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Thursday, January 27, 2022

How ‘innovation’ and ‘narrative’ came to dominate education

🔴 Krishna Kumar writes: Since the 1980s, 'innovation' and 'narrative' have become keywords that mark a new culture of teaching and research. There’s no longer any need to cultivate the patience to make sense of things

Written by Krishna Kumar |
Updated: January 15, 2022 8:46:34 am
The two nouns are “innovation” and “narrative”. Administrators and teachers took their time to learn how to insert these nouns into the grammar of everyday parlance. (C R Sasikumar)

Sometime during the mid-1980s, two nouns silently rolled into India’s academic world. They were potent agents of change. Over the years, they ushered the nation into postmodern ways of talking. In its homes and hearts, the country at that time was still struggling to deal with the demands of modernity.

The two nouns are “innovation” and “narrative”. Administrators and teachers took their time to learn how to insert these nouns into the grammar of everyday parlance. Politicians and company heads investing in education were quicker. Journalists noticed the change and performed their expected role of spreading the word(s). The Programme of Action (1992) awakened and exhorted ageing vice-chancellors to recognise how important a role “innovation” was going to play in the impending dawn of the new century. Syllabi had to be revamped to make them capable of inspiring the innovative spirit of youth whose imagination had been stifled by nursery teachers. Universities took up the challenge of repairing what had been damaged during thoughtlessly playful kindergarten years. A fresh narrative of educational reform was born.

A few years ago, I met a young man who had designed a five-day training module to instil the spirit of innovation among school teachers. A whole range of VIPs had endorsed this effective module. When I met its maker, the remarkable module had already been administered to nearly half a million teachers, turning them around from their fixed pedagogic ways. Among the teachers he had trained, a few dozen had been selected for recognition as leaders. State governments were vying with each other to arrange the five-day jab of innovation among their listless teachers.

According to a recent report in this newspaper, an American innovator had attracted a record number of big investors in a new device capable of detecting a wide gamut of potential illnesses from a few drops of blood. The device radically cut down the price and hassle of a standard blood test. This disruptive health-tech device ruled the American market for several years before being revealed to be a fraud.

The success of that project helps us figure out the intimate relationship between “innovation” and “narrative”. Both achieved the status of keywords. Together, they marked the arrival of a new culture. However, one was more important than the other. While narrative carried sustained weight, in the final analysis it was subservient to its verbal mate, innovation. That is where the new goal of teaching and research lay — in sculpting a mind that could habitually innovate in any sphere of choice, including the art of creating a narrative.

Innovation thus became the supreme purpose of the humble teacher’s labours. Universities set up cluster resource centres where exam-weary youngsters might seek refuge to assemble a new device or invent a solution for an old nagging problem. The mission to carve out such a space in schools had to wait for a little while, but now that wait is over. Entrepreneurship has finally become a “subject” and teachers have been trained to handle it effectively. Their focus is on nurturing young adults who do not hanker after a job; instead, they create employment for others. The innovation resides in the narrative.

Older educational theory was vaguely aware of the importance of “innovation”. The origins of vagueness were many, but the main reason was grammatical. Innovation was stuck in a mesh of similar ideas whose ancestry had enjoyed respect for a long time in the history of science and the arts. Verbs like “create” and “invent”, and nouns like “inquiry” and “pursuit” had formed a nebulous whole. The construct had dominated educational philosophy and pedagogy for far too long. This old tradition did not permit “innovation” to come into itself, or become a goal on its own. Teachers had to cultivate young minds in a slow, affectionate fog of daily attendance. The ability to do something differently germinated in a few at the end, but it could not be predicted, let alone tested with the help of a few drops of saliva. It is when “innovation” became an independent goal that the new educational era began. From then onwards, the teacher did not have to worry about general development. The narrative of specified goals would subdue old anxieties like all-round growth. The teacher could now sit back and plan her lesson just-in-time using an app procured from the pedagogy market.

What began with words has gradually become reality. A mid-1980s adviser once illustrated the future by flashing a small pill tucked into his palm. A time will shortly come, he said, when you could drop a pill like this into a dirty stagnant pond, and watch its water turn blue and clean enough to drink. Those words carried force. Everyone present became aware that clean water need no longer pose a systemic challenge.

A well-honed capacity to innovate tops the list of “21st century skills” to be taught in institutions of higher learning. This title also dates from the mid-1980s. Apparently, there was something magic in the air of that period. Capturing the narrative became a political art. Education is usually a slow sector to respond to pressures, but now it seems ready. Speed and volume of research production is a key booster of a university’s place in ranking lists. Old-style courses that allowed leisure to think are no longer required.

Some rare advice to re-think came a few years ago from a book titled Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K Seeber. Although there is little evidence that it has made anyone look carefully at the reality students face, the book makes its diagnosis amply clear. Perhaps we need not worry about the book’s impact since the evidence is everywhere. It lies in the speed at which innovations are claimed in research papers produced and published overnight. Education has gone through a transformation in that there’s no longer any need to cultivate the patience to make sense of things.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 15, 2022 under the title ‘Spreading the words’. The writer is a former director of NCERT. His latest book is Smaller Citizens

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