Assessments: please put the djinn back in the bottle

June 16, 2013

Let’s start with reiterating a truism: to state that “A has learnt X” necessarily presumes that assessment has happened. Otherwise the statement is an expression of worthless declaration. Let’s also remind ourselves that the goddess of child-centric educational discourse ‘learning’ necessarily implies standards. For A to have leant X means: (i) that A could not do/understand/feel X at some earlier time and now A can do/understand/feel what is involved in X. Doing/understanding/feeling necessarily means coming up to some agreed upon standards. If A has leant to ‘read’ (X) then A has come up to certain standard of making meaning out of black (generally) marks made on some surface. (ii) Some one who is making the statement “A has learnt X” has grounds to declare that, and therefore there is an assessor. To repeat: learning necessarily assumes standards, assessment that those standards are achieved, and an assessor who has ascertained the fact of achieving those standards.

It is commonly stated that education is concerned with learning, and often education is equated with learning. The later is plainly wrong. Learning happens all the time and spontaneously and often unknown even to the learner. To call it all ‘education’ will render the concept of education useless by over generalisation. The first part—education is concerned with learning—is true enough but is often misinterpreted. Education is concerned with development of capabilities to know (understand), to do and to feel in certain ways. Education in how to ‘feel’ includes values, emotions and dispositions. Learning is a—actually the only acceptable—means to achieve the desired standards in chosen areas of knowing, doing and feeling. Therefore, the only useful and defensible meaning one can attach to the phrase “learning assessment” is: assessment of acquired knowledge, abilities (to do) and values and dispositions. All this—in this and the paragraph above—is common knowledge restated to start a little discussion on assessment.

On the basis on the above two paragraph we can say that education per se may be possible without assessment but a statement that ‘some education has happened’ is not. Education is not a one shot activity started and finished on a fine morning. It is a long drawn process; and gradually and cumulatively happens. To know go to the next stage requires assumptions regarding achievements set for the pervious one. Thus assessment is necessary for ascertaining that the desired education is happening. Those who think that one can be certain without assessment that education has happened are deceiving themselves. We can not do away with assessment in education, even if we dislike it; and the animal called assessment as it roams the educational terrains today is dislikeable enough.

Now the question arises who can do assessment and how? And how far is it possible? Let’s note that assessment of knowledge and values involves ascertaining the contents of other’s mind. The assessor is ascertaining the contents of the educatee’s mind. The contents of another mind are not directly available to us, they can not be. We can directly know the contents of our own mind only. So what we do in assessment is watch and record the performance of the educatee and infer the contents of her mind. In case of assessment of skills and abilities (paper folding, applying algorithms in mathematics, carpentry) this performance is ‘doing something’ successfully, as per preset standards. In case of values and dispositions this performance is behaving in a certain manner with others on the basis of some consciously chosen principles. In case of knowledge and understanding ‘doing something’, ‘behaving with others’ and responding to questions set in language.

It seems the performance in skills can be assessed easily and reasonably reliably, as it has heavy dependence on doing and relatively little with understanding. But we do not actually teach or assess skills in schools. The skills we do teach and assess there are mostly intellectual skills (algorithms in mathematics) and they have very important knowledge/understanding aspect to them. Actually most of intellectual skills are of very limited value shorn of understanding. Therefore, educationally important skills have the same challenge as assessment of knowledge and understanding. We will come to that presently.

The moral values (we will not take up dispositions in this little piece) necessarily have two parts: the performance (behaviour with or treatment of others) and intentions. The intentions are governed by general principles. Therefore, assessment of values requires observed data on performance as well as on intentions and principles that are basis of behaviour exhibited in performance. Let’s note that one single observation of behaviour can not be sufficient, therefore, substantial amount of observation is needed. The principles and intentions, again, have the same requirements as those of knowledge and understanding. In addition they have the substantial problem of possible pretention. I can behave in a supposedly correct manner in a give situation deliberately, even if that be counter to my general behaviour and my normal dispositions. Similarly, I can state supposedly correct principles of behaviour (usually called moral values, like sada sach bolo) even if I do not believe in them. As a result, assessment of values becomes extremely difficult without very long association in non-threatening conditions, even if the challenge of assessment of knowledge and understanding is somehow ignored.

