A #NewEducation paradigm for a #NewIndia

 

No one could have a difference of opinion regarding the fact that education results in, or at least should result in, learning. The differences arise, though, over what this ‘learning’ is or should be. A simple click on the thesaurus shows that to learn means to discover, ascertain, understand, to become trained in or skilled at or to gain knowledge of.  The question is: does our attempt to educate our children through institutionalized systems of schooling result in such learning? It seems to me that the institutions meant to educate have been reduced to measurement systems that cater to the need to quantify learning so as to grade the churned out products on a universally acceptable, recognizable scale.

Whereas education should free the mind, open it to new discoveries, help each individual child find their unique voice, cultivate a thinking mind and an independent personality, it is reducing children to a mass of regurgitators and nervous wrecks. Schools have become factories that churn out products that are expected to conform to set standards, the norm.  It’s a race against time, against copious competition, and there’s little space for imagination, innovation and such esoteric metaphysical irrationalities.

Knowledge, if institutionalized education assessments are to be believed, is in the textbooks and there are plenty of them to rush through in an academic year; learning is what you produce on paper or spout without a second thought, or a second’s thought for that matter.

To stem this mindless acquisition of what is considered an ‘education’ we have to stop trying to teach our children everything that can conceivably be taught so that they are not ‘deprived’ of the opportunity to know everything that there is to be known.

By all means, familiarise children with various disciplines but let not the learning be tied down to textbooks straitjacketed in terms of ‘subjects’: geography…history…statistics… economics… mathematics; Sanskrit…English…Tamil…Kannada…economics… life science, et al. Introduce young students, instead, to the notion of inter-disciplinarity which is the way of life in the real world, and expose them to readings from the best of literature in the original. From classics to modern works of fiction and non-fiction, build a curriculum with stories, poems and plays, essays, book extracts and published works of reputed researchers, drawing on all genres and disciplines, both nationally inspiring and globally renowned.

Reading is more likely to become pleasurable activity and result in meaningful learning as well as a zeal to learn more through self-discovery when the texts being read are those that have been authored by masters of language or experts in their fields, texts that have stood the test of time and scholarship. Besides, learning is a generative process that happens through exploration and discovery, discussion and conversation, listening and reading. No one has learnt every word that is in their vocabulary from their textbooks and their teachers!

As for Mathematics, rather than making it formidable by bringing in topics that have few applications in most people’s lives, relate it to real life commerce and statistics.

Logic and moral science, sports and home science were all part of the school syllabus once. There is no gainsaying their practical application. The first two equip us with skills of reasoning and analysis as well as values and virtues that are necessary for intellectually aware and equitably sound  decision-making. The latter two make for physically fit and capable and useful citizens.

Teach children to read and understand first, and then to communicate and to express their thoughts and ideas, and then to count and calculate, evaluate and analyse: A gradually evolving teaching mechanism that gives time for contemplation and absorption would alone result in wholesome learning.  And, perform tests of assessment through various mediums: written, oral, graphic, and/ or action.  Comprehension can be better evaluated if the opportunity is given to a student to express themselves in the spoken or written word, through pictures , models, and/ or mime , for, not everyone has the same comfort level with each of these modes of expression.

Maybe it’s a dream, perhaps a hope, but I wonder if India, which is supposed to be re-inventing or re-discovering itself, or both, can also spare some mind-space to re-conceptualise education and re-orient it towards its true purpose. Education is meant to result in learning; it should open the mind and help it grow in awareness about the self and the society. As of now, these functions are being poorly performed because of mistaken notions of what learning is meant to be, and what it is meant to do.

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Introspect: the mantra for success is within yourself

 

Successful people attribute their achievement to having a goal and working towards it purposefully.  But the not so ‘successful’ people have goals too; they also work hard to attain these targets… This being so, why do some people succeed in reaching or surpassing their goals while others with equal or even more talent, zeal and expertise fall short?  Introspection, perhaps, holds the key.

