Friday, April 17, 2020

Why Digital Content May Be Its Own Enemy

Many of us are feeling gratified that we have now provided a great deal of digital ‘content’ to students of various levels. Apart from issues of access (who has a smart phone, whether the network speed is OK, etc), it is also important to realise that much of this content is about explanations, examples, depictions and assessment. In other words, not necessarily very different from what a fair number of teachers already do in class – and find students not paying attention, not learning and, if learning, not applying that learning when the situation demands. 

This is because the overall assumption is that it is a student’s duty or compulsion to pay attention to what the teacher is presenting. Shift this to digital content and it becomes even more apparent that an overwhelming amount of content just assumes that students need it. 

Well, they don’t.

Because the same or similar thing is in many sources and most of it fails to arouse the student’s interest. In fact, this is an extension of the problem that ed tech faces, that it is a solution in search of a problem. (The other word we have for unwanted solutions being thrust on us is ‘spam’).

So, if we want our content to be used because students want to rather than have to engage with it, here are a few things we could do:

1.     Try to make the question interesting rather than presenting answers (that is something students have to work towards, and use the hints and supports your material provides to come out with their own answers). (E.g., What is a good way to know how many times we blink our eyes? And incidentally, why do we need to blink?)

2.     Help students discover a world that appears to be different and interesting because the new things they are learning are applied to it. (E.g. Why does the marigold leaf help prevent a cut or abrasion on our skin from getting infected? / Did you know that there are more than 20 different kinds of bread that are baked in our tandoors, and that some of them cannot be baked without a specific kind of yeast? / This story happened to an individual who is completely different from all of us - yet we always feel that it could easily be our own story. How do you think the writer does this? // These are then followed by possible areas of information to be explored by the student and fill in a framework that adds up to an understanding of the learning objective at hand.)

3.     Create a reason for students to return to every instalment of your offering. (Tomorrow, we will talk about how these shapes were combined and used to make one of the most unique towers in the world.)

4.     Be humble. Know that the student can switch you off, look away, stop paying attention or look at something else even as you are presenting what you think is the most important thing for your student to know. You have to earn that attention. One way to do that is to stop trying to set the agenda and instead let the student decide what she wants to learn, how much and how quickly. In the days when schools ran ‘normally’, teachers noted students who had access to technology both in school and at home would be far more animated when using their own devices outside the classroom – because on those, they were setting the agenda. Can you design your offering in such a way that the student ‘invests’ in it by taking certain decisions about her own path and progress, which then makes her a committed stakeholder who wants to use your material? 

Coming out with engaging digital material is not rocket science – but giving up our general notions and buy-in into the mythical powers of ed tech is!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Do we even know what we assess when we assess learning?

‘It took me quite some time to get the little girl to let me know what was bothering her,’ said Prof. A. K. Sharma, the former Director of NCERT. The year was 2000 and he was telling me about an incident from a class 2 maths period in the model school in the NCERT campus. The teacher had just completed teaching children subtraction of two-digit numbers with ‘borrowing’, and he had found two children hesitating over the problems they had been given to solve.

The first, a girl, had made a ‘mistake’ as she had failed to borrow from the tens side. Being a grandfatherly and kindly figure, he was able to cajole the girl to speak up. Very softly, looking down and away from him all the while, she said, ‘We learnt in the moral science class that borrowing is bad.’

Reeling from this, he approached the other child, a boy, and discussed why he had not completed his work on the problem. After much exchange, the boy said, ‘But why should I borrow 1? I want to borrow 2.’

Taking part in a recent session on ‘error analysis’, I was reminded of Prof. Sharma’s advice to engage with children to understand their ‘errors’ rather than rely on their work on paper. In numerous assessment experiences since, I’ve seen children who are otherwise very competent falter because of an issue at home or a fight with a friend or because they are being bullied. In open-ended questions in language, teachers are hard put to identify if there really is an ‘error’ or if the child’s view is a valid, logical interpretation. (And asking only close-ended questions is hardly sufficient to understand children’s abilities.) It becomes even more difficult when it comes to children from marginalized backgrounds – as they encounter discrimination and even denigration (of their background, language or culture), they often resist by ‘not-learning’ or do not answer out of fear of being ‘disciplined’.

As the evaluation industry expands in the Indian context with more and more professionals taking in rigorous analysis of children’s responses and analyses of their ‘errors’, the tendency is to interpret these within the framework of the subject for which the test was conducted. But do we know what we really assess when we look closely at children’s responses? What if it’s not a maths or language issue but something else altogether?

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!