Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An emerging mystery in education reform

Over the last two decades, the number of professionals / resource persons / researchers / academics has dramatically grown in two areas related to educational improvement / reform -- planning and evaluation -- but not so much in the part that comes in between: IMPLEMENTATION! We have more and more data on learning outcomes, provisioning or the lack of it, 'non-performance' of personnel, expenditure incurred and the like, but comparatively very little on, say, emotional incentives that help teachers change, or practices that enable diversity to become a resource rather than constraint, or ways in which debilitating hierarchies and lack of equity can be addressed in large scale, or how systems learn to be more responsive...

In particular, the ability to evaluate children's learning as well as programme 'outcomes' has seen the greatest degree of rigour and academic/professional depth. Suddenly, there is a large number of agencies undertaking research, assessment and evaluation, and 'data' related activities such as monitoring / tracking. And we have people who have studied in places such as Harvard / Cambridge etc. evaluating the work of those who went to somewhat less distinguished schools/universities, studied courses that didn't really prepare them to design or execute brilliant programmes.... And who, of course, are not really able to get teachers to be more committed or display innovation or even basic professional capabilities. Interestingly though, the various studies / data bases + analyses by the highly qualified minds come up with results that their less qualified counterparts can quite accurately predict beforehand!

So why are the highly qualified academics/professionals so involved with evaluation and planning rather than actually getting things done? I believe because it is EASIER - easier to point out what is going wrong than actually make it better, easier to give 'recommendations' than nitty-gritty details that might lead to improvement (and which you can learn only if you really dirty your hands and undergo the deep frustration that teaches you what works or doesn't).

Perhaps all this is doing a disservice - certainly more and more people in the system are coming to believe that whatever they do is not going to work, and will probably not stand up to the 'scrutiny' of these 'intelligent and knowledgeable' people. There is also a tendency to focus on what will 'please the researchers' - hence some states devalue all-round education to emphasize only reading and writing and numeracy; or are forever 'piloting' aspects that should be well-known after so many decades and therefore diverting energy from larger systemic reform that is required post-RTE. Looks like the law of unintended consequences is beginning to operate...

[At a later date I hope to write a more 'researched' and 'data/evidence-backed' piece elaborating on this - in the meantime, comments really welcome!]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

We have to leave the teacher in the classroom, isn't it?

Parimal Patel, a CRC coordinator from Gujarat, faced the following difficulty. To which there are no easy answers, but here's an attempt. Feel free to add your views!

Parimal Patel
Two days ago, I had a discussion in my cluster to make school history and to make school bio-data (which was made by me for my school by spending extra time in the school). Teachers liked  my idea but said that that in which time they would make it? They have had a lot of work since June. I'm asking this question because this is only one example – but there are so many policy-makers and the worker is only one. If we want quality we have to leave teacher in the classroom, isn't it? Please think about it – this is a more difficult question in primary education than any other.

Subir's response

Parimal (and many other friends struggling with the same problem) - you are right that the worker is one and policy makers are many, and all of them are trying to get the worker to do something or the other! So what can be done? Here are a few points for you all to consider:

  • The curriculum development process is one very important way to create a framework and common understanding so that the different decision-makers and policy-makers can think in a coordinated way. In the next few months this will be shared across the state and a process to coordinate accordingly will start. In the beginning, though, you can expect a lot of struggle, since everyone will not agree on what the SRG has developed! Be prepared for different ideas all trying to occupy the same place. 
  • When we work in the field, we do have to keep in mind specific actions. At the same time, don't worry if the teacher does not do what you are asking for - AS LONG AS HE/SHE IS WORKING TOWARDS THE SAME OBJECTIVE. The problem arises when the objectives themselves are different (as will happen this year in the Gunotsav). 
  • The need to leave the teacher to work in the classroom is really important. We have opposite views about what is happening: some claim the teacher has got too many non-teaching tasks, and some say that the teacher is simply not spending the time in the class. Which view is the correct one? I think both are. People like me will keep on working with policy makers to ensure that non-teaching tasks are reduced, and other colleagues at field level will have to keep on working to ensure that teachers do spend the time available in the classroom. 
  • I like the idea of the school bio-data. Maybe it does not have to be done in one go. How about putting up a chart or board, and letting teachers, children, even community members add things to it when they have the time. Then, perhaps after a month, in the morning assembly this can be shared (it is not necessary to keep doing the same things in morning assembly every day!). Different classes could be given the tasks in different subjects, related to the school bio-data (in language - do the writing work; in maths - make maps, tables with data; in social studies - trace the history; in drawing - make pictures of different aspects of the school, etc.). So making it a project, spreading it over time, and connecting it with ongoing processes might help. This has to do with how we imagine different things being done. 
  • Finally, pl also read the post on 'How Teachers Change', and also 'How Teachers Learn' in my blog.

Your response?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Five Ideas for Teachers' Day

Teachers' Day is round the corner. Once again, we'll have the same old speeches, boring comments and everyone showing so-called 'respect' for teachers for one day - then it will all be forgotten till the next year comes around again! 

For those of us who feel we need to go beyond the usual platitudes, here are a few straightforward suggestions. As always, your responses and further suggestions would be very welcome indeed!

1. Prepare a 'Teacher Strength Chart'
On a chart, put a photo of the teacher (could even be children's drawing) and write down 5 things that you like about the teacher or 5 good qualities the teacher has. (Every teacher has these, just that some of them may not know they have them.) Who should do this? Students / SMC or parents / CRCC or fellow teachers. Keep the chart up for as long as you want.

2. Invite the teachers' families and honour them
Host a function where teachers' parents / spouses / children are invited and honour them along with the teacher. Why? Firstly because if a teacher teaches well, gives a lot of time, and lives up to professional standards, the family has to support the teacher and sometimes even make sacrifices. On the other hand if a teacher doesn't live up to professional standards, the family will... you get the picture! The SMC or the CRCC would obviously have to take the lead in organizing this, with students' help.

3. A special 'sports' session for teachers
Teachers have to be so responsible that they sometimes forget what it is to be a teacher. So how about something that helps them recall the time when they themselves were young. So you could organise a kabaddi or cricket match for teachers, or even races. Other possibilities include a Talent Show (whether teachers get to display their skills such as singing or mimicry) or even a picnic. Once again, the SMC with the students' help and the CRCC's support can easily organize this.

4. Stock the school library with books bought especially for teachers
Ask the teachers what they would like to read - and buy as many of those books for your school library as the budget permits. The CRCC would need to take active lead in this, with guidance from BRC and DIETs/

5. Launch a year-long 'Search for Greatness'
This is a difficult idea, so read carefully! Every teacher and every school can improve and reach a level far better than what it is today. In honour of teachers on Teachers' Day, the SMC and students as well as the CRCC can get together, promise their support and work out how they will improve the school in the year ahead. Together they will discuss what it means for their school to be 'great' (and will not focus on infrastructure but learning processes), identify concrete steps to attain this greatness (see suggestions separately in my blog), and work out a phased implementation plan (see ADEPTS). Teachers will naturally be part of this discussion.

You can build on the School Development Plan and dedicate the effort to teachers (of course, they too would take active part in implementing the plan). Inform the teachers that the successes will be because of them, and shortcomings because they would not have got enough support from us (that is our Teachers' Day gift to teachers). So this would be a year long effort to show our respect to teachers while also working with them to bring about actual improvement. Neat, no?

With some days to go, you can still plan and implement some of these ideas. In the meantime, let me have more suggestions please!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why Corruption Is An Easy Issue To Raise

It's interesting to observe why the issue of 'corruption' seems to attract attention. Right now, across the country (and the world), a huge majority of people are oppressed by the accepted notion that it is OK for some to be considered 'above' others. That is why it is OK for some of 'us' 
  • to go to high fee private schools (we have 'earned' it), 
  • to sit in AC coaches in the train (we paid for it after all, never mind that the others' capacity to pay for the same is hampered by systemic and systematic obstacles), 
  • to feel that we belong to 'big' or 'important' families... 

Such societal hierarchies have a far greater impact and preserve disadvantage.

Isn't it corruption too to believe that one belongs to a 'better' or 'purer' religion / caste / class / background / family than others. Yet Anna and co don't raise issues of social fracture (conveniently forgetting that Gandhi spent far more of his life on these issues, and regarded true independence as one from social oppression too). It's worth thinking on why the issue of corruption really suits the middle class - it's so neutral and harmless, and avoids the really frightening ones. It's also something where you can blame 'others' without feeling that you are part of the problem...

As an educator, therefore, if I had to teach children any value, it would not be an ordinary thing like 'do not be corrupt' but the more difficult concept of 'though you are unique and deserve the best, do not think you are more important than others or have a birthright to more than they do'.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

What does 'taking pride in being an Indian' mean?