Before taking the plunge, successful people invest thought and time in assessing their strengths and drawbacks – personal qualities, lifestyle factors imposed by the circumstances of one’s upbringing and the social milieu in which one lives. This helps them set goals that are well suited to their temperament and life conditions.  Reaching their targets becomes easier since a high degree of self-awareness has informed their decision at the goal-setting stage itself. Their goals are based on what they have learnt about themselves: their interests, capacities, and inclinations. They have thought of answers to questions such as: why do I want to do this? Do I have the knowledge and skills to do it? Are there compromises I will have to make? Are there any trade-offs? Will I be able to accommodate these?

Having set the goal, and having started on the path, the successful individual does not simply doggedly keep at it.  Rather, they stop to take stock periodically. Self-reflection is an instinctive exercise, a force of habit: am I on course or is there any course correction needed? Have I overestimated my capacities: are there any skills or knowledge I lack? Have I underestimated the demands of the task: should I seek guidance or outsource some of the work?   At any stage, if their assessments warrant, they may not hesitate to shift the goal post or alter the contours of the objectives, limit them or even give up an endeavour altogether in favour of a more viable alternative.

Hard work is important in order to succeed, focused hard work even more so.  The ability to work hard is an admirable strength acquired by persistent training. But getting to the goal, for those who succeed in getting there, is not a simple act of jumping into the water and then learning to swim, or making a dash for it without pausing to look back. Their hard work reaches fruition as they have cultivated the habit of introspection as well.

Do we want no education?  A reaction to Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan’s article*

                *See ‘We don’t want no education …’ by Pulapre Balakrishnan, The Hindu, June 27, 2015.

A quick perusal of the thesaurus turns up the following synonyms for ‘education’ – teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring, instruction, edification, culture.  Except the last two, the others are quantifiable [as is cognitive ability] and their presence or absence can be established – but only at a superficial level [once again, as in the case of cognitive ability].  Teaching, for instance, is not merely about passing on a bunch of facts and opinions but also about connecting with the student, sharing information about the subject in a manner that enhances and elevates audience understanding, and so on.  Tomes have been written about teaching but it is still being written about and researched.  Schooling and learning, similarly, are not merely about institutionalised education and imbibing instruction in a palette of subjects; a school must prepare those who enter its portals to leave as intellectually and morally well-developed citizens and learning is to exhibit such qualities of intelligence and moral standards as the commonsensical rhetoric ‘… and you call yourself educated!’ would illustrate. But what is intelligence? What is morality?  These are, once again concepts that are constantly being re-visited and revised. However, as universal measures of education, teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring and instruction have found acceptance. The presence or absence of edification and culture, however, are rather difficult to establish to universal approbation.  Edification, for one, is intangible as it goes beyond raw understanding and means a deeper, and one might say esoteric, enlightenment.  As for ‘culture’, I am only reminded of T S Eliot’s telling observation that some of the people we associate closely with culture are among the most uncultured.  Whether or not we agree with Eliot, the fact is that culture is too nebulous a notion to be tied down by definition or computed.

Education, etymologically, stops with just saying ‘lead out of[1]’ and does not specify out of what. Perhaps, it is time for a paradigm shift in our conception of education itself – even before we set out to rescue it from the social forces that are out to ‘snuff out a vibrant and free-spirited learning environment’, political forces that are in cahoots with them and market forces that straddle both. What do I mean by that well worn term ‘paradigm shift’?  For a start, I think it is worth asking if ‘education’ happens in institutions such as schools and universities or whether it happens in the wider world of which these institutions are a part.  Once this happens, the constructs such as primary, tertiary and higher education will become seamless levels of accomplishment rather than definitive standards. Think sports or music or Sanskrit.  ‘Education’ in these streams of skill or knowledge or both is not constrained by constructs such as we have in formal, institutionalised academia.   Exclusion is not the norm in these arenas – rather, they are open to all, and the levels of learning are self-determined.  Evaluation is not normative, and achievement is tested and graded in a variety of ways. There is a curriculum-like framework in place, but as a light that you carry in your hand to guide you on the path you choose and not a light that is there in the distance towards which you work your way on a pre-determined path.

