Friday, July 26, 2013

I am a teacher. What is your superpower?

On taking over my 4th grade classroom, I found that the students could neither read nor write simple sentences in any language. Most of them were very poor in basic math operations deemed appropriate for their age. They could be quite a handful when they got into their mischievous moods. Later on, I could see a similar lack of knowledge in a lot of students in 7th or 8th standards.

A commonly held perspective goes something like this –
What are these students doing in school? Why aren’t they learning things that are being taught to them? They shouldn’t be coming to school if they can’t learn. Being a student means devotion to education and improvement of one’s self. And this is true for a majority of them in this school. We have an attitude problem in these students. Nowadays, the government is doing so much for them. Education is free in government schools.  Government schools also provide books, bags, stationery, meals and what not. These students don’t want to learn. After all, if they were interested, with hard work and perseverance, they can overcome the barriers of illiterate parents, poor teachers, dysfunctional school and a pedagogically unsupportive environment. I think that most of them are not capable of self-improvement or grasping the prescribed curriculum.

Thankfully, this mindset is beginning to change in the recent times and a lot of people are questioning the status quo of education. The focus is shifting to providing quality education and the onus is being laid on the teacher to improve learning in students and get better results. Still, learning in students is abysmal. Words like creativity and argumentativeness are ideas only discussed in all-India-teacher meets in AC rooms in Delhi.

I had the fortune of participating in a wonderful workshop on Active Math education by Navnirmati this weekend. During this workshop, I met an engineer who has left his core engineering profession to work in the education field. He conducts math workshops with students and teachers. The idea is to propagate activity based math which makes it a flow of ideas linked intricately with each other instead of reducing it to independent chapters which remain abstract concepts coded in numbers in our textbooks. He has been holding workshops for teachers, from elite to low-income schools, for the last 4-5 years. However, he finds that even after the workshop, these methods are not used by the teachers in their classrooms. He was very upset about this.

His perspective –
This is not erudite knowledge. It is freely available for anyone who wants to learn and improve. Even after holding these workshops and making them experience hands-on learning, they still don’t do this in their classrooms. What are they doing in school? They shouldn’t be teaching if they are not motivated enough. Being a teacher implies constantly innovating and striving for improvement. We have an attitude problem in these teachers. I have seen this in teachers across high-income to low-income. After the implementation of the recommendations of the 6th Pay Commission, even the teachers are getting high salaries. It’s common to see them with Blackberrys. I have left my cushy engineering job to improve education. Still, these teachers don’t want to improve. If they were interested, all of our kids would be learning irrespective of other factors. This can also be attributed to the fact that only uninterested and incapable people become teachers. None of them wanted to be a teacher. They became teachers because they couldn’t do something else. Most of them are not even capable of understanding their subjects and implementing these pedagogical methods.

I couldn’t help but smile. There is very little difference between the mindset I mentioned earlier about students and the mindset about the teachers.

I spoke to the teachers in the workshop. For almost all of them, this was their first workshop on professional development. This included teachers who had been teaching for 10-12 years. I had a group partner who had 25 years of teaching experience. Her last training, she recalled, was 15 years ago. She still remembers what it was about.

When I was a fellow with Teach for India, I was lucky to have city-wide training every month. This was in addition to regular classroom observation and one-on-one feedback by my manager, feedback and support by my peers and monthly manager group meetings. A lot of these sessions took us back to remember why we do what we do. They celebrated our work and made us feel good about ourselves. After all of this, I was just an average teacher working tremendously long hours. Despite being in the system, I was outside the system. This was a strong factor which gave me support and motivation.

The teacher is just a human who is a part of the system. She (for convenience, I am going to stick with the pronoun ‘she’ because I think females form the majority of the teachers in our country) has herself studied through the same dysfunctional system. Most of her beliefs regarding education have been built on her experiences as a student and then as a teacher. To change, and in some cases transform, these perspectives built over years, the professional development should be rigorous and of a very high quality. Unfortunately, this is completely absent in India.

As a teacher, she is being supervised by a principal whose knowledge and mindsets are usually even more outdated, if not outrightly incorrect. She has been repeatedly told to prioritize her administrative tasks over her teaching, and admonished if she fails to do so. Her pleas for a smaller class size so that she can focus better on her students are lost to idea of more money. She is given examples of how other schools have 80 students per class which highlight her incapability at managing even 60.

