Posts Tagged ‘alternate education’

The most amazing thing has happened in Delhi. Something that I have been advocating for the past few years has actually seen the light of day. Delhi’s AAP government has cut syllabus upto Class VIII by 25%, with the promise of doing that for Classes IX-XII by next year!

Director, education, Padmini Singla explains that no part of the syllabus that is crucial to the children’s understanding of concepts has been removed. “They weren’t completing all the chapters in the book anyway. We’re just reducing them. The sections were selected by an internal committee which had members from the SCERT as well,” she says.


For generations, the weight of the textbook, the amount of time and energy spent on memorizing useless information, the burden of studying for its sake, stands diminished at one stroke.

It will increase the time children have to connect with subjects through fun, real life explorations, explorations through performing arts and generally time off to spend on play.

There are the critics though who lambast this decision as retrograde, and one which will further degrade the quality of education, particularly as the cumulative cut up to Class VIII will result in a severe dissonance when the student reaches advanced levels.

But this is a creative dissonance, one that shall force curriculum designers to think anew, give time for teachers to develop new thinking and teaching skills and students to focus on the absolutely necessary (something that they have perhaps anyways been doing by default through choices their teachers make on how much they actually cover through the year).

I think it is a welcome move, though I would push for a far greater reduction in the formal syllabus and a far greater increase in the informal syllabus.

But as with other initiatives, although the change should be effected expeditiously, I would recommend a few other things to reduce the ensuing chaos and support the longevity of this change.

First, I recommend that the State put forward its combined might to support the informal learning process. This means resources of physical and virtual kinds – from playgrounds to theatres, from digital explorations to collaborative sense making through networks.

Second, although teachers may have been already interpreting the syllabus in reduced terms for years, it is time to look at cuts that are uneven and strategic across the early school years, not by the fiat of a uniform 25%. By this I mean we should look at ways to prune directed instruction to the minimum possible levels with each subject following its own logic of progression over the years.

Third, we must push the Boards to follow suit, and then the universities and colleges (starting with our Teacher Education programmes themselves).

Fourth, the reduction must be accompanied by a proportionate (not equal, because in any case the syllabus was too vast to start with) increase in teacher training and community building initiatives.

Fifthly, this is also a good time to start innovating the curriculum. The more we realize the role of informal learning in the curriculum, the better it will get.

Sixthly, we have to leverage the possible shift in the loci of control from the teacher to the student, parent and community. Textbooks are the fulcrum of academic dialogue today. And the teacher is the sole arbiter of that fulcrum in the student’s learning lifecycle.

As we move towards more of informal learning, that fulcrum will become less important, teaching less a loci of control and more a shared experience. Perhaps sometime in the future, the textbook will solely act as a reference for teachers, while students shall mediate/interpret/construct/connect content and build their own learning journeys, collaboratively. To leverage that shift, we must shift towards a “maker” culture in some ways, with increasing responsibility of learning & personal growth on the student.

Without these accompanying initiatives, the fate of the CBSE CCE and the OTBA will surely be repeated. And in some years, perhaps the same or another minister will have the chance to exclaim surprise and happiness that students and parents want the cuts to be reversed!

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Update (Aug 6): IIT Roorkee has decided to re-admit the expelled students, on certain conditions.They have taken a lenient view, considered the situation again and accounted for the impact of the expulsion on the students’ future. #inanity-of-it-all

IIT Roorkee, a premier engineering institute of India, recently expelled several first year students for not meeting the requisite grades. Predictably, there is a backlash both outside and from within the IIT communities themselves, although there are more examples in the past of such incidents in the IITs. There are also insinuations that the decision, by affecting mostly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is discriminatory in nature.

Many important issues in our education system are laid bare by this unfortunate event. As the author of one of the articles asked, why is the teaching not being questioned? Or the academic practices? Or counseling and remediation? Where are the voices of students in decision making? What legal and educational recourse do students have in the face of such orders? Why is the evaluation and grading system designed in the way it is? Why expel at all, anyways?

It makes me question why we take our education system so seriously. It also proves a thesis I have evolved. For generations we have believed that the education system transforms students, with each class level and exam signifying one step in that direction. But if that were really true, in general, then we would be living in a far equitable, happier, sustainable and prosperous world.

Instead, I have come to believe that the student, far from being transformed, represents a form of organized labour, who along with the academic and administrative labour, and the capital inputs of buildings & infrastructure, actually manufactures certain outputs – the outputs being marks and degrees. These marks and degrees then become commodities used to transact production downstream – either more degrees or formal employment. All funding, policy, standards, school practices and the like are subservient to this production process.

