Open Book Exam, Why should School Exams be Any Different

20 Aug

The picture that went viral showed (male) friends and family members climbing an un-plastered school building where the class X (age 16) Board exam was being held in order to pass answer cheat sheets through the window to the hapless, presumably under-prepared youngsters inside the rooms.

The picture shocked us. It showed India the mirror, surely. Or was the shock more of shame when the picture was circulated abroad? Don’t Indians know that many centres allow cheating? Has everyone not heard stories of centres when ‘supported’ candidates are allowed ‘help’. Or of centres where every candidate is ‘supported’ by a teacher who basically announces the answers in class. Invigilation in many centres is a joke, and that is where one is safe due to collusion. In other centres an invigilator’s job is highly risky – many fear for their lives. Rumours, newspaper stories and stories retold at social gatherings – none of them have ever caused an uproar, nor a gasp of wonder let alone a shrinking in shame for the pervasive phenomenon of cheating.

Everyone knows cheating happens.


Who would want to do business with those labeled as cheats? Even the thousands, even millions who are honest are often tarred with the same brush. Every act of dishonesty – whether it is climbing a wall to cheat in an exam, or breaking a red light to get ahead or looking at a woman in a way that crosses a boundary line – every such act reduces you, and your community. Sink, and all sink together.

The problem here  is not the story of cheating. The problem is the fact that cheating is acceptable and has been tolerated. A cheat at school is a corrupt worker. A successful cheat at school is a supporter of corruption as a way of life.

That picture of cheating? It stank. It stank of the rot in our education system. It stank of desperation. It reeked of compromises that prepared one only for a life of underhanded survival. The smell of that picture stays with us.

Why Cheat?

Poor ethics. Short sightedness. Examinations beyond capabilities. Unprepared students. Poor teaching. Poor learning. Bad schools. Lack of hard work. Unrealistic expectations. Bad examination design. Irrelevant curriculum.

Too many certificates, too few competencies.

There are so many reasons to cheat. And only one reason not to cheat.

One look at mass cheating (yes, that is a thing) and you realise that the only fools left behind are those who stick to their principles and not cheat. (You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? And nodded?) And some of us decide to ‘Stay Honest, Stay Foolish’ (h/t @rashmibansal) when it comes to the test.

Else, what does that test achieve?

A test of competencies? A test of abilities? A test of memory? A test of knowledge? A test of skills? A test – but for what purpose?

Currently, it is a test that stands for ten years of schooling – certifying the value of all that has been learned and absorbed in that decade. It stands as a baseline for higher studies. But truly, more than anything, it stands as a key to accessing scarce seats at the next level.

The desperation we saw in the picture was not to do well in the test. It wasn’t about excellence or a keenness to deliver to the best of one’s abilities. It was about grabbing that key that would open the next gate for them. The gate to the next opportunity, the gate that would allow them to access more value add, a better salary and returns. Because the pipeline narrows after this. Because there aren’t enough good jobs and colleges.

Whether they had earned it or not, they were desperate to get to that key.

So, now what? Scrap the exam?

No, not scrap it. Banning things just because they are misused isn’t an intelligent response to anything. Scrapping or banning only acknowledges that you did not have enough sense or ability to work out a solution.

(i) Improve governance. Pretty obvious really.

(ii) Change the examination. If school is a preparation for life, then the tests at the end of secondary schooling should test for life-preparedness. Much of what is tested is irrelevant to life. Much of what is tested defies economic rationality to an average student – they see no reason or motivation to learn. Test for life, in the way life works. If life is an open book examination, then why should school exams be any different?

(iii) Increase the number, diversity of exams so that each one of them is smaller, more focused and gives small certificates and rewards that can add up to serve individual goals. The Board exams (X and XII) currently try to be servants of all – baseline tests, access to higher education, test of values and life skills, support to competitive entrance systems, certificates of readiness for basic employability, certification of competence for professional careers etc. A single exam can only really serve one master well. Offer a greater variety of exams – even within the same administrative framework – so that students can have more choice. In the same 3 hours, they could (for example) have three papers. The basic should qualify, the next could certify for professional courses and the third hour – advanced – could test for access to competitive spaces. All students can choose how much they want to attempt according to their goals. There are other models too, of course – including one that helps students play to contextual strengths such as tests in traditional skills, knowledge etc.

(iv) Work the pipeline. The rot, the problems and the desperation only show up at exam time, when brought to the test. The real challenges lie in cleaning up the ten years of schooling. Which brings us back to solution (i).

