Dr.Sunita Gandhi

Ever wondered how so many Indian-Americans excel in spelling bee contests? In the last 10 years, the winning rate of Indian-origin students is 80 %. Indian students’ success at spelling bee contests is due to their innate drive for hard work and more importantly their adeptness at rote learning and memorisation. Walking away with prizes at spelling bee contests is all good but will these students make a mark in areas where they would have to apply knowledge and solve problems? Experts say they may well fall short of expectations.

Indians in the IT sector are the most sought after whether in the US or other countries. The best doctors in the US and UK are from India so why is there such a hue and cry about the Indian education system. All the IT professionals, doctors and scientists have had to unlearn and relearn once they got there. The Indian education system is not just good enough in preparing people to directly get on the job. Thanks to the innate quality of hardwork and tenacity, Indians make it to the top in several fields but what they learnt in Indian schools they had to unlearn and that is the reason why the government, school managements and just about everyone associated with education is looking at the Finland education system that prepares students for life.

Finland is doing away with school subjects and integrating it in an interdisciplinary way. What is in the Finnish model that India lacks (see box pg 20). After all it was India that gave the numerical zero to the world. India was the seat of learning once but along the way lost it somewhere and in the last 100 years is stuck thanks to the British gift to Indians who left behind a 10+2+3 system of education that produced clerks. The clamour to adopt the Finland model of Education started when Finnish children came top or very close to the top for science, reading and mathematics in the international standardised measurement in 2001 and have been doing well in consequent tests. Since then stake holders in the realm of education have been debating the possibility of replicating the model in India. In a recent development, the government of Andhra Pradesh constituted a committee to study the Finland model last week to improve standards in the state. For a country that is obsessed with marks and ranks, the Finland model seems alien and almost unimaginable.

In the last few years several Indian delegations visited Finland and Dr A Senthil Kumaran, co-founder and chief confluencer of ‘The Leaners Confluence who visited Finland in November says, “The purpose of education is not to create superstars but to create good happy citizens and that is reflected in ample measure in Finland.”

Q: You have been advocating for change in the Indian education system. Explain

Education does not need an incremental change, it needs a paradigm shift. Incremental would mean changes such as greater use of technology, better prepared teachers, better teaching methods. Paradigm shift would mean fundamentally changing the content, curriculum and the modalities all at once.

Q: Where do we begin the process of change?

We need change perhaps in all fronts right from government policy to teacher training institutions, examination boards and school systems. We tend to justify our system by talking about IITs and IIMs but we do not realise that these institutions are not in top 100 in the world ranking of universities. We forget that the vast majority of Indians do not make it to these colleges and our education is leading to more suicides. Given our large population base and our cultural heritage, we could have been leading the world in education.

Q: What is needed from the government side?

We need to make education as our top priority. Finland was a poor nation at the time of World War II but see where it is today. When the Prime Minister of Finland Mari Kiviniemi went to speak at the invitation of the United Nations, she was asked, ‘What are the top three priorities of your country?’ She said, ‘Education, education and education.’ Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators.

Q: What ails the Indian education policy?

Successive governments are stuck with the blue-print approach. Once an education policy is framed it tends to remain pretty much the same for decades. Finland had around 48 committees working during the period 2012-16 all over the country on education. Finland moved away from teaching subject-wise in to integrated thematic teaching, not concerned whether it would lower their position in the PISA rankings but guided by a higher vision. It was its humility to better their system of education.

Q: There seems to no accountability in the Indian education system. Your comments

If we could incentivise the teachers and management differently, and hold them accountable on their outcomes. For this to work, we will have to articulate our entire curriculum not in terms of syllabus but in terms of outcomes. We need to get lethargy out of the system. Thus far, we have been thinking ‘input’ as in building, furniture, facilities, equipment, books, curriculum, white boards. We have not been thinking about output as much. The majority of items covered by a school inspection are input-based factors. We need to do just the opposite. How much of a role do the training colleges play? In Finland, teachers are selected from the top 10 % of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students.

Q: Can examination boards bring change?

I think examination boards should be done away with. They will be converted to research organisations and institutions that focus on improvement in quality. We need to move away from the notions of assessment ‘of learning’ to assessments for learning’ and assessments ‘as learning’.

Q: Education is meant for well being of the child. Isn’t it?

Absolutely! School systems tend to focus on marks and not their well-being. Change has to begin in a classroom and through a teacher. Smaller class size would also help in bringing about change.If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else.Nearly 30 % of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.

Q: What is that one would want to see in a child when he reaches the boards?

By the time children reach high school and take the boards, I want to see a dramatic change in children’s confidence and self-esteem, academic outcome, their creativity and curiosity, scientific temperament, intrinsic motivation and inner satisfaction, their world-view, their moral and spiritual inclination, and their happiness, enthusiasm, proactive leadership and team work. This can happen when teachers become like scientists and observers. What is the role of books in the age of internet? The use of text books in schools dates back to the 16th century. Earlier, the teacher would dictate from the book while students would make copious notes. We should look at the concept of co-creating learning, learning by discovery, inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning, hands-on learning, experiential learning, learning through our senses, kinesthetic learning and learning using our various other intelligences and, learning from nature, through music and sports, learning by examples of others, learning through apprenticeship. Obviously there are multitude ways of learning that do not require text books.

Q: You have experimented by dividing the text book into parts. Tell us about the experiment.

We divided the year’s course work into six parts, each part being less than 20% of a year’s coursework. Children receive these tier books not as a whole set of six, but one at a time. Children cannot think in the long term. A year is too long for them. But, they can visualise five units of work in five weeks, and one unit per week. When the goal is perfection and time is negotiable, it would mean that all children would have understood the lesson, at least a vast majority of them. We expect at least 85% in terms of an average class mark, with majority of the children getting a full score, and many being beyond the full score that will not show up in the measurement.

Q: Have the time to think even about time tabling

Children need focused study time that is uninterrupted. They also need diffused learning time like, when they get a break, and time to think and to do something completely different like play music, or go for a run. Research, to the extent that has been done, supports the idea of 30-minute concentration study time with a 5-minute break. So, if we must have periods, the 35-40 minute periods, we don’t give them the 5 minutes at the end of each period for a break which would rejuvenate and re-energise like the charging of time for the battery to refuel itself?

Q: Can Indian schools get close to the Finland model?

Absolutely. Private schools have already begun to show a lot of innovation. The need of the hour is to lobby well and knock on the government doors to make education its top priority. The need is to create a learning community that is focused on creating a paradigm shift, not incremental change.