Tag Archives: learning

Asserting National Narratives with Credibility

21 Nov

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

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

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

This is not to deny the possibility that India may have invented everything that is great and good in the world today. Of course it is possible. Unlikely, but possible. The nature of knowledge is to advance itself iteratively, incrementally. One learns something, shares it across the world. Then someone adds to it. Shares. It goes on, often with a few people making the same grand discoveries at about the same time without having collaborated or even known each other. The game for credits is important, sure, but only in a world of patents and trade agreements. This is where one must step carefully and build a strong argument rather than allow oneself to become a mocked nation. The tendency of Indians to claim everything as Indian but not be able to back it up with any solid audit trail has made it into a bit of a global joke – and this is the trap to avoid. There have been sit-coms with this theme as a meme, and more.

It is easy to leap at the slightest link between current scientific discoveries and similar references in Sanskrit texts – both ancient and more recent ones. Sanskrit was one of the languages of the erudite. It had a discipline and process that enabled dense conversation and communication of deep knowledge. So much so that unraveling it is a science in itself. This is where there is a huge gap in our understanding of the achievements of the past. Just an assertion in a text, or a verse from a mythological or literary text is not enough to claim it as ‘Indian’ knowledge. There needs to be a much more rigourous research process that builds the arguments towards such claims. This is where one feels the lack of a strong research culture in the social sciences in India. The capacity for such research will need to be built as one builds the case for one’s history. Greater investments in higher education research are the first step. Autonomy is an essential ingredient – let the counterfactuals fight it out to build muscle in the arguments. A more realistic understanding of our own history and position in the world is essential to a generation that has been unrooted by rapid growth to give it a sense of it’s own direction and purpose.

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Pioneer on November 19, 2014 and is linked here: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/sanskrit-lessons-in-indian-civilization.html

Learning from One Another

16 Sep

“When children teach other, they learn better”. I remember hearing this from a teacher in a simple school in a small town. Then I heard the same last year from Vicky Colbert WISE Laureate – indeed this is what transformed education in Colombia via the Escola Neuva system. Through difficult terrain, poor communities, scarce resources – here was a power to be harnessed – the peer.

Learning from each other is a natural way of picking up knowledge and skills. As children and as adults we learn by watching each other, even more so by copying each other’s actions. The next stage is trying it out – learning by doing. There is an old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” But there is one more step. A recent study of retention in learning marked out a pyramid where ‘learning by teaching’ showed a retention rate of 90%, compared to a 5% retention rate for a lecture or a 30% retention rate for a demonstration.

What does that look like in a classroom? A class full of teachers will be chaotic surely? If all the students are teaching each other, then what is the role of the teacher? The role of the teacher evolves to being so much more than a passive fount of knowledge. A peer learning class needs to be arranged differently. They are given challenges, tasks and resources. They share their learning journey, nudged and directed by the teacher till all the students have reached basic competence in that learning module. This means that the style of teaching must be very different. Not only is it more participative but also engages the teacher in different ways. The learning resources became important but what is most important is the question asked by the teacher that sets the children off on the adventure. Too wide, and there is chaos. Too narrow and they are merely parroting lines to each other, even copying from each other mindlessly. This is a trap the teacher must avoid – the point of peer learning in classrooms is to encourage students to think and engage with the learning. Not just copy from each other or the board.  Designing the question, organising the class, managing the range, channelling energy constructively – the teacher’s focus moves to these in peer learning classes. And learning levels go up more – not only has each child been engaged, each child has received personal attention from the teacher and has been taught using a pedagogy that improves retention levels.

Changing pedagogies midstream is always a bit daunting for most teachers. Only few would have been trained in peer learning, others will have to figure it out on their own. Unless, they have a peer learning group. What is applied to the classroom can, and does work for teachers too. Teaching and learning is enhanced with peers (or why would schools exist!) and the best teachers keep learning new techniques and sharing them with their peers. Not just colleagues.

There was a time when peer learning was restricted to one’s circle of colleagues and the only peer learning network that was active was in the staffroom. Occasional training sessions extended it for a while to peers across other schools or in the same district. Technology has now removed these barriers. Peer learning groups are being supported by tech companies such as google, by newspaper groups such as the Times (UK based, working in India) and others. Facebook groups are a great way of creating peer learning networks across the country and even the globe. Look up a group to join, or even create one of your own. It doesn’t have to be all serious and theoretical for learning to happen. For example, we used to share little stories of what happened in class with the Facebook group. Sometimes we would share laughter and often it would get responses that were very supportive and helpful. Teaching tips can be shared. Another great tool to create a peer learning network is twitter. Teachers and educators come together and discuss ways to improve their teaching practice or other issues in education. The Indian education chat is called #EduIn where one can meet a community of educators. Others are more global and include groups for new teachers, teachers learning to incorporate technology in their classes, mathematics teachers etc. Shared blogs with multiple contributors work as peer learning for both teachers and students, as do whatsapp groups. Both the flipped classroom model as well as peer learning pedagogies can use these tools extensively.

