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Rote-learning worked when employability hinged on fitting into a task-based role. Today, such work is outsourced to machines and we are expected to deliver in terms of ideas

With increasing frequency, both in private life and in political discourse in the country, people have begun to wonder: What were our policy-makers thinking? What thought processes, what information and what decision models were used to arrive at a particular decision? The accusation is that of an intellectual vacuum in decision making. This leads to two questions: Who is responsible for this? How can this be filled?

The answer to the first is clear. We have failed to educate our students to become good decision makers. The purpose of education is to enable individuals to decide between the choices they create for themselves and society. And to then have the courage to stand by their decisions. The training for babugiri suited the industrial age, when employability depended on being able to slot into a task based role and repeat it reliably. Today, such functions are often outsourced to machines — and humans are expected to deliver more in terms of ideas, solutions and leadership.

This clearly cannot be done using our traditional views on education. Rote learning, leading to achievement in examinations with set patterns is clearly not learning. Assessments do have a role to play in the learning process, but it is a limited role. Assessment systems are about proof, and by definition can only test for memory, skills or aptitude. There is no test in the world that can declare a student ‘learned’ or ‘educated’. They can also indicate that the candidate has acquired a certain degree of proficiency in managing the test. In a way, the only learning here is the ability to recognise patterns in the assessment system and to adapt work processes to that pattern. Our schools and colleges have been allowed to degenerate to become such assessment machines. We go to school not to learn, but to pass exams and purchase entry into the next rung on the ladder.

To answer the second question, in educating our next generation we need to give them experience of skills that will help them generate value. They need to be able to identify opportunities, recognise problems, seek options, find resources, share responsibilities and design outcomes. It is the task of educationists to design curricula and standards to meet these needs. But, may be it is too much to ask of those who have only been trained to replicate the learning of the past. Learning today is about creating new futures based on enterprise, opportunity and innovation.

Nothing in our current school or higher education systems reflects these needs. We do not even deliver on basic employable skills required by current industries, let alone encourage our students to think for themselves and explore the world around them. If anything is included in the syllabus, it is memorised, regurgitated and forgotten — unlikely to be useful in the future, since application of the knowledge was rarely part of the assigned task.

Current education policies deliver neither quality nor relevance to its key constituency — the students. The attempt at creating a mass of literate and numerate citizens falls at the altar of poor design and thus poor implementation. The Right to Education Act, however well intentioned, may never deliver its lofty goals as it is impeded by its own loopholes and shortsightedness — thus almost an example of the intellectual vacuum we bemoan.

The  Five Year Plans are supposed to focus on education — throwing investments at creating infrastructure for ‘massification’ with scant regard for the quality of education. As the rise in education spend is tempered, the dialogue moves towards quality — with little concrete by way of an over arching view of what quality means. A number of patchy attempts, including sector skills councils, accreditation systems etc. have been mooted — but they too find little to anchor them to the nation’s education policy framework.

We seek to increase participation in higher education, targeting a Gross Enrollment Ratio of 25 per cent, having reportedly increased it dramatically to 17 per cent this year. But what are we expecting students to gain from superficial engagement with poor quality content delivered by those whose reputations do not even make a mark in the world’s rankings? The reputation of our universities, based on research and teaching and assessed by peer reviews is dismal. We do not figure anywhere in the top 100, according to the Times Higher Education Reputation rankings released a few days ago. The Indian Institute of Science, which was the lone representative of the nation was edged out by competition this year. With our institutions slipping, many having been damaged for years, where do we find this intellectual capital to fill the vacuum?

It is said, that when Pandora’s box was opened, and chaos reigned — all that was left at the bottom of the box was hope.Our hope, though it still languishes unsupported at the margins, is through multiple private efforts to create innovative learning models that foster learning beyond fear.

The writer is an education strategy consultant who has lived, worked and taught in London for over a decade. She is now based in New Delhi.

Pioneer, March 22, 2012. Link here

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2 thoughts on “Industrial Age Education

  1. It is always innovative and the faculty right from school to higher education are largely benefitted from each of the posts under Educable. No wonder your present piece covers the so far ignored but most important fields of modern times; industry. I feel grateful to find your works par excellence in my inbox frequently.
    Thanks again Meeta for the care and conviction to help.

  2. Education does not end with one harvest–attaining a degree. We have engage with education for a lifetime in order to know the order of things. We have plant and replant, make more harvests possible.Those who had spent on education have to get good employment so that they can get a good return. Education has to make good economic sense, so that others will invest on it too. For example:Good survey of how many civil engineers we need for the future should be kept in mind before expanding seats in the engineering college for civil options. This neither parents nor individual colleges can anticipate by extrapolation. Education department of government must take survey and give accurate statistics for colleges

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