re-vision: education

Malala: “All the SDGs come down to education”
image: via @MalalaFund

I didn’t realize for the longest time how privileged I was. Born into a scholarly middle-class family from South India, I grew up in a home where computers, books and thinking in English were taken for granted. I received three years of brilliant British education (as my father pursued his doctorate in Wales), went to good schools, and studied at some of the best universities in India.

It’s strange, then, that I “failed” – time and again – academically. (Or was it the Indian academic system that failed me?). I started losing interest in the curriculum by the time I reached 10th grade, preferring to spend my study hours fooling around with advanced computer programs, and math problems I solved in weirdly elliptical ways. The high school years were no different – I deeply explored Feynman’s wonderful Lectures on Physics, but barely knew which class I was attending. I then proceeded to become the only person I knew who failed the first semester of engineering college – after a lifetime of never having failed a single test (I managed to leave in due course with a respectable degree.) I also “failed” my way out of a doctoral programme in a prestigious Indian university, leaving with a Masters’ degree. (I lost all interest in the topic I was studying- an excellent decision in retrospect, but that’s a story for another time!)

I have since managed to find the work I care for and the field I love – and in which I hope to keep learning, growing and contributing, hopefully forever. I’ve also managed to work on many remarkable projects, with wonderful people from all around the world- so things haven’t turned out too badly for this “sustainability problemsolver”. Still, when an academic friend recently canvassed opinion on how education might change to meet the challenges of the post-COVID world, you can be sure I had some strong opinions.. read on..

What would be the requirements of future platforms, pedagogy, and the education system as a whole to meet the challenges posed by the post COVID world?

A (especially in the Indian context):
Be outcome-oriented from the start- equip learners to handle the problems of the world they are inheriting – like climate change, societal inequality and resource constraints. Focus on why before what and then how. Learn by doing, not by rote. Incorporate systems thinking and design thinking from an early age. Encourage entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving.
Move away from the mindset of “I earn credit for giving the right answer” to “I earn credit for asking the right question.” Incorporate the Socratic method into the process of education. Emphasize the scientific method— of proceeding closer to truth through empirical means, with doubt as the touchstone.

encourage critical thinking
image: via Britannica

The existing system of Indian education is derived from what the British left behind. They didn’t educate us to be critical thinkers who would create knowledge – they educated us to be clerks (babus) – intermediaries between rulers and ruled. So – stop trying to adapt the existing education system to the post-Covid world. Design and create a new system which creates critical thinking problem solvers – not more babus.

but why?
image: via Deconstructing the Universe

Towards this end, knock educators off their pedestals. Reward dissent and a different point of view. Don’t focus on facts, focus on insight. Use technology to accelerate learning. Use simulations and systems models (like this) to help learners interact with concepts from an early age. Design education for digital natives, and focus on building digital access and literacy as rapidly as possible in marginalised sections. Strengthen data literacy at a societal level.

There should be no lower societal goal than to have universal, lifelong and free access to state-of-the-art education (how? is an interesting conundrum). New platforms should provide customised learning journeys based on psychological profile, preferences and interests, and the needs of society. Disrupt. Democratize. Demolish the obsolete!

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