Indian Education : Part B : Present and Forward

Current and Emergent Situation

India has seen rapid economic growth in the last two decades. However, as many would argue, India is starkly divided between the haves and have-nots. The middle and upper middle classes with their new economic freedoms and modern Western worldview are more aligned to and subsumed in the pot-pourri of globalization. At the same time, the bulk of the population remains excluded from the benefits of rapid economic growth.   

Consequently, the country continues to experience extreme poverty, marginalization, hunger and deprivation much of which is to be found in rural areas, among tribal people, in Dalit and Muslim neighborhoods. New forms of social exclusion, urban poverty, environmental degradation, conflict and violence have also emerged in the past decades.

Broadly, there are two emerging and simultaneous trends:

  1. The socio-cultural idiom in India is shifting from caste and religion to issues of development and equity. People clamor for a minimum quality of life and a basic level of opportunities. This could be the reason why India has not witnessed communal flare-ups even after events as serious as the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks or the Ram Janmabhumi-Babri Masjid judgments. Most agitations have been about developmental and inclusive growth issues, such as land acquisition, the building of nuclear plants or other environmental threats, which are expected to displace people and endanger their way of life. Even the Naxal question, many would argue, is essentially a developmental question.
  2. Over the last decade and especially after the economic crisis of 2008, markets, jobs and enterprises are shifting to the East, opening huge opportunities for India to leverage its ‘demographic dividend’. India’s businessmen and industrialists are beginning to recognize that the economic equations are changing, exclusion is not tenable and that fortunes can be made by targeting the ‘bottom of the pyramid, a philosophy well propounded by the late management guru, C. K. Prahalad.

    The Fortune at The Bottom of The Pyramid

    The Fortune at The Bottom of The Pyramid

    The realization is sinking in that growth may well be symbiotic to aligning the rural poor with the economic process both as a contributor (skilled workforce) and as a consumer.

Inclusive growth, hence, is no longer a nice ringing ideal but an imperative for sustainable growth. However, it is also being widely acknowledged that inclusive growth needs inclusive education and that India’s education generally has not been inclusive. It follows firm structures and rigid qualifications, which exclude rather than include.

India’s education system is exclusive because:

  1. It expects people to come to it rather than reaching out to them wherever they are geographically, socially, demographically – which is a discriminatory factor in a country like ours;
  2. Instead of endorsing a man’s capabilities and contributing to his success and growth, it acts as a label or an entry ticket to where he can and cannot reach in his life. It’s a modern day caste system not much different from the age old scourge in its suffocating rigidity;
  3. In its self-serving snobbery, it assumes that education = intelligence = creating ‘value’, an utterly questionable notion since idiots, incompetents, bigots and charlatans are found, perhaps, equally on both sides of the educational divide!

Given the above, obviously there is a realization that we need to rethink the education paradigm.

Sarv Shikha Abhiyaan

Sarv Shikha Abhiyaan

Recent developments, such as the Right to Education Act & Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (the free and compulsory education to all kids between 6-14 years of age has finally been legislated in the Right To Education (RTE) Act, 2009 and is being implemented through its flagship program Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan); the National Skills Development Mission (which promotes skill development through large, quality, for-profit vocational institutions through a public-private partnership model); and various initiatives in higher education have sought to increase the impact and effectiveness of education as a whole.

At the same time, India has seen the entry of the private sector in education at all levels. Government policy has adopted various approaches to regulate, limit and at times encourage their involvement.

It is expected that the enhanced investment on education (public and private) will lead to wider penetration, increased enrolment and better quality.

All in all, the current situation on education in India can be described as quite challenging with multi-layered, scattered or even confused and disjointed conversations abounding in terms of:

  • Access, affordability and quality
  • Objectives, stakeholders and influencing factors
  • Content, pedagogy, methodology
  • Delivery and evaluation
  • Implementation and effectiveness

Given the things as they are, we must raise some inconvenient questions in self-scrutiny before we move into the future. We have seen that there has been no dearth of ideas and intention on education front. Yet, the results over the last seven decades have been less than satisfactory. Why was that? What have we learnt now and what will we do differently henceforth to expect different results in the future?

Perhaps, as pointed earlier, answers may start with an honest acknowledgement of a few facts – lack of powerful and unifying vision or purpose, conservative and risk-averse decision-making, indifferent monitoring and a general lack of accountability during implementation.

We might need to be simultaneously creative, courageous and vigilant, going forward…

Purpose of Education

It took me quite a while to realise a basic truth!

Education becomes education only when it has a purpose. Otherwise it is all learning. And learning is something every human being possesses, whether educated or not (true even for animals!). In fact, we are in many ways nothing but the sum and substance of our learning. By and large, all behaviour is learnt behaviour and all action is a conditioned response.

Education, on the other hand, is a structured mechanism to facilitate learning for a purpose. It must provide an opportunity to examine learnt dysfunctional behaviours and inculcate the ability to discard them. And at the same time, it should encourage the possibility of developing new productive behaviours. It must enhance our ability and resourcefulness to see and consider alternative possibilities and responses rather than operating in a linear, automatic and reactionary mode.

Perhaps, then, the purpose of education should be to anticipate the future and prepare the generations for it, today. However, in a scenario where the future may not be a mere extrapolation of the past, there is a strong need for the education itself to be fundamentally transformed… And that starts by articulating a powerful and unifying vision or purpose.

That being so, what is or should be the purpose of education in India today? Are current approaches and thinking on education clear on that purpose and are the efforts and actions aligned to it? If not, education will serve some purpose but not the one we desire.

