How to solve the conundrum called ‘rural education’ ?
Before I propose any solutions, let me first deal with a major problem with the present education system. India today is spending thousands of crores (I know that the figure is in the thousands because the National Skills Development Council was set up with a capital base of Rs 1,000 crore) on skill development. That clearly is recognition of the fact that after 18 years of education, our kids are good for nothing, at least in the marketplace. Given this, something radical needs to be done about education in India. However, our Government is simply doing more of the same, in the hope that this will change the outcome. There is talk of more testing, greater teacher accountability, etc. Having taught in schools for years, I can clearly visualize the impacts of both of these steps. More testing will simply lead to gaming of the system — rote learning, cheating, etc, without any improvement in the skills that are needed in the 21st century — creativity, imagination, out of the box thinking. Greater teacher accountability and pressure on the teachers to produce results will simply lead to transmission of the pressure on the kids. It is high time we realized that true learning can never happen in a pressure cooker. Even if the children did manage to pick up employable skills, they would run away to the cities at the drop of a hat, leaving the villages as they have been for ages.
Therefore, something radical needs to be done. I will now proceed to outline solutions.
1. Get the kids to dream, and dream with eyes wide open
First of all and this has to be right on top of the list, we need to stop viewing education in isolation but rather consider its potential as an empowerment tool. Children are sent to school simply so that they can learn how to read and write. While there is nothing wrong with this especially given the level of attainments of most people in rural areas, we need to realize that education can achieve much more than this. The canvas needs to be broadened to include a wide plethora of possibilities that are there on the horizon. And to achieve this, we need to get kids to dream, to visualize possibilities, to instill hope in them, to make them believe that they too can make it big. And this is extremely important in the rural context given that people have very limited horizons there.
2. Re-thinking the ABC model of education
What I mean by that is teaching just through books in static classrooms. At least in the rural context, what the children really need is exposure to the world outside rather than simply learning from books. The reason why they are not as smart as the city folks is simply because they are a frog in the well — their world is limited to a radius of about 30 kilometres. Therefore, if we want to link the children in the rural areas to the new reality, we need to expose them to the world outside. The present education system simply does not provide for this. These kids need to visit the Metro and learn how it operates, or learn how flyovers are built, or how cars are made, etc. While this can be learnt in the school also, as I mentioned above, it is important that they see these wonders in the first place, before they study about these things. Having said so, they need to be strongly rooted to their own culture rather than simply adopt everything that is urbane. And so they should also learn about agriculture — production, the distribution aspects, branding, setting up co-operatives, etc. In a nutshell, learning needs to happen with a problem solving / project approach rather than the model in use presently.
3. ‘Train the trainer’ programs not good enough
Rather than running ‘train the trainer’ programs, the trainer needs to be there with the kids, especially when it comes to learning English. The kids need to learn from someone who has been speaking English since his/her childhood, someone who speaks fluent English, rather than from someone who speaks half baked English. Sure enough, technology can be used to provide for this. However, it is of utmost importance that a resource person is available in the school to motivate and support children.
The children need to be exposed to various activities — music, drama, photography, theatre, etc. This need not be limited to only the arts. We could have a workshop for instance on astronomy. Given that children and even adults look skywards with awe and wonder, this could be a very interesting activity. Of course, some mechanism will have to be set in place to sustain and reinforce the learnings. Given that most skilled people do not want to reside in villages, resource persons could be approached to conduct such workshops.
5. School structure — what schools need is a ‘manager’ rather than a ‘teacher’
Intuitively, having separate teachers for each subject appears to be the right model. However, this is a sub-optimal structure, especially in the rural context, owing to scarcity of funds and human resource. The Ekal Vidyalaya Model (One Teacher schools) is much more in sync with the new reality. This is how rural schools should be structured.
One teacher schools, ably supported by resource persons whose services could be recruited when required. This is also in sync with the concept of holding workshops, as per demand. Given the vast array of educational content available on the internet, all that rural schools need is a ‘manager’ vis a vis a ‘teacher’. The manager should be a multifaceted person, having a keen interest in various fields. S/he would be required to guide, help, motivate, encourage the children and co-ordinate the entire show. And this is why I said that ‘train the trainer’ programs are not good enough. We need one ‘trainer’ on the ground, who could co-ordinate with other trainers, whose services could be recruited on need basis. With increasing bandwidth, the other trainers need not be physically present but could teach virtually. This will also help achieve scale.
This structure is also more cost efficient. Today, the Government is spending crores on paying salaries to the Government teachers. In the One Teacher Model, money could be spent on leveraging technology, which is the need of the hour, especially in the rural areas.
6. Link with the industry
It is extremely important that we link schools with the industry. Education should be contextual. This is the biggest problem facing educational systems across the world — that we are still following the factory model in vogue at the advent of the Industrial Era. Germans have a seamless transition from school to work life simply because students work 3 days and study in schools for the remaining 3 days in the week. On the contrary, in India, employers have been on record to state that they cannot employ people since the students are not employment worthy.
It is easy for me to sit on my laptop and pontificate. The problem is of gargantuan proportions, though not unsolvable. However, the present model is not going to take us very far. What we do need is a greater engagement between the skilled and the unskilled. We can of course leverage on technology. But some human agency, aware of the recent technological changes and with links to resource persons, needs to be there on the ground to see the change through.
PS: This blog was originally written on October 28, 2016