Thursday, June 02, 2011

Other Sphere : Limits of small successes

Author:- Anurag Behar

What can only be discovered in a test tube and lab requires rigorous method and investment. We need to do that in education as well.

They had worked with 17 schools. After 18 months of working with these inner schools, they were seeing improvement with the learning outcomes. With confidence that comes from conviction of success, the consultant who had led the project was coolly dismissive of the idea that India's scale, diversity and complexity, limited the value of his methods.

He was very sincere in pitch, as we sat overlooking the lovely city that he worked in. We enjoyed the breakfast and the view and moved on.

Moving on and ignoring such confident advice is a survival skill in our work. You are inundated every day by solutions, methods and ideas that are "proven" and would dramatically improve education if implemented at scale. Almost all of this advice is with the best of intentions, and with complete conviction.

Usually the conviction, confidence and push are greater, if it's an advocate of the idea, rather than the person who (such people usually are far more measured) has actually implemented it. The advocates are forthright in their admission that ideas implemented at relatively small scale, in controlled conditions and in one particular context may not be applicable elsewhere and at scale; however somehow the idea that they are espousing is different, and these limitations do not apply.

We face this with teacher training, curriculum, pedagogy, technology, school management, motivation, "integrated approaches"….every facet of education and more. Indeed, there are many worthy examples of small successes for all of these. "Small" is relative to the scale, diversity and complexity of a district in India, let alone the entire nation. It is also in the context of the socio-economic & political reality of the country, which can be "controlled" or "overcome" at small scale, but overwhelms everything, the minute you leave that bubble.

I think we do a great disservice to the country by not recognizing the limits of small successes, and bear its negative impact on two dimensions.

First, many a times, fascinated and convinced by some such successes, someone who has the authority to do so, has implemented it at scale. The least damage that it does is the waste of money. The more pernicious effect is the disorientation & confusion that it creates in the ranks of teachers, school leaders and education functionaries at the district level and below. Over a period of time, such implementations may happen often enough for these people to substantially lose their (whatever they had) professional and disciplinary moorings.

Let us take an example. Some pedagogical methods have been attempted to be implemented at scale and quickly, inspired by some excellent model implemented at just a handful of schools. In the absence of most of the other conditions of where these models were originally implemented, e.g. quality and kind of teacher training, school conditions, assessment methods, class size & uniformity, teacher qualification & support etc., these methods have at best been ineffective, and at worst have left teachers feeling lost and helpless, especially because soon enough another such idea comes along.

Besides the disorientation and confusion in the ranks, such implementation at scale creates another problem. It creates the illusion of good work being attempted, distracting the entire system from the fundamental and painstaking work that is really required. In defense of such scaled implementation, the most that can be said is that, it usually doesn't make things worse for the child than it already is.

The second dimension of not recognizing the limits of small successes is the issue of (often) significant opportunity lost. There is much to learn from, from small successes. But that requires method and time to understand the limits. To draw out what can be used in other contexts including across large systems and then implement it appropriately. Indeed discovery, exploration and experimentation do happen only at small scale. What can only be discovered in a test tube and lab, requires rigorous method and investment, to be developed for use in the world, we know that. We do need to do that in education as well.

There is an even more complex issue. For which we may have no solution, but the consciousness of which can perhaps be useful. In some domains "scaling" is not possible – at-least in the way it is understood in industrial domains. These are complex domains, where locality and specificity is everything. This is driven by the basic truth that these domains deal with individual human issues, needing individual attention. Healthcare and Education are two of the most important such domains. However the reality of dealing with millions of children (or patients), does need a large system. The problem is that we have "scaled" our system on an industrial model. That's done, but there is no need to continue to "scale" solutions with an industrial mindset. Quality and equity can be infused, only school by school; "scaling-up" should only enable that.

In the meanwhile we can also try to empathize with the teacher, who is the one who really faces the music of the kids every day, and not yo-yo her from one brilliant idea to another.