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Recent events on the economic, social, political and military fronts have buttressed the importance of India becoming a self-reliant nation. Disciplining the taxation scheme, offering preferential funds to startups, strengthening bankruptcy routes and encouraging indigenous manufacturing are important, but little can be done if the talent itself is not world class.

World-class talent starts at the school and college level with an education system that emphasizes both the sciences and the arts, and encourages diversity and collaboration while being flexible and inclusive enough to have space for everyone. That’s the real path to innovation and self-reliance.

As author Walter Isaacson notes, great ideas are born at the intersection of science and humanities. Steve Jobs famously took a calligraphy course and brought those fonts to the Mac, which shaped the way we interact with machines since. The university system in the west encourages students to take up multidisciplinary courses, audit classes that may have no direct relevance to their core subjects, and allows for cross-pollination of ideas and concepts.

The New Education Policy 2020 is a step in the right direction as it proposes this seamless movement between arts, humanities and sciences to break the artificial hierarchy in subjects that exists today. Thousands of students would be saved from being forced into disciplines they have no interest in. It gives them the chance to develop holistically, and better attuned to real-world challenges.

Another important attribute of innovation is craft. “Think with your hands" is a core philosophy of innovation and a generation of tinkerers took Germany, the UK and the US to their industrial and economic heights. In India though, we have a disregard for using our hands. If students are systematically exposed to carpentry, electrical work, metal work, coding, gardening and more, they are more likely to become holistic inventors. Experiential learning would further help students develop multiple intelligences.

By radically simplifying the core curriculum, students would have more time to learn and apply critical thinking skills, holistic inquiry, experimentation, and imagination, traits strongly associated with innovation.

Finally, in India, there’s great stigma associated with being a school or a college dropout. The tech world is replete with the tales of college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, but the same is practically unthinkable in India. Why? Our existing system has very few outlets during a four-year degree programme for someone to step out with legitimacy, or worse still, rebadge at a later time. At the secondary and higher education level too, recontinuing education remains an arduous task.

One of the biggest leaps towards encouraging risk taking, an essential for creativity and innovation, is the facilitation of dropping out and rejoining mainstream education for all. With multiple entry and exit options, a student’s credits would be transferred, and the student can build on the credits anywhere, anytime going forward.

We’re only now looking at ways for students who can’t be a part of the mainstream system to participate in open schooling that would be the equivalent of regular classes. Facilitating learning for adults by keeping schools and colleges open for longer hours and having more flexible courses will also improve community engagement. Further, ramping up of adult learning through apps, multilingual online courses/modules, regional language satellite TV channels, tech-equipped libraries and adult education centres will ease continued education for all age groups.

With the penetration of digital technologies and with one of the cheapest data services in the world, India is poised for a revolution in education, and the timing couldn’t have been better. The investment in education as a share of GDP needs to rise further, and the coming years could well be India’s decade of knowledge and innovation. We must all participate in unlearning and relearning this time.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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