This is not learning. This is production. And production by any means possible – even those that cannot ever pass for anything close to academic excellence, far less to the delight and joy of learning. So we see ministers with fake degrees, grace marks in standardized exams, teachers or school leaders with zero qualification, schools with no infrastructure and research that is non-existent – but still reports that our children have completed school levels or have got into the IITs in droves – as evidence that the system really, really works.

The system works, but it is not learning, it is production of a different kind altogether. And this system of production, at scale, can have no other ways to work – it knows nothing about people and learning, but a lot about numbers and certificates.

People, though, are another thing. People are resilient. They understand the value of the system in transacting the business of living, and accept it as yet another fact they have to deal with, and carry on. That single fact pushes the system through, from generation to generation, from shocking fact to abysmal deception. And people do succeed, some due to and some despite the system.

But it does not need to be this way. There is great joy and reward in learning and sharing. The potential benefits of a well thought out educational system can really result in social outcomes of equity with growth. Such a system would have none of the trappings of the production organization that education is today.

The countless folks who have been rejected or denied education, both outside and inside the current system – there is hope that things will change. Or else they shall have to be made to.

In solidarity, then!

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A rather belated post on #rhizo15 week 2! How do we count or measure learning in our networks or learning rhizomatically? How do we begin to “grade Dave”?

“Counting” evolution of our learning networks is very important. How does a network or community form? When does it acquire critical “mass” of conversation? How does it sustain? And when does it wither away and perhaps die, only to come alive again in the future, like a raw nerve left exposed?

The months before CCK08, then during CCK08, and Change11 and many of the early cMOOCs afforded great opportunities to discuss a multitude of ideas.

I think Stephen sparked it off by talking about Learning 2.0 in an early article. Then came a series of posts around how I viewed collaboration and evolution in networked learning (starting here). Essentially power laws were well in evidence when we looked at conversations – a small number of conversations were held together by many people and these threads were reasonably long (if I remember correctly, this was the pre-‘like’ era), while a majority of conversations were ad-hoc and short lived.

The pattern was not unlike what you would expect on the Internet prompting discussions on the long tail or that the world wasn’t flat, it was rather spiky. It also was scale-free in the sense that it could observed in small classrooms as well as the rather large learning networks of these cMOOCs.

This pattern also prompted me to think that the goal of such educational networks should be to flatten the power law, leading to a more participatory, equitable and democratic system rather than the ‘rich get richer’ bias that we have now (and Stephen writes eloquently about this, especially towards the end of that post) in his recent dialogues with George when he talks about the University system).

Which is why counting is really an important subject. We cannot continue to count the way we have been counting. But we cannot change unless we also redefine what we are counting and how we are counting it. In fact, for cMOOCs to be counted as a credible alternative (and not just a supplement like the xMOOCs), we have to devise a friendly and intuitive mechanism for counting learning in these networks.

This type of counting is necessary for people to be able to share a new common vocabulary for representing and differentiating levels of competence or progress. Unless this new vocabulary emerges, we will not have a way to transact within it, to generate economic and social choices of human capital using it and to create policy around it. It will also be difficult to get any adoption at scale.

This, in my opinion, has been the biggest block to making cMOOCs mainstream as well as the biggest reason that xMOOCs have been credible. xMOOCs have taken the same counting terms from the traditional system which is widely understood – institutional brand, expert professors, certificates and degrees, price, blended learning – which makes them intelligible to the world. cMOOCs don’t yet have a vocabulary to do that.

It is not just the vocabulary though. The vocabulary will only emerge through research and compelling evidence. It will need new tools and techniques for measurement. It will need to be able to fit in the modern world and the needs of the people. If we do not evolve such measures, cMOOCs will be marginalized as hype.

The need of the hour is for such learning networks to analyze what constitutes learning in the network and how to count it. It is easy to say that these learning networks are only suitable for certain domains or for certain types of people. But it is more difficult to believe they are a credible alternative to traditional education systems without the accompanying quantifying justifications that make the educational, economic and social value intelligible and visible to everyone.

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The existing large and pervasive structure for teaching and learning in our schools and colleges is well-known and documented. By structure I mean things like learning progression through defined years of schooling, periodic assessments, organization of a large population of students into more “manage-able” units called the classroom, fixed physical spaces for learning, assignment of class and subject teachers to these classrooms, lesson plans and curricula and so on. There are variations across countries in these parameters, and they may vary in terms of gross indicators like the student to teacher ratio, PCs to students and other indicators.