There is a lot of talk about equality, empowerment, inclusion, quality of education, etc. They are no doubt laudable ideals but in real terms, they are no more than statements of desire or ambition at best. They are not precise, are prone to multiple interpretations and so are incapable of aligning and directing a cohesive nationwide effort.

We have to ask ourselves about the vision for education in the next 20 years. It is obviously a complex ask but a few pointers might help:

A) A vision for education at the national level must be inspiring, precise, measurable and understandable by everyone, and such a vision must be articulated and communicated well.

B) The vision must point out clearly what would happen once it is achieved. The outcome must be worthwhile for people to deploy their energies into the vision. For example, how exactly will the achievement of this vision impact one or more of the areas which concern people:

  • Mitigating corruption
  • Creating value, wealth and prosperity
  • Poverty alleviation through better distribution of wealth
  • Better security for our people from internal and external threats, natural disasters and diseases
  • Equal opportunities and social justice for masses

C) It is one thing to say what the country wants to achieve by educating its people. But it is equally important to ask what the people are going to get out of educating themselves because otherwise, they will neither engage with the process nor deploy their energies in it. If more and more people find it increasingly difficult to eke out a respectable living or to even keep the body and soul together even as wealth gets concentrated in a few hands, disenchantment with and rejection of education will ensue.

D) Hence, a clear and powerful vision would neither be a slogan nor a statistic. It would be a precise and simple statement of intent, which is measurable and can be accounted for, expressed in terms of benefits to the people. It will outline the possibility of creation, contribution and transformation.

It is interesting to note that Macaulay created a simple and powerful vision in 1835 AD (Indian Education : Part A) which, when implemented with intent and commitment by the British, continued to define us as people even after independence. It is time that the ghost of Macaulay is finally buried after more than 175 years. But for that, we need a more powerful and inspiring vision to replace it…

But how, who, whence… The Vision?

I wonder whether ‘senior educationists’, archaic bureaucrats and politicians with their grey hair and minds still locked in the 20th century can actually articulate that vision and transform education unless they first learn to listen to students.

On the other hand, what I know for sure and through direct experience is that students are almost never involved in any decision about education even though they are the ones directly affected. Whether it is about some 4-year undergrad program, or introduction of new syllabi, or anything of academic importance, for that matter.

It might sound funny but it seems we are interested in our future and not that of our children. We want to use our kids to fulfill our needs and purposes, and education becomes our biggest tool for indoctrination and control.

This might explain why our schools and institutions reward conformity, compliance and obedience much more than creativity, curiosity and counter-intuition. The kid who is not easily satisfied and asks too many questions is obviously such a pain!

And that is where we might be losing the plot… for ourselves as well as for our kids. Pursuit of myopic, selfish agenda and a complete lack of any vision!

The Future Must Be Learner Centric

I frequently come across a lot of people from my generation discussing and lamenting about how we try our best to teach but the ‘current’ generation (read young people of today… when 50% 0f our population is < 25 years of age!)) is unwilling or simply incapable of learning. We may, at times, go as far as to claim that these guys are a bunch of idiots with fragmented knowledge, inadequate skills and questionable attitudes!

Some of these observations, in a limited sense, may even be correct. Yet, the overall conclusion, I am sure is not true. Look at the ease with which little kids of 4-5 years are learning technology and getting comfortable with the digital world of social networks, gaming and apps. Therefore, obviously, ability to learn by itself is not a problem.

Less Us, More Them

Less Us, More Them

The problem is that we don’t like what they learn and they don’t learn what we like (them to learn)!

And this is because we are still approaching this teaching-learning business from an old mindset. We assume that the kids today learn in the same ways (or some modifications) in which we used to learn, and get exasperated when they don’t. The fact is that kids today don’t learn the way we did.

We learnt from teachers who were the sole reservoir of knowledge. They learn from Google, You Tube and Wikipedia. We learnt from parents and elders, from stories and rituals. They learn from friends and peers, from films and through social networks. We learnt from books and printed stuff like newspapers, magazines and comics.  They learn from digital, audio-video and interactive media. We learnt from radio, they learn from TV and internet.

And most important of all – we learnt through instruction while they want to learn by doing it themselves. They want to learn by experimentation, engagement, trial and error. They want to learn through contexts where they control the learning environment and the pace of learning. What they seem to be saying is – ‘Don’t tell me right and wrong. Let me do it and figure out myself.’

But we are not listening.

So, when they want freedom and control over learning environment, we come up with more (often stricter and stupid) norms. When they are learning less and less from teachers, we sit in our policy chambers thinking about how to create more teachers. When they are learning from films and internet, we are thinking on books and arguing on silly cartoons and other nonsense.

We are simply not listening. Because we think we know what’s good for them. In all my experience – at policy level interactions on education, or school managements debating academics or parents discussing education – I have hardly seen the younger generation invited, involved and engaged in any meaningful dialogue. Although, what I have seen in some cases, instead, is to make them sit and tell them what’s wrong with them and how to fix it!

(Interestingly, this ‘we know what’s good for you’ is a very interesting phenomenon. This is why educationists don’t listen to students, companies don’t listen to the customers and governments don’t listen to citizens!)

We are not listening… And, in the process, we are making ourselves irrelevant to them… And so they stop listening to us, even become dismissive of what we have to say or offer (even if it is good at times)… And we conclude that they are insolent, irreverent, irresponsible, incorrigible fools! Wow!

I hope, I believe that our young generation is smart! Smart enough to understand the importance of a good education. But more importantly, I wish they are clear about their own purpose, which they want to fulfill through education. If not, their education will still serve some purpose but then, it might not be theirs.

As was, perhaps, the case with our generation years backs…

streaming A Cure for Wellness film

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