Wednesday, May 04, 2016

What happens when you seriously try to empower children, teachers and community through large scale education initiatives?

The pervasive notion that 'nothing has been done in education in India' could not be further from the truth. In fact not only has a great deal been done, but its consequences have been faced over decades. In particular, what follows applies to introducing educational designs based on local context, using the experiences and strengths of the stakeholders, creating a situation where they play an active role in determining and implementing processes.

Though obviously much must have been done over the decades till the 80s, my experience ranges from mid-80s, when I was part of a team working on such classroom practices, textbooks and educational designs from 1986 onwards. Implementation of the programme called Prashika (Prathamik Shiksha Karyakram) focused on marginalised groups, with the team living in a tribal area as well as in a rural, deprived pocket and introducing the innovation in government primary schools. The work in Prashika was pathbreaking in many, many ways (integration of 5 subjects at the primary level, incorporation of multiple local languages, a hugely localised textbook/workbook that could only be completed with each child contributing, called Khushi-Khushi - still not matched anywhere, I believe). It provided hope that much was possible despite the difficulties faced and informed many of the later efforts that followed, both in the government and the NGO sector.

Later in DPEP - particularly Kerala, Assam, Karnataka, Haryana, UP, Bihar, TN, Nagaland and later with SSA Gujarat further work was done. Localised training, contexualisable textbooks (some really brilliant stuff still not matched anywhere - and that's a professional opinion), teacher determined assessment system, involvement of community knowledge, children constructing local histories / local environment books, peer learning and assessments, textbooks that would be 'complete' only along with a set of 50 district-specific books kept in the school library.... many, many innovative and large scale measures were conceived and actually implemented using a strategically developed implementation plan. 

In each first five states we were able to see 2-3 years of implementation, development of hundreds / thousands of teachers who implemented contextualised learning, a high degree of in-class practice backed by supportive, localisable material. These states changed their position in the national achievement surveys too, with Kerala rising to the top (it had been fairly close to the bottom before this, below Bihar in the first national survey). In the case of Gujarat, field testing was done in 630 schools, researched by MSU Baroda with very encouraging findings. 

However, as long as we were not visibly successful there were no problems. When change began to be visible on some scale and a palpable sense of energy was witnessed among teachers and communities, alarm bells began to ring. in each of these states, the powers that be - especially at state level, state institutions, administrations, political parties - found that this went against the command-and-control structures conducive to them being able to assert their authority. Schools didn't want to be told what to teach when and how - they had their own plans. Empowered teachers / school heads / even some VECs refused to kowtow to mediocre ideas or corruption oriented bosses - leading to huge conflicts all over the place. Unfortunately these never got reported, recorded or researched. The results were mass scale transfers, cases against state project directors who encouraged this (Kerala SPD was charge sheeted, Karnataka SPD given punishment posting in North Karnataka, Assam SPD sent to conflict zone during worst riots, Bihar SPD transferred to PHED and later kept without posting), the re-casting of State Resource Groups from those selected for tested capabilities to those stocked with ex-officio positions, the emasculation of the BRC-CRC structures from genuine teacher support institutions into data collection centres (believe it or not, we did have functional BRCs CRCs at one time!), the centralisation of powers away from the VECs and re-casting into SMCs with a different function, and major shift in recruitments away from districts to states (in one state the Education Minister held a Recruitment Mela in a stadium to personally appoint 3000 para-teachers). 

Interestingly, Prashika in MP faced a similar adminstrative backlash and was closed down.

Yes, like it or not, this is what ideas of empowerment through education come up against - and they fall short not because of lack of any purity in the idea itself or absence of rigour, but because after a point when it goes into implementation an idea is something else, and not its original pure self. You might look at the actual work and find it is not 'up to the standard' - yet when trying to create it for those who need education the most, other aspects need to be taken into account. Basically, empowering the weak is clearly seen by the strong as disempowering them - and the empire strikes back! One of the outcomes is that a few years later, it appears as if nothing has been done, and people gear themselves up to again come up with 'innovative' ideas, often weaker than might already have been tried, uninformed by the past.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Why do it
Whether on the TV or in newspapers or on social media sites – we are today surrounded everywhere by strong views on nationalism. Groups of people are getting angry and upset, calling each other names, being violent. Your students too are caught in this, though they may not fully be aware of it. They will be absorbing views from different sources, all of which may not be reliable. And they may end up adopting strong opinions (or even what you consider misguided ones) without giving them sufficient thoughts. For this reason, we have prepared a discussion guide. It is important that at this crucial time, when they might be making a choice, you, their teacher, reach out to them and help them think things through.