Anyone working on curriculum or materials or education in general, ends up wanting children to take pride in being an Indian. But what does 'taking pride in being an Indian' mean? Though the idea of 'taking pride' can be questioned, here are some things a person 'proud of being an Indian' would do / not do (not in any particular order):

  • celebrate the uniqueness and successes of those who are 'different' from us - whether belonging to different religion, ethnicity, language, region, profession...
  • not spit out in the open anywhere (surprised? well, this is a leading cause of diseases like TB still being active and killing people)
  • stop complaining about what is wrong (hoping someone else will do something about it) and start taking small steps to make things better, and also urging others to do the same (there's power in numbers!)
  • not restrict their sense of identity to a state or a region or a sub-set of India...
  • taking the responsibility of being at one's best (whether in health, or talent or work or socializing) so that one can ADD to what is already good in India 
  • taking responsibility of keeping one's immediate surroundings at the best we can (in terms of things being well-organized and clean/hygienic as well as in an 'ecological' sense) 
  • not simply keep harping on the 'golden days' of India's past but be aware of what we are at present... and hence 
  • not be afraid to face what is really wrong, accept it and work to changing it (e.g. recognize the 'ugly Indian' who jumps lines, is rude and selfish, flouts rules and grins when he gets away with it. Or, of course, the bigger issues of poverty, security, discrimination...)

So what does it mean for you, to be a 'proud Indian'?

And once we've sorted it out, how should it reflect in our curriculum, materials, textbooks and classroom processes?

Monday, May 02, 2011

How would YOU implement the RTE?

Here's an exchange that started in Facebook.
If YOU were in charge of implementing RTE in a district / block, exactly WHAT would you do? Could I have step by step suggestions please. That's because all of us have by now said all that is wrong with RTE implementation, but this is not equal to knowing what to do. I come across many district and block functionaries who are seriously looking for suggestions (they also welcome critique, but find that it doesn't help them decide what to do - at best they only see they're doing something wrong).

It would be a great contribution. I promise I'll share the suggestions with at least 10 'serious' functionaries who have asked for support and will try to impact 300 to 3000 schools each. As they start implementing, we'll create a facebook page where they can record their progress and impact. But could we have specific suggestions please, maybe even a framework or a detailed note?

One response I received was from Anjela Taneja:
Gave this some thought overnight. Basically, one immediate suggestion is to put this question onto a website (read you blog atleast) so you can get a larger pool of responses. Personally, I added the question onto the RTE India page I moderate as well. However, a more user friendly interface of responding would help instead of trying to type everything on FB. In response to the actual question, I see two sets of responses- universal recommendations (only a few), but a lot of questions related to specific geographies. The solutions need to emerge from the local problems, so it would help to know where the functionaries in question are actually stuck and atleast what states one is talking about.

In response, here are some details.
As for geographies... Specific ones include: the block of Fatehpur, near Kanpur; the training coordinator of Bareilly; an informal govt school teachers' collective (who want things to impove) in Varanasi; in terms of states, Bihar and Gujarat to start with.

Some of the comments received:

Naaz Khair
Where there is a will there is a way! Government is running the central schools par excellence. If it wants it can change things for its other set of schools as well. The RTE Act itself is very explicit in terms of who is supposed to do what i.e. the duties that need to be performed so that educational rights of children are upheld. The RTE Act almost reads like a program and contains step by step measures to taken at different levels to ensure its implementation. This forum, along-side raising its voice whenever RTE violations took place, has also been proposing possible solutions. It is more than time now for the people in the system to make decisions given the resources in hand.

Janmejoy Patel
Yes, it is basically a question of how serious the govts are regarding implementation of RTE. Do they have required amount of political will or commitment? Are they willing to allocate adequate funds & invest in education? Once these factors are settled, there is no private school good enough to rival our schools in quality. But will the politicos do so on their own? No hope since none of them has any stake involved. Unless forced to.

Anjela Taneja there are two levels of issues here- what should be done to improve the policy and practice, and another is what can a government official do immediately within the constraints of the system

