Let’s start with a recap of some news from the world of education that has held the attention of the general public in the past few weeks.
The results of the second Wipro Education Initiatives study on actual learning levels in India’s “best” (as polled by upper middle-class parents) schools have been widely reported. By virtue of being the “best” schools, these are also the schools that are held as models in the country.
The conclusion of the study was that actual learning levels of students in our best schools were below global averages. Students did well in areas that required memorization and procedural skills, but were way behind on understanding, conceptual clarity, thinking and application. The study, conducted this year, also showed a worsening trend on all parameters, as compared with a similar study from 2006.
Close on heels of this study the results of the latest OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were reported. Started in 2000, this is one of the very few rigorous, periodic cross-country studies of education at school level.
Two states from India—Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh—had participated in this round of PISA. This meant assessment of students of the wider, state-run schooling system. This is the first time that India has participated in PISA. Of the 74 countries and regions across the world that participated in the study, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh ranked 72 and 73, respectively—at the bottom of the heap—only above Kyrgyzstan. Shanghai topped the charts, and Finland also figured right at the top, as it has in all past studies.
The two studies are very consistent—if our best schools are below global averages, our overall system is bound to be near bottom in global comparisons. The studies are also consistent with the everyday experience of anyone involved with education in India—that our school system is focused on memorization and exam marks not on real education.
This crisis—India’s education deficit—affects wide swathes of our everyday life, both at economic and societal levels. It has a serious bearing on our future. It’s just that cause and effect are not always easily traceable.
It’s easy to see this causality for economic prosperity and growth. The education deficit severely limits our capacities and competitiveness at every level—from the individual to the entire country. It also stunts our progress as a society. There is no way that we will move towards a just, equitable and humane society with this kind of education.
It’s not as though there have been no efforts at improving our educational system. There have been numerous efforts—driven by governments and by other organizations. But these have been completely inadequate for the scale of our country, its diversity and it complex social realities.
There are no simple, easy solutions. There are no magic bullets. There is no “innovation” that can fix our education. We have to take the hard, long route—because that is the only route. We have to fix the basics—really fix them and then build on that—not take superficial steps.
First, we must build on a sound notion of education. Education that fosters capabilities of multiple kinds: cognitive, social, emotional, ethical and others. And all these at a deep, not superficial, level like the ability of “rote memorization”. It’s the overall schooling experience that must foster the students’ abilities on all these dimensions—the curriculum, the school culture, the teacher, the classroom practices, etc. This might seem like an esoteric, theoretical point to make, but the fact is that most of our ills in education stem from not getting this fundamental right.
Second, we have to work on the basics of what makes a schooling system good, not tinker at the periphery. We have to overhaul our teacher education system. This is a crucial issue; with its current shape we will never get anywhere. The curriculum, curricular support material, and our assessment (examination) systems all need dramatic improvement. We need to transform our educational leadership and management to support such an education, and the school culture it requires. We need to do all this (and some more) factoring for the complex socio-economic, linguistic and cultural reality of our country.
Lastly, we must be clear that this will take decades of sustained work. We will have to stay with the same course for 20-30 years before we see real differences. And we will have to work in this sustained manner at two different levels—at the level of people coming in fresh into the education system (e.g. new teachers) and at the level of people already in the system (there are seven million of them).
Everything here is a repetition of what much wiser people have said before. I am repeating it with the hope that placed in the context of cross country comparisons the urgency of action will be more apparent and it will urge us to take steps—some small, some big. Everything counts.
Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability issues for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
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