Category Archives: English

Digitized or Digital?

Technology has added a whole new dimension to the world of education. Many organizations and teams are working hard to universalize basic quality education using technology as an enabler. While YouTube and quite a few websites offer a variety of educational content online, there are new platforms like EkStep and Kolibri that make the educational content available offline as well. Soon, open and free educational resources will be made available inside and outside classrooms even in areas where there is no reliable internet access. For example, Maharashtra has around 68,000 government and aided schools and 45% of these schools have some or the other kind of digital facility. If India continues to build the digital infrastructure at the current pace, it won’t be very far in the future when all our schools will have some form of digital education facilities. This is a very encouraging scenario.

Many teachers and educators are creating their own YouTube channels and websites. The government of Maharashtra has also started a wonderful initiative called Mitra portal and Mitra app (using EkStep platform) where school teachers can create, access and use educational resources. With these new tools being created everywhere, it is crucial to have a vast amount of quality content available in Indian languages and context.

A lot of curiosity, excitement, and enthusiasm are seen in the area of content creation. However, most of the efforts today seem to be directed in merely digitizing the existing textbooks. That, in my view, is a very limited and inefficient use of the vast possibilities created by the digital technologies. Many textbooks are nowadays available as pdf files and children already have the hard copies of the books with them. There is no point in reproducing the same text in another format on the digital screens. Digital content should augment, enrich and redefine the textbook learning experience. That is the difference between merely digitizing existing text and creating a digital content that will facilitate learning. For example, theater, and film are different mediums and hence the creative process adapted by artists is different for both the mediums and the experience for the viewers is different as well. Similarly, when a lesson is to be converted into a digital medium, it can be effective if we leverage audio, visual and interactive capabilities of the digital medium.

Eng-BalBharatiAbove are some examples of ‘looking, reading and listening’ given in the Balbharati English textbooks. Children are expected to match the dialogues with the pictures in order to learn English conversation. Rather than scanning and copying the same pictures and sentences into the digital lesson, one can augment the textbook example of “I’m sorry I broke the cup” with additional examples like “I’m sorry I broke the glass” or “I’m sorry I spilled milk on the floor” or “I’m sorry I left the tap open”. Needless to say that there could be an audio playing these sentences and even prompting the students to record the sentences in their voice and play it back to check their progress. Moreover, the pictures could have touch-points marked on them so that when one touches a tap in the picture, for example, it says and shows the word ‘tap’. Subjects like Geography can be made highly interesting by showing interactive maps and audio. It would be great to touch a state in the map and hear a sentence in the language of the state and read some interesting facts about the state in a popup. Videos of children performing science experiments or Maths activities would be fun too.

I hope that a large number of people contribute to content creation. Sometimes armies of people are better than experts. That will bring together creativity, diversity, and breadth of ideas.

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Need a Paradigm Shift

In the budget last year, the central government allocated 42,000 crore rupees to school education. The major part of this allocation is spent on teacher salaries. A World Bank study reveals that on an average 25% teachers are absent every day in government schools and every year, the cost of teacher absenteeism is around 8000 crores rupees to India. Moreover, the size of private coaching industry in India in 2015 was estimated to be around 2.5 lakh crore rupees. In metros, 87% of primary school children and up to 95% secondary school children attend private tutoring. In rural areas, around 30% school children go to paid private tuition. The private school expenditure (by parents) is not even considered here! In spite of all the enormous expenditure, learning still remains an urgent challenge. Pratham’s survey has repeatedly revealed that in rural India, around 50% grade-5 children did not have grade-2 level literacy and numeracy skills.

The demand for school voucher system, where public money directly follows the child rather than schools or teachers, is getting momentum. In the school voucher system, the school that the parents and students choose gets the funding. School vouchers are coupons that can be redeemed for educational services by schools. However, I feel we should go even further by allowing parents to let their children learn anywhere they want. It could be a government school, a private school, a private tuition or it could even be homeschooling. Instead of focusing on every child is actually going to school, the government could focus on ensuring that every child is learning. The government can ensure this by developing and regulating standards to monitor and measure learning. The government can evaluate whether a child has mastered certain concepts and skills in a particular subject. This need not be age or grade specific. For example, a 10-year old girl could very well be at level 5 in Mathematics, at level 3 in Language and at level 7 in Music.

It’s time we shift our paradigm from ‘getting children to school and teaching them at grade level’ to ‘children mastering concepts and skills’. This could also include skills that are currently not in the curriculum.

Rethinking Long Breaks

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, highlights an interesting research by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander. Alexander demonstrated that the reading scores of the wealthy kids jumped high after their long summer breaks whereas the reading scores of the poor kids dropped after the holidays. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.  Gladwell says, “When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” In a nutshell, poor children lag behind their wealthy peers during long breaks.

