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Limits of small successes

Limits of small successes
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First Published: Wed, Jun 01 2011. 03 18 PM IST
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 05 48 PM IST
They had worked with 17 schools. After 18 months of working with these inner schools, they witnessed an improvement with the learning outcomes. With confidence that comes from conviction of success, the consultant who had led the project was coolly dismissive of the idea that India’s scale, diversity and complexity limited the value of his methods.
He was very sincere in pitch, as we sat overlooking the lovely city that he worked in. We enjoyed the breakfast and the view and moved on.
Moving on and ignoring such confident advice is a survival skill in our work. One is inundated every day by solutions, methods and ideas that are “proven” and claims that they can dramatically improve education, if implemented at scale. Almost all such advice is made with the best of intentions, and with complete conviction.
Usually the conviction, confidence and push are greater, if made by an advocate of the idea, rather than the person who (such people usually are far more measured) has implemented it. The advocates are forthright in their admission that ideas implemented at relatively small scale, in controlled conditions and in one particular context may not be applicable elsewhere, but somehow the idea that they are espousing is different, and these limitations do not apply.
We face this with teacher training, curriculum, pedagogy, technology, school management, motivation, “integrated approaches”…every facet of education and more. Indeed, there are many worthy examples of small successes for all of these. “Small” is relative to the scale, diversity and complexity of a district (usually over a thousand schools) in India, let alone the entire nation (1.4 million schools). It is also in the context of the socio-economic and political reality of the country, which can be “controlled” or “overcome” at small scale, but overwhelms everything, the minute you leave that bubble.
I think we continually do a great disservice to the country by not recognizing the limits of small successes. The negative consequences of this optimism have two dimensions.
First, many a time, fascinated and convinced by some such successes, someone who has the authority to do so implements it at on a larger scale. The least damage that it does is the waste of money. The pernicious effect is the disorientation and confusion that it creates in the ranks of teachers, school leaders and education functionaries at the district level and below. Over time, such experiments may happen so often for these people to substantially lose their professional and disciplinary moorings.
At times, attempts have been made to implement some pedagogical techniques and ideas on a larger scale, inspired by the success of some model implemented in a handful of schools. In the absence of most other conditions that prevailed in schools where these models were originally implemented, e.g. the quality and kind of teacher training, school conditions, assessment methods, class size and uniformity, teacher qualification and support etc., these methods have at best been ineffective, and at worst have left teachers feeling lost and helpless, especially because soon enough another such idea comes along.
All this creates the illusion of movement, of good work being attempted. And it distracts the entire system from the fundamental and painstaking work that is really required.
The second dimension of not recognizing the limits of small successes lies in the lost opportunities for learning. There is much to learn from small successes. That, however, requires method and time to understand the limits of these successes. Indeed, discovery, exploration and experimentation happen only at small scale. What can only be discovered in a test tube and lab requires rigorous method and investment, to be developed for use in the world, we know that. We do need to do that in education as well.
There is an even more complex issue, for which we may have no solution, but the consciousness of which can perhaps be useful. In some domains “scaling” is not possible—at least in the way it is understood in industrial settings. These are arenas, where locality and specificity is everything. This is driven by the basic truth that these levels involve individual human issues, which by definition are individualized, needing individual attention. Healthcare and education are two of the most important such areas. However, the reality of dealing with millions of children (or patients), does need a large system. We have “scaled” our system on an industrial model, largely ignoring the reality of individual attention. The system is there now, we have to continually work with it to improve it, but there is no need to continue to “scale” with an industrial mindset. The battle for quality and equity must be largely fought school by school.
In the meanwhile, we can also try to empathize with the teacher, who is the one who really faces the music of the kids every day, and not yo-yo her from one brilliant idea to another.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jun 01 2011. 03 18 PM IST