Education in India

Education means something different in India than in the US and it’s too broad a term.

Danny Zuckerman

21/06/2020

During my time in India I was lucky enough to visit two very different Universities and a foundation focused on K-12 education. Brand new to Indian education, I tried to stay away from too-quick conclusions about the state of education or particular initiatives in that environment. But my observations and conversations at Ashoka University, Lovely Professional University and Central Square Foundation kicked off many of the questions I’ve been wrestling with, so I wanted to share what I’ve been seeing and thinking.

“Education” means something different in India than in the US — and it’s too broad a term in general. My university, Stanford, was informally divided into ‘techies’ and ‘fuzzies,’ with the elevated respect for techies mirroring the general re-emphasis on STEM in the US after a historically heavier focus on the liberal arts traditions. India, on the other hand, has a complete focus on STEM and almost no place for liberal arts in education. So the wisdom and outlook of graduates is necessarily different in the two places.

Ashoka is a startup University modeled largely on US Ivy schools that sees the liberal arts as critical and is seeking to change the norms of tech-only in India by demonstrating the value of liberal arts to students, citizens and employers. They have a promising start, but also have their work cut out for them. Along with the massive challenges of starting any University, they themselves are — it seems to me — still learning the ‘why’ of the designs and programs they’ve copied from US schools. A direct imitation is efficient, but if they want to convince others of the value they need to really understand it first, and how each aspect does (or doesn’t) apply to India.

LPU, the other university, is built from the ground up purely on the demands and considerations for its specific situation in northern India. It offers no liberal arts at all because there would be no demand for them from its thousands of students. They do, however, have a super interesting entrepreneurial system where students more or less run the school. The on-campus hotel is part of the hospitality school, all cars and shops are student-started and run, large companies train students on how to run a franchise and then hand over the on-campus branch. It’s driven by necessity — they growth and funding mean cheap student labor is the only sustainable option — but also a far more natural entrepreneurial training ground than the entrepreneurship centers at many US schools.

There is obviously value in all these types of education. Sciences prepare you to reason and work; humanities prepare you to make choices and think creatively and deeply; entrepreneurship prepares you to persevere through the unknown. One argument for the slipping position of the US in the global economy is the lack of STEM; one argument for the lack of original innovation in China is a lack of liberal arts. Life should reflect a mix of action and contemplation, and so should school. It’s interesting to see various countries struggle with how to value and prioritize this mix — it’s easy to say ‘do it all,’ but time and funds are scarce so focus matters.

While the specifics differ, lack of quality teacher time with each student is a consistent challenge across borders. There was a ‘small class size’ movement in the US in the past, and this is not what I refer to. I refer to the difficulty in establishing an orderly, focused classroom in which a qualified teacher can spend meaningful time coaching. In parts of rural India, teachers simply don’t reliably show up. If they do, lack of materials, attendance and nourishment make it next to impossible to get a classroom settled and in a routine that can lead to consistent learning. In rural areas (observed in southeast Asia) there are often too few classrooms, so with too many grades mixed together and students shuffling between rooms the teacher is just trying to keep things under control rather than moving forward. While it often looks different in the US — chaotic hallways and noisy classrooms with teachers having little idea what each student is doing — the end-state is the same. Some data says the most important driver of learning is direct coaching time from a teacher. And yet, it seems that more $ and energy goes into training teachers on content or pedagogy, when simply helping manage the classroom (and school environment) is a critical first step that usually has not been solved in low performing schools.

Second, should policy-makers be trying to drive certain reforms with incentives like this? The history of education reform, and really just history in general, is chalk-full of policy makers with good intentions (and ‘the latest research’) setting incentives for adoption of something that should help, but fail. This is, in my view, a huge practical and reasonable difference between progressive and conservative approaches: progressives pursue this in the rush to help and improve, while conservatives view this kind of actions skeptically because history shows how ineffective and disastrous they can be. Might we be better leaving funds and decisions more to ‘the market’ and localities? Or, better yet, decide what single incentive we care about in the end (say, 12th grade proficiency) and let the market orient around that goal rather than intermediate ones like class size or PD hours.

There is always a tough balance between trying to find, use and scale what is known to work versus empowering those on the ground who know local contexts (as in many industries). Ashoka seems to be taking the approach of copying the US (to an uneasy degree — even building blueprints) and dropping that outside Delhi, and then over time tweaking what isn’t working to localize it. Something feels wrong about copying without foundational knowledge of why things work as they do; but perhaps this is orders of magnitude more efficient and should be embraced. LPU is built from scratch, and while there are missteps the result is a pretty unique culture with students running much of the University, and getting more ‘real’ entrepreneurship training than copying another University’s entrepreneurship center. In a world as big as education, better ways to identify and circulate ‘what works’ seems like it should be a top focus. I could see a “Give Well” organization purely for schools, to make the incentives of such an ecosystem work.