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Double helix of education

Very early in my life I learnt that Character is Destiny. That character of an individual, an organisation or a society is the most importan...

Written by Azim Premji |
November 22, 2003

Very early in my life I learnt that Character is Destiny. That character of an individual, an organisation or a society is the most important determinant of success. When I use the word character I use it in the broad meaning of the word, the indescribable mix that an individual is: thoughts, words, feelings and above all actions. And the heart of character is values.

If you consider Wipro as a successful organisation, I would rate values as the foremost contributors to its success. At the outset we decided that character is one factor that will guide all our actions and decisions. We defined a set of values and beliefs for the organisation in the early ’70s before it was fashionable to do so. We decided that upholding those values was more important than achieving business success. Let me also confess that upholding these values has not been easy, especially in the early years. But we stuck on. And as the years passed we realised that what started in the realm of idealism not only held true in reality, but proved to be a unique, tactical competitive advantage. Customers wanted to buy from us because we honoured our commitments.

I believe it is our responsibility to build our nation, build character and integrity in our children and the future generation. I believe the one concerted area that wittingly or unwittingly can shape the personality and character of a society is education — and I refer to fundamental education at the primary school level. Our education system as it stands today is in need of transformation and transforming our education is the key to transforming India’s destiny.

I am aware I am neither an educationist nor an academic person. All that I understand is what kind of people have the potential to be more successful in business and what kind of people make successful employees. A lot of work has been done by us, as by many others, to determine the kind of citizen the nation ought to be looking for at the end of an education cycle. Let me place before you some characteristics of such an individual: a person who has the ability to relate rationally to fellow beings and their environment; a person who has an inherent sense of curiosity and interest beyond his/her own life; a person who perseveres in the face of odds; a person who is not blindly obedient but can act on the basis of independent thought and exercise judgement; a person who is able and willing to continuously learn and change; a person who is excited by challenges; a person who sees diversity and plurality as strengths; above all, a person who will stand firmly by a set of values which will guide him/ her through life.

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The almost factory-like efficiency of the end school exam seems to drive everything in the system, unifying all participants around the single objective of “doing well in exams”. This makes the system thrive on churning out standardised children like graded “products” in a factory. It fosters individuals who are programmed to obey and conform, who have limited life skills and need continuous direction. It’s only a tribute to the undying human spirit and some balancing social structures that all the qualities of success are not completely obliterated in the vast majority of our youth. It is not that the importance of education is underestimated in our country; public discourse and debate keep it very much a part of everyone’s agenda. However, this consciousness and resulting actions revolve mainly around what I would term as “access” to education and concentrate on issues of enrolment, attendance, dropout rates, discrimination, physical conditions and facilities, all of which doubtlessly merit attention. But equally deserving of urgent and immediate attention is the quality of learning.

It is true that quality of learning cannot be addressed in a vacuum caused by absence of schools, or absence of teachers from schools, or absence of basic facilities from schools. Nor can it be addressed divorced from the socio-economic context of the child. Indeed quality and access and, therefore, equity are inextricably entwined. But it is critical to appreciate that in our complex socio-economic system, as much as access impacts quality, so does quality impact access. It is like the double helix of the DNA, never complete in itself but complete together, the DNA of education runs on two strands of quality and access.

A lot is stated about poverty and socio-economic conditions as important causes for families deciding not to send their children to school. Our consistent experience is that from families with identical poverty levels and socio-economic backgrounds, almost 50 per cent of parents send their children to school while the balance 50 per cent don’t. There is an important lesson in this. To us it simply means all of them are families that have potential to send their children to school. It is just that many do not find the education and the quality of learning in schools relevant to their lives. So we have a situation where sections of both the elite and economically backward find education in a large measure irrelevant to their needs. In other words, the quality of public education is so poor that it does not incentivise us to overcome odds and send our children to school.

The irrelevance of what is taught in schools, both in the immediate context of the child and what it may mean to the child and her family in the foreseeable future, is glaring in the rural areas and in schools which primarily educate the children of the under-served part of society. My conviction that quality of education must get an equal share of the national action agenda has grown significantly over the last few years after we started working closely in 4,000 habitations in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the Azim Premji Foundation and about 100 urban elite schools under “Wipro Applying Thought in Schools” programme. While the Foundation works in rural government schools that have a preponderance of under-served children, most schools where Wipro works are for the privileged. Their desire to participate in the programme stems from their conviction that they must do something about the quality of education, in an attempt to overcome the constraints of “system”.

Let me also say that I sense a simmering consensus around the issue of quality of education. We need to develop the “simmering consensus” through informed public debate into a strong visible consensus and real action on the ground. This alone would achieve positive transformation rather than a mere tinkering of the existing system.

When we speak of the “quality of education”, it becomes imperative to address the important issue of “what kind of education”? Education, to my mind, is an organised system that facilitates learning so that each individual imbibes the process of understanding and becoming what he/she can be and wants to be.

How do we envision the individual our education system should strive to create? In moving words from the Discovery of India, Nehru says: “We can never forget the ideals that have moved our race, the dreams of the Indian people through the ages, the wisdom of the ancients, the buoyant energy and the love of life and nature of our forefathers, their spirit of curiosity and mental adventure, the daring of their thought, their splendid achievements in literature, art and culture, their love of truth and beauty and freedom, the basic values that they set up, their understandings of life’s mysterious ways, their tolerance of other ways than theirs, their capacity to absorb other peoples and their cultural accomplishments, to synthesise them and develop a varied and mixed culture; nor can we forget the myriad experiences which have built up our ancient race and lie embedded in our sub-conscious mind.”

I will take the risk of articulating what education could be like. One, every child is an individual with a right to respect. This respect for the child must translate into providing a non-intimidating and exciting space in which the child learns. Schools need to identify and eradicate every element of threat — physical, mental and emotional — that stifles learning and growth. Two, the right learning environment ought to be contextual to the learner and to the community. For instance, a blind child needs non-visual learning tools; hunger is a physical threat detrimental to learning in underprivileged communities. It follows that the local community has a responsibility in creating a feasible environment in and outside the school.

Three, there has to be this clear understanding that learning occurs everywhere and that all learning can be interesting. It would build on the operating principle that each child constructs her own learning.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept that every child learns differently, at different depths, at different speeds? Some children learn best when doing things with their own bodies; some learn better in peer groups; yet others learn best by emulation.

Five, let me ask you, under what subject should the eruption of a volcano in Japan be covered? Geography? Physics? Maybe chemistry? Geology? It is all of this and more. Nature is inherently whole. Then why is the curriculum boxed into subjects, modules and chapters? We ought to think of “integrative” and wholesome learning.

Six, this form of education will not stop at “content”. The child would continuously develop life-skills. This would include physical development, vocational skills, creative and critical thinking and abilities such as risk-taking and coping with change. The child’s learning would be grounded in an individual, social and human value system imbibed from self-discovery.

Caring for children and feeling responsible for the holistic progress of every child would form the basis for all decisions. Such education will invest in teacher development, better assessment systems, community participation, and in a culture built on the imperative of the learner. It would be an education system which would continuously refine the dynamic balance between being the key agent of socialisation and being the driver of social change.

The stage is set. It is for us to choose which play will be staged. This will depend substantially on what choice we make on our education system. Will we continue with the present blinkered system? Or will the key stakeholders join together and transform the system to facilitate true, lasting and relevant learning for every child which inevitably will lead to a turbo charging of our unique human resource pool?

The choice clearly is ours to make. And the future clearly is ours to construct based on these choices.

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