Education in India: we know the problems, what are the solutions?
Sunday, Oct 20, 2013, 15:46 IST | Agency: DNA
Meeta Sengupta

Meeta Sengupta looks at some of the possible solutions to the problems plaguing Indian education.

“We all know the problems, what is the solution?!!!” The old gentleman was quite agitated. It was the second afternoon of a rather typical education conference. The glittering keynote speeches with the celebrity panelists. The tinkle of networking over cups of tea in the frequent breaks, the silent shuffle of visiting cards as solution providers offered to demonstrate their services, and the dutiful every reducing group that went back into the next session.

He was right, the old gentleman. India was running out of time, and those on the podium kept repeating the litany of woes that afflict education – the falling standards, absentee teachers, incompetent unemployables, unskilled workers, the low ranking on global scales, the mediocrity of the masses and of course the failing demographic dividend. We could go on and on, and they did.

How do we answer that old man? I hark back to what I said in a workshop – the answers are eternal. It is the questions that keep changing with context. Today’s questions are about employability, about quality and about scale. In the tradition of best sellers that dispense solutions, here are the top 7 things we need to do to make education meaningful and valuable.

A: Attitude – Instead of being an army style death march to marks, we need to feel the joy of learning with ideas and questions being thrown at each other like a ball in a playground. Learning becomes a part of life, of the community. The teacher’s role becomes a trigger, reinforcer and consolidator of that joyful attitude to learning. Does it make it unstructured? No, we end up doing more – with challenges and games and resources freely shared and used more intensely. The changed attitude is about deeper engagement with the content.

B: Basics – Focus on the basics, even in higher classes. Do not assume that students know what they are should. Embed reinforcements of prior learning in every piece of work that is set for students. If they get the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic right, they are well placed to branch off on their own in later years. Instill confidence and competence in skills of speaking, debating, creating a structured argument and applying their learning to life.

C: Care – Walk into any classroom and you can feel the care making a difference. A teacher’s and the students’ motivation levels impact how much learning is actually taking place. A teacher, a principal, a parent, a District Education officer and a policy maker who cares to do their job well has always been able to improve learning achievement levels. They inspire others to care, and this starts off a virtuous cycle. We all remember that one teacher who cared – and changed our lives. Put the heart back in education, it is not merely an assembly line process. Care enough to do your job in whole measure.

D: Design – At the root of the problems today, and the key to solutions. Good design of assessments, of teaching systems, of lesson plans, of school timetables, of governance systems and even of school data monitoring systems will transform the face of education. Half baked policy measures that do not plan for the last mile are hardly going to be successful. There is clearly no scope for engaging with learning if examinations continue to be designed to reward rote learning. Administration is unlikely to improve if incentive design does not match goals. Every little thing needs better design for sustainable success – which means getting one’s hands dirty and learning how to make it work in the classroom and community. Then, iterate, and improve. Again, and again.

(D could also stand for Data. The path to good solutions lies via good data and analysis.
Of that we did not have enough. We have little evidence of what tools work better, where
the investments will yield better results, or on priorities based on evidence. We need better data based on better questions. We know that students in rural schools are moving away from government schools to private schools in a slow but quiet and steady stream. But we did not know why. We could guess that they thought private schools were better, but why did they think so? What information did the market have that the experts were blind to and could not fix? Or, in skills, how does a service provider know where do set up their resource development centres in the absence of good research?)

E: Execute – Grand designs and ideas fall at the altar of execution. It is time to start doing rather than wait for the perfect solution to emerge. Teach for India may not be a perfect program, but it does make an impact. STiR finds effective micro-innovations and embeds them in school systems to improve results. EI is doing impressive work in assessments, Eklavya in school leadership. Find expertise, partner with experience and execute. Move this jaggernaut forward.

F: Fund – This is a patchy story. Clearly funding has not been enough and we need to see smarter ways of funding good ideas in ways that impact student learning the most. We need more micro-finance models, more scholarships, more grants, and more engaged angels in education. Despite the Azim Premjis and Shiv Nadars , large government schemes and bank loans, bright students languish for lack of guidance and funds. This is an institutional and personal shame.

G: Governance – What is watched gets done. Where the community watches over the well, the water will remain good. The same applies to education. Schools need better governance, as do our universities and research bodies. Unless the head teacher leads by walking around, knowing that there is systemic and systematic accountability, we will not have operational governance. Governance systems need to hold our institutions of learning accountable for their core job – learning, for safety, for ethical conduct and preparing students for life.

Over and above all, let us acknowledge that learning cannot be detached from life. It is
more than the eight hours at school and work. We learn from myths, from kitchens, books, people. It is up to us to keep connecting the dots, to keep actively keep building and sharing the circle of learning.

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