Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lessons from education systems of other countries

In the journey to find the options to make a better education system, it is ideal to listen to such a good TED talk by Andreas Schliecher on the characteristics of 'good education systems' across countries. If we have to benefit from making such a comparison, we should be careful in concluding anything more than that is essential.

According to me ( and i could be biased!), here are five lessons that we could take ahead with us :

1. Be clear about the purpose of education system

Please see this PISA website to understand how this test is conducted every three years, and what do they measure in the 15 year old children. One  of the important aspect of the PISA questions is trying to measure 'not what is taught', but 'what should one learn'. Like the TED speaker says, 'the test of good school is not what we can remember what we learned in school, but whether we are prepared to use what we learnt in dealing with the changes that come upon us'. It is a beautiful distinction to remember when we are trying to evaluate an education system across different countries. By the way, in the last 2009 PISA test, India was at the bottom of the rank.

2. Money spend on education does not necessarily increase the quality of students

The TED speaker brings out an interesting observation that 'more funds in education does not necessarily lead to better quality of education'. The comparison of some countries is very good. South Korean example is very informative. South Korea has spend higher amounts, but has increased the class size to ensure that spend per pupil is low. In other words, larger class size does not reduce the quality of education.

You must also read this Mckinsey study which also reported that 'Class size is not inversely correlated to quality of education'. It reported that out of 113 studies, only 9 have found that small class size increases the quality of education. For India, this finding is important. Because our class sizes are more in line with South Korean class sizes than the European class size of 15 students in a class.

3. Proportion of students who complete high school is an important metric for a country

Another interesting finding was that the proportion of students who complete high school kept on increasing for South Korea since last two decades. And surprisingly, it has a positive correlation with the country's GDP. A very important correlation for us. I am not sure of the statistic of students in India which finish high school, but i believe it is in the range of 35% only. In other words, only 1/3rd of Students  in India finish High school.

4. Ensure Equity of education

This is surprising finding. This means that best school systems tend to ensure that the all the students in the education 'learn'. In some European and US systems, it was presumed that one can give quality education only for students who are 'good or gifted'. This finding that 'education in high performing school system is tailored to meet the differences in the status of children' is therefore important.

Finland example is often quoted in this context. It is reported that Finland has got lowest variability of 5% between its highest and lowest score of students in a class. Finland has set up some methods ( please read Mckinsey study to read more details ) to ensure that students who lag in a class are 'taught' quickly so that they are brought up with the rest of class. Measures include such as having feedback mechanisms to find lagging students, having additional teacher ( ratio of 1:7) to do additional teaching to the lagging students at the end of day and so on.

Once again, this observation is important for Indian schools. Given our Indian class sizes of 40+, it is perhaps necessary to use technology to get this feedback on the 'class students' to find out the lagging students quickly. The later we find them, the more difficult it is to bring them back with the class.

5. Spend money on improving instructional quality

TED speaker has mentioned lot of ideas in bits and pieces in his lecture on improving the instructional quality. According to Mckinsey study, improving instructional quality is the single most important measure that determines that quality of education system. Mckinsey study has reported many findings of good performing schools that make them high quality schools. Some of the ideas which Indian schools could use are

  • Having coaches - senior teachers - to help teachers to improve instructional quality 
  • Having subject teacher groups ( like maths across different class) meeting together regularly to share and improve each other's performance. For instance Finland spends one half day in a week, some other schools use week-round meetings and so on. 
  • Ensure that Principal of school plays the role of an Instructional Leader at least to the extent of 50% of the time ( so that he is not bogged down by the administrative work ) 
  • Spend lot of money and time ( it is reported that better performing schools spend 50 US $ per student per year on this) in improving the instructional quality through sharing research findings, attending conferences, meeting teachers of other schools, meeting experts in the subject and so on
Do any of you want to add any other characteristic that Indian schools could use? Have I missed anything which someone feels is more important?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Invitation to Educators

In my 7 year research of 'how professionals excel in their careers', I discovered that professionals face various challenges in excelling some of which require extensive 'unlearning'. I therefore decided to engage with students so that the extent of unlearning is reduced in later life.

While teaching students the foundations of excellence, i was compelled to understand how the system of education works in India. I understood how students learn different subjects, how each subject helps a student learn a different ability like logical ability, how students develop traits like concentration and patience, which educational philosophies are better for learning subjects and which are better for developing traits, how technology is both disabling and enabling education, how brain science is enabling new forms of education and so on. For me, education includes both - teaching students different abilities through different subjects and developing traits that enable students to become a human being.

