Madhav Chavan, co-founder and CEO of the NGO Pratham, says the definition of literacy should be changed, talks about the flawed learning outcomes for maths, underlines the need for nurturing skills for employment, asserts that teaching everybody English is not the solution and says installing CCTVs in classes is ‘useless’
UMA VISHNU: What has been the biggest takeaway from the 2017 ASER (Annual Status of Education Report)?
In fact, I was surprised by things that were good. About 75% students in the age group of 14-18 years can read at least Class 2 textbooks. This is also the number of students who can read Class 2 textbooks at age 14, according to regular ASER. Which means that after 14 years, the number does not drop. Because if you’re not using your literacy, you can forget how to read, it is possible. But that doesn’t happen and that was a good thing.
Also, the fluency rate grew by 7-8 percentage points within the total number of readers. We also found that 7-8 percentage point more young people, than at age 14, can read at least a sentence in English. So, even though nobody is teaching you English formally, the number seems to increase. This was both interesting and surprising and will help us in the long run.
In math or arithmetic, on the other hand, the number of children who can do division or just about do division remains at 41-42% in the 14-18 age group. That is where the issues come up.
Let’s take the example of bank loans. Now say one bank is giving you a loan at 11% interest and another at 13%. Which bank will you choose? 70% students chose the right bank. But if they are told that a shirt for `300 is available on 10% discount, only 40% could figure out the cost of the shirt.
Now, this is a problem because it is a generation which is being told that you can have bank accounts, Jan-Dhan Yojana etc. A large number of this demographic has bank accounts and has been depositing money. A large number of women too deposit money in banks. They’ve not used ATMs, but they are being told about e-banking, mobile payments etc. But if you don’t know what the calculations are or you don’t have support systems to do the calculations, then how are you going to figure it out?
So, there are a lot of warning flags out there. When it comes to general knowledge, a large number of kids could not identify their state or its capital on the map of India. I don’t know what to make of that. In an ASER pilot test survey, many years ago, we asked kids who the man on the currency note, with no hair and a pair of glasses was. A lot of kids did not know who the man was. When we asked them who they thought it could be, some of them said, ‘It must be the person who got the notes printed’.
UMA VISHNU: You have sent out these warning signals for very long now but why is it that there is still confusion about ways to fix the problem?
I can tell you how the debates went. For example, in 2004-05, when UPA-I came to power, the NCERT made an effort to create a National Curriculum Framework. That was an excellent exercise… It was a mass-scale effort of a lot of educationists. They talked about constructivism etc. But today, 12 years later, the language that was generated in the NCERT then has not percolated to lower levels. Translating the principles into practice proved to be difficult. Back then we were saying that we should start by setting small goals and achieving them… If you think that everyone will be able to follow your philosophy of constructivism, it might not work.
In the early days, no one was willing to talk about ‘learning outcomes’. For the first time, in the 12th Five-Year Plan, the Planning Commission said learning outcomes were important; till then, the HRD Ministry would not listen. After 2012, ‘learning outcomes’ has become a buzzword in the ministry too. We would like to take some credit for that.
Now, NCERT has come out with a long list for grade-wise learning outcomes to be achieved, which is going to the other extreme. See, children need to learn to read. If I ask a kid to stand here and read, either the kid can read or he can’t. Or they can read a little bit. You can’t create a grade or scale of 10 or 15. It should be something so simple and transparent that even parents can understand.
What NCERT has done is create an ‘educationist’ standard of learning outcomes which is very difficult to understand for a lay person. Reading may be fine but it becomes difficult with mathematics. If you see the survey published by NCERT, the list for learning outcomes for maths is very long and detailed at every grade. If someone asks the teacher, ‘Does this child know maths?’ and your reply is, ‘This child understands angles and regular fractions’, it becomes difficult to understand.
I am firmly on the side of the parents and the children — start with a big, bold approach. But this is not accepted by everybody. There is an argument that it should be done holistically. We don’t mind that, but how do you do it? I think we are stuck in what a lot of people used to call best being the enemy of the good. Everybody wants the best. (But) there is confusion. If 70% of children are not going to go beyond Class 10, then only 15-20% will pursue graduation. Then, what is important? That most become the best in science or most learn foundational knowledge?
Even for employment, whether in the organised or unorganised sector, employers are seeking people who are trainable or are willing to absorb training. We don’t need a ready-made product for everything, but somebody who can absorb instructions, understand situations and work. We have not been able to create that product.
How do you create that product? It’s a very simple thing, but it is in conflict with our ideals of what education should be. That is where the confusion lies. We want to universally create ideal types and we are not able to do so. Ideal or so-called good education today is only for people who can pay more money, and even there it is not ideal.
When you send your children to air-conditioned, elite schools after spending a lot of money, you still pay for tutors that the child goes to in the afternoon. I have never been able to figure out their need for tutors. In Pune, where I live now, I am told a number of schools have private coaching classes inside the school where high school children go for maths and science. Why bother teaching the same syllabus twice? Why not leave the two subjects for private tutors alone? They seem to have hit upon a practical solution. I would love to give the students and their parents an option between regular school classes and private coaching.
RAVISH TIWARI: Through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and Right to Education, are we trying to make up for the fact that in the initial years after Independence, the focus was more on higher education than on primary education?
To understand the backwardness in access to education, we have to understand the fact that the population has grown three-four folds since Independence. That’s a huge jump. So, you need more schools, more teachers and so on. Except the BIMARU states, all other states achieved 80-90% access to primary education by the ’90s. Yes, we could have done better. I think the problem was in the North. There were more socio-political problems in these parts than purely economic ones. Even today, the most backward states, educationally, are those in the BIMARU belt. We did not focus on this belt. The possible reason for that is we should have made (education) a fundamental right at the time of Independence. We said we’ll wait for 10 more years and then it never happened.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was launched in 2002 and ASER measured the issue of access in 2005 — 92.4% of the children said that they are enrolled in a school, although that’s not to say that they are attending classes every day. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was launched when most of the work was done. The SSA helped in the last mile, and from 92.4% enrollment, (the access) has gone up to 96 % maximum. It’s not 100% as yet.
The problem is that we focused on the IITs and primary schools, not on institutions in between the two. For example, we should have realised that we will need more teachers given the rate at which our population is growing. And, this is not just an Indian problem. It’s not just the politicians or the education system that is to be blamed. Everybody around the world took it for granted that schooling equals learning. Once ASER started coming out with data, a lot of people started saying that this holds true (at least) for the developing world and that schooling isn’t always equal to learning.
After World War II, everybody was talking about universal primary education and ways to achieve it — open schools, appoint teachers, give books free of cost and education will be taken care of. We pointed out that just opening a school and appointing teachers is not enough, especially when you’re universalising it and creating a mass base. It can work when you have a smaller number of children but when the population is growing at this rate, you need to do something more. I think the quality issue is linked to access and a lot of things could have been done and they can still be done.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: When we talk about learning outcomes, what role does a teacher have? It is believed that many of them are in the profession because they didn’t get through anything else. How does one change that?
People say that when you become an actor, you can learn to act. So you can become a teacher and then get better at it. Even if you’re not a great teacher, becoming a reasonably good teacher is not all that difficult. I believe this. I have seen many young people join the teaching profession. There might be a thing such as, ‘Aur kuchch nahin to teaching kar lo (If nothing, one can teach)’, but once they start working, they want to do a good job. This again is a belief of mine — people want to be good at what they do. Not the best maybe, but at least good at what they’re doing. Young teachers join with hope, optimism and enthusiasm, but it’s the system that kills them in no time.
If you look at our survey, in the age group of 14-18 years, 12-14% children have said they want to be teachers…. I think there are ways in which you can get people to work. If you treat teachers like government servants, they will behave like government servants.
In today’s age, I would insist on telling young people that it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. That’s not you. You must have basic abilities to be able to earn a living and there’s nothing wrong in doing whatever job you get. But do it well. People run after permanent jobs… but now many know that there is no such thing as a permanent job. You do something to earn a living but that’s not you. You need to nurture your hobbies and other skills.
KAUSHIK DAS GUPTA: You talked about getting one’s basics right. Do our basics also need to be reformulated?
It has to be. According to the Census 2011, India is 75% literate. By 2020, we will have 85% — close to 100% — literacy. But the method to measure literacy was formulated in the middle of the 20th century. We need to urgently change that definition of literacy. Much has changed. We need digital literacy. We need the ability to learn. Reading has to be a fundamental skill, it needs to be taught in schools. If you don’t teach it, it’s not a skill that a child will develop naturally. The way we teach maths may have to change if everyone needs to become financially literate.
Many children are not able to do simple division sums. Hence, they lose interest. So I created a game called ‘Kal Ka Looter’ in our digital initiative. It was actually a calculator. It asks questions like, ‘If there are 64 chocolates and 16 friends, how many chocolates will each get?’ Nobody knows the multiplication table of 16 and the students must have thought, ‘what’s the deal with tables, just eat the chocolates’. But if you give them a calculator alongside the sum, the kids will talk among themselves and decipher the buttons and figure out 64/16. It is cooperative learning, it is not cheating.
UMA VISHNU: So you are saying that we should invert the way we teach? Give students calculators first and then teach them basic mathematics?
No. The idea is to get the children interested in something. How do we learn? Right now the system says read this, sit quietly and don’t ask questions. But if I get interested in it, I might want to learn. My idea is that when people want to learn, there should be avenues available for learning. But they should first want to learn. And we should bring the children to a point where they would want to learn. There is no ‘want’ right now, there is just learning by rote so that you can pass Class 10.
The objective should be that anybody who wants to learn anything, anytime, should be able to. That should be made possible. In English, Wikipedia has unlimited scope, but how many people are contributing to the Hindi, Marathi or Nepali Wiki? Very less… We are not putting out knowledge in these languages. The solution then proposed is to teach everybody English. I do not think that is the right solution.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: If calculators are made available, why do we then need to teach addition, subtraction and multiplication?
Basically, mathematics is about learning patterns, relationships, logic, discovering it etc. But that doesn’t happen now. I am not saying don’t teach students addition, subtraction, multiplication; there is a thrill in numbers, there’s poetry in mathematics. Some people will find it extremely difficult to think that there is poetry in mathematics.
The other day, (tabla player) Zakir Hussain was speaking in Gurgaon and, I think, the way a tabla player can explain mathematical patterns, nobody else can. Why we don’t use that as a resource is beyond me. So, it is the attitude towards learning that needs to change. Once you finish school and college that’s when real learning seems to start.
ARANYA SHANKAR: In January this year, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said CCTV cameras would be installed in all Delhi government schools within three months, giving parents access to their children in class on a real-time basis.
Personally, I do not agree with it. This thought — that CCTV surveillance is going to make you safer — is useless. Is that the kind of society we want? Teachers need to be responsible, they need to create good learning atmosphere in schools… That is more important than anybody installing CCTV cameras. You can’t have proper surveillance in banks, what will you do by installing CCTVs in schools?
SOMYA LAKHANI: Anganwadi workers and helpers have been demanding, among other things, an increase in honorarium, health insurance and pension after retirement. They earn very little, about `5,000 per month. Do you think this model is going to fail?
This treatment of anganwadi workers as volunteers is not right. But then there is the other question — if you make them government servants, will they even work? You don’t know how that will play out. Workers should get paid — they can’t survive on Rs 3,000-5000. Some people may argue that they only work for three hours etc. But there is need for them to work longer hours to look after kids. We need day-care centres.
Also, are there jobs being created, especially for non-skilled people? That’s a big question. When people are not treated well, there will be anger, and this is a large group of people. The government will have to take a call. They will have to take a second look at the anganwadi model.
UMA VISHNU: One of the criticisms about ASER is that your data is processed, that you don’t put out raw data.
We have put up a six-page list of people who have accessed ASER data since 2013 on www.asercentre.org. What do our critics mean by raw data? There are some who want us to give them names of villages and children who are a part of the survey data-set. This is not done. But we do release ‘raw data’ after removing identifiers such as village and other names. In any survey, you don’t disclose personal details for a number of reasons.