Our knowledge, generally speaking, is composed of concepts, relationships between concepts and principles that govern those relationships. Examples: tree, water, air, life, growth etc. are concepts. “Trees need water and air to survive” is a statement of relationships between the concept of tree, need, water, air and survival. This is expressed as a knowledge claim. “All knowledge clams need to be based on evidence” is a principle used in generating, assessing, and accepting knowledge. All this can be expressed in language and as knowledge claims. Therefore, the important question for an assessor becomes: how to ascertain the kind of knowledge claims the educatee as acquired? As mentioned above knowledge clams are internal to a persons mind, we have no direct access to other people’s minds. But knowledge clams are made in language, and we can, presumably, understand each other’s language. Therefore, assessment of knowledge and understanding becomes a paper-pencil test through asking and answering questions.

Now, let’s note a little commonly known fact about knowledge claims: that they never can stand alone, they always depend on each other. My claim (commonly called belief) that “humans are thinking animals” depends on host of other such beliefs. For example: my concepts of humans, thinking, and animals. Also recall that knowledge claims require evidence (justification), they are worthless without justifications. So many other beliefs will be required for justifying my clams that humans are thinking animals. The simple statement that “Humans are thinking animals” is of no educational value unless my assessor knows that (i) I understand the meaning of that statement, (ii) I have adequate evidence for the statement, and that (iii) I understand principles that evidence necessarily required to make a knowledge claim.

All the above would be useless unless the edcatee can make proper use of this in her real life problems. Therefore, the in addition to understanding all the above, the assessor also need to know that I can make use of this repertoire of acquired skills, values and knowledge. This will require setting up real life situation, watching me in those situations and also understand my reasons behind dealing the way I deal with those situations.

To summarise, then, a worthwhile educational assessment requires the following:

  1. In skills
  1. Performance of a task/act. This will demand detailed observation of performance at multiple times. [Observation]
  2. The leaner’s behaviour with others. Again, detailed multiple observation are required. [Observation]
  3. Moral principle guiding the behaviour. The assessor will need information on principles behind that behaviour. [Narrative statements of dialogue]
  4. Concepts acquired by the learner. [Mostly narrative, may be performance of intellectual tasks.]
  5. Knowledge claims acquired by the learner. [Mostly narrative, may be performance of intellectual tasks.]
  6. Principles of knowledge claims acquired by the learner. [Mostly narrative, may be performance of intellectual tasks.]
  7. Interconnections and mutual interdependence of between the knowledge claims. [Mostly narrative, may be performance of intellectual tasks.]
  8. Performance in real life situation, not for proving or showing anything but just living. [Observation]
    1. The learner’s knowledge base for that skill. This will require information regarding her beliefs on that particular skill. More complex the skill more complex and larger the set of belief behind it. [Narrative statements or dialogue]
  1. In values
    1. Sincerity. Information on whether the person assessed is pretending or not. [the assessors judgement arrived on grounds of behaviour and narrative/dialogue. Will always remain doubtful.]
  1. Knowledge and understanding
    1. [All that is written in 3 (a to d) can be formulated as knowledge claims.]
  1. Ability to use skills, vales and knowledge in appropriate situations.
    1. And all that is written in points 1 to 3 above.

Now the question arises: Who can do it? And how could all this be done? In the present educational discourse there are too many purposes and too many candidates who want to do learning assessment. In this little piece I will consider the duty and clams of the teacher and claims of the large scale assessors.

