Now Is the Time for India to Democratize Learning

A synopsis of my remarks to Emerging Directions in Global Education 2011, Delhi, India

For the first 60 seconds, we listened to Yoyo Ma playing Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G as the flowers unfolded.

 

As time speeds up, we perceive that what once appeared rigid is actually fluid.

Progress is unfolding at an unprecedented rate. More happens in one of your minutes than in one of your grandfather’s hours. More information has been created in the three days I have been in Delhi than in the sweep of human history from the dawn of civilization until 2004. Futurists tell us the 21st century will not contain a mere one hundred 20th century style years but tens of thousands of them.

As the years speed by, we can appreciate that educational systems that once appeared rigid are actually fluid. We can nurture them to grow this way or that. We can “flip” them, that is, reconfigure the pieces. I’ll suggest that we can, and should, rearrange the components of schooling to democratize learning.

By democratize, I don’t mean giving students the vote. Rather, democratizing learning means giving students the knowledge and permission to realize their full potential. Democratization gives students a voice in their own learning.

Be forewarned: I am an alien in your midst. I am an American, a Californian, with scant knowledge of India. My specialty is corporate learning, not higher education. And I tend to live in 2016, