Sunday, September 13, 2015

Education: A few thoughts and one radical idea

Lets think about education at school and its current status in India.

  • Our government schools are undesirable to us citizens. We send our children to government schools if we can't afford private schools, or if we are  government employees.
  • Our public education depends on budget allocation and hence driven by economy. 
  • Though there are improvements in public education (RTE, play-way methods and achievement of universal enrollment) quality remains sub-standard, it would be fair to say that it hasn't evolved fast enough to match the need.
  • Our private schools range from cheap to expensive ones. In general they prepare students to be the workforce for India's private and public enterprises. They prepare them for work, but not for life. 
  • Private schools are business enterprises and it’s a sellers' market. Schools dictate the price of the commodity,  they assess the quality of the raw material (read children) before being used as an input, and tailor the finished product (read students finishing 12th grade or equivalent) to meet a standard (read college entrance exams!). If it mandates, they have the free hand to get rid of the raw material midway, if they feel that not doing so would significantly diminish the perceived reputation of the business (school).
  • School expenses form a significant percentage of family expenditure regardless of whether  the school is a cheap or an expensive one.

I am no expert in education, even though I am interested enough to read, watch and discuss a lot about constantly. I think the above summary fairly captures the reality about today's education in India. Needless to say, this has to change. But how should education be?

Stakeholders should recognize  that employability does not completely define success in education. It is only one dimension of success. What defines complete success of education is, in itself, is a worthy matter of debate, research and stakeholders are better of forming a framework for this. However, in my opinion, when a child turns sixteen, if she recognizes
  • her interests, has a general idea of how to pursue it,
  • that an unfamiliar situation makes her curious rather than insecure
  • how to handle a setback and use it as a lesson
  • that excellence can be attained through resilient pursuit, constant endeavor to improve rather than "high adrenaline, last minute" preparation
  • that mental, physical health as important as professional success
  • that social responsibility is relevant

the school would have played its part. Clearly, only academic excellence as the primary aim doesn't do justice to this end. If children right across the different strata of the society are to be empowered, the school system should be highly research-oriented, personalized, universal (inclusive of children with economic and learning disadvantages) and evolving.

To make it research-oriented and personalized, teaching position should be made reputed enough to attract in the best minds. Such individuals should be empowered by the stakeholders (government, parents, school administration) to design or modify the curriculum.

To make it universal, education should be decoupled from yearly budget allocations or reduction and the uncertainties of market economics. Education should be cheap if not free.

To make education an evolution, exams should be considered as much an assessment of teaching quality as it is of learning ability.

Countries and local governments best known for their education system already implement the above suggestion. Finland, considered to have the best education system in the world, offers free education with highly personalized curriculum designed and customized by empowered teachers. USA, despite a lot of criticism of its educational policies, has a lot of best minds like Howard Gardner, Carol Dweck and multitudes of school teachers and teacher-trainers devising, customizing and implementing teaching methodologies at all school levels.  A look at Edutopia would give an idea about the mind-boggling churn around education. I don't see this level of energy at the school level in any of the stakeholders here in India, though we do have positive outliers like Maduram schools, Barefoot college, Government Primary School in Motwada and Azim Premji University.

Following the footsteps of those who have tasted success is a good start, but devising our own strategy  in education is just as important to ensure quality. I would like to put forth one radical idea here - as a question rather than a suggestion. To my knowledge this isn't done in any other country.

Given that education has to be universal, economically insulated from the market uncertainties and unprejudiced, is there a good case for making education as the fourth branch of democracy alongside legislature, executive and judiciary? After all, judiciary is largely not affected by the prejudice of the government, judges and judicial staff do get paid even though they don't add any value to the market (nobody asks where the money comes from!) and education of our children play as important a role in the future of our society  as does justice. Doesn't it?

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