Subir Shukla
‎@Janmejoy If you take a look at the amounts released, you will find that the country as a whole is not really able to use more than 70% of the funds made available... 
     There's a need to understand the nature of social 'filters' involved. Things such as buildings, textbooks - concrete things that can be touched, inaugurated or 'released' and credit taken for - tend to get done. But a child's right to learn is a lot more than that, and needs a new set of relationships and processes in order to be attained. It's common to have 'disco bhajans' (i.e. allowing a western 'pollution' of a cultural aspect) but more difficult to implement the notion that a child does not need to be beaten in order to learn (in fact, while teachers are responsible, many parents also insist that their children be kept in discipline through corporal punishment; similarly, look at the response to CCE...). It's like trying to ban spitting or dowry (for which a law exists...). 
     Similarly, the notion that you do not need to memorize or be given explanation - instead you should learn through activity, exploration and projects (which is what the RTE provides for) - is not the easiest to implement even for those who are seriously trying, including in the NGO sector, including in the organizations that are seen as the 'teerth sthal' of education. Another crisis - and this is a professional, considered opinion of a curriculum/textbook/materials developer after closely examining materials from all over the country for 20 years - is that the NGO 'products' in terms of curricula / materials / pedagogy / teacher development are also fairly weak when it comes to the kind of quality desired, the constructivism to be implemented, the kind of equity-oriented and diversity based classroom that is now needed. Indeed the textbooks of several states would rate much higher. 
     @Naaz, steps about how to make 'special training' or create a differential classroom which must necessarily result, are not really spelt out in RTE documents. (This is just an example, and there are several more such aspects, esp about how to help those in the system realize that post-RTE, it is THEY who are the 'beneficiaries' and children / parents / community are the REASON for the system to exist.) 
     I'm afraid the real import of many of the RTE provisions have not really been understood and a whole lot of "why aren't you doing your job" kind of comments are being passed around. While these will help in situations such as getting children admitted, other aspects such as getting discrimination (subtle and overt) to reduce, community to be empowered, teachers to be enabled to create vibrant and equity-oriented classrooms, in 1500000+ schools, (including private schools), are something else altogether. 'Protesting' or 'raising' voice may curb something negative, but doesn't necessarily make something positive (e.g. teaching better) happen. I've written about 'preventive power' vs 'generative power' elsewhere in this blog.
     The perspective changes when you're someone who has to actually deliver the RTE, and I haven't found much in the various fora that is dramatically helpful, or not known or not being tried out. A lot of the suggestions are very vague (ideas such as 'involve the community', 'empower the teacher' are outcomes of steps, which themselves are not always spelt out, or examples given of a very preliminary level..). Many of the issues (such as teacher attendance and accountability) are larger governance issues and need a larger strategy, some of which is indeed being thought about at different levels. I still believe that people thinking and working on these issues have a great deal to contribute - both within the government set up and outside. Hence my request for the kind of engagement that foregrounds concrete actions.

Now, waiting for YOUR responses!

Friday, April 29, 2011

What's your favourite advice to facilitators/trainers of teachers?

Over the years, you've taken part in workshops, training programmes, meeting, on-site coaching - either as participant or as facilitator or trainer. Maybe you have even trained trainers or prepared them in different ways. So what's your favourite advice to anyone involved with training and facilitation? 

Let us know in the comments section below!

Friday, April 15, 2011

How Do We Measure Change?

We repeatedly find ourselves saying that working on improving education implies change. That is because the very core of education – in terms of key relationships, processes and the critical outcomes desired – itself is expected to undergo a transformation. Some of the biggest differences expected are in terms of
  • undoing the existing hierarchy,
  • increasing accountability,
  • evolving the role of the key stakeholders such as children and community from passive to active,
  • in fact even a reversal of the notion of the 'beneficiary' (especially after the RTE, children and the community are the reasons why the education system exists; and teachers, educational officers and others in the system are the beneficiaries in that they get their salaries because children have a right to education)
  • preparing children for life rather than just for examinations.

Thus it is not just a case of revision in components such as curriculum or textbooks or training or assessment but bringing about much deeper changes that will then manifest themselves in the different components. Change, therefore, in the underpinnings or the foundations themselves, implies major shift in emphasis, ways of working, the means used, the technical and human / social capabilities required, and a myriad other things. All this adds up to one word: change.

Much has been said on the issue of what this change is and the different ways of bringing it about (and more will appear too). But the one unresolved question confronting us is: how will we know if real change is actually happening, and to what extent? Is there any way in which we can capture / describe and 'measure' such deep change? As of now, the question really has us stumped. Any suggestions? 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Myths of Tests - Or Going Around In a Circle

Sometimes, it's plain amazing to see the kind of debates taking place around the world. Here's a piece dealing with something we've often ranted against, the 'standardized tests'. Some of the phrases and terminology will seem remarkably familiar to readers here.

A great deal of this discussion took place in India when the MLLs were formulated, with behaviorism coming under attack. The new National Curriculum Framework 2005 is as 'anti-behavioral' as it can be. And the Right to Education Act mandates Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation rather than standardized testing. Board exams too have been pushed beyond Grade 10. Nevertheless, the pressure to use learning achievement data as a proxy for assessing the quality of the education system remains high (this is what Pratham's ASER implements every year). This summary, by practitioners as well as academics / researchers, captures some of the myths associated with testing.

PS: I'm NOT trying to promote sales of this book!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Do's And Don'ts for the Head Teacher

In your view, what are the three things a head teacher should NOT do?

And what are the three things she SHOULD do?

Your comments are awaited! Please enter in the comments section below. Later, I'll bring out a summary of comments received.

(As you can guess, an in-serve training programme for head teachers is under development, and your contribution will be both acknowledged and appreciated!)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Tsunami We Don't Always See

Our hearts go out to the sufferings of people in Japan. The pictures of the tsunami rushing in and engulfing everything in sight, wreaking havoc – will stay with us. Our sympathies and support should – and will – be available to help our fellow human beings in whatever way we can.

Our horror – and the desire to do something – would obviously be even more if we saw something similar happening all around us. And in a way something similar is happening all around us, only it is not as dramatic as a physical tsunami, making it a little difficult to be noticed by most people. It is what I would call the tsunami of poor quality of education that is hitting a million schools and tens of millions of children, its impact likely to be visible over the years rather than right now, instantly, in front of our eyes.

The Tsunami Around Us
No this is not alarmist, but an effort to put across a real picture and the urgency with which it needs to be recognized and acted upon. Every day, in hundreds of thousands of locations across the country, children make their way to the school. Around a quarter of them may find their teacher not there. This number alone is staggering, ranging as it would between one and two million teachers. MILLION! And if each teacher has 30 children in his class, you can estimate the number but not really conceive how enormous it is. And it is huge not just in terms of numbers, but for each child who loses a day of learning, and does so for many days every month, it is incalculable.

Had the facilities or the teachers not been available we could have cried over our fate in terms of being an underdeveloped country. But having the infrastructure (over 98% children have a school within a kilometre, and most buildings are not bad) and teachers actually in place (though the number of vacancies is still very large) – it is horrifying to watch or at least it should be, for there doesn't seem to be a sense of horror, or as much of it as would shake the country into action.

However the story doesn't end there. It is when 'teaching' takes place that the impact on children is often at its greatest. Decades ago, the Yashpal Committee's report on The Burden of the School Bag had detailed the 'burden of incomprehension' a majority of children bear. And it is difficult to see if things have changed dramatically, despite changed curricula, textbooks, the use of TLM, evolving assessment patterns, new training programmes… The number of children attending school – and their diversity – too has grown in leaps and bounds, while the approach to handling their needs has remained fairly static. Hence, survey after survey shows that – despite a degree of improvement – we continue to be far from the levels of learning desired (and possible).

But it is when it comes to the process that the greatest deadening effect takes place. Rote memorization, 'explanation' ina language not necessarily understood by children, a disregard for the needs of children who are too poor to be able to attend regularly, (an often active) discrimination in the classroom, are the lot of a majority of our children. If you doubt this, all you have to do is visit any 10 government schools in different locations, especially those away from 'headquarters'.

This is not to say that all government schools are bad and that the 'bad' is restricted to government schools. It is to point out that even if only a third of schools are like the ones described above (and the number is surely more than that), it adds up to literally hundreds of thousands of schools and tens of millions of children – a slow tsunami of poor quality education that is surely wreaking havoc on the potential of our children, our country.

Dealing With It
So after all this panic, what do we do?
As in any disaster, stay calm! First recognize that there is a problem and accept that something must be done about it.

Second, realize that you are the right person to do something about it. Anyone is, everyone is. Every small action counts. Even if you smile at a child, say an encouraging word to a teacher, raise this issue with friends, relatives and colleagues, you are doing something.

Third, if you are willing to be more proactive or are already active, please do look at the urgency of the situation. Children cannot wait for us to learn or get our act together slowly. We need to quickly:
  • Establish the minimum conditions that must obtain. These are well laid out in the RTE (Right to Education) and its rules. Raise this issue wherever you can, and directly with the school or education authorities.
  • Encourage and support the community and the school management committees (SMCs) drawn from among the community to become more active. You can help in setting them up, in record keeping, in setting the agenda, in follow up, in helping ensure that teachers take them seriously and that they in turn don't take an adversarial position vis-à-vis teachers. You can use your position to ensure that the educational agenda is not hijacked by the money-making or power-gaining agenda.

If you are a Head Teacher, supervisor, CRC-BRC / district level teacher educator or officer:
  • Model the kind of behaviour you want from teachers
  • Share practical steps they can take in their classes, especially in terms of activity-based teaching (see the many entries in this blog for support)
  • Encourage teachers to be innovative, support them. If they ask questions, don't be dismissive (pass on the questions here if you can answer them!)

If you are a planner / policy-maker / decision- maker, please start by not dismissing what you have just read here. It is real, and it is happening – and it's on a gargantuan scale. On any given day, the number of children who are in school and not learning is more than the population of many countries – and it is a shame. What kind of performance standards can you set in place? What kind of outcomes can you insist on? How can you prepare the institutions and the system to deliver this, monitor them effectively and enable an ongoing improvement? Once again, the many entries in this blog would be helpful – and you could always share issues you would like others to provide suggestions / inputs on.

