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Looking back with anguish and regret

EducationWorld October 2020 | Teacher-2-teacher

History teaches us one important lesson. Countries cannot grow their economies first and develop public education and health services later. The reverse is true. Unfortunately India has under-invested in these crucial services

Sarojini Rao is principal, Indus International School, Bangalore

The on-going skirmishes and stand-offs at various points on the 3,488 km Sino-India border in the north-west stretching all the way to Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east, has brought the asymmetrical power balance between China and India into sharp focus.

It is a matter of deep regret and anguish to recall that on October 1, 1949, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed, newly independent India was educationally far ahead of our neighbour nation. India had a string of excellent British-style public — including boarding — schools around the country and well-reputed universities including the Presidency universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras established in 1857, and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (estb.1908). On the other hand in 1949, China was educationally and economically backward, devastated by the Japanese invasion.

Seven decades later, the situation is completely reversed. While in India, 30 percent of the adult population is still illiterate, PRC is 96.8 percent literate, has a GER (gross enrolment ratio) of 81.7 percent in pre-primary education, high learning outcomes in its schools and higher education institutions, and significantly higher productivity in agriculture, industry and services. Moreover six Chinese universities are ranked among the Top 200 in the WUR (World University Rankings) league tables of the pioneer London-based rating agency QS and three in the WUR of Times Higher Education (THE). Not one of India’s 40,000 colleges and 1,000 universities is ranked among the Top 200 of either agency.

There are two major causes for the relative backwardness of Indian education. First, the archaic pedagogy of rote memorisation of content continues to be encouraged to this day in the vast majority of the country’s 1.5 million schools. Opening young minds to develop the competencies of critical thinking, experimentation, research, innovation, design thinking, risk taking and problem solving which are of vital importance, is confined to a small minority of education institutions across the country.

The second major cause of the pathetic condition of foundational K-12 education is the rock-bottom quality of education dispensed by India’s 6,846 teacher training colleges, 90 percent of them privately promoted, recklessly licensed institutions of professional development. The fact that barely 10 percent of the country’s 9 million primary-secondary teachers have passed TET (teacher eligibility test) despite being given a five-year time window to prepare for it, is testimony of the poor quality of the B.Ed degree awarded by teacher training colleges and endorsed by Indian universities. As a result, most teachers still believe their role is to teach and prepare students to pass examinations. Too many parents also believe that the purpose of education is to enable school students to get the best possible placements in prestigious colleges and universities. This dominant mindset has to change in the emerging highly technology-driven academic and workplace environments in which artificial intelligence will soon substitute most cognitive skills.

Apart from teachers and parents, school managements also need to re-orient their thinking and move beyond preparing students for examinations. They need to purposively train students to discharge leadership roles in all sectors of the economy and all segments of society. A spirit of service which epitomises leadership needs to be inculcated in all school curriculums to develop much needed leaders in all walks of life. Indeed leadership training should form the core element of every school’s curriculum.

However, for students to transform into leaders developing their cognitive skills of reflection and introspection are a prerequisite. These important skills can be developed by encouraging the deep reading habit.

Book reading is not the equivalent of deep reading; there’s a huge difference. The former is for leisure, for information. Deep reading, on the contrary, is mindful reading to absorb concepts for creative application in life and/or work. Moreover, deep readers invariably become deep thinkers.

Research studies conducted by Marianne Wolfe, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, indicate that it’s important to develop the bi-literate brains of students by exposing them progressively to both print and digital media. School projects and assignments should provoke students to develop bi-literate brains and prepare them to cope with the fast-changing workplaces of the future.

Finally, history teaches us one important lesson: countries cannot grow their economies first and develop public education and health services later. The reverse is true. Unfortunately, India has under-invested in these vitally crucial services. That’s why 70 years after independence we are being forced to fight an unequal war on our borders with a neighbour nation which has well-developed human resources and great technology absorption capacity.

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