In the times when everything else is changing, are we going to continue with the same hundred-year-old school system? We need to rethink our schools and question the assumptions.  Should we have long summer holidays or could we spread those out across the year and have small school breaks? It is not a difficult change to make at the policy level.

While we wait for such a top-level policy change, schools, parents groups, and NGOs can conduct summer learning camps, library programs and digital learning programs especially for financially and socially backward children. That’s the least we could do in the direction of equal opportunity.

The Pervasive Trend of Private Tuition

The enormous size of the Indian private coaching industry is dumbfounding. In metros, 87% of primary school children and up to 95% secondary school children attend private tutoring. In rural areas, around 30% school children go to paid private tuition. The size of private coaching industry in India in 2015 was estimated to be around 40 billion dollars or 2.5 lakh crore rupees. (These figures are based on the survey by ASSOCHAM – The Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India – http://assocham.org/).

A common tax payer honestly pays income tax every year. The government is unable to provide basic educational infrastructure from this tax and hence the common man is made to pay an additional 3% education cess. However, he still cannot send his children to the dismal government schools and hence ends up paying big fees to the private schools. These school fees are hiked pretty much every year and there is no framework to regulate it. To top it all, a distraught parent pays an exorbitant price for private coaching classes. In metro cities, most parents spend Rs 1000 to 3000 per month on tuition of a primary-level child and Rs 5000 or more per month on tuition of a secondary-level child, according to the ASSOCHAM survey.

It’s a gloomy picture where parents spend a fortune on education and children sit in enclosed classrooms all day long in a boring routine setup. The same things that are learned, rather read in school, are revised again in private tuition. There is no curiosity or excitement, let alone any challenge. Children spend their days in school classrooms and evenings in coaching classes. Most children don’t get enough time for sports or other creative hobbies. They don’t learn much in this process either (although they are better equipped for exams). Spending evenings in coaching classes does not teach you the key skills of self-learning, critical thinking and the ability to focus on the task without any supervision. These skills can be acquired only when children study all by themselves.

Private tuition has become a new normal in school education today. There are many reasons for this trend such as competing peer groups, exam-oriented culture, lack of trust in school standards and the lack of ability or inclination of parents to provide time and guidance to their children.

The social obsession of ‘compare and compete’ has taken over the joy of childhood, the meaning of education and life in general. We are paying and making our children pay the price for the same.

 

Old Stories, New Versions

Last time I had written about innovative adaptations in children’s books. Here are some different, creative versions of old stories.

A while ago, I had come across a new version of the tortoise and the hare story by an unknown author. In the old original story, the hare falls asleep and the slow but steady tortoise wins the race. In the new version, after the first race the hare introspects and understands that he was complacent. The next day, he takes on another race with the tortoise and this time he focuses on the job, runs without a break and easily wins the race. After this, the tortoise introspects and says to the hare, “Let’s race to the opposite bank of the river.” The hare runs and reaches the bank of the river and stops there. The tortoise slowly comes, dives into the water and swims to the opposite bank of the river. It is important to know your strengths and get in the field of your core competency. In the end, the hare and the tortoise come together, acknowledge each other’s strengths and decide to race as a team, in a record time. The hare carries the tortoise till the riverbank and then the tortoise carries the hare across the river. Together, with everyone doing the best they can, they both achieve more!

A well-known Marathi author Rajeev Sane (in a different context) has discussed various versions of the “two cats and a monkey” story. For example, if the cats are stern and warn the monkey beforehand as, “Put your share (fees) away first, but no fooling in the job”; then the story will be different. Or, if the cats agree on a procedure where one cat divides the butter and the other one chooses one of the pieces, then they won’t need a monkey at all. Yet another version could be that both the cats have plenty to eat and some butter is leftover after their meal and hence, they don’t need a monkey. In a nutshell, there could be a lot of versions of this story.

If children are told to make their own versions of these famous stories, we’ll be flooded with a lot of innovative stories. Children will learn to think outside the box and it will encourage their creativity. Children could work on such projects in school or at home.

 

Apt Adaptations

In the first grade Balbharati (the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research) textbook, the rhyme “rain, rain go away” is modified to “rain, rain come again” to suit the Indian context. Indeed a sensible change! I really appreciate the sense and sensitivity shown by Balbharati. There are quite a few stories and rhymes which may not suit the local context or the current times. It won’t make sense to teach it blindly without adapting it to our place and time.

rain-rain

cinderellaIn the Cinderella story, her wicked stepmother makes her do all the chores while her stepsisters have fun. This part of the story makes it challenging to teach the value of doing chores and the dignity of labor.  Hence, it needs to be modified as – “Cinderella is doing a good job! She cleans up the house and works hard.  Her sisters are lazy and irresponsible.” Of course, that’s not all. The story needs further changes that could suggest that there is more to life than pretty clothes and finding a rich boy. Similarly, wouldn’t it be great to change the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Dusky Beauty and the Seven Dwarfs”?