As surely as Japan will recover from the huge earthquake and the devastating tsunami, we can deal with this too. But first we have to see it as an emergency and address it. With all our might.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Dangers of Relying on Testing as a Means of Improving Quality of Education

Over the last two decades, if there's one thing we've learnt it is that testable results alone do not account for educational quality or the quality of educational experience. The processes and relationships are as important (if not more) than what gets tested. Using test results as a proxy for quality, and hoping that an emphasis on testing will lead to improvement, is a managerial rather than educational approach (this sounds a little screechy, I know, but I feel screechy looking at the kind of damage this naive assumption is doing all around).

Take a look (link below) at emerging fallouts of one such large-scale testing based improvement programme, enacted through the No Child Left Behind law in the US.

   82 percent of US schools may be labeled 'failing'

Admittedly, this is only a news report, and there are also defenders, but the difficulties being faced by schools are real. There is also no evidence that whatever improvements that might have been brought about are long lasting, or that the nature of classroom processes and relationships has improved, or that children and teachers both find the school more worth coming to.

If you're an administrator or accountability activist or from an organisation that funds educational efforts - do consider that you might be doing yourself a disservice by insisting on testing as the means of assessing impact or of ensuring improvement. There's a lot more to education in the 21st century, and it does not lend itself to such simplistic frames!

Friday, March 04, 2011

What is (more) 'Educationally Responsible'?

What is more educationally responsible from among the alternatives below. Anytime you feel it's all very clear, don't ignore the possibility that there may a trap somewhere...
  • Encouraging someone to ask questions or give answers to questions no one is asking?
  • Helping learners discover worlds of fascinating and worthwhile knowledge around them versus providing them information from books?
  • Setting challenging tasks versus 'telling' children, giving explanatory lectures ?
  • Encouraging reflection or ensuring memorization of the right answers?
  • Preventing errors or letting children discover for themselves when they've made a mistake?
  • Giving feedback versus giving marks (and remarks)?
  • Ensuring all children get the same opportunity versus ensuring different children get different opportunities?
  • Doing everything oneself (if you're a teacher) versus passing on some of your tasks to children (e.g. marking attendance, ensuring participation of peers)
  • Maintaining all provided materials in good shape or using them at the risk of their getting spoilt, torn, etc.?
  • Asking community to help with their knowledge heritage versus asking community to contribute to improvement in mid day meal?
  • Using a textbook as a resource versus using a textbook as a definitive material (i.e. assuming it is the curriculum)
  • Reading this blog or reading a useful book on education?!

So what is more educationally responsible? Let me have more such pairs / alternatives to choose from, and also your views on the above!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Celebrity Inexpert Commentators on Education - a link

Here's a piece I found really interesting and solid. Quite amazing that though the US and India would seem poles apart in terms of their education system, there are so many common issues!

And while I would ask whether we would listen to a billionaire's views if he had no money (we wouldn't), I would also go out of my way to talk to those who don't have any money to start with - the poorest of the poor who are just beginning to send their children to school.

Let me have your views.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

When Is It GOOD To Get Angry?

Have you ever noticed that we get angry (or at least show it) only with those who we think are weaker than us? Thus it seems OK for parents or teachers to be angry with children, for officers and trainers to shout at teachers. But if children are angry with adults, even if they are in the right and the adult is in the wrong, it is considered NOT OK! And teachers, when upset with their so-called 'superiors' either keep quiet or make some sort of mild protest. Only occasionally does it boil over, and when it does, it is again considered NOT OK!

So what is the view we should take? Is it a good idea not to get angry at all? This is the advocated position of many. In fact there are training programmes (including those for teachers) on anger management (i.e., about managing the anger we show to those who we consider our 'inferiors'). These include things called 'positive discipline' and 'emotional punishment' – as if it is OK to do the same old thing in another way.

 In case this is not clear, the 'same old thing' means the belief that it is OK for adults to have power over children, or for some to be considered 'superiors' of others. The 'anger management' and 'positive' approach does not question this right to discipline or punish – it only says 'do it less violently please, but do it because you have a right to do it.' Something wrong there, isn't it?

The other approach would be – get angry wherever you should! That is, if you are in the right, get angry with your boss or with the adult (if you are a child or an adolescent), if they are in the wrong. Do I hear you clicking your tongue again? Something doesn't sound QUITE OK about this, isn't it? How can those who are 'below' scream at those who are 'above'? You fear it will lead to conflict, division and general breakdown of order (i.e. of who should listen to whom).

Hmm, perhaps this kind of all-round getting angry business won't really help. We're too scared of it anyway.

