Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
There is a deep dark elephant on the table in education, but we do not like to talk about it. The fact is that after at least two centuries of writing, theorising and researching education, we still do not know what works. We do not know how people learn and how to measure the impact of learning except in very myopic ways.
Of course, we recognise the elephant and keep working to identify the beast. The current deployment of technology, the optimism of big data analysis combined with the various sciences is the next hope. This time we expect to crack it so that we can finally answer the question: What should we do to improve learning?
The question is the root cause of billions of dollars spent on education-policy, practice and research. In India, we have not invested enough in understanding the process of education and therefore so much of our education discourse is based on global research, as are the theories of education that are taught to teachers in their B.Ed courses. Almost all theories and views have been debunked at some time or other, and then revived as fresh evidence supporting it crops up in another study. The sorry point is that very little of it is evidence from India (though some excellent theoretical and practical research has been undertaken successfully). For example, the very famous Bloom’s taxonomy. It is a classification of learning styles, and based on this, a teacher is exhorted to design their lesson. So, a teacher needs to identify learning styles in the batch they are working with, and then teach according to the dominant style, and manage the activities and interactions according to the range of styles in the classroom. This is the way research directly impacts the classroom. While this taxonomy may have its supporters, detractors and derivators, the fact remains that we have made no major attempt to understand learning styles in India. How do we know what works? Unless we know that, how do we know what education policies need to be pushed and what must be left out?
One of the large global debates in education is on whether there is a role for the private sector. Many strongly believe that this is a public good and must be supplied by the government. Others, in an even more extreme position, advocate that education must be supplied only by the government. There is enough evidence to note that the most prestigious high achieving schools have been in the private sector while the best of government and government-funded schools (Kendriya Vidyalayas etc.) have at best achieved competence. We have a large study done in India by the famous Dr Karthik Muralidharan that shows that public and private sector provision provides similar learning outcomes with a very different resource allocation model. Private schools are cheaper (also because they pay their teachers less) and achievements rise in areas where they spend more time compared to government schools. What does this mean for the education policy that is being drafted now? Does it mean that private schools will be recognised for their achievements? Does it mean that parents get better value for money from private schools? Does it indicate a change in resourcing for government schools?
Private sector enables education in many ways, and not just by setting up schools. One such movement has been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has had its share of strong and vocal opposition too. Philanthropists and think-tanks have long tried to improve the quality of education by designing institutional interventions and funding their implementation. This has caused much protest from other activists who do not like the ‘experimentation’ with schools and students. It is true that academies and charter schools have not given the education returns that were expected, but then, neither have government interventions done too much either. Educational attainment and employability levels remain an area of concern for most countries.
The line that is drawn between private sector and public intervention in education is a false and harmful one. Neither has a monopoly on the Holy Grail that is the perfect education system. Each has access to some information on systems and pedagogies that have been tried, and on interventions and their respective success. They have access to the same (small) pool of experts. And they share the same goals-to improve education. What neither of them know, however, is how to improve education at scale. In a self-sustaining manner.
Where does this leave those of us who invest in education? And I include those who invest time, money, resources in this pool. It includes the government, philanthropists, NGOs, educators, educationists, investors and more. It includes all of us who have known good teaching, brilliant moments in education achievement, and yet have to turn to each other and acknowledge-this is hard. It is hard, often impossible, when you want to take the success of a class of 20 and make it work for 20 million students. It is hard when you have little to back you up when a solution that worked for one district struggles when you transplant it to another district (even with contextualisation). It is hard when you know that education technology should have transformed and energised students by now, but are faced with feedback and data that often sends you back to the drawing board.
The solution often offered is to leave it all to the public system. But in chaos, it may not be the smartest thing to allow a monopolistic giant to be left alone to discover equilibrium. Nor does it make sense for smaller players to flounder in the deep. We know that price discovery in markets comes from a large number of suppliers and buyers. This is an analogous situation-where it is a dynamic equilibrium and constant deal flow. If we do not accept monopolies and restrictive trade practices in free markets, why should we accept them in the policy market? How can one body, the government, know it all? How can smaller efforts have enough resources to even discover it well?
If I were a portfolio manager in finance, I would have been taught to manage risk by creating a diversified portfolio. As an investor in education (as each student, parent, teacher, school and policymaker is), I find it daunting that we are expected to solve the learning outcomes puzzle without a diversified approach to education. The only natural solution to arriving at an understanding of what works is to try different approaches by different participants. This of course works well in free markets where both suppliers and buyers are able to exercise choice according to their risk-taking capacity. The solution is not to restrict solutions to one megalith, but to create both transparency and synergies between the outcomes of all the players so that they can work in tandem for good, building on each others’ good work. Simply, practically what it says is: Share every success so that every one gets a chance to have the best education possible.