I also understood that education system consists of various stakeholders who bring their unique resources on the table and therefore expect different returns. Education administrators bring the money and administrative resources, Educators discover the new pedagogical formulas, Technologists discover new technologies  which aggregates and disseminates the content in a new way, Teachers customise the delivery of the content to suit the unique needs of the children, Special teachers fill in the gaps of disadvantaged children, Subject Experts bring in new concepts in a subject to upgrade the content in a subject, students who are the receivers in the education system but who determine what they will learn and what they will not, and their parents who complement the development of students in a very very big way.

These stakeholders in the education system face six factors that have disrupted the existing education system and have therefore made it difficult to achieve its desired objectives. ( If you think that we have missed any, please inform us!)

First disrupter is technology. Because of 'google' effect, all the information in the world is at the fingertips, digitised and ready to use. But we now know that digitising content ( SSC or any other syllabus in the form of animations or nice presentations) does not necessarily facilitate learning. It is just good for archival purpose only.

Second disrupter has been the societal changes. It is said that 'To make a man it requires entire village'. But our village is breaking down due to different forces. One is Walmartisation of society, where all the relations between people have become transactional. This makes it difficult to find societal communities that are bound together by different causes. Second is proliferation of nuclear family due to migrations to cities. Unable to develop new relations, individuals develop fixed beliefs. Society today therefore is not playing its function of 'developing students'. It has abandoned its responsibility. So who is supposed to play this role?

Third disrupter is the changing roles of School Management which include Principals, administrators and owners. In the old days, the school was meant to educate. Earning money was secondary. Now schools are expected to do both. Both the roles are however clashing with each other, as schools are struggling to 'educate' ( teach and develop) within the constraints of their budgets. They are important stakeholders because they bring together the disparate elements of education system together at one place - called school - so that delivering education becomes practical.

Fourth disrupter are the discoveries in educational methodologies and brain sciences that are forcing everyone to make big changes in teaching. Now we know why TV is not beneficial to students in educating, or how the student's attention span is governed by the constant energy of mind. All these discoveries can be easily used in education. But it is difficult to keep track of these changes and therefore use them. The education system remains decades behind the research work. Currently, it is so far behind, that it is unable even to use the information technology to disseminate education.

Fifth disrupter is the changing role of parents. In the good olden days, parents handed over the responsibility of learning to schools, and developmental role to the society. As the developmental role of society has got eroded, the parents want schools to perform this role. Schools with new philosophies are therefore emerging to perform these two roles in a different way. This is further multiplying the choices of parents, as parents are now expected to take these decisions 'intelligently'.Parents now have to play more active role in 'educating' their children, which however means that they have to spend considerable time 'understanding the pros and cons of different systems'.

Sixth disrupter is the earlier maturity of the students. This is perhaps the most powerful force. It is being powered by the evolutionary DNA changes happening over generations, faster access to tools at earlier age, and above all the 'network' economy of any information at any time.  Hormonal changes are happening early making it imperative to deal with them, instead of suppressing them. Students learn to think on their own at an earlier age and therefore demand answers to their questions instead of listening  meekly to the instructions. They actively seek independence of thought asking lot of 'whys'. If this energy is not channelised appropriately, it can disrupt learning.

Challenges for  teachers

As teachers are the final actors in the education system who disseminate education, being downstream, they are being pushed by all the upstream stakeholders to include their individual and sometimes conflicting objectives and somehow meet the challenges of education.

On the one hand, classes have become larger in size (to make them more economical) making it difficult for the teacher to connect with every student and 'teach'. On the other hand, parents are expecting to address their child's unique developmental needs which has become a necessity in today's competitive scenario.Proliferation of technology has solved the problem of digitising the content, but teachers are expected to understand technology deeply to 'customise' the content for effective delivery. School management wants to measure the progress of student, but are expecting teachers to frequently assess students which is further consuming the already depleted time of teaching.. Students, due to faster growth, actively pursue teachers to find answers to their questions which are beyond the curriculum. And until their 'emotional regulation' is managed, they cannot be taught.

At a personal level, teachers are struggling with a difficult challenge. Unlike, Finland - which is supposed to be imparting the best education- the profession of teaching in India does not have high status. Unlike western countries, they are not paid highly. Despite this de-motivations, the teachers in India are expected to keep abreast of the new research in the educational methodologies and brain science, understand the use of technologies to teach students, and somehow educate the children in a cost effective manner.

In this blog space, we shall explore and find better ways to face these challenges of the education system. Every stakeholder has a different vantage point and will therefore have a different view of the same challenge. Coming from my vantage point as an objective observer and keen researcher, to start with, i shall bring together all the asymmetrical points at one place with the hope of resolving them at the end. However, as the challenges are about your stake in the education system, this forum will help you get clarity and direction if you share your doubts, ask your questions , and  bring your wisdom on the table.

I can make one promise. I can guarantee that the journey of creating an education system to teach your students will be exciting.