The lesser said about the implementation of the curriculum, the better. The prescribed books are usually ordered by the school without taking her opinion. Schools get a commission on this.  All the students need to answer all the questions at the end of the chapter and fill out even the most redundant tables in the workbook of each subject. The principal might call for them any time and judge all her efforts based on how much the children have written according to the syllabus. If she does an activity or a song in the class, the principal might walk in any time and scold her in front of her students for not maintaining discipline. So much for trying out the activity based fractions that she learnt at the workshop. She would have purchased the materials from her own money because she knew the principal would refuse her the additional expense.

On any given day, a teacher has many other responsibilities apart from teaching - parental figure, clerk, sports coach, PR to name a few. Teaching is a rigorous profession by itself which requires tremendous study, practice and self-improvement. In my social circles, when I mentioned my work, I got respect not because of my profession but because I became a teacher instead of what I was expected to do. My unrelated fancy degree and the sacrifice of lakhs of rupees made me a good teacher by default. I think this was the biggest disrespect to the profession and to hundreds of teachers out there who are there by choice and doing amazing work.

This is how I felt when I was teaching. How many of our teachers feel like this about their profession?
Students from Shree Geeta Vikas Vidyalaya, Govandi

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Privatization of education does not make sense

I recently attended the IIT Bombay (IITB) Alumni Conclave with the theme - 'Education and Skill Development.' I was surprised at the unexpectedly large number of people from IITB working in the field of education. What should have been more surprising, had I not seen this before, was the lack of experience these people have in the education sector, except for having been educated themselves. They have not been trained to be or were teachers, administrators, curriculum developers or anything related to education at any point of time.
Quora is another place where lack of perspective on Indian education is apparent. There are fantastic answers on first-world-issues like the worst date ever, should I tell people that I am from IIT, are commerce girls easier than.... you get the idea. But when a meaningful, albeit slightly vague, question like this -
How can educational sector in India be improved?
gets answers, which are voted most popular, with suggestions like
a. teach without a qualified teacher using quora
b. teach with AFI's movies,
I want to bang someone's head on the wall. However, I must restrain myself for I digress from the topic of this post.

In my discussions with various people regarding education, there is a surprising number of people who strongly advocate privatization of education. They believe that privatization is the panacea to everything dysfunctional in our country.
Elite on privatization
Most educated elite on privatization
I am not even sure why people form this image of private players being efficient, dedicated and quality focussed. They are largely ignorant of the huge challenges that India's demography and geography provides in plenty which are extremely tough for any private player to come to terms with. These people also believe that money and profit are the best incentives ever. More the money dangled in front of people, higher the output.
At this point, I ask them -
What's the output in school education? 
They stumble for a bit and say results. Or some vague ideas about quantifying output.
I ask -
If it's profit making, who is the customer then?
They usually reply parents.
Does that mean that education should be tailored so that it pleases the customer most? 
Usually there's no instant gratification in education. So ways are invented to please the customer regularly. This can be seen in the large number of largely pointless events that fancy schools conduct nowadays.

I am actually not even sure what do people mean by privatization of education - Do they mean an education service run for profit or having a service with private like efficacy?
If education is a for-profit service where the quality depends on the amount of money that is pumped in, then it is logical that education quality will be compromised for people who cannot afford to bear its costs . This goes against the most fundamental principle of universal education which I hope most people stand by.
If it is just about improving the State provided service, typically characterized by lethargy, bureaucracy and low quality - then yes, it should be done. Padma Shri Dr. D.B. Phatak summarized it succinctly at the conclave -
"Education should not be a business but it should be run like a business."

Private education comic
It's just the hat and the suit
Without even going into deep philosophies of education, there are various obvious advantages of education being provided by an autonomous, knowledgeable service provider whose motivations are not clouded by profit. If it's autonomous, it cannot be bullied. It can focus on learning outcomes and not on appearances and events. Since it's non-profit, there is no temptation to fake results for there's no money spent on marketing.

Anurag Behar is one of the best writers on Indian education system that I have come across. I have mentioned excerpts from his writings that I find most relevant.

Cost of Privatized Education is probably the most compelling out of these. It also suggests further reading.

"... The belief that private schools perform better persists in spite of evidence, systemic experience and theory... First, consistent evidence across the world, including India, shows that private schools do not necessarily perform better than public schools. The difference in student learning levels between private and public schools arises primarily from differences in socioeconomic background of their students (relatively privileged ones go to private schools), selection of students (private institutions select one’s who are already able) and other additional support factors outside the school (tuition, going through pre-school etc). In simple terms, this means that private schools in themselves do not do a better job at education than public schools.
This dominant belief and public perception about superiority of private schools is also influenced by superficial markers of quality that are more social in nature—such as wearing ties and good shoes, “good” classmates, “English medium” etc.,—rather than educational... 

