Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Perils of innovation

What's common to things that are claimed as innovation in education is that they have been tried before, with limited or no success

If he had not been a wealthy man, he could have found a role as Arnold’s adversary in The Expendables or some such super-brawny movie. It looked like he wanted to crush me, which he could have done with his finger-tips.

He had requested for a meeting, wanting to learn about school education in India. Early in the discussion, he stated his view emphatically that information and communications technology was the fountain of innovation for solutions to India’s problems in education. On such matters there is no point in mincing words, so I told him this was not correct, first politely and then as he refused to listen, more directly.

Along with his wealth, he hadn’t acquired the ability to listen. So he raved, louder and louder about the game-changing impact of smart-boards and sundry other tech toys, and how these could reduce dependency on teachers. Then he started attacking me as a stuck-in-the-mud Luddite, and for being another irritating obstacle to much needed innovations.

Since I was confident that I could outrun him, if he did attack me physically, I saw no reason to tolerate this nonsense in my own office. So I told him that we would end the meeting right then.

Not all discussions on innovation in education have the same drama, but some things are common. Basically that the committed, passionate advocate of the so-called innovation feels frustrated by my refusal to acknowledge the innovation as innovation, let alone a significant one.

Let me take a couple of more examples. There was this deeply committed educationist arguing for curricular innovations. What he was referring to was the integration of specific streams of vocational education from grade six. This would include things such as plumbing, masonry, electrical repair, etc. A good economist claimed hiring a local villager at low salary, and using her as a teacher after some training was an innovation leading to improved learning levels.

What’s common to all these things that are claimed as innovation is that they all have the good intention of improving education from its current state. One could argue most such things are not innovations because they have been tried before, with limited or no success. While that is true, I think there are two more fundamental issues in claiming such things as innovation in education.

Let’s take the first issue, which is quite simple. If you were to get a bunch of experts in education to consider whatever is being attempted, would they find reasonable consensus, informed by the then understanding of education, that it’s a good thing to attempt educationally?

This would mean due consideration, for example, of aims of education, pedagogical alternatives, the nature of subjects and the understanding of child development, while also considering the socio-cultural context. It would factor the impact of the proposed innovation on the capacity, culture and autonomy of the school. All this would be equally applicable to curriculum and pedagogical practices, as to resourcing, arrangements and structures of school organization and systems.

On this matter of educational soundness of the three innovations that I have mentioned, a brief summary would be that these are things that neither are fundamentally good for education nor are these better alternatives. Many advocates of such innovations themselves would agree with this educational summary. However, they would contend that given various kinds of constraints that our school education and society face, these things must be attempted.

To address this matter of given our constraints, let’s look at the related second issue, which is even simpler. Whatever is being touted as an innovation to help improve the current state of education, would you want your children to go to a school that uses it?

Would you want your children to go to a school that thinks that poor teaching can be offset by smartboards? How about your children’s school vocationalizing education from grade six? Or using someone from the neighbourhood as a teacher after four weeks of training?

The answers to these questions will lead to the common, basic problem with such things. These things are all being proposed such that they will be implemented in schools that serve disadvantaged populations. We will never think of implementing these things in schools serving the upper middle class.

Such things only harden and deepen systemic inequity. Instead of improving what is required to be improved, which are the well understood fundamentals (teacher education and support, system culture, greater investment, etc.), these are attempts to take shortcuts, the kind which we will never accept for ourselves because these are suboptimal or wrong. At the core this is injustice.

Education by its very nature demands innovation and creativity, within the classroom and school. Paradoxically, our organizational culture throttles that creativity, while touting other things as innovation. For anything to be classified as innovation in education, let’s put it to two simple tests: is it educationally sound and is it equitable and just?

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. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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