Education Policy— A Tribune Debate

Monday, July 27, 2009
Education Policy— A Tribune Debate

Education Policy — A Tribune Debate
Another way to teach
Children must learn without stress
by Manish Jain

More than any of the specific policy proposals, Kapil Sibal’s willingness to open a national dialogue on education outside the halls of elite commissions is to be lauded. Equally important is the tacit admission of a dirty little secret of educationists: the education system does not serve the learning needs of the vast majority of Indians. Nor does it serve the holistic development needs of local communities.

As climate change and economic collapse loom before our generation, this is indeed a welcome opportunity to rethink some of the assumptions that have defined the framework of schooling until now, such as: monoculture, fragmented disciplines, competition, compulsion and authoritarianism.

Everyone already agrees that government schools in villages are in bad shape. What will make this round of dialogue interesting is if we open up to greater interrogation the claim that elite private schools are providing “good education”.

It is essential to ask: Are children prepared to deal responsibly with the kinds of challenging uncertainty that characterizes the 21st century? What are the opportunities for students to develop higher order skills such as: unlearning, critical analysis, research, problem solving, imagination, self-expression, decision-making, self-introspection, team work, wisdom? Are children equipped to build healthy and sustainable communities, and live in harmony and integrity?

The intention behind Sibal’s proposals is to reduce pressure on the child and to increase the joy of learning. This is a start, but it’s like giving a painkiller to someone who is bleeding to death. It does not solve the root sickness facing the education system.

Stress and pressure do not come only from the examination or marks. They come from unreasonable family expectations, from the mass media and a culture of consumerism, from a society that pushes greater and greater competition and intolerance.

Most importantly, they come from within an unmotivated, unconfident and frustrated learner – from one who holds a zero sum set of possibilities about their life. The mission of education must go beyond just teaching for exams.

The policy framework must seek to restore meaning, relevance and authenticity to the learning process. Real satisfaction and achievement do not come from external rewards or punishment. It comes from within.

Intrinsic motivation gives us the strength to construct our own lifelong learning journey and to embrace the struggle, conflict and pain that often accompany learning. It is the cultivation of this spirit that Mark Twain was alluding to when he said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

If India wishes to become a real democracy, then democratic practices will need to be modeled in the classroom. Also developing Entrepreneurship involves more than providing vocational training. Both require a fundamental attitudinal shift.

We need to transform our policy discourse from “child-centred” to “child-directed” learning. This means that students should have a greater voice in what, when and how they learn. We must boldly declare that every child is intelligent, curious, talented and unique.

Rather than imposing a readymade syllabus, we need to explore with students what do they want to learn, what burning questions are alive within their communities, what are they passionate about doing right now? This vision will not happen overnight. But we must set our compass in the right direction.

Today, the world acknowledges diversity as a critical element in the survival of the planet. This refers not only to biological diversity but also to cultural diversity. There are many forms of intelligence and knowledge systems in India.

The current education system, with its Western urban-industrial bias, actively discriminates against this diversity. The child in rural India knows many valuable things but this is not recognized by the school.

Ask most elite urban children to build a bamboo house or to use medicinal plants and they would be stumped. We must stop all forms of institutional discrimination against those who do not have school certificates.

The policy framework must focus on decolorizing education and making it locally relevant. About 30-40 per cent of the curriculum should be locally generated. We must also expand the range of “teachers” in the system.

Local knowledge holders and innovators such as artisans, businessmen, storytellers, gunis, farmers, government departments, should be enlisted to share their experiences.

Incentives should be provided to teachers to develop inspiring grassroots co-curricular learning programs and exciting materials in local languages. Such efforts are already successfully being carried out in countries such as Peru and Bolivia.
Learning is as much an emotional process as it is cognitive. The role of teachers is not just to impart information. They need to be mentors and reflective guides to students. This means that they need time to listen and intimately interact with each student.
This is simply not possible with the prescribed student-teacher ratio of 40:1. There should be a policy directive to reduce the class size; initially to 25:1 in the short term and then to 15:1.
In addition, strong efforts must be made to restrict “up-down” teachers (those who live in the city and daily commute to rural areas). These teachers’ lives revolve around bus timings. They have virtually no extra time to get involved in the lives of children and their local communities.
To impose a single uniform measurement on one billion people is not only ludicrous, it is criminal. The Class X and XII exams should not carry the high stakes value that they currently do. They should be de-linked from admission and hiring procedures.
Instead, professional associations should be encouraged to articulate the kinds of skills, knowledge, experiences and attitudes that are needed for entering a particular field and to develop appropriate evaluation mechanisms.

At the same time, diverse kinds of assessment tools should be developed. Research from neuroscience tells us that honest feedback is an essential part of brain development. Neither the examination nor a grade system gives the student the kinds of feedback that they need.

A healthy feedback system should include qualitative opportunities for self-assessment, peer-to-peer assessment, personal portfolios and even for students to assess teachers.

The current examination system does not raise quality; rather, it unfairly punishes students for the education system’s poor quality. Various other non-punitive mechanisms for monitoring and improving quality around the country should be created.
The policy framework should support young people to take a one-year break after Class X and XII. Students should be encouraged to venture outside the four walls and explore their own interests and the real world.
The book “Free from School” by Rahul Alvares gives a beautiful account of one young person’s learning journey away from school. He draws attention to a wide range of rich learning opportunities such as apprenticeships, travelling, libraries, animals and spending time in nature and with family.
This is merely a sketch of what is possible. Ultimately, though, it is not Kapil Sibal or even the government that can bring about real changes in the education system. It will be up to each of us to rise to the challenge.
The writer ( is a co-founder of Shikshantar Andolan,an Udaipur-based NGO.
Shikshantar Andolan ( has been trying to create awareness about the need to transform education system in India since 1998. It was founded by Manish Jain with his wife. Please visit the above website for more information/publications and activities over the last 11 years. Manish was educated at the Brown University and Harvard University (ED. M. 1994). After working for about 4 years for UNESCO, UNICEF, USAID etc. he decided to move to India. His sister Shilpa Jain joined him a year later after graducaing from Harvard in 1998. She worked for 9 years in India with Shikshantar. The Swaraj Foundation based in Chicago (also founded by my Manish Jain and some friends) has been supporting major part of their effort.

I am also pleased to share the two other links with you on this subject.