Imagine a factory filled with machines, each manned by an operator.
As is the wont of operators, some work hard, some don’t. Some are habitual absentees, but most are just the average decent person eking out a living. In this factory, like the operators, the machines also follow the normal curve on every characteristic, for example, stability, precision and breakdown.
The strange thing about this factory is that it has no engineers, none at all. None for design, production, planning, maintenance, or master training. No experts to help manage these areas.
I have run many factories, but, if asked to, I would find it impossible to run this one. I won’t like to be its customer either.
Now in our imagination, let’s scale this up to a nation full of such factories, about 1.3 million—with the average operators and the average machines— but no engineers. What would you get from the factories of this nation? How long before this system will descend into chaos? How would anything change and improve?
That is the state of our education system. We have 1.3 million schools with teachers, but the “expert level” equivalent to the engineers in the above analogy is a virtual vacuum in India.
Before the guns shoot me down for committing the heresy of comparing a school to a factory, a teacher to a machine operator, and, by that route, comparing the education system to an industrial system, let me hasten and add that I have used the analogy with a very limited purpose of sharply bringing out these “expert levels”. That limited point having been made for the limited purpose of this column, I must emphatically state that schools and factories differ deeply in methods (they obviously must—though unfortunately sometimes they don’t), purposes and philosophy.
To return to the issue of “expert level”—let’s call them education experts—this lot is so small in number in India, so as to be virtually absent. What do these experts do (or would do, were they to be there)?
Let’s start with: What should be learnt in schools? At what ages? What methods of teaching and learning are effective for what concepts? How would different children learn effectively? How do you contextualize curricular material to the incredible diversity of India? How do you dynamically weave in the issues of an ever-evolving society?
What should be the curriculum of in-service teacher education? How do you assess learning levels appropriately and such that it is an aid to learning, and not a “judgement” on children? How do you manage schools and school systems? What is the economics of education and how can we ensure equity? Which policy will walk best the fine balance of managing scale, teacher unions, current institutional capacity and still make a dent in learning levels?
These (and thousands such) issues have to be dealt with if we are to improve our education system. These issues are in the domain of “education experts”—experts, for example, in instructional design, in curriculum and pedagogy, in education management, in education technology, in education policy, in educational psychology.
India doesn’t have these experts. If you were to talk to any serious organization working in education—private (not-for-profit or for-profit) or the government—the first and biggest problem that they will list is absence of a talent pool to hire from, for roles of experts in any area of education.
We just have a few score who have become education experts, from decades of reflective experience on the ground, but without any formal education. And perhaps 50-100 students who are gradu-ating from a few formal programmes in education, every year. These are few drops in a dry, empty ocean bed.
Let’s compare our numbers to those in Canada. Every year about 2,000 students graduate in these expertise areas in Canada. And Canada’s population is 47 million, ours is 1,000 million. We cannot but be aware of the state of our education system vis-à-vis that of Canada’s, let alone our society’s need for education vis-à-vis theirs.
How can we hope to improve our education without experts in education? It is incredible that we are not addressing this root cause, and still hoping that our education will improve. Will we dream of running (forget improving) 1.3 million factories without any kind of engineers? We won’t. So why do we hope that that miracle will happen in education?
There is no way around this issue. India has to start education programmes, with significant number of students, in these expertise areas. As an organization working in the education sector, we have borne the brunt of this problem, and so decided to catch the bull by the horns. We are starting a university to offer post graduate programmes in different areas of education expertise. But one university in a nation of a billion, with this kind of need, is completely insufficient; at least 25 more are required. We are hoping we will find fellow travellers along the way.
Anurag Behar is co-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 email@example.com
To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go towww.livemint.com/othersphere