Economic downturns and boom periods notwithstanding, the best way for a country like India to secure its future is to focus a lot of energy on building a very strong schooling system. In the coming decades, when human ingenuity will be the greatest competitive advantage, the importance of investing in education will only increase manifold. While tertiary and professional education are important, critical thinking skills are developed in the middle school years. Over the long term, it may not be an exaggeration to say that countries with the best schools will be the most successful.
Can India achieve this? Yes, but only if we can accept that there is a lot in our schools—government and private—that needs to improve significantly, while simultaneously realizing that we have the capability to build the best education system in the world (and maybe help others improve theirs in the process!).
Consider here some lessons from countries around the world.
From Singapore—attracting the best as teachers: Do you know that Singapore and Hong Kong recruit their teachers from students in the top 30% of the graduating class? Some countries are even more fastidious—Finland targets the top 10% and Korea the top 5%! It sounds politically incorrect to say it—and all of us are to blame for it—but teachers in India probably come from the lowest one-third of performing students. Principals often react to this suggestion by saying that the best math students do not make the best math teachers—which is true—but on an average, professions do well when the best students select them. If we can only ensure that bright, committed people become teachers, they will ensure that many of the problems are solved. If the system sells the idea to the brightest, the commitment will come from self-selection. Although remuneration is no doubt important, note that even in the top performing countries, people choose teaching due to the prestige, challenge or excitement associated with the profession, not the salary.
Hemant Mishra / Mint
From Japan—lesson studies and other teacher development ideas: Successful countries realize the importance of “continuous professional development”. Japan’s case is notable because it has a clear goal that its educational system must clearly improve every 20 years or so. One of the ways the Japanese do it is by encouraging teachers to learn from each other as a community. In the Japanese lesson study model, two teachers discuss and prepare a lesson together. One teacher teaches the lesson with the other observing. The observer gives feedback, which is incorporated, and a modified lesson is planned. This lesson is taught by the teacher who observed the first one. After this cycle, the overall learnings are shared with a group of teachers. This entire process shows the attention to detail of planning a simple lesson better and better.
From Canada—early education in the mother tongue: It is interesting how top performing nations recognize the importance of mother tongue education or emphasize bilingual or multilingual education. In India, official government policy is also in line with this philosophy, and it is the middle and upper classes that swear by English.
The logic is simple: Children will learn best if early education is in a language they are most familiar with. If another language is used, the child will lose valuable time negotiating that language rather than learning what has to be learnt. Learning in the mother tongue does not need to weaken English proficiency—research suggests it could strengthen it. Some models recommend that the first six years of schooling be in the mother tongue, followed by six years of English-medium education—providing a strong base of both languages, and also culture and critical thinking skills whose base is laid in the early years.
From Finland—intelligent accountability: This refers, among other things, to a system of periodically measuring the progress of the system, typically by testing a sample of students. Well-designed, periodic, independent assessments are not unlike the annual medical check-ups each individual is recommended to have. These provide checks on how the system is doing—something we do not have in India.
From Bhutan—valuing education: In India, we have built primary schools within a kilometre of large habitations, provide midday meals to all students and free textbooks and free uniforms to girls. Somewhere, providers and receivers must value education for its intrinsic worth. Even a small country such as Bhutan, with its own challenges, presented us a number of learnings—a common school system, negligible teacher absence (Indian rates are among the highest in the world) and students who sometimes trek kilometres in groups to reach school and get back home. For a variety of reasons, we need to rediscover that respect for what education can do.
As mentioned in the beginning, while the situation may look gloomy on the surface, our system has some intrinsic strengths. Some of these are an intrinsic emphasis on working hard in school, a positive value to doing well in school, strong parental support for education and a focus on math and science (which is seen as critical in the world today, but should not lead to a neglect of the arts!). We need to build on these strengths while working on other areas where we are weak.
It is interesting to look back and note that virtually each of these suggestions is a little controversial—almost politically unacceptable. Maybe that’s the learning—the path will not be an easy one, but if we are ready to tread it, we have the world to gain.
Sridhar Rajagopalan is managing director of Educational Initiatives, an IIM-A alumni venture working for qualitative improvement in India’s education system. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org