... On the one hand, private schools don’t do a better job of providing individual access to good quality school education, on the other hand, a substantially private (for-profit) schooling system works at cross purposes to the societal goals of education, hardening socioeconomic differences and inequity.

... Let’s look at the extent of privatization of basic schooling across countries in terms of percentage of students attending private schools. These are the rounded-off numbers: the US 9%, Japan 6%, South Korea 2%, Scandinavia 1%, the UK 6%, France 14%, Germany 4%, China 4%, all OECD 10%. The world average for basic schooling (up to age 14) is about 14%. The number for India is 25% and growing rapidly; our contribution is what is pushing up the global average. We are global champions of privatization in schooling–by a long margin.
Even countries completely committed to free markets and a dominant role for the private sector, have a public system for schooling. Shouldn’t we pause and reflect on the monumental mistake we are making as a country?

... The only solution to India’s problem of education is in improving our public schooling system. This will require hard, sustained effort for decades and substantially higher investment. But what we see with schools is merely one aspect of a deeper problem: the widespread abandonment of public systems in all spheres…in healthcare, in water and environment."

Excerpt from Profits and Schools -

"... One set of issues arises from the ever-present information and knowledge asymmetry between the provider of education i.e., the school, and its users i.e., children and parents. In a situation like this, the provider must do their best—an honest attempt to deliver good service—irrespective of whether the user discriminates between what is good and not-so-good.
This is a professional obligation. You do expect that a doctor would do her honest best for her patient, although the patient may have no idea what is good (or best). The school situation is akin, but the professional obligation on the school is even greater...

In this situation of asymmetry, to do an honest job of its professional obligation, the schools’ cost structures become such that the fee required to make it sustainable (forget profitable), is not available. It’s not available primarily because it’s simply unaffordable by a very large majority in the country.

The unfortunate fact is that there are hundreds of seemingly respectable schools giving short shrift to the basics of good education. This pursuit of profits through short shrift is scandalous....
At the heart of all this is an acceptance that money and economics are not necessarily the most relevant frames of reference for all human endeavours. And that profit is not a legitimate pursuit in a social relationship of trusteeship such as education."

Another excerpt from Profit and Higher Education -

"Pick up any list of the world’s best universities and go through those names. You can go through the top 500—not just top 10 or 20. You will not find a single for-profit university.
The point is simple, high quality higher education is not and cannot be a for-profit enterprise. This is not an ideological issue; it is merely an economic implication of what is required to have high-quality higher education. Three of these requirements are: deep and broad-based research, a good student faculty ratio and a multidisciplinary faculty ranging from humanities to applied domains.

... To address our problems in education, both school and higher education, there are just two ways ahead and both are needed. ... for our problems of quality and equity in education, the government has to invest more money and improve its performance."

All the three articles by Mr. Behar deserve a thorough reading (like most of his articles). 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

100th post: Kaanton ko murjhaane ka khauff nahin hota

As my blogger account tells me, I have written 99 posts. 100th of anything usually implies history and nostalgia. And one can say that I am in a historical mood nowadays. Visiting ancient cave drawings in Bhopal, staring at Taj Mahal (again) and experiencing the wonderful old Hindi movies like Chalti ka naam Gaadi, Mughal-e-azam, Chupke Chupke and Deewar. Such cinema! Why don’t we make movies like those anymore? So much trash is being produced (ref vigilidiot). 

Today, I am meeting people from a socio-economic class where sacrifice is choosing to do an exciting fellowship paying me 23000 pm (which, by the way, is more than 4 times the average national income). People who are afraid of failure, risk, lack of Bisleri bottles and absence of air-conditioning. Madhubala's quote as Anarkali to Salim - Kaaton ko murjhaane ka khauff nahin hota (Thorns do not have the fear of wilting) - has become the quote of my life. 

This post is a tribute to my nanaji (mother's father). A fond recount of his stories by his (possibly favourite) grandchild. Stories which make me giggle, smile and salute him. I met him recently during my visit home and this was the first time I saw age showing on him. A year ago, he used to go for 3-4 km walks every day, get milk, lift heavy stuff and do more than what 20 year olds like me do nowadays. I don’t think I have ever seen tiredness on his face or heard a complaint from his lips. However, when I saw him this time, he had lost weight and got tired easily. He is a shadow of the man he was until recent times.