Thinking of education in terms of aspiration that is open to all will also make redundant questions about the levels and kinds of institutions we should invest in.  Which, in any case, appear curious: One commonly asked question is shouldn’t expansion of school education be privileged over higher education?  I ask: if there is not an equivalence in their expansion, what happens to all those who complete school and wish to enter the best of the higher education institutions we have (in the system as it exists today)?  Should their justified ambition be sacrificed as there is no means to entertain it? But then, as Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan argues, if ‘expansion becomes the raison d’être of the public presence in higher education’, quality becomes a casuality and it is ‘disingenuous’ not to raise concerns about it. I ask: is the question of quality not equally relevant when school education’s expansion is emphasised and encouraged? Is this too not a case of inviting hungry people only to feed them leftovers?  And is this not the case today?

On a different note, I would say the thirst for knowledge is as universal a human want as the thirst for water.  And the quest is for ways to quench this thirst in a more satisfying, a more nourishing way, education as practiced today being just one way of doing it.

Notes:

[1] Ex was a common preposition used in the Latin language that simply meant “from, out of, from within”.  Ducere is the infinitve form of the Latin verb duco, which means “to lead, conduct, guide, etc.” The literal translation of educate is to draw out of, lead out of,  etc. (http://www.babeled.com/2008/11/27/word-power-education/)   Rousseau, however, traces education to ‘educatio,’ which means ‘nurture.’ ((Emile, Book I, 39 from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).

Bridging the gap between macro-level policies and change on the ground: Are ‘generative’ policies an answer?

Policies, by their very nature can only be macro-level, envisaged for the ‘general,’ based on what has been understood about the ‘universal.’ Policies, by default, therefore, ignore the ‘differentiating principle.’  This note contends that the failure of macro-level policies to provide for differences on the field is a major shortcoming in policy-making, and this is the reason so many visionary policies disappoint when it comes to rendering real change, to the level expected.

In order to move beyond the problem and consider ways to resolve it, I suggest that rather than adopting a linear approach which operates on the premise that implementation will simply follow a policy once it is articulated, it may be useful to consider a generative approach whereby lessons learnt from multiple, micro-level field studies are continuously fed into the policy, making it a dynamic tool rather than a dead instrument.  

Case studies, interviews, quantitative analyses of administered questionnaires, quotes from focus group discussions – these are all very much part of the narratives that determine policy direction. But once the policies take the shape of programmes, why are ground-level narratives not fed back into the policies? Why cannot programmes be flexible enough to allow for ‘generativity’ – a growth with every new learning?

Indian logicians, since centuries, have talked of the unifying and differentiating principles: the samanya and the visesa.  There is a ‘unifying principle,’ but then there is too a ‘differentiating principle.’  Let me clarify … If the population of the world can be divided into nations, and nations into societies, and societies into groups, which may overlap, depending on their interests, and one keeps at this, one can see that an indefinite number of ‘universals’ can be thought of and that the sub-groups that can be formed are infinite.

Policy-makers, however diverse their background, cannot be representative of all the universals. Therein lies the first catch. And then again, there is the differentiating principle. While the diversity within ‘the’ universal itself is indefinite in number as we just saw, if we factor in the goals and the motivations and methods that propel social groups towards these goals, we will find that the interpretation of the realities and results vary within each sub-group to a great extent.  In addition, these factors also change across time, depending on both societal influences on a group as well as the individual actors’ agency impinging on the group.

To unpack that dense observation to serve the purpose of this note, debates at subaltern levels occur in languages that are different from the dominant ‘popular’ discourse and academic discussions.  These subaltern conversations are also very different from each other, group-wise.  Policy-makers can, at best, bring to the table knowledge of the dialogues that permeate a few representative subaltern groups. However, since unifying principles are indefinite in number, and differentiating principles are infinite in variety and in number, the facile appreciation of the diversity in stakeholder perception of a policy and its potential impacts is a major impediment in rolling out a successful implementation plan.  And, for this reason, the best of policies fail to result in the expected change on the ground in a sustainable manner.  But this can change if it is recognised that reasoned debates in the public arena are central to participative democracy and that the scope of ‘reasoned debates’ and ‘public arena’ should  encompass debates that occur at the subaltern levels, particularly when proposing social policy changes.   De-construction of hierarchy, open offices – they are all intended to make the organisation a participative, collaborative workplace where knowledge and ideas can move freely, unrestrained, unconstrained. By allowing for generativity in policy making, a similar collaborative participative exercise becomes possible in governance, with attendant benefits.