So here are some hints. Use them in the way they work best for you. Drop them or change them or add to them according to your need and situation.

Preliminary – setting the ground
For such a discussion, it would be best to prepare the ground gently rather than rush into it. Here are some questions you could ask.
  1. Have you been hearing or seeing the news or reading the newspapers?
  2. What are some of the big issues being discussed?
  3. What have you read or hear about the ‘nationalism debate’?

Provide background
Briefly give a background to the issue. It is possible many may not have heard it or may not have a clear idea of what happened.

Discuss the  issue
As students the following questions. Make sure you get everyone’s views, especially those who often don’t speak up. [Some hints are given in the brackets.]
  1. So what do you think it means to love your country? [taking care of the environment? Looking after those who are not able to take care of themselves? Singing patriotic songs? Joining the army? Being polite to others? What else? Especially in our daily lives, what do we do (or can do) to show our patriotism?]
  2. What are the best ways to show your love for your country? [you can use the list from the previous question to identify 2-3 of the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ ways and discuss why students think they are the best.]
  3. What are some of the things you would not do if you love your country? [e.g. spitting everywhere as it spreads disease, not dirtying or vandalizing the environment, not jumping a queue or try to take an undue advantage…]
  4. Even in a family everyone is not able to agree on everything? Have you seen any example of this? What happens in such a case?
  5. So if someone does no agree with you, is it a good idea to beat him or her up? Why?
  6. What do you think are the best ways to deal with disagreement?
  7. And what if on the issue of loving your country, someone says something you don’t find pleasant? What should you do?
  8. What are the best ways of finding out more deeply why people think the way they think? And how can you use that to help them see things differently?

Of course, this discussion will not end here. Give students some materials to read. Organize one or two follow up events. Suggest that the students have their own discussion group and contact you for help if needed.

All the best!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Detention For Adults?

To all those who are convinced that the non-detention policy is harming education…

Children’s apparent lack of learning becomes an issue mainly because it is easy to see that they have missed out on something. The fact that at a younger age learning is very fast and that clear milestones are available helps us perceive this – and therefore apply all kinds of expectations, tactics, at times even coercion to ‘ensure’ learning – one such being the detention system which, many believe, is needed in order to maintain ‘quality’. By making children lose a year because we couldn’t ensure their learning (and blaming them for it), we feel we can generate the fear required to make them ‘serious’ and learn.

If we are convinced about this, why should it apply only to school education? What if we could lay out clear benchmarks for adults to learn and grow – in general as well as in the work they do. Certainly it is possible to have a life-long ‘curriculum’ with two-year benchmarks (over their entire careers, and even post retirement) for educationists and curriculum developers, teachers, HMs, government officials, managers, businessmen, fathers and mothers (and grandparents), journalists, artists, municipal staff, auditors, accountants, administrators, intelligence agents and politicians. What if there was a ‘detention system’ (in terms of not being allowed to be promoted or get a pay increase or being sent back to some lower ‘grade’)? Yes, in some government jobs there is an ‘efficiency bar’ and the supposed HR policies and internal competition are expected to sort this out. But do they?

Can we as a nation claim that we have, every year, demonstrated the improvement required to declare ourselves ‘promoted’ to the next level (whatever that is)?

And what happens when police are unable to reduce crimes, leaders are unable to ensure the welfare of the poor, systems are unable to deliver basics such as electricity / water / education / health, or societies are unable to get men to have basic respect for women?

Who should be ‘detained’?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

So, What Now? Knowing the 7 Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems, What Do We Do?

See Myth # 7 of 7 here.

Continuing to live with these myths is to deny ourselves the opportunity to succeed, especially for those who need education the most. The first step is to accept that these notions have indeed affected our work in trying to bring about better education. Acknowledging this is not a sign of defeat but of learning.

After acknowledgement, however, come reflection – and small steps. 