But it also seems there are areas where we SHOULD GET ANGRY – and we don't. When a child is molested or deprived or hurt or demeaned – we don't see much anger. When teachers who really want to teach better and teach differently are ridiculed to the extent that they give up trying to improve – we see NO anger. When a girl is brutalized (or even killed) because she refused to get married at 14, we don't seethe with anger! When an education system is run year after year and the children who've invested their entire childhood in it, emerge without any learning to show for it – we are simply not consumed with anger!

IT – IS – NOT – OK.



Go out. Get angry. Preserve this anger. Don't let it dry up. Spend it - drop by drop. Keep at it. And at it. Till that which makes you angry is snuffed out. Totally.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Work Smart, Not Hard!

Whenever teachers are being trained, they are bombarded with the same tired old phrases. 'You are the future of the country,' they are told. 'There's a great responsibility on your shoulders; you must work very hard to fulfil this responsibility.' This is what we hear every time, isn't it? And aren't you fed up of listening to this over the years?
     The problem is that this is such a naive notion. As if working hard makes everything OK. No, you have to use your head! Even those whose work is seen as involving nothing but hard work, they too can do their work well only if they use their head. For instance, the labourers who unload a truck, the farmer working in the field, those who dig pits or carry head loads of debris... If they do their work without thinking and being alert, they can get hurt, face a loss, be shouted at or even fired. In the case of a teacher, therefore, this is bound to be even more crucial!
     A thinking teacher - i.e. a smart teacher - is one who greatly increases children's role in the classroom. And not just in keeping things clean and organized, but in the in the learning process itself. For instance, the class 4 teacher said to the children: 'You know, in this story, when the lion woke up one morning, he found that he had no hair on his head! His mane - totally gone! So guess what he did in order to get it back? Well, read the story and find out!'
     When children started to read the story, the teacher went and sat with those who were in danger of falling behind others. After a little while she said: 'If there are any words you're not able to understand, circle them with your pencil. Then ask the children around you if they know.' When everyone had finished this, she asked groups of children to look at each other's circled words and see if they could find out the meaning. 'If there are still some words that you don't know, I'll tell you the meaning,' she said.
     You can guess what this smart teacher did next. For the entire duration that she was in her class, each child was engaged in work, was learning and helping others learn too. All this while she herself was totally relaxed!

So what are the ways in which we too can be a little more lazy, and a little smarter?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

7 Ways to Retain Optimism (Even If You Work In Improving Elementary Education!)

Got you, didn't it! Sooner or later, you hit a wall. There's a feeling that nothing works. That the system is so overwhelming that hardly anything can be done. Eventually, if you're someone trying to improve elementary education – whether as a teacher or resource person or administrator – you find yourself unwillingly accepting that the poor quality of education will continue to prevail in hundreds of thousands of classrooms.

Ok, so that's stated a little too strongly. But there is grain of truth there! Which is why, in the interest of millions of children, we need to look at how to retain the enthusiasm and optimism we started out with. So here are some ways to preserve your cheer, mental health and youthful looks despite the years you've put in.

1. Think 'how', not 'should'
Much too often we find ourselves talking about what 'should' be happening. Slowly the discussion slides into a list of things we are dissatisfied with – teachers not working, infrastructure remaining poor, lack of leadership, absence of commitment…. You can hear the pitch rising, can't you? Keep the pitch raised and you're bound to have a stressed heart!

To retain your desire to make things better (and keep your heart healthy), it would be so much better to talk of the how. What ordinary things can a teacher do? E.g. smile at children, read the textbook before the class, solve a puzzle herself to find out how much fun it is, read aloud a book to children once in a while – nothing that requires an 'order' or funding or special mandate or skill or training. Similarly, what can a head teacher do, burdened as she is with administrative tasks made difficult by lack of support? Share and delegate (e.g. make it fun for other teachers to participate and work as a group), discuss some of the records maintained in the school (e.g. connect children's attendance rates and test performance), and so on.

As you can see, you would have something doable to share. Chances are, some of the ideas might actually get picked up – in which case don't forget to really appreciate the person implementing them.

2. Focus on outcomes, not inputs
This is much more if you're a planner, administrator, supervisor, programme leader. Very often we're so focused on the inputs flowing from our side that we ignore what these are for. Thus it seems important to see whether material is supplied or not, the number of days of in-service training covered, physical targets fulfilled – and then one day it suddenly turns out that all this has not had much impact. We're left feeling that all our effort didn't amount to much, and a sinking feeling starts to grow. Of course we don't tell anyone else about it but we're aware it's there, isn't it?