Am I suggesting that from being a firm framework policy making become flexible and tentative?  Indeed, yes.  Consider this:  what is a sport? What is a battle? Are they not constant negotiations with reality despite being played within a rigid framework of rules? Cannot a macro social policy, similarly, adjust to micro-level realities and constantly re-invent itself? The goal after all is to win the game, while playing by the rules. Keep the macro-level policy in tact but allow for micro-level learnings to fine-tune it. This is, of course, a continuous process: a process of harmonizing the policies with the situation on the ground and beneficiaries of the exercise in each locality region. And also feeding back these learnings into the policy, which then is no longer a dead document but a constantly rejuvenating praxis.

As Stephen Ball observes,

There is plenty of social agency and social intentionality around.  Actors are making meaning, being influential, contesting, constructing responses, dealing with contradictions, attempting representations of policy  (in Education Policy and Social Class: Selected Works, Routledge, 2006).

I ask, therefore, is it not possible to incorporate into policy making this ‘other’ of the ‘expert’ knowledge – the ‘other’ in which, in fact, the ‘expert’ knowledge arises, and to which it [the policy-making process] purports to give back?

While policies most often emerge from a deep study of the problem, the people affected by it, and the various ways to address it, policy-makers still do not have a clear notion of how their recommendations will be used on the field. Policies, ipso facto, therefore, become projections – a hope, a belief.  ‘We do not command a clear view of the use of our words,’ says Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. Similarly, the policies that emerge from a deep study of the problem, the people affected by it, and the various ways to address it still do not have a clear notion of how their recommendations will be used on the field.  That is why a policy in most part, as it stands today, is a projection – a hope, a belief born of a sense of confidence  linked to the scholarship of the policy makers, which often leads the experts to believe in the rigour of their exercise and its near infallibility.  Indeed, these are the hazards of confidence that Daniel Kahneman writes about with such insight into the human psyche in his seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The middle ground between plan and praxis is occupied by an a-logical thought process that results in an infinite number of ways of adopting, adapting or resisting policy prescriptions. This leads to a partial, or skewed adoption of policies, in select pockets, upsetting the projections of the policy-makers. The upshot of this unsatisfying ground level change is often the constitution of a new expert committee and the implementation of a new policy, with near-identical outcomes. A quick review of the Indian government’s educational policies would validate this claim: despite visionary policies, starting from 1948, with stalwarts presiding over committees and commissions on education, the problems persist with regard to medium of instruction, issues of funding, the rural-urban disjuncture, teaching the teachers, modes of assessment, and even something that appears very basic such as confusion over classification of elementary and secondary education:

I argue that it is possible to make policies more effective only if policymakers come out of their endearing belief in the inviolability of their dicta: Once articulated, it is a straight road to success; all that is required is the will to facilitate implementation in the suggested manner. However, what policy-makers fail to see is that the impediments to implementation are not external: rather, they are in-built in the very process of their policy-making exercise.

#NewEducationPolicy and #AncientIndianEducation

Ancient Indian Education, in many ways, seems to have anticipated the modern-day instruction idiom.  Some of their ideas, which have stood the test of time, are worth adopting, with adaptations, when formulating India’s #NewEducationPolicy.  Today I would like to discuss the concept of Sravana-Manana-Nididhyasana.

Listening to what is taught (sravana), reflecting on the meaning of what one has imbibed so as to acquire an intelligent understanding of what one has heard, read and discussed (manana), and contemplating on what one has learnt, to apply the learning or make connections with experience (nididhyasana) are compulsory steps to make a student’s learning complete.  Present-day schooling, with its crowded syllabus that demands a choc-a-bloc academic calendar allows little room for manana and nididhyasana.  Consequently, learning is facile and fleeting, far from the holistic and meaningful experience that education is meant to be.

One way to rectify this situation is by adopting a new curricular approach that is choice-based and credit-based, and also freeing evaluation from the constrict of testing for scholarship only through a written exam in academic or bookish knowledge. There should be room, instead, for a student to be tested for skills of multiple kinds: oral, written, presentation, acting, debating, in-class participation, raising questions, etc.  A re-think on the tyranny of grades and marks and substituting it with a credit-based system, akin to that adopted in many institutes of advanced learning could be an option.  This would automatically translate into cogitation and absorption of learning, and make institutionalised learning less mind-numbing and more meaningful.