Here are some small steps that all of us can take: 
  1. Discuss these ‘myths’ and related issues with as many people as you can. Question and contest them, or support them, with your experiences, facts and data from your sphere.
  2. If you are in any way connected with education – as a student, parent, teacher, CRC-BRC, official or resource person, NGO worker or decision-maker, make one small change every month which in some way empowers children or teachers or HMs. (Our team, Ignus PAHAL, will soon be producing a poster presenting a graded list of these small, doable changes at the school level.)
  3. Talk with as many stakeholders as possible and within reach (and in the limited time available) about what they would like. They might suggest things they could do – and a small beginning may be made to a partnership in bringing about improvement that is gettable. It may be a better way to help children wash their hands before the mid-day meal, or managing to start the school 10 minutes earlier so that learning time increases, or ensuring used textbooks are circulated better, or working out how you may share your expertise with children or teachers.
  4. Find something interesting you can share with children. It may be a news item (e.g. did you know that for some reason, the MHRD – and some of the other ministries of education in the country – face a problem with monkeys troubling them?), or an interesting story you’ve read or know (but no moral tales please!) or a suggestion for something they can try out (e.g. making a paper plane turn in a predicted direction) or find out (e.g. why the inner margin of a textbook page is wider than the outer margin – okay, that is too easy but you get the idea).
  5. Find a way to convert complex educational ideas into simpler forms so that a person with no background in education or no access to ‘high’ language may understand it. E.g. ‘non-detention is not the same as non-evaluation, and that by detaining children we are making them pay the price for the system’s failure and also supporting the idea that it is fear which leads to learning’. Can you find a way to make this idea easy to understand for millions of teachers, parents, SMC members and others? (You can guess why this statement was selected as the example…)
  6. Use your mobile – call up a teacher, or text her an idea or send your appreciation. With children, use the stop-watch, camera and calendar in your phone to do activities. If you know an official and have a good enough relationship, make him or her uncomfortable by reading out sections of this article (don’t get into a bitter argument – a gentle, understanding approach may be more useful!).
  7. Finally, please add to the discussion on these 7 Myths and, perhaps more importantly, to the list of suggestions.

But all these are very small things, you might say. They can’t achieve much. Well, not if many, many, many of us are doing them! Perhaps it’s a myth too that only when some large government programme is in action can change take place. This ignores local ingenuity and the sheer numbers that can make government efforts look feeble – or boost them to make them actually succeed. Towards this, your views and ideas may be more powerful than you imagine. And that’s not a myth!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What The Education System REALLY Exists For - Myth # 7

The Seven Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems – Myth # 7 of 7
The Seven Myths That Make Education Difficult To Improve

See Myth # 6 of 7 here.

Myth # 7 – The education system exists to improve education
Systems tend to lead double lives – at a conceptual level they might be brilliant, with wonderfully competent and committed people leading them. Yet at the ground level, what is in operation may be entirely different. Thus despite terrific policy and capability at policy/decision-making levels in the health sector, what common people might be heard saying is: “It is better to pay through your nose at a private clinic, than to die for free at the government hospital.”

For the people, the ‘system’ comprises of those representatives they meet at the district, block, cluster and village level, and occasionally those at the state levels. To understand the situation, try asking a group of educational administrators about the finer aspects of TA-DA rules and how they apply them, and you will find they can animatedly discuss them for about two hours. But raise the issue of why children are not learning (which is actually their real responsibility) and you will get a different response… (It’s true, isn’t it?)

This is what tends to happen to any system  (or even organization) over time – ultimately it’s own nuances, requirements, procedures, structures and powers (or power) become its main concerns, with the reason for its very existence slowly dimming in the memory of its functionaries. Thus: 
  • teachers/CRC-BRC must spend more time collecting data even at the cost of teaching or improving learning, or 
  • every school must follow the given framework for its School Development Plan (because the need to compile the plans at the block level is more important than the need for it to be appropriate for that school), or 
  • every HT must maintain records for the officials 'above' even if it means she will not have time to support her teachers in improving the classroom process. 

It is as if children, teachers, HTs, SMCs all exist to feed the machinery ‘above’ which has to ‘control’ them, and ‘give’ them resources (from mid-day meals to teachers to textbooks to in-service training, from which often a ‘cut’ may be taken), ‘allow’ them to take decisions such as which would be the most convenient time for most children to attend school, ‘monitor’ the work of teachers, ‘test’ the learning of students, and ‘grant’ the privilege of education.

What the RTE implies is that it is those who get their salaries because of children who are the real ‘beneficiaries’ – which includes all the administrators, supervisors, inspectors, monitors, institutions, departments, ministries.  It is they who are accountable to children and teachers, or would be if they really existed for education.

