There has been this unresolved debate as to whether, when we attained independence in 1947, we should have invested more in primary education than on creating the IITs. Of course, this has been inconclusive and serves little purpose now in our 75th year of independence. But, having said that, today, we as IITians should be putting in our tremendous skills to ensure that every child has a level playing field and can get quality primary education, at the very least.
After spending a quarter of a century in industry, I started to invest my time full-time in finding solutions to the problems we face in the primary education sector in India. And, as I am sure we all know, the problem is huge – 1.56 million schools with 9.2 million teachers serving 251 million children across 721 districts in the country. The first policy on education in India was based on the recommendations of the Kothari Commission (1964-1966) and was announced in 1968. Subsequently, in 1986, the Union Government came up with the National Policy on Education 1986 which was followed by another set of modifications in 1992. Since 1992, there has been no modification to the policy till 2020 when the National Education Policy 2020 was announced (NEP2020).
The work of the non-profit that I am involved with Akshara Foundation focuses on making education systems work for every child and we try and demonstrate this by using mathematics education for grades 1-5 as a use case. We work closely with the state education system in the states of Karnataka, Odisha, and, to a smaller extent, Andhra Pradesh and in March 2020, we had a footprint of nearly 80,000 schools, impacting over 4 million children.
The NEP 2020 has several recommendations that I believe are critical to the education of our children. There are four areas which I believe are important.
An emphasis on Foundational Literacy & Numeracy (FLN)
There is a strong focus on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN). For example, a child will not be able to code if she does not know mathematics; a child cannot be creative or communicate effectively if literacy skills are missing. The NEP has an aggressive FLN plan with a mandate that we should ensure universal FLN by 2025 at which point of time it is expected that all children in grade 3 will be able to read/write and do basic arithmetic at their grade-appropriate level. This is crucial – the oft-quoted ASER surveys essentially reveal that only about 45% of our children in grade 5 can read grade 2 text, and only a quarter of our children in grade 5 can do simple division. Believe it or not, I have met dozens of schoolteachers who are not confident of doing simple division – 125 divided by 5 gets an answer of 15 – which of course means that they have not learnt the importance of place value in mathematics.
Historically, the focus of education has been on what the curriculum is, what the syllabus is. Teachers are in a mad rush to complete the syllabus. No one finds out if the child has learnt. Unfortunately, we lose sight of the fact that she needs the 3Rs – reading, writing, arithmetic. As basic as that. Policymakers are more interested in the curriculum, in adding and deleting chapters. We lose sight of the fact that the goal of education is to give her the capacity to learn. Viewed in this context, the key overall thrust of curriculum and pedagogy reform across all stages will be to move the education system towards real understanding and towards learning how to learn – moving away from the culture of rote learning as is largely present today. This means that we have to introduce activity-based learning (ABL) or experiential learning from the early grades. A great example would be in mathematics teaching/learning where we need to take a constructivist approach and guide the child to move from Concrete to Representational to Abstract stages, the so-called CRA method. Akshara has been doing this in our mathematics programme since 2012.
In previous years, we had an emphasis on the supply side which meant that the focus was on providing inputs to the schools and the children (required of course) but did not seek to engage the parents or the community in any significant way. This meant that (illiterate) parents were unaware of the poor levels of learning their children had. NEP 2020 stresses on engaging them and community volunteers in a big way. We will then be able to catalyse the quality of demand and move the locus of control from the supply side to the demand side. A great example of community engagement has been Akshara’s Gram Panchayat level mathematics contests which have managed to get communities and the school systems to work together for the betterment of children’s learning.
This video is dated but makes the point.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown all education systems out of gear and millions of children have been impacted – most of them at the bottom of the pyramid. There have been several solutions proposed and implemented, but all of those solutions involve extensive use of high-quality digital content and Internet bandwidth. This means, that in a world of gross inequities in terms of digital access, more than 50% of our children will not have access to education. The NEP 2020 recommends use of technology and the need of the hour is for us to evolve strategies and solutions that will address this crucial problem. These solutions will need to be based on what we know works, and what we expect children and teachers will need in the future. Fortunately, as a country, we have made some critical investments. The Ministry of Education (formerly MHRD) has made investments in setting up the Diksha platform with the help of the Ekstep Foundation (founded by IIT Bombay alum Nandan Nilekani). Diksha is a repository of content, training materials, teaching material, assessments, etc. for all children across multiple mediums of instruction and all grades. This platform, coupled with energised textbooks (ETBs) – a QR-coded textbook with QR codes leading you to chapter-appropriate content on Diksha – can potentially make a huge difference to a large number of children. We need to solve one problem – how to get smartphones or equivalent devices in the hands of all children? And it is here that we need to be innovative.
To my mind, these are the four top ‘reforms’ in primary education that need to be executed consistently, and in a timely manner. It has not perhaps sunk deep enough into public consciousness, as Covid-19 has caused so much other trauma that takes centre stage. But the statistics disseminated from time to time by think tanks, the World Bank, United Nations departments and Indian sources are shattering. A World Bank report of October 2020 ‘Beaten or Broken? Informality and COVID 19 in South Asia’ have quantified the impact of school closures in monetary terms – India is estimated to lose USD 440 billion (INR 32.3 lakh crore) in possible future earnings.
In conclusion, as we recover from some very difficult times, we have to focus on FLN, embrace contemporary pedagogy practices, engage communities effectively and adopt appropriate technologies. We have an opportunity to innovate and create a more effective and equitable education system and this clearly requires political will and a sense of urgency to encourage innovation across the education system.