Connecting the Dots

  • Let’s connect The Dots – Education system in the world

Lata Jain

Schools and colleges have just reopened and there is a mad rush for the right school and college but have we ever given a thought or analyzed if there is a flaw in the system? Is the child happy going to school? Is your teen aged child satisfied about the knowledge being imparted at the college?

Today’s K12 sector seems to be abuzz with words such as digital classrooms, remedial education, assessments, flipped classrooms and personalized education. But, do these help answer the basic questions – is the student happy at the school? Is the student enabled to reach her potential? Innovative, technology-backed and modern means of education are welcome, but they still need to answer these questions to set the path right for the education system.

There are enough debates worldwide on the best way forward. Is the western style, which gives a student with enormous choice and the ability to question almost everything; but does not stress on the ability to recall superior to the eastern type, which has its roots in the culture and emphasizes respect for the teacher, curtails student’s questioning ability and encourages developing one’s memory recall. This debate becomes even more interesting given that the worldwide PISA rankings of the countries (usually conducted once every 3 years) seem to change significantly each time.

It might be worthwhile to look at the school environment in three broad areas – content, technology and data, which are mostly bereft of such debates. A system that can integrate these 3 areas robustly might help find solutions to the questions posed earlier. Human capital is also critical, but this article steers clear of the same.

Let’s first look at each of these in isolation. Content forms the foundation of any education process, but has not received as much attention over the years as our societal evolution has demanded. For example, the Gurukul system that existed in Southern Asia and predominantly in India, gave the students a well-rounded education. It had its limitations that the Guru could only serve a few students and hence the education was not for the masses. On the other hand, a Bridge International, talks about processes ensuring education for millions across the developing countries. Gurukul, was an epitome of unstructured classroom environment, and Bridge schools, seek a McDonald-like process approach in their delivery.

Structured or unstructured, today’s content is not well-rounded and concentrates mainly on making the students workforce ready. But it falls short of making them prepared in a well-rounded manner and that needs to be addressed. Students are primarily expected to learn numeracy, reading comprehension; but are they equipped to be independent, work in teams or develop their innate curiosity? There is an inherent relationship between literacy and jobs; and hence the parameters of literacy set by organizations across the world as benchmarks of achievement for countries. But these benchmarks are for a larger population, not for schools!

The content needs to look at concepts more than curriculum while developing the ability of a student to look at a problem from different viewpoints. It should embrace activities such as sports, drama, and others as part of the overall schooling. Again, it might be reasoned that there are infrastructure and budget issues for the low cost schools to be able to provide these facilities. But, when such an action is mandated, economics can still find innovative solutions – as the organization STIR is proving in a simple yet effective manner. Continuous and comprehensive evaluation introduced by the CBSE board in India, is a step in the right direction.

Let’s now look at the second factor, data and how it can improve the system. Suppose, grade 7 students in a particular school are performing lower in Math compared to other grade students,  it benefits the school to use data to look at the problem from several perspectives such as lesson planning, previous year scores, and teaching aids used.  It might be argued that data is overwhelming to handle and requires expertise, but it is more important to acknowledge its advantages and employ it to improve the system continually. An important usage of data is to utilize it as a feedback mechanism on a regular basis based on requirements from the various stakeholders in the system; including parents, students, teachers, school leaders and policy makers. At a micro level, data can help us provide personalized attention to student requirements.

The school has various touch points with the student such as assessments, attendance, interaction with parents, and other activities which can provide us with statistically useful data, since these data points are periodic and significant to draw inferences. This data can be used to observe patterns amongst student learning or teaching quality; which helps in suggesting effective means of remedial education and enabling customized assessments for students. Data can further be used to predict the learning outcome based on the various parameters, which are at play in a school environment.

The third factor – technology is the blue-eyed boy of the education industry and rightly so! It has the power to spread literacy and awareness among millions, especially in view of the dearth of quality teachers in India. But, it’s easy to fall to its lure – it’s tangible, it’s cool and can be used as a marketing tool. In most Indian schools, technology is ineffectively utilized, because it is not employed with the right intent and is not integrated as part of the overall system.

In its true essence, technology can be a great enabler. It can help achieve scale and quality while reducing cost. Inside the classroom, it takes the form of digital boards, tablets and virtual collaborations, among others. This can definitely help student’s ability to visualize and conceptualize better. Outside, it can help manage data effectively and create processes for tracking of content, teaching quality, attendance and so on. The lack of quality teachers can be addressed by the employment of technology as a teaching aid – a teacher from Brazil teaching a particular topic to students in India; can make an impact on the student’s ability to recall.

Further, technology remains the most potent answer if we need to move towards the idea of personalized education. It allows for adaptability to be introduced in learning and assessment techniques. Most importantly, it can pace itself to a student’s requirements, unlike a teacher, in most cases. But, it’s important that technology is used with a definite purpose – a clear understanding of its benefits and its implementation. It needs to be part of the education system and not an add-on.

Now let us look at how the interplay of these factors can provide quality education through an example. A student can use technology-enabled devices to read about properties of magnets, use kits to enhance this understanding and finally work in teams to develop magnetic tools, which could be used at home. The teacher in turn, can enable the various steps and look at data from assessments to adjust the pace of these lessons and collect feedback about the utility of the technical devices. This exercise adds value to the learning and involves stakeholders in the apt manner.

It thus becomes important that each of these factors works in tandem with the others to be able to make students happier at schools and help them realize their potential. Thought leaders and entrepreneurs have set the ball rolling in various forms and in different places. These best practices need to be shared aggressively and discussed by policy makers at international forums. It needs to be appreciated that different school types and demographic conditions require specific approaches, but the stress should be on connecting the dots!

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