How to overcome this situation? After all, inputs have to be provided. Sure they have – but for a purpose. It might be more useful to take a look at what all this is meant to bring about. For instance, the issue is not whether material is supplied or not but whether it is used as intended by children. This suddenly makes us see that we need to focus on training, incorporate this into the monitoring and academic support, share examples with teachers, encourage children and parents to lose inhibitions and start using material in school and at home… All of which, if done even on a small scale and only partially successful, has the wonderful effect of making you feel giddy with success. Pessimism – gone!

3. Be incremental
This point is so commonsensical and obvious that it gets ignored. Don't try to do everything or too much in one go (especially if you are at the district / sub-district level). For instance, for any teacher to make a real change in the classroom processes, some 40 different practices are likely to change. Try doing a full 'training' and expect all these changes – there's only chaos. Teachers do try but fail – no one's sure what to start with, the sequence in which to implement these changes, the steps to be taken. All it takes is one or two failures for teachers and schools to feel that nothing much can be done, that it's all too difficult, and doesn't work and is therefore not worth the effort. Soon, you begin to feel the same and are a pale shadow of the enthusiastic person who set out on a journey of change.

To get back on track on this journey, scale things down a little. Expect only a few changes at a time. E.g.
  • Give teachers a list of 6-8 possible changes (ranging from calling each child by the name, to making use of activities given in the textbooks to encouraging children to ask questions).
  • Ask them to select only 3-4 from this list (making a choice generates ownership and commitment); discuss the steps they need to take in order to bring about these changes.
  • Encourage them to make a 2-3 month implementation plan around these steps and help them monitor themselves and each other to see if the changes are actually happening.
  • Extend this cycle at the end of each 2-3 month period. Over a year or two, a dramatic change would occur – only it would have been less noticed as it happened, more successful, and breeding optimism rather than pessimism.

For those in the know, this is precisely what ADEPTS is all about and has made a positive change happen in over 22,000 (that's right, 22 thousand) schools in Gujarat.

4. Enter with questions, leave with (people's) ideas
Trainers, facilitators and academics trying to communicate with teachers end up being frustrated very soon – 'they don't pay any attention to whatever we say' is a common complaint. To which the reply is – why should they? The days are over when someone followed your ideas / views / instructions simply because you came from a so-called 'superior' level such as a university or senior position in the hierarchy. No, people will do things differently only if they are convinced and feel like doing it from inside. Our role is to touch people's hearts and minds rather than trying to shape them or fill them with our views.

How can one do this? It's so simple that I'm almost ashamed to mention it! Don't enter a training session or a meeting with a list of things to tell. Instead, concentrate on a few key questions to ask. Questions that will generate response, reflection, and provoke people into coming out with their own views and ideas. For instance, ask questions such as:
  • If material is so easy to generate, why should we supply anything? What do you think?
  • Suggest ways in which you can use a library along with the textbook?
  • Shouldn't we trust children and get them to mark their own attendance instead of the teacher spending time on it?
  • When children don't understand decimals, exactly where do you think the problem lies?
Don't believe me, try it out and see what happens. At any rate, the tired old complaint will not be heard any more.

5. Don't see people as they are but as they're going to be…
Anyone who's responsible for helping people be different usually ends up using phrases such as 'dog's tail that can never be straightened'. But that's because they see people as they actually are rather than what they can be like. Try this out the next time you're in such a situation – 
  • Look at your students / participants / team members and visualise them as being different. 
  • What qualities can you visualise them as having? 
  • What ways do you seem them adopting to make good use of the capabilities they already have? 
  • And what do you see yourself learning from them?

Gives you a different perspective, doesn't it? Every time I've worked with a group that has been called 'difficult', this is what has helped me make good friends with the participants and support them in changing themselves. Not exactly rocket science, and works very well too. End result? You can imagine...

6. The system is people too
When you work on an impersonal, solid thing called a 'system', it's hard to see it changing. Indeed, it has an inertia of its own because it has usually arrived at some degree of stability over the years – and here you are, trying to destabilise it for reasons of your own! Why on earth would it meekly go along?

But if you look upon a system as a number of people bound in a set of relationships, you have several entry points where there didn't seem to be any in the beginning. There are bound to be persons in the system trying to make good things happen (if nothing else, just the law of averages determines that there have to be at least a few of these). Can you locate such persons? Is there a way of interacting with them, perhaps even bringing together a few of them? Can you change a few persons at a time? Is there an activity that would support or recognize their efforts, and given them the feeling that they're not alone? And when success (even small success) happens and is recognized, the circle of those willing to engage and dialogue, grows. With it grows the possibility of real change happening, thus reducing the chances of your growing old before your time out of sheer frustration and pessimism.

7. This is where I need your help
Please be so kind as to let me know the 7th (and 8th, and 9th) way…