As mentioned, give them enough time and systems end up existing more to perpetuate themselves - and the status quo within - rather than the purpose for which they are created. Try making a change in the way things are organised within a system and you might find it responds with a kind of ferocious energy it fails to display when similar urgency is required in its primary objective. For instance, if it were declared that an educationist rather than an IAS officer will head the Department of Education, you will get a lot more activity in the system (to prevent that) than if you declared (as is well known) that most children are failing to attain grade level learning across the country. 

Finally, systems exist to preserve the hold of the powerful. Issues that affect the middle classes or those more privileged get inordinate attention in the system. Thus nursery school admissions in private schools in Delhi are a big issue, or the allocation for poor children in elite private schools is endlessly discussed, or the class 10 board exam being needed (by children from better off families)... but the death of a 100+ children in a mid-day-meal from a poor section of society, or the low levels of  service in deprived areas or chronically low learning levels despite much money being invested - fail to receive that kind of attention.

For those seeking to make a dent in the system, it would be healthier to have a more 'aware' notion of what the education system really exists for. The puny strategies we use to make things better are unlikely to serve as even pinpricks to the system.

The Big Myth that Educationists hold - about others: Myth # 6 of the 7 Myths of Highly Ineffective Education Systems –

 See Myth # 5 of 7 here.

Myth # 6 – Stakeholders are concerned about education (as educationists understand it)
Curriculum developers, educationists, policy makers, thinkers on education, many ‘NGO types’, reformers and other highly respected people often talk of the ‘aims of education’ – be it in terms of creating a more democratic society or a more evolved person etc. Somehow, those who are actually affected by education are unable to get this. For the masses at large, the purpose of education is to make life better, go up the social ladder by getting a job or being able to earn a stable livelihood. This is nothing to sneer at or term as a ‘wrong’ or ‘limited’ expectation. In fact, this is what millions of parents are slaving away for, sacrificing a bit every day so that their next generation may attain a better life. By looking down upon this view, by treating the situation as if ‘we are doing education to them’ instead of with and for them (or perhaps us), those who design education tend to marginalize the very people education is meant for.  They also end up with curriculum, textbooks and processes that do not build on the experiences that children from less privileged backgrounds bring, something that is an enormous resource being wasted, which then continues the cycle of marginalization.

Like parents, teachers too have their own idea of what they would like. Despite what is often said, most teachers do want to succeed – what they would like is some practical (not philosophical) advice on how to handle the really difficult situation they face – increasing diversity, the changing nature of student population as more and more ‘left out’ groups join school (in Delhi slums, migration is leading to 7-10 home languages in the classroom, including Punjabi and Odia which are not contiguous in the ‘normal’ world), changing curricular expectations they haven't had time or support to absorb.  Even after attaining the PTR norms mandated by the RTE, we are going to have well over 50% schools with around 80-100 children, with 2-3 teachers handling 5 classes – that is, a very large proportion of teachers already are and will continue to work in multi-grade settings in the foreseeable future (while curriculum, pedagogy and materials continue to assume a mono-grade situation). Given that we are still short of 14 lakh teachers (the number was reported to have come down to 10 lakh, but with increased enrolment, is up again, the situation being much worse at the secondary level), the effect is felt by the 56 lakh who are there.  As mentioned, educationists may want high levels of learning to be attained using their policies and curriculum, but teachers just want to survive the day and, if possible, succeed in generating some learning.

And what kind of school would children want? Exercises on this have been few and far between. Most of the time children end up having to manage with whatever ‘we’ give out – from mid-day meals to ‘child-friendly elements’ to colourful books or whatever else. It is in the nature of children to find interest in whatever is made available, which is why there is a tendency to assume we have an idea of what they need. But engaging with them on the issue might reveal a lot more. For instance, talking with secondary school girls in a remote area in UP, we were discussing the need for toilets – but the girls said, “We can manage without the toilets, but what we can’t accept is that we are forced to choose Home Science and are not offered Mathematics.” This is surely something the authorities are not working on.

Simply listening to stakeholders might be a good idea. It would be revealing and educative for 'experts', helping reduce their arrogance and bringing their relationship with the stakeholders on a somewhat more equal footing.

What would you say if an expert approached you? And if you are an expert, how would you approach the stakeholder?

Tomorrow, Myth # 7 of 7