First, the claims of the large scale assessors. They usually carry standardised paper-pencil tests, when really large scale multiple choice questions. Observation and dialogue with the learners are used only on a minuscule scale. Through the paper-pencil test one can find out only the statements (knowledge claims) preferred by the learner. Understanding of the entirely of belief system that gives meaning and justification to that statement remains hidden to the large scale assessor. As a result she is assessing what Andrew Davis calls thin knowledge, and can never reach with reasonable reliability to deep knowledge. But it is the deep knowledge that is required in real life situations and further growth of learning. Gerard Lum has convincingly argued that large scale standardised testing methods necessarily have to take what he calls “prescriptive” route to testing. Meaning that there are questions and pre-set answers to them. If the child reproduces the desired answer than gets full marks, is does not gets no marks. This makes the tests ‘highly reliable’ in what they are testing, e.i. ability to produce desired answer. But what is the educational worth of that answer? To understand this he creates some right/wrong scenarios. A good right/wrong scenario in geography context could be: suppose you ask a child “who is the Prime Minister of India?” Suppose further that the child answers: “Dr. Manmohan Singh”. She is of course correct and gave the desired answer. Now suppose that she also believes that Manmohan Singh is from BJP. Then her answer in spite of being correct does not carry much of understanding of the political situation in India. This kind of right/wrong scenarios are a plenty in science, maths and social sciences. But you can never discover them unless you ask further questions depending on the context. The method of asking further questions in context Lum calls “expansive” and opposed to “prescriptive”. Expansive route could be taken only by the person administering the test. And that makes the testing more valid in terms of representing the child’s state of knowledge; but less reliable as the subjectivity of the situation will seep in. There could be other reasons related with cost of large scale testing that do not allow the researchers to use expansive mode. But academically speaking even if they are prepared to bear the additional costs the problem of reliability will remain. Thus, as far as knowledge related issues are [in the list above: 1(b), 2(b and c) and 3 (a to d)] the large scale testing seems to be much less satisfactory than usually assumed.

The remaining: behaviour and values are eve more difficult in large scale testing. Therefore, one can safely conclude that as far as educational worthwhileness of the things that can be tested reliably remains vey low in large scale testing. This raises doubt about the claims made for ‘evidence’ based policy as far as that evidence is generated with such methods. One can of course say that there is a high correlation between the prescriptive standardised testing and the ‘actual’ understanding of the children. But the protagonists of large scale testing build their arguments on the research based evidence, so where is the evidence that proves this later claim?

Now we come to the second candidate as assessor: the teacher. I need not spend much time on arguing that the teacher is best suited for the worthwhile assessment of the learners. A glance at the list we have generated above will suffice to convince one that the required evidence and opportunity for further investigation is readily available to the teachers. How can they do it? Answering that questing will require another short article; but one thing can be said readily: in the process of their actual teaching in the classroom, no separate efforts are required. What one needs to do is understand the pedagogy properly and keep some minimal records. If we consider the activity of teaching then we can immediately see that without observing the child’s ways of activities, and without spotting and eliminating her right/wrong scenarios one can not teach at all. Therefore, continuous assessment is a necessary ingredient of a pedagogy aimed at developing the child’s capabilities and understanding. That would be much of more worth that all the noise being made on continuous comprehensive assessment and so called quality measuring large scale testing.

If this common sense analysis is accepted then the djinn of student assessment as inflated by the large scale standardised testing should be put back into the bottle of pedagogy where the teacher can deal with it suitably. We should all work to drive the standardised testers out of business. Not with the malice for them in our heats; but with suggesting them a better field of research: how to make it possible that the teachers keep reliable records of their own assessment and how to collate them to generate reliable knowledge on the health of schools and even health of the system. Figuratively speaking: how to use the activities of the numerous djinns properly capped in numerous bottles to gain reliable and valid insight into the collective functioning of all these djinns? This is the issue people in love with scale and moved by desire to influence policy should engage with. At present they seem to be marching confidently in the wrong direction.

The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change: Really?

June 16, 2013

One often reads and hears the old adage “The only thing that is constant is change”, perhaps with good reasons. It has the authority of a very old philosopher, Heraclitus; and makes eminent sense when we look around ourselves. We are born small, vulnerable, and totally dependent on caregivers, with no ideas and not much mind to talk of. And then, at least in our own eyes, we grow big, strong, full of ideas and opinions, and acquire a powerful mind. Our feelings, looks, behaviour, ideas, relationships—every thing changes. Then we grow old and feeble, our memory starts deluding us, mind starts making serious mistakes and grows confused. Bodily we wither, shrivel and finally die. Yes, the only thing that is constant is change. Everything else comes and goes.

We see others around us, and they suffer the same fate. New people come in our lives and some of the old fall out. With those of the old who stay our relationships change, often for good, sometimes for bad. Those who cared and protected us themselves become dependent on care and protection from us. Friendships, love, work-relationships, everything is in a flux. Humm, again Heraclitus seems to be right.

The world around us also changes all the time. Sociopolitical and economic conditions never remain the same. Sociopolitical ideologies, formations and movements come and go. Leaders come and go even faster. Physical world is in a state of content change. So yes, nothing is constant but change. Heraclitus seems to be right.