Whether peer learning is technology driven or not, there is a great deal of value in peer learning groups. In Punjab, STIR and NISA are working in the Rajpura district of Punjab to bring teachers together regularly to speak about in class innovations, teaching practices, solutions and experiences. The teaching community meet at one of the schools in the district on a regular basis and worked together to share and learn. They were able to improve many outcomes in the school district in a short while, but of course there is a lot more to be done. Similar efforts have been in place for decades in Rajasthan and other places.

Peer Learning Networks do not have to be an overly formal construct – each of us can create a PLN where we identify and nurture our sources of learning. While many of us do so naturally it is more of a conscious effort for others. A PLN gives better results if there is a semi-formal structure around it not the least because it ensures that we put in the time and resources required to make it work. A semi-formal or formal PLN will also set its goals, monitor progress and have a community of care that helps it course correct as required. For example, subject based peer learning networks of teachers could be very useful where they share teaching tools, resolve classroom hurdles, share worksheets and quizzes and even create intra-school events. Sometimes only a peer learning network can help – or even understand what the problem is and how to find your way through the maze.

Peer Learning is not a magic wand that resolves all problems but it does form the basis of sustainable solutions. This is where we tap into all parts of learning – previous knowledge, relevant experience and the adventure of sharing to grow our skills together. The PLN grows together as it encourages and supports the whole group to improve themselves.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer and advisor on education. She designs institutional interventions to improve learning outcomes and bring a sense of fun and movement in classrooms. She can be contacted at meetasengupta@gmail.com or on twitter at the handle @meetasengupta


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.

Dress to Learn?

13 Jan


There can be no greater sign of infantilising a people if they have to be told what to wear as adults. Four girls at a college in Bhiwani were fined, even if it was a nominal sum, because they chose to wear jeans and T-shirt at college. Apparently, the college has a dress code, almost a uniform, supposedly to contain eve-teasing. 
This raises at least four clear issues that are vital to the success of our higher education system, and yet not included in discussions on curriculum, pedagogy or standards. The first is the issue of treating our students as kids. If they cannot chose what to wear at college, and they rarely get to choose what to study, then how is higher education preparing them for life? If they have a teacher, classroom, textbook, time-tables and uniforms — then what is higher about this education. Students at college are called boys and girls, treated like children, expected to conform and certainly not expected to follow their own paths of learning. There have been stories reported from other colleges where girls were sent back home for the crime of not having worn a dupatta/stole. These words reek of a command and control culture that has a role only in the previous century’s assembly line processes. I have given a guest lecture at a business school where the students were in uniform. This does not augur well for the ‘soft skills’ requirements that are essential for employability and economic prosperity. The students are left incapable of independent decision making, they are unable to process the social consequences of their decisions. 
The second issue is that of eve-teasing. Logic and reason totally collapse under the premise that eve-teasing must be stopped by the victims, not by those who harass and molest women. It is only those who rob that are jailed, those who kill that are put on death row, but those who molest may continue to do so, stopped merely by the tents the women are asked to don. The victims have been asked to dress differently; nothing is asked of the perpetrators of the crime. This is clearly a failure of thinking, and of the connect between thinking, decision-making and action. With such faulty logic will policy-makers and executives of the nation be trained? Can we expect any better of them at work then? 
The third is the issue of gender. While the dress codes were designated decades ago, they seem to be inherently inconsistent. While the women are asked to dress in traditional Indian wear, the men are not asked to regress in time. They are free to wear clothes designed for modern convenience, clothes that have evolved with time for the needs of the day. This is not to call for all to regress, merely to point out that the higher education system has such poor governance guidelines that such gender inequities are built into college policy. This is sending a signal to the next generation of college administrators that such sloppy thinking, even in contravention of Indian law, is acceptable in running educational institutions. 
The fourth issue is one of freedom. Various freedoms are steadily getting eroded, and this happens in small ways such as a dress code. School teachers in a part of the country were told to wear jackets over their sarees to prevent the children from looking at them inappropriately. Again, that’s a failure of the system to identify and work with the problem. If the children have mental health issues and are unable to exert self-control, then they need help. The dress cannot be an issue. And the freedom to dress as they choose cannot be curtailed. Similarly, parents were told to dress differently when dropping their children off to school. Aesthetic offence cannot be a reason to censor dress sense. This is again about seeking to control, rather than to resolve. Personal freedoms are at the core of a civil society and formal norms destroy more than they save. 
It is true that dress codes are important in professional settings. They set standards, they establish norms. When teachers dress well, it shows their effort. Most workplaces establish dress codes, but they also invest in ensuring that the codes are fair and unbiased. Clothes are a signalling mechanism: School uniforms have the purpose to ensure equity and uniformity. But as one grows older, one has to learn to deal with the differences. The solution does not lie in greater policing or stronger rules. 
This was published in the Daily Pioneer on December 13, 2012 and is linked here http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/53001-blame-every-evil-on-the-dress-you-wear.html