Inter-Faith Instruction: Let us use religion to unite the world

 

“The intellect by which one knows what is to be done, what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, what is binding and what is liberating is in the mode of goodness.

“The intellect by which one cannot distinguish between what is right and wrong, between what should be done and what shouldn’t be done is in the mode of passion.

“The intellect with which one misconceives wrong as right and what is right as wrong, which is covered in darkness and steers down the wrong path is in the mode of ignorance.”

These are verses from one religion’s holy book (#BhagavadGita, chapter 18, verse 30-32).  I am sure each religion and way of life has its own version of such verses of value, which pass down moralities that make us humane, and hence, human.

We need #Inter-Faith Instruction that draws on secular values from all castes, creeds and mores.  We need a universal book that is published by a global body such as the #UNICEF for use in every school on earth.  The world has to globalise religion instead of quartering it, learn to use it to as a tool to unite instead of letting cohorts of vested interests hijack it, enslave it, abuse it.

In our schools and universities we are churning out scholars and scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers, teachers and doctors.  We are even training children to be sportspersons, musicians, artists, actors … but are we forgetting to teach them to be human?  In the race to ‘make it’ are we actually making monsters?

In schools, in malls and movie theatres, in small cafes and luxury hotels, in buses, trains and planes – from Pakistan today to the USA last year, from Sydney yesterday to India three years ago, all over the world, it is no longer safe for ordinary folks to lead their simple lives; it is no longer possible to take everyday joys for granted; it is no longer certain that families that leave homes in the morning will remain whole to meet later in the day. 

“The knowledge by which the undivided Supreme Being is seen in all entities is in the mode of goodness … (Gita: 18-20)

#ThreeLanguageFormula: Sanskrit/ indigenous Indian language+ Foreign/ imported language + Language of Instruction

 

Sanskrit has been around at least since before the grammarian Panini codified it and he has been historically dated to the 4th century BCE.  While many Adivasi or tribal languages can, perhaps, lay greater claim to the tag ‘indigenous Indian language’  Sanskrit has a unique place in the country’s cultural history. Literature that originated in Sanskrit is the fountainhead of a flood of stories and songs that are the pride of towns and temples, villages, artistes and artisans in every nook and corner of the country.  Sanskrit also has an every-day, ubiquitous aspect: many of our rivers and mountains, places and people draw their names from the language.  So much so it would be irrational to imagine we can divorce Sanskrit from the country’s life-world and disingenuous to argue that any other Indian language, however hoary its tradition, enjoys a pan-Indian presence or an equal status.  Sanskrit, therefore, would be the natural choice for classical language of India.  That said it would be folly to deny what is due to other ancient languages of our land. So let our three language formula include one indigenous language – which can be Sanskrit or a tribal language.

Languages that became part of our cultural mosaic when they came into our country along with invaders – be they European or West Asian – can be considered under the rubric of foreign languages as they were imported into the country initially. So another of the three languages would be a foreign language, which could be English, German, Persian, Arabic or any other language such as Latin American languages or East Asian languages – just about any language that finds a resonance among the public, in fact.

The primary language or the language of instruction can be English – which is the link language for the nation, Hindi which is the official language of the nation, or a sectarian language which could be the language of a community or a region.

There could be overlaps between the three.  The choice of indigenous language (say Soliga) could be the same as the primary language of instruction.  Or the foreign language and the choice of language of instruction (say English) could be the same.  This issue can be addressed easily by adopting a creative approach with regard to the curriculum and evaluation mechanism for languages apart from the language of instruction.

While the economic consideration of the language of instruction has a place in an education system, it engenders a functional approach to the study of language, and completely loses sight of the finer aspects of the applications of language. After all, most Indians are multi-lingual – especially those who are considered educationally ‘backward’.  They are able to converse effectively, critically appreciate, enjoy, and understand the various word forms: from idiomatic expressions to figures of speech to song and literature.  It is this potential of language learning that should be sought to be furthered by the second and third languages, which are not the language of instruction. To comprehend, to converse, to critically appraise, and to communicate should all be part of the thought-process that goes into creation of syllabus and evaluation criteria for these subjects.