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Redefining Education for Knowledge not just Literacy

Knowledge is power and education is the foundation of sustainable progress. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”. Social and economic progress needs to be sustained and sustainable with a proportionate progress of human resource parameters of its populace at any point in time. India’s has been a story of mixed success on the educational front: although it is home to 46% of the world’s illiterate population and to a large number of the world’s out-of-school children, there have been encouraging signs on the schooling participation front lately. The critical question however remains that of quality of education. Has the capacity building exercise of India’s education sector been adequately followed up by the setting of high standards of education? In a country like India, with its massive population, policy-makers can often be obsessed with the quantity and scale of resolution of the issue of literacy. The unfortunate casualty in the process often is the nature and kind of education that could lead to independent thinking, critical reasoning and creativity, besides tools to equip the student to tackle the challenges of life. Standardization of curriculum has led to lesser engagement with subjective experiences and a certain fragmentation of the lives of students. The culture of rote learning and an examination-oriented attitude to resources and concepts has led to a parochial and skewed understanding of subjects and their applications.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In India, after Independence, the subject of education of citizens was deliberated on by two National Commissions — the Secondary Education Commission (1952 - 1953) and the Education Commission (1964 – 1966). The Indian Constitution was amended in 1976 to include the topic of education in the Concurrent List, and for the first time India as a nation had a uniform National Policy on Education in 1986. But it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that a major shift in the way we looked at education in India, happened. Education went from being a Directive Principle of State Policy to becoming a fundamental right. Today, free and compulsory education is provided by the Indian constitution to children between the age of 6 to 14, as per Article 21-A of the constitution, which was inserted by the The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. The elephant in the room remains: what about the quality of education provided?

The National Curriculum Framework (2005) presents a comprehensive outlook by looking at nuances of education in the country along with recommending changes and reforms in specific areas. The Framework came as a result of a process of social deliberation that was initiated by National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to focus public attention on what should be taught to children in the country and how it should be taught. The foreword to the Framework document by Prof. Yash Pal contains the memorable words: There is much analysis and a lot of advice. All this is accompanied by frequent reminders that specificities matter, that the mother tongue is a critical conduit, that social, economic and ethnic backgrounds are important for enabling children to construct their own knowledge. Media and educational technologies are recognized as significant, but the teacher remains central. Diversities are emphasized but never viewed as problems. There is a continuing recognition that societal learning is an asset and that the formal curriculum will be greatly enriched by integrating with that. There is a celebration of plurality and an understanding that within a broad framework plural approaches would lead to enhanced creativity. The Framework recognized the purpose of education in enabling a student to define and pursue a purpose in life and achieving one’s potential, along with acknowledging the others’ right to as well. It acknowledged the equality of all students while respecting the socio-economic diversity and backgrounds that the students came from. One of the most insightful statements of the Framework was: `Individual aspirations in a competitive economy tend to reduce education to being an instrument of material success’.

In this light, it becomes stressful for students to learn and reduces inter-personal interactions and peer-to-peer learning that the Framework highlights as highly important. It goes on to say that education must be able to promote values that `foster peace, humaneness and tolerance in a multicultural society’. But according to me there are two key questions that the Framework raises that are significant:

What educational purposes should schools seek to achieve?

What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to achieve these purposes?

The report Learning Without Burden by a committee appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development had analyzed the problem of curriculum load in 1992, and argued that the issue arose out of the system’s tendency to treat information as knowledge. According to them, children had to be regarded as more than just passive receivers of knowledge and one had to move away from using textbooks as the basis for examinations. One had to repose faith in the child’s own creative instincts and not necessarily spoon-feed facts and concepts but rather leave space for independent thinking and critical reasoning. They should be allowed to create knowledge out of experience, and education should be inherently experiential and not just based on rote-learning. Also, aspects such as the lack of learning in one’s mother tongue or the low diversity when it comes to socio-economic backgrounds within a cohort due to non-inclusion of students from economically disadvantaged families, for instance, can be detrimental to the aims and goals of education. While teachers remain the backbone of the teaching and learning experience, quality also must be ensured is the appropriate contextualization and selection of knowledge for inclusion in the curriculum.

The kind of learning where every individual skill or learning outcome is the fundamental unit of the learning experience is known as competency-based learning. This kind of learning is learner focused. In this, the instructor is more of a facilitator than an instructor, and this method of learning allows a student to learn individual skills that they find challenging at their own pace. In summative examination and testing, while the competence in majority of things tested on is enough, in competency-based learning and evaluation, mastery of each competency is required. Competency-based courses based solely on particular learning outcomes that are called competencies that have been verified as being essential for developing critical thinking and reasoning and/or successful employment in the occupation for which the student is being trained (in case of pre-employment training courses). In competency-based learning courses, student-centered learning resources are designed to help them master each competency. There are two important elements associated with this: firstly, resources are designed such that the student can acquire competencies and knowledge at their own pace, and secondly, there is a system of periodic feedback throughout the learning process, with there being opportunities for students to correct their performance, if need be. In competency-based learning, students are given enough time, albeit within reasonable bounds, to master one competency or learning outcome before moving on to the next and each student is required to perform each competency or task to a certain preset, fixed standard and to a high level of proficiency to receive credit for the same.

Having closely studied the nuances of competency-based learning and best practices, especially in countries like Brazil, Belgium, Finland, Japan, Singapore and India, I would like to suggest specific policy suggestions for general development of competency-based. The key goal and policy-suggestion is,

The establishment of a competency-based learning framework that promotes critical reasoning and independent thinking in students with emphasis on design-thinking, differentiated teaching, vocational training, benchmarking, capacity-building of teachers and a student-paced, self diagnostic evaluation system.

Inclusion of High-Order Thinking (HOT) questions in assessments and examinations of students, benchmarking and comparison with international standards of High-Order Thinking questions and a dynamic mechanism to improve standards of these questions with active input and feedback from students and teachers, cooperative learning with the creation of a peer-to-peer network specifically for competency-based learning, student-paced self-diagnostic learning and evaluation with the possible creation of a platform that could be virtual (using an app/software) that can assess the understanding and knowledge of a student using an online test-format that allows the students to move along at their own pace albeit in a timed manner are all measures that facilitate competency-based learning. Creation of a central portal to upload assessment outcomes to create a nationwide benchmark is important as well. I believe we need to promote problem-based learning and a `White Space’ model of education in schools, as part of which students identify gaps in their knowledge, conduct research, and apply this learning to develop solutions and thereafter present their findings. multi-angle approach to, and design thinking in, education can be paradigm-changing.

Design thinking in school education focuses on developing the students’ creative confidence. Teachers and students engage in hands-on design challenges. These challenges focus on being action-oriented, encouraging ideation, developing meta-cognitive awareness and fostering problem solving, critical reasoning and independent thinking. The crucial cog in the wheel of teaching and learning, at the end of the day, are the teachers, and their training is of utmost important. This can be done with the creation of Competency-Zones and Hubs, and creation of a dynamic question-bank created by teachers and school-administrators. There must be a mechanism for feedback by teachers and school-administrators, particularly around challenges faced or best practices adopted or developed in the teaching experience. And last, one must look at aspects and possibilities of Differentiated Teaching, particularly to address issues and challenges faced by students facing problems in the learning experience. The philosophy of differentiated teaching provides students a range of different avenues for understanding new information, be it in terms of acquiring content; processing ideas and/or developing teaching materials and assessment measures, so that all the students in a diverse classroom, can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.

Invariably, the concept of layered curricula, which has sections conducive for the optimum learning for every student regardless of competency-levels and interest, is important for differentiated teaching. There is also an urgent need to prioritize vocational training further in the school system internationally. The need of the hour, for promoting vocational training, is an inclusive education system that gives equal priority to education and skilling, with assured quality of skilling. Apprenticeships could go a long way in helping towards achieving this goal. Active tie-ups with industries and sectors of the economy to spur vocational and job-specific training could help. I also believe the power of technology should be used for better teaching and learning, with the creation of a central repository of educational resources for students and teachers (in a decentralized model where the development of content, style of delivery and goals are fixed by the schools and educators themselves, depending on priority areas, expectations and community realities) as well as the possible use of Artificial Intelligence to look at ways to create a dynamic, intelligent system that receives responses on concepts, competencies and assessments, and develops conceptual tools, questions and learning outcomes based on this, in an evolving manner.

I would like to conclude by saying that the importance of competency-based learning and conceptual understanding in school education cannot be understated. The establishment of a competency-based learning framework, in an increasingly globalised world, that promotes critical reasoning and independent thinking in students with emphasis on design-thinking, differentiated teaching, vocational training, benchmarking, capacity-building of teachers and a student-paced, self-diagnostic evaluation system is important.

(Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar is a youth scientist, writer, human rights activist and student political leader. He is currently pursuing his postdoctoral studies in physics at the University of Cambridge).

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