If this picture shook you, and showed you an India that you never want to see again, then do your bit for ‘Swachh Shiksha’. Because a corrupted education system is a meaningless waste.

Life is an open book exam – why should school exams be any different?

March 23, 2015, 1:54 pm IST in EduCable | Economy, Lifestyle | TOI

Teach to Transgress, Teach beyond Fear

20 Aug

Have we been unfair to our students by teaching them to sort the world simply into right or wrong? We tell them that for every thing there is a right answer or a wrong answer. In mathematics, there is a method that one needs to follow, in history there is a standard ‘right’ answer and it goes on. We sectioned off life into subjects and timetables, presented them in a neat grid and called it school. Inside this grid gave them even tinier mouthfuls called textbooks and methods. We have taught them to chew pre-digested food. And no more.

And to the same children we say – grow up to be lions. Fend for yourself in the work-jungle. Be employable. Deliver initiative, responsibility and more. Be resourceful.

Did we not go through 16 years of formal education telling them the exact opposite?

Did we not say in class “Don’t talk!” “Only the textbook matters. Do not write anything in the examination that is not in the notes or the textbook” “Don’t waste time with your new ideas”. “Do what the teacher tells you to do, follow the rules!”

You cannot ask students to replicate things for 16 years of their education and then suddenly ask them to think on their own. They have been taught to not think on their own. They have been taught to just follow instructions.

If children are always told to conform, always told to be ‘right’, to always be good and to always do things in that ‘one right way’, then are they prepared for the rocky road ahead? What happens when the right way doesn’t work? What happens when life is not a simple algebra equation and fancy formulae do not grow the business? What happens when spelling everything right all the time does not get you that promotion? Do children know that the world will expect more than obedience from them? That the ‘best’ person is not the one who does things just the way the teacher said, but is one who forges a way through tough situations and finds solutions for themselves and those around.

We have taught our children to compete with each other, to race ahead. With myopia tinted lenses we cheer them on as they leave others behind. Teaching them to blinker themselves in their lives, learning neither kindness or empathy from schools. These are human values, and we learn and reinforce them in our interactions. But is there anything in the curriculum that makes us do any more than pay lip service to sharing, helping, asking for help, being considerate and so much more that makes us human? Does rote learning have any room for people and their problems? Can marks grow people? Of course not.

Students are not mere photocopiers. They are citizens-in-training. Citizens of a community, where they must live with dignity and without fear. And yet our classrooms are places run by fear. What if the answer is wrong? Children either shake with terror or brazen it out. What if the students are rude to me? Teachers feel compelled to stifle anything that could move from the safe narrow path – beyond that lies fear. Fear that they will lose control. Fear that they will be shown up as less than competent. Fear that the results will not be good enough. The fear drives the focus. At a huge cost to all. For we learn to follow in fear. We learn to be policed. This is why when we grow up we follow rules only for the fear of punishment, not because it is the right thing for all. We seek more control, because our schools taught us that there is fear beyond the narrow path of being controlled. We call it a tradition, because in our schooled blinkers we have seen no other way.

The difference between a good classroom and a mediocre one is how one deals with fear. Learning itself is an act of acknowledging vulnerability. Compounded on that is the classroom – an act of subjecting oneself to some one else’s power. But classes and learning must not be power play – that is a wasteful distraction. Look to those wonderful classes, teachers and students where fear does not rule. It is those classrooms that foster growth beyond mere marks – where good people are grown. This is often the difference between the elite /progressive schools and the ones that lag in performance. The progressive have moved beyond fear – they teach their students to stand up for themselves, to disagree with respect. Their teachers are helped to be strong without power, to be firm without invoking fear, to laugh and to learn together. Classrooms need teachers so that students can go far beyond the textbooks. The textbook is a launching pad and their teachers facilitate the leap. The best schools know that all teaching and learning is really about conquering fears with reason and within reason.

This is the job assigned to teachers – to facilitate the transgression of old boundaries so that new growth can happen. Transgressions are the business of the classroom (ask any teacher, they will tell you this is what they manage all the time). But it is okay to transgress. Be wrong, and learn from it. Be right and break the boundaries of it. Be experimental, be experiential. Transgress in small steps so that your teacher can help when you stumble. Teachers – build journeys of transgression, not repetition so that our students can live in the future not merely repeat what is past.

These are the three things our teacher’s training and teacher’s professional development should be about: How to harness the power of transgression, how to manage the fear of transgression and how to handle the consequences of transgression for growth.

Give the teachers these tools, and they will do the job.

Teach to transgress, teach beyond fear

April 24, 2015, 2:46 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI