Education makeover is complex says Azim Premji

Speaking at the first convocation of Azim Premji University in Bangalore, Wipro chairman Azim Premji said governments and other stakeholders should invest more resources to improve education in the country.

“Given the diversity of our country , compounded by issues of socio-economic deprivation and ground realities , it is inevitably going to be a slow and arduous process ,” he said .

“They also need to reform governance of all related systems . Equally , I have no doubt that other stakeholders need to do more . This means that more people and more civil society organizations must engage in improving the government schooling system ,” he added .

In my view, it is more serious than that and people like Azim Premji have the influence and ability to push for far more. Education has become like an Olympic Sport. It is an exhibition of skill in performing in a very specific manner without any particular expectation of utility. Mere “improving education” is not going to work. What will be needed is a complete demolition and rebuilding of education based on actual needs people have.

It is no secret that even as job opportunities diminish, the problem of recruiting competent professionals remains. Any person who has interviewed job applicants will be able to attest to the fact that the number of unsuitable candidates makes selection remarkably like searching for a needle in a haystack. Even candidates overqualified on paper are rarely competent enough to handle jobs with any complexity.

Many jobs requiring no specific knowledge insist on graduation as a qualification. The basic reason being the hope that graduation would have provided more proficiency to basic language and logic skills. It is alarming that no one bothers to ask why spending 10 years in basic schooling does not enable students to be fluent in English or record their expenses competently, when uneducated vegetable vendors can manage their own accounts and kids pick up language easily.

Worse, because you have graduates competing on jobs which do not require any specialized knowledge, the people who have done basic schooling and can do those jobs are left at a disadvantage by their jobs going to someone capable of far more being under utilized and rendering them outclassed. At the end of the day, basic schooling that we are so adamant about as some kind of holy grail, does nothing to help people live more functional lives. It does not prepare people for jobs. It does not give them knowledge that they can use in the world. But we are putting a country of our size relentlessly through that machine to the point of insanity and even disallowing better alternatives.

There is fundamental uselessness in a system that doesn’t address the need for functionality.

I do not see how sticking with this method of boards and boring syllabuses taught by incompetent teachers to disinterested students will be useful even if you tweak it prettier.

A more useful goal would be to aim for abilities rather than subjects. For eample:

  • Basic literacy and practical mathematics skills for all – regardless of source of acquiring these skills.
  • Basic schooling – and I’m talking 4-5 years (starting at a later age – say around 8-13 years old) here, not 13 years as the useless monolith currently stands – should provide children with stable language, logic, communication, civics (laws, rights, structure of country, who to approach for what, etc), knowledge seeking and functional mathematics skills.
  • This would have your poor kids who legally start working at 14 at least having greater potential!
  • Nature of syllabus has to change. At the speed at which human knowledge is growing, subjects couldn’t possibly be defined or added to “teach” comprehensively, leading to an inflated sense of intellectual ability on achieving inferior quality memorization of introductory information – particularly among “top scorers”. It would be useful to teach children how to find (and test for soundness) information on whatever it is they need information on. There is no need for square roots and complex divisions of 10 digit figures by 4 digit figures. Teach them to use a calculator! The world has changed since the time these were handicaps if you didn’t know how to do it yourself.
  • Basic schooling should be designed to enable people completing it capable of any job not requiring specialized knowledge. No reason why a bus driver or receptionist needs to know more than this to do his/her job well.
  • Dignity of labour: Education must expand to appreciate the knowledge that goes into competence of all kinds rather than marks depending on some answers deemed “right”.┬áIf we need excellent soldiers, train drivers or garbage collectors, children must learn to recognize that there is ability in combat or strategy, driving a mammoth vehicle or sanitation.
  • High school diploma or degree too must focus on skill over information, though of course specialized information will be inevitable. Why do we not have enough architects and doctors? Is there a way to simplify syllabus and rapidly churn out more with only essential skills to handle the bulk of the load? Education needs to adapt to answer needs rather than create templates that will have to fit in somehow. Underutilized at times, lacking competence at others. We need to put the horse ahead of the cart.

In my view, if we are looking to build an India that is functionally strong, we must have kids who see their need to care for people and animals and dream of becoming forest guards or nursing staff committed to giving their patients every edge to thrive. We need kids who look at their pile of dismantled toys and think it would be cool to grow up to be a mechanic and do it with real cars. Or a child interested in food and wanting to become a chef should proudly put up a vada paav or lemonade stall in the neighbourhood without imagining that the excellence of a cook is in an air conditioned kitchen in a five star hotel. The excellence is in the passion!

Children are great “doers” and “makers” till we teach them that “respect” is in white collar jobs in multi-national companies after you do an MBA (another useless invented degree that abstracts presentation and management as a universal plugin – assembly line competence). Yet there are entire empires to be built doing so many things we do not teach kids to explore.

More importantly, there are dreams to chase and happiness to secure, which require knowing and chasing what the heart wants – education must not take up too much time and leave no time for this.

Note: I am a homeschooler, but this is pretty much what I’m trying to achieve for my child too!

Note 2: I do hope someone gets Azim Premji to read this.

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