Guest: When trying to solve the wicked problem of education in India and elsewhere

3 months 1 day ago

The lack of access to excellent education of every child is a perfect example of a "wicked problem". Here is why.

A "wicked problem", first theorized by Prof. Horst Rittel, is a social problem that is almost impossible to solve due to its humongous scope, the large number of stakeholders, the contradictory opinions involved, and its interconnected nature with other such wicked problems.

Overworked and dispassionate teachers, a curriculum that's becoming less and less relevant everyday, lack of infrastructure and resources are some of the few issues plaguing education today in India. At the same time, the vicious cycle of poverty, nutrition and education, where each is simultaneously a symptom and the result of the other, makes things more complicated.

In this humdrum, I am always skeptical of ed-start-ups who have "figured out THE solution". 

Having been involved in the education sector for sometime now, I have often wondered what "education" really means. For it is extremely difficult to try to solve something which you cannot even define.

If I type "What is education?" on Google, I get two definitions: 1. the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university. 2. an enlightening experience. Based on my experience, 1 rarely leads to 2. In fact, Ken Robinson, in his famous TED talk, mentioned, “We are all born with immense talents, but our institutions, especially education, tend to stifle many of them”. What are we doing wrong and how can we improve, especially in the Indian context?

Many leading educators see education as a mix of three important ingredients: Knowledge, Skills and Mindset. With this framework, let's try to delve a little deeper into the education system in India. 

Knowledge: what about application based knowledge

Knowledge can be of two types: information based knowledge (lower order in Bloom's taxonomy) and application based knowledge (higher order in Bloom's taxonomy).

In India, information based knowledge forms the bulk of the education we receive at schools and colleges. However, with the rapid advancement of technology, this type of knowledge is slowly becoming obsolete. With the internet literally at our fingertips, there's hardly any reason to remember facts. Information is abundant, what's necessary is to analyze, interpret that information.

As a child, I hated history because it seemed the whole point of the subject was to remember random dates and names. Now, I love reading historical non fiction because it's so interesting to see how past events have shaped us in the present. From our insistence in the classroom to remember multiplication tables (even if children don't know what multiplication exactly is) to teaching "short-cuts" to problems for time bound competitive tests, we have never focused on analysis, research and creativity. Perhaps, it's one of the reasons we are good at procedural work. Give us the steps or an algorithm and we will follow it accurately but we are rarely good at researching and innovating. Proof of this is that even our hallowed institutes like IITs and IIMs hardly produce good research papers. 

Skills: learning to learn and ability to take risks

As teachers and parents, we rarely focus on skills, assuming students will pick them up when needed. It's the same as pushing someone into the pool and hoping she will learn swimming. It might work for a few but it's disastrous for most of the children.

Perhaps the most important skills for the future will be the skills of learning to learn. With automation, old jobs will become extinct and newer jobs will crop up. People who keep unlearning, adapting and re-learning will survive with the huge prevalence of MOOCs.

Similarly, in this era of entrepreneurship, another important skill for success is the ability to take risks. In the Indian scenario where almost all decisions for children are always taken by parents, with the children living a highly cocooned life, it's no wonder that we are culturally a risk averse country. For example, managing your personal finance should be taught at the school/college level to everyone. When I started on my first job, I struggled with savings, investments and taxes and I see young earners today struggling in the same way. 

Mindset: perseverance and empathy, do you teach your child that

The buzz word in education these days is "growth mindset". Put simply, growth mindset people believe that intelligence can be improved through hard work and dedication while fixed mindset people believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot be improved. I have seen numerous instances of teachers, and even parents, labeling their children as "gifted" or "dumb".

It's time we change the way we praise and disapprove of children to reflect their work and not their character.

Grit/perseverance is extremely important in the present world to succeed. Almost every leader has faced numerous failures and has succeeded by picking herself up. I wish it were as easy to teach grit as it is to teach other subjects! Students learn grit through sports and team activities connected to their passions. Empathy is probably another mindset that we need to make sure children grow up with. With growing polarization, violence and gender discrimination, it's important that our students grow up with love and compassion for other fellow human beings. 

Only when we work on all the three pillars of education can we say that our children are truly "educated".  

Guest post by Sunil Kumar Rath who has been working in the education sector for over 7 years with organizations like Teach for India, Varthana and The/Nudge Foundation. He is a graduate from the Indian School of Business and NIT Rourkela.