Born in a poor baniya family, my nanaji’s father had a kirana store (shop which sold ghee). These origins were apparent when he was diagnosed with artery blockage.
The doctor said - "aapke khun me ghee kaafi lagta hai." (You seem to have a lot of Ghee in your blood.)
To which my nanaji nonchalantly replied – "Arey! Humaare bapuji ki to ghee ki dukaan thi. Jab man kiya, kanaster me se 1-2 phunki (1-2 handfuls) to aise hi munh me daal lete the." (My father had a ghee store. Whenever we felt, we used to gobble 1-2 handfuls of it.)

When he finished his 12th standard, his father announced – "ab kal se dukan pe aana shuru karo." (Start coming to the shop from tomorrow.
Nanaji wanted to study more. But he knew his father would not allow because he couldn't afford his fees. Most readers (and the writer) of this blog will probably never understand the emotions of a 17 year old boy who wanted to study more but could not afford to. He went to his mother and expressed his desire. His mother patted his head and said – "Chal. Tere nanaji ke paas chalte hain. Wo tujhe padayenge." (Let's go to your grandpa. He'll educate you.)

So nanaji’s nanaji was the one who paid for his college fees. Nanaji wanted to study engineering. However, in order to borrow minimum amount from his nanaji, he settled for a diploma from Roorkee University (now IIT Roorkee). In a way, he is the first IIT-ian in the family, long before yours truly got lucky and made it through.

Piran Kaliyar in Roorkee, Uttarakhand
There’s a Piran kaliyar ka mela (fair) held annually in Roorkee. Nanaji fondly recollects running away with his friends from the hostel in the middle of the night on their bicycles to attend the mela.
Phir kehte hain – "Mele me to hume kya hi karna tha, hum to wahan ladkiyan dekhne jaate the."
Then he says - "There was nothing in the fair for us. We just went to see the girls."
(Yup! It’s in the genes)

After his diploma, he was employed by the UP irrigation department as an overseer. This was a stagnant position. To make the engineering cadre, he did a course (AMIE) and made it as a junior engineer. He was transferred to UP hydel division. In those days when electricity was a luxury and irrigation plans for the country were being made, nanaji created and executed those plans in reality. Take him to small towns in UP and he’ll point out – "ye water tank banaya tha, ye power plant banaya tha, yahan road banayi thi, ye canal and bridge banaya tha." Towns owe their current electricity, water and transport to his tenure. He’ll talk about the days when he used to measure canals for miles on his bicycle in the hot sun. Sounds simple but it's hard work in the hot sun.

I have seen many of my friends complain about 13 lakhs and that all of it vanishes. They don’t have to support their parents, educate siblings and get their sisters married off. In his family, nanaji was the only earning member. He educated all his brothers. He got all his 4 sisters married off. Not to mention his 2 sons and my mother. Everything very happily. He took a lot of pleasure in it. And now after doing all that, he asks me – "beta tujhe paise to nahin chaiye? Mujhse 1 lakh gift le le." (Don't you want money? Take 1 lakh gift from me.)
Iron-man anyone? And just in case someone is wondering, this is honest earning. He used to get transferred from the department almost every year because of his honesty.

The best story about him that I learnt recently - he has been to jail! Post-independence and not for a crime.
In 1980s or 1990s, a certain section of UP engineers organized a strike asking for pay raise and some policy changes in their board membership. All of them were put in jail for 12-13 days. Sounded tough. I imagined it being a hard experience.
Apparently, it was a party inside. All Class-I government officers sitting in jail. Jailor coming and chatting with them every evening. Huge amounts of food, kilos of fruits and dry fruits coming from families into the jail. People were fatter when they got released. Nanaji and his friends ate whatever they needed and distributed the rest to the regular inmates. These jailed engineers wanted better drainage and western toilets.  Nanaji was the only civil engineer in the whole gang. Nanaji spoke to the jailor and said - "Hum banwa denge." (We'll get it made.)
The jailor was delighted and the jail was upgraded during their stay.  Nanaji supervised the construction and voila – jail now had modern toilets. Imagine the inmates' happiness – they had clean toilets and cells and were now getting fruits and dry fruits. Nanaji talks about getting massages every day from the inmates and various people, government and otherwise, coming and congratulating him. I can imagine him lying and getting massages royally while people chatted with him. Finally, all their demands were met and they were released with much fanfare and customary garlands.

I always believe that life should be an interesting tale. I have high standards to live up to.