Schools may also innovate on methodology, extent of blending technology, assessment techniques and other processes and techniques. Some schools may also be single-teacher or multi-classroom, or may have multiple teachers co-teach or peer teach, or may even have student led teaching. There is also discussion around the question – Is ‘Multi-Classroom’ Teaching in Your Future?

But in essence or systemically speaking, they follow a structure with the variations born out necessity or by explicit design. It is this system that we incessantly tweak in order to achieve certain outcomes based on difficulties or challenges we face ranging from challenges around achievement of educational & holistic objectives to employability or societal concerns.

There are many claims to Alternate Education systems. The Sri Atmananda Memorial School provides one such approach.

When visitors walk through the gates of the kindergarten (‘KG’ – children of four and one-half years of age) and the Lower Primary (‘LP’ – children from five to eight years of age) sections of the school, they see a world of chaotic activity: running, laughing children being chased, children digging furiously in the sand, water splashing, swings flying, a small knot of children bending over a picture book, a house built of bits of colored cloth, a lively cricket game, a group of easels with brightly painted pictures, a table of children busily cutting and pasting and so on. There is no apparent organization.The pace is swift, the mood, lively and energetic. Yet this enthusiastic learning environment is carefully orchestrated and planned, given the proper number of teachers with the proper training.

Some of this has found echoes in the Indian movie called 3 Idiots. The trailing scenes of the movie show precisely the extent to which the traditional system can be re-imagined. Doubtless, there are many more people thinking this way.

As Knutson comments:

A number of years ago futurists Toffler (1970, 1980) and Naisbitt (1982) predicted the break-up of the standardized, bureaucratized, factory model school system. They indicated that if the changes did not come from within the school systems, they would surely come from out side of them. They also said that the information and technological age in which we live would require of its citizens creativity and diversity, not the sameness underlying the operation of the standard school system.

An interesting framework is provided in Towards an Alternate Typology of Alternate Education Systems (Aron, 2003) who references Raywid’s typology (Appalachia Educational Laboratory 1998) as well.

Such typologies document the effort to move away from factory-age conceptions of the education system to “systems” that disaggregate parts of the traditional school structure and aim to personalize them to specific who, what, how and funding factors. Included thereby, are many systems that appear substantially different.

Models range from schools-within-schools to magnet schools, charter schools, schools without walls, experiential schools, career-focused and job-based schools, dropout recovery programs, after-hours schools, and schools in atypical settings like shopping malls and museums.

What is important to analyze is whether these “alternate systems” are variations within an existing traditional system or whether they are truly alternate. The point is, that mere disaggregation and recombination within an overall formal structure of traditional education, although can definitely be called innovation, but it does not point to a truly alternate system of education.

Consider the term “at-risk”. What are students “at-risk” of? They are at risk of not being able to complete goals set by the traditional school system. Consider the term “home-schooling” or “open-schooling”. There is a traditional system at work which immediately evokes the standard parameters of the traditional system. Consider “school without walls”. Again it plays on one parameter (the boundaries) of traditional school systems.

A real approach at inventing a new system of education must necessarily avoid taking the existing traditional system into consideration, both in terms of vocabulary or parameters. This is not inside the box vs. outside the box innovation thinking – it is invention. Illich was remarkable in that sense, because he presented an “institutional inverse” conception of education, and this may surely be one approach. But perhaps we must also consider approaches that don’t make a play on “opposites”, but rather on being different, like apples and oranges.

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I have started research on alternative education systems. Right off the bat I found a website that summarizes some of these initiatives in the Indian context – Alternative Education in India. Two really interesting categories were Alternative Schools and Learning Cooperatives. I like the fact that the latter prefer not to be called “schools” at all.

Among the Alternative schools is the Atma Vidya Educational Foundation in southern India. If  you look at the KPM approach (they started in Kerala and now have an extension in Austin, Texas), the focus is heavily on guidance, teacher involvement, learning freedom and experiential learning. I am impressed by the examples – but still need to research on how they really accomplish their goals. I next looked at a cooperative, Bhavya, which also looks like an interesting approach, particularly as it attempts to merge with the mainstream systems at a particular age.  Mirambika is an example of a K8 school with an alternative approach too. I particularly liked the idea that there is a community out there that encourages and provides support for home education. Wonder how that works!

In the US, the trend in public education around Charter Schools is also encouraging. These schools are set up to innovate within the public school system as this report shows.

More on these systems as I move ahead. Would love to hear from you if you know an educational system or movement that is an alternate.

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