But, then, is he? After all, do all the changes listed and hinted above—and all others of the same kind—really substantiate his strong statement? “The only thing that is constant is change”. Could it be that this word ‘only’ might render this claim implausible or even meaningless?

Let’s think. What is change? What are necessary conditions for change to happen? Suppose the world or part of the world under investigation is in state x1 at time t1. Change would mean that at time t2 the state of the part of the world we are looking at has transformed into x2. In short: from [state x1 at time t1] to à [state x2 at time t2]. This could happen at the least in two ways: one, the thing[s] in x1, say a-table1-at-t1, have changed. That would mean that the table1 still retains its identity but has changed somehow. Say at t1 it was new, shiny and whole; at t2 it is old, rough and one leg is broke. But the table1 still is recognized as the same table1. So the identity of the table remains constant, it did not change. It seems here that to note any change in table1 we have to assume its identity to remain constant. That means, it is not only that the change is the only constant, but also that change can not even be noticed if the identity did not remain constant; so change actually requires some or other constant! It can not stand on its own feet!! [The issue of identity of things is very complex. We can not go into details of it here. so are using it at its commonsense level.]

Alternatively, it might be the case that all the things in the ‘part of the world under our gaze’ have been replaced by a totally new set of things. Say at time t1 the world was composed of things s1, s2, s3, …. and so on. At time t2 it is composed of things sa, sb, sc, sd, ….. and so on. Well, even in this case to notice that the things {s1, s2, s3, …..} are replaced by things {sa, sb, sc, ….} we must recognize the ‘part of the world under our gaze’  to be the same, to have remained constant. Again, it seems the change requires some constant (identity of the part of the world under gaze)! The poor thing can not sand on its own feet, again!!

One can generalize both these arguments to the whole universe, and they will still remain valid. Therefore, we can state that: the notion of change necessarily requires something that changes to be constant, having the same identity at t1 and t2.

But there is more. Who notices this change? There has to be some sentient consciousness to be aware of things at time t1 and well as time t2. Of course the state of this consciousness may change, but till the consciousness has to be aware of itself, that it is the same one that noticed the world at t1 and t2. Therefore, here we have another condition for the change to happen: a sentient consciousness noticing the change.

There is an old objection to this last argument. Say, a person named Sthai Lal (‘SL’ for short) feels that he is the same person who lived in a village called Sthaigram in his childhood, went to school Sthaishala when he was five years old, and now works in Sthai & Co when he is 50 years old. One can say that SL is the same person all through Sthaigram to Shaishala to Shat & Co. A very weak and easily disposable argument against this claim is that: SL has changed, he was 5 year old when went to school, did not know much about the world, did not have much experience of the world, had a smaller and growing body; but SL in Sthai & Co. at age 50, is a man of knowledge and experience, with grown but deteriorating body. So he is not the same person. True enough, many things are changed about SL, but he and the society around him still recognize him as the same person. He takes care of his old parents, because he thinks that he is the same boy born to them. The society condemns him as selfish if he does not care for his old parents because the society believes that he is the same person who was once born to them as a small incapable baby. So there is something very constant beneath all this change.

A stronger form of the same augment is that SL is under an illusion that he is the same person, actually he changes every instant. Well, we will not go onto details of this argument. All we will say is: even if this be an illusion; one, SL can not get rid of this illusion, it is part of his being, no illusion no SL. And two, to notice the change in anything this illusion is a necessity. So if SL is not constant then at the least SL’s illusion is constant. Either way, change requires SL as a sentient consciousness, be that illusory or real.

What we have noticed is that change necessarily requires at the least two constants: one, constancy of the thing that changes, and two, constancy of a sentient being that notices the changes in the thing. If one of them is removed there is no change. Therefore, “The only thing that is constant is change” is only an attractive slogan, which does good job in certain situations, and so is useful. As a general claim it can not be defended.

This short note leaves many questions unexplored. Two of them: how about the change across the generations? How is that noticed, if it depends on the continuation of a particular sentient consciousness? And two, was there no change in the universe before humans evolved into sentient beings? To my mind both of these questions can be answered in a manner that the arguments in this note remain valid. But that will remain for some other time.