Many Indian stories and rhymes need such creative changes as well. There is a lot that can be sensibly and creatively rewritten. It would be great to see innovative adaptations in children’s books.

Reservation: Lack of Information and Perspective

I have heard and seen quite a few discussions in person and on the social media on the occasion of Dr. Amdedkar’s birth anniversary. Obviously, reservation system (affirmative action) was the main topic of interest for most people. Many, even those who are least bothered about any other social issue, have an opinion on this particular topic. I don’t expect everyone to have a balanced or an unbiased view on the topic. However, people passionately discuss, debate and mislead others without checking their facts and that is worrisome.

One of the biggest sources of this problem is that the topic of reservations is not taught in schools. This is an important topic closely related to students’ higher education, their career and more importantly to their being a citizen. And yet it is not included in the school curriculum. The philosophy and thought process behind reservations, the difference between poverty eradication and reservations, the difference between political and educational reservations, the regular reviews of the reservation policy that take place, etc need to be included in the school curriculum and should be taught as part of civics course.  Our school curriculums cannot abstain from the topic which plays an important role in our educational and political institutions. Since we do not provide any information on reservations, nor do we encourage any thinking or discussions on the same, we have created a generation of young adults who are misinformed on this topic. The policy, which is an example of generous social justice, is looked down upon as an example of severe injustice. Education should not only teach us the concept of social justice but also help develop a reasonable, generous perspective to comprehend it.

What’s in a name?

In many Indian cities, children from many schools, in every nook and corner, appear for Maths and Science Olympiads every year. Schools send the exam forms home and children right from the first grade up to the tenth grade appear for these exams. A Delhi-based organization that calls itself as Science Olympiad Foundation (www.sofworld.org) sells books for these exams, collects exam fees and conducts quite an average exam for lakhs of children all over India. There is nothing wrong in selling books, conducting exams or distributing prizes and certificates at scale. The problem is when they call these exams as ‘National Olympiad’ or ‘International Olympiad’ and mislead people into thinking that they are participating in Olympiad exams. It is like a sports club in New Delhi organizing a national swimming competition for school children and calling it Olympics or a Mumbai-based magazine conducting a story writing contest and distributing “Gyanpeeth” to the winners! These phony Olympiads have given a wrong idea of Olympiads to many children, parents, schools and teachers. Many parents and teachers are under the illusion that their 8-10 year-olds are successful in national and international Maths or Science Olympiads!

The details of the actual, authentic Olympiad exams can be found at http://olympiads.hbcse.tifr.res.in/ . International Olympiad Exams cannot be taken from India. One has to get selected in the Indian Olympiad team and needs to travel abroad to participate in it.  So far, India has hosted International Mathematical Olympiad only once, in 1996. Hence, if we are participating in any International Olympiad every year from our own city in India, then there is something fishy about it.

Note: When my child was 9-10 years old, I had a similar misconception of my child winning Olympiad medals.

 

On the occasion of the Republic Day

Every 15th August and 26th January, school children attend flag hoisting ceremonies in their schools and sing patriotic songs. Some schools organize cultural programs while some others take up constructive activities like plantations or cleanliness drives.  Many schools make it mandatory to attend the flag hoisting ceremony. What is the rationale behind this mandatory patriotism? Does it make sense to show your love and respect to avoid punishments? In fact, we should be mindful of ensuring that the Independence Day or the Republic Day celebration doesn’t become a new ritual. However, sometimes I wonder if we are headed in the opposite direction.

Discussing and encouraging patriotism in schools is helpful. It encourages Indian identity, shared values and social cohesion. However, patriotism is not a cure-all for our problems, let alone bigotry in the name of patriotism. In this day and age, patriotism should be interpreted as being a good citizen, respecting the law of the land, acknowledging other people’s freedom and working towards a more just system. We should discuss and debate these issues in schools on the national days; else these days will be just lost in the symbols and rituals.

Fun and Awareness

Most children don’t like Civics and think of it as a boring subject. However, it’s an important and useful subject which can be made quite interesting.

Civics should not mean mugging-up loads of mundane information about the Indian Constitution, the various government functions and the rights and duties of its citizens. We can have creative role-plays for Civics. For example, children can pick chits for their roles and enact various roles like the Speaker, the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. Some children would be in the ruling party whereas some would be in the opposition. They could have debates and discussions on a bill. It would be a fun experience, but moreover, it will promote a better understanding of our parliament and democracy. Such role playing could sensitize them about the seriousness of politics. There is a chance, just a remote chance, of children understanding the futility of opposing for the sake of opposing.

In the day and age of irresponsible and self-serving parliament members and assembly sessions, these role-plays enacted by children may turn out to be more sensible. You never know!