16th June 2013

Where are we taking our democracy to?

June 10, 2013

[I am aware that this piece may sound polemical, which it is; and cynical, which it is not. It is not a well argued treatise, only a quick expression of opinion. Most views expressed can be backed by argument and evidence to my belief; but that would take a lot more time. So!]

Bhartiya Janata Party after a long agonizing—for it alone—wait has finally announced the inevitable: Narendra Modi of 2002 Gujarat fame is its Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014 general elections. We need no such announcement from the Congress: the succession line is clear enough. These two are the biggest players at the national level, the regional fiefdoms go with one or the other depending on the size of the chunk of proverbial pound of flesh they are able to extract. Another player at the national level is a conglomerate of what is called ‘left’; they are more of a nuisance with their strange religion-like theories and boundless personal ambitions.

If we look at the history of the Congress since 1920s, in spite of its successful steering of the freedom struggle and enormous contribution to nation building, the feudal character of the organization is unmistakable. From 1920s to about 1946 Gandhi dominated it and no dissenting voice was ever allowed. The succession of Nehru after Gandhi was not dynastic but was neither democratic. It was simply the fulfillment of the wish of Mahatma Gandhi. Any danger to Nehru’s succession was seen far in advance and curbed at the very nascent stage; treatment of Subhash Bodh can be seen as a case in point. Nehru, in spite of being a great democrat neither dismantled the feudal character of the organization nor did much to develop the democratic imagination of the population. He was the true controller and malik  of congress from 1947 till his death. A possibility of Congress party coming out of Nehru family’s grasp emerged after his death but was quickly led to rest by Indira Gandhi. The second attempt to wrest congress out of Nehru-Gandhi family was made by Kesari after Rajiv Gandhi’s death. But Kesari had neither the vision nor support of congressmen, so failed and dispatched to oblivion. Now the Congress party is a complete fiefdom of current Mrs. Gandhi (Sonia) and her children. It was often the case in medieval kingdoms that while the king was a minor some close confident ruled in his place. Sometimes these surrogate rules rebelled and started their own dynasties. The congress has perfected the system to the point that the surrogate rules can not even imagine such a rebellion.

BJP is basically is a party of upper caste Hindus. Its political thinkers—Deen Dials’ and Atals—have always been pigmies as far as political vision goes. Its national imagination comes from the RSS. The RSS certainly would like to have a mono-religious and mono-cultural country. Its vision of Hindutva is to make it a religion with one book, one prophet and one central authority to interpret religious dogma. This imagination is borrowed from Semitic religions and is in reconcilable variance with religious thinking in India; which has emerged more organically and therefore is not amenable to a final central dogma. BJPs commitment to secularism and inclusive polity has always been suspect and with good reasons. Its intellectuals are far inferior to the intellectuals that support Congress. And now it has accepted the leadership of Modi, the worst of the pack.

So what choice do we have: Modi versus Rahul? Free to choose between the devil and the deep sea!

Do we see any alternative? All the regional fiefdoms—that go by the name of various political parties—are modeled on the Congress’ dynastic structure; albeit with the poorer imagination of the nation, more sunk in the caste rivalries; deeper into corruption and blatant use of power. The Congress at the least has the support of sophisticated Brahmin thinking to fool the public and do its corruption in a more elegant manner!

One need not even talk about the left. They always have been living on borrowed imagination, often have been taking orders from outside of the country, their irresponsible piggy-backs to power at the centre have only made them worst, as they tested the blood of power.

At the moment the most recent flash in the pan is created by a bunch of anti-corruption activists, with their own record only half explained and a pedestrian national imagination. They came to fame on the basis of shallow, fleeting, unthinking, momentary interest of the Facebook type crowd.

What is often described as the Indian voters’ wisdom in producing hang governments and rejection of totalitarian tendencies is actually a huge misinterpretation of their behavior. The voter is simply guided by the local and immediate benefits they are promised or given by the local half-politician-half-goons and power brokers. It just so happens that these immediate interests do not add up to any clear verdict. It is an arithmetical result of non-thinking random self-interest and not of any social and political imagination.

So is there a hope for us? Can there emerge a challenge to Modis and Rahuls, both being bad news for Indian secular democracy? Perhaps yes, but not immediately.

A negative hope from the politicians: they are acting in total self interest, we know that. They also love power. Their love for power may result in two positive benefits to Indian democracy. One, they may hold the country together as fragmentation will make their power shrink. Two, they may prevent each other from becoming totalitarian despots, as each one wants that position for himself/herself. Therefore, the unity of the country and a semblance of democracy may continue. This sham democracy, however, is not going to deliver better life and the necessary amenities to the public. Nor will it fulfill the promises of equality, justice, freedom and fraternity. And still, it may give a chance to genuine democracy to emerge.

The second avenue of hope is from the public itself. Humans are selfish, true enough. But they also are capable of imagining long-term selfishness (often called enlightened self-interest) and empathy for the other. The Indian public may learn from its selfish behaviour directed at immediate interests and may include its neighbour in its consciousness. In other words, the public may be arriving at unarticulated conclusions of its own and in its own intuitive manner. There are other ways of development of human consciousness than strictly articulated and debated rational ones. The problem with them is that they are something like the dance of the bees, take too long, are intuitive and instinctive, and hold no guarantee that will progress in the most socially beneficial direction. But still, may produce more evolved civic consciousness and behaviour. The Indian public has been under tutelage of its rulers, caste leaders and religious leaders from time immemorial. The last sixty odd years might be forcing them to realise that they are on their own now, and they may realise the responsibility thrust upon them. If that happens, it will certainly be the most important thrust to the India democracy.

That brings us to the third avenue of hope. The opinion makers and intellectuals in the society may finally be able to articulate the national vision and citizenship responsibilities that make sense to the public in its own intuitive churning. The imagination of the intelligentsia at the moment is bound by borrowed theories, they are busy producing more and more obscure jargon in the name of nuanced articulation; and are guided by academic visibility in their own circles rather than by fidelity to and clarity of thought, and public good.

These three possibilities—one negative and two positive—may save and develop the Indian democracy into a more robust and healthy system. But, one, it will take time; and two, it sounds strangely like waiting for Krishna—yeda-yeda hi dharmasya glani….. and all that. These hopes will take significant nudging to emerge, waiting for Krishna will not do. The one possibility to give that nudging in an organised manner rests with the intelligentsia. Will they take up the challenge?


The proposed education commission: how can it do some good?

June 8, 2013

Ministry of Human Resource Development is deliberating on terms of reference and composition of a commission on education. Given the state of our education system and its performance at all levels it is a welcome step. An even more urgent need for a commission to formulate a coherent policy of education emerges from the recent flurry of half thought through reforms. However, a cursory glance at the history of Indian education after independence will conclusively prove that commissions (and committees) come and go; education continues on its steeply downhill road as usual. Recommendations of commissions become subject of excited debates in the press and then part of academic discourse; their practical impact never results in any improvement. With this history in mind one naturally wonders if the new education commission is going to be another exercise of the same kind.

The second problem is that the UPA2 government has only about one year left now. The Prime Minister announced the intentions of his government to appoint a commission on education on 15th August 2011; the government took more than eighteen months to come to the stage of deliberations on ToR and composition; when less than a year of its mandate is left. A commission that covers all that is being considered in the ToR, as one hers, can hardly complete its work in the tenor of the present government. And if it does, the quality of its analysis and recommendations is likely to be uncritically guided by current push for ‘education for economic competition’, as that is the dominant ideology in power circles today; or by some particular school of educational thought that might be close to the heart of bureaucrats or their confedents. Again, our recent history tells us that the new governments—if headed by another party—almost never respect such decisions made by the previous governments. Therefore, an education commission set up now will be relegated to very low priority and a new debate on its ToR and composition will begin as soon as a new government is formed.

Before one can start thinking of the ToR for and composition of the commission a reasonable assurance from the system to counter this threat is necessary. Without such assurance setting up a commission on education is nothing but a vacuous exercise, or worst, a political fraud played on people. This assurance can not come from the present day government, nor from any particular party. The only mechanism that may reasonably assure this is perhaps the CABE[1]. If the CABE decides that it will relentlessly push for the recommendations of the commission to be debated in the parliament and in public in a time bound manner, and that also continuously pressurize the government for implementation of the accepted recommendations, again in a time bound manner; the exercise of setting up a commission may become useful, and perhaps effective in improving the education available to out children and youth. Therefore, a firm commitment from CABE is a necessity.

Some general points about the ToR

An important step in tackling the first problem; that is: ignoring recommendations of commissions; can perhaps be taken up in the ToR itself. There is a dire need of studying our political and administrative system to understand why all useful and positive recommendations fail? Just repeating this common truth will not help. We need to understand what is there in the character of our educational administration and political system that reduces all reforms to naught, or worse still, used them for the sole benefit of the administrative structure itself. The recent Right to Education Act[2] is a glaring example of turning it against those who pushed for it. The civil society pushed for this act mainly to force the government to take responsibility and improve its own education system. What is happening in the implementation is that it is being used against all but the government system. The new education commission should seriously study all previous commissions, their recommendations, what happened to those recommendations, and why? It should suggest mechanisms to avoid the same fate of its own recommendations.

Any system—political, administrative, economic—to be true to its policies requires a critical mass of people in it who understand those policies and their implications, who have firm convictions regarding their beneficial nature, and who have qualities of character to take personal risk and responsibility in pushing for them. If the critical mass of such people in a system falls below a certain level—I am not sure what that level is, it is the job of social sciences to study that, the system stops functioning for the values it was created for and stats being used for the benefit of powers within it. It is clear that there are very few people in our education system who understand education, educational policies and have the required strength of character to implement them in spirit and letter. No amount of legislation and systemic reforms in pure organizational and administrative terms is going to be successful unless the critical mass of such determined individuals within it is increased. The education commission should study this problem and suggest ways and means of increasing this critical mass of driving energy within the system.

Another condition for systems in democracies to function well is that they are under the constant gaze of a critical citizenship. It is the job of education; of school education in particular, as the Secondary Commission on Education (1952-53) argued way back; to produce such a critical citizenship. Our education system has failed to achieve this most important goal of education in a democracy. Or, perhaps it is deliberately made to fail by those in power. Education today is not important enough in public perception to influence political fortunes of parties. Though the importance of education for one’s own children is fully recognized by all parents; most of them see it only as a tool for individual competition, and not as a necessity of common public good. As a result those who have means make arrangements for their own children to compete in job market; and those who do not, simply feel helpless. Seen from a democratic point of view, this is a serious aberration. A sate that claims to be democratic is automatically responsible for correcting such serious aberrations in the society. Therefore, this is a responsibility of the state to bring about a change in public perception on education; making it a common public good rather than an instrument of individual competition. The commission should study the public apathy for education, attempt to find its root causes and suggest ways of establishing education as a common need for welfare of all. However, that alone will not work, the commission should also suggest ways of how can public at the local level demand its right to good quality education and force the system to heed that demand. On the front of goals of education, the commission should study why our education failed in producing critical citizenry and suggest measures to be taken in curriculum, pedagogy and school organization that can correct this lacuna.

More specific points and issues regarding ToR

I have heard tat the draft ToR suggests a review of the education system in the context of the goals as articulated in the Education Commission (1966), National Policy on Education 1986 and Plan of Action 1992. If that be the case, it would prove to be inadequate and skewed. The aims of education since Education Commission (1966) are tilted towards using the citizen as resource to achieve national goals as set by the powers that be. Education is seen as an instrument for social engineering. One strong rejoinder to seeing citizens as resources is the Report of Committee for Review of National Policy on Education 1986 (1990). In curricular documents National Curriculum Framework 2005 re-emphasizes development of independent thinking democratic citizen as an important aim of education. Overall, the aims and vision of education as articulated in The Report of University Education Commission (148-49) and Report of Secondary Education Commission (1952-53) are closer to the constitutional vision of India; where the critical democratic citizen who imagines and makes the nation as per that imagination comes in a sharper focus. Therefore, the proposed commission should not limit itself to Education Commission 1966, NPE 1986 and PoA 1992 for guidance in aims of education. It should take into consideration all commissions, policies and important committee reports after independence.

In view of various documents on curricula, teacher education curricula and legal provisions like in Right to Education Act one needs to study the relationship between educational aims, curricula, pedagogy including assessment, and teacher education anew. Many recent recommendations and legal provisions might be creating international incoherence in education from aims to classrooms and teacher education. Coherence between aims, curricula, pedagogy and teacher education is essential for clear and unambiguous decision making and confident practice in education. The proposed commission should look into these fissiparous tendencies in various policy documents and suggest ways of keeping policy decisions clear and coherent in future.

ToR for a commission does not require narrow specifications. Inclusion of narrow specifications in ToR either skews the vision or demands a very long list of such specifications. The commission should be free to workout out an appropriate educational vision for the country which takes into consideration present day needs as well as is imaginative enough to serve long term planning and developing vision, both of nation and education in it. If one takes this view then demanding strategies and recommendations from the commission on ‘integration of sports and extracurricular activities into curricula’ and ‘how to use demographic advantage’ are somewhat inappropriate. They simply express the planners’ specific concerns, which might be ery legitimate and even urgent. But there are many more concerns on this level of specification that might have to be included in the ToR once these once are given a place in it. Therefore, the best way would be to leave the commission free to develop a vision and detail of education for the nation as it thinks fit.

Education is obviously for wellbeing of the citizen, society and nation. That includes economic concerns as well as intellectual and moral development of students. In this context, talking of skill development and vocational education in the prevalent sense is unnecessarily limiting and poor educational thought. An alternative vision of vocational education has to be developed which includes intellectual and moral richness and lateral movement between academic and vocational education at all stages. If vocational education has to figure in the ToR, it should figure for suggestions and recommendations for this richer concept of it.

Structure and composition

A commission with such a broad and comprehensive mandate and having limited time available to it exposes itself to the danger of working with cursory understanding and inadequate analysis of the existing situation, dues to pressure of time. This might result in recommendations of less than adequate depth and worth. Therefore, the commission has to guard itself against this danger.  One way of ensuring deeper analysis could be to develop a structure that ensures adequate study and deliberations on each important aspect. Setting up separate committees on school education, higher education, professional education and teacher education could be one way of ensuring adequate depth of deliberation on various important issues. That means that once the commission is set up it has to work out an elaborate structure to accomplish all the tasks in time.

Research and scholarship needed for serious deliberations on all these aspects of education today is not readily available in our conry. Unfortunately the academic institutions which were created to keep abreast in study of education and research are lagging far behind the times and fall disturbingly short of their mandate. Therefore, the commission would need a number of academic task forces to furnish it with needed information, various academic positions on aspects of education and their relevance for the country. The exact nature and number of such task forces will become clear only when the commission works out its full agenda. But there should be an adequate provision for resources (including time) to form such task forces and allow them to come up with in-depth studies. One such task force should definitely study the problems related with administrative and political will in implementing policies efficiently and without distortion.

The process and procedures for working out a vision for national education should obviously include all voices. Therefore, membership of the commission and committees has to be thought through very carefully. A commission composed of bureaucratic and political favorites can hardly meet the demands of the set tasks. It should include academics, civil society, teachers, private sector, public sector, people from general public, people from corporate world, discerning politicians (if we still have such a species of political animal around) of all hues and administrators.


All committees and commissions face a serious problem of adequate deliberations of high quality partly due to tight schedules and partly because often adequate procedural norms for deliberations are either not worked out or not followed strictly enough. Transparent and adequate deliberations should be ensured through adherence to procedural norms and availability of time. Half discussed decisions leave people dissatisfied and remain somewhat inadequately argued, and therefore, fail to make the public impact they should.

In addition of proper and in-depth deliberations within the commission and its committees a wide ranging and open public debate is essential, both to take all views into consideration and make its recommendations acceptable. The public debate should also be used to raise citizens’ awareness of educational issues and to generate interest in education. It could provide an ideal opportunity to turn the provisions of Right to Education, Child Rights, various other policy provisions, citizens’ rights regarding education, etc. into tools in the hands of the public to force administration to provide good quality education. Such a wide ranging debate would require use of all kinds of methods and possibilities. Public meetings, media, websites and electronic media, televised debates, and so on. The commission should make conscious and concerted efforts to start a social churning on education.

Looking at the history of our governments and administration of selective, biased and inadequate action on recommendations and policies, nothing less than an all out effort by public to hold them accountable will work. This is the job of civil society, media and academia to strive to create conditions under which public can make such efforts. Will they measure up to the task? We do not know, but without public pressure recommendations of the proposed commission will not get implemented what ever they might be. So, let’s hope and keep our fingers crossed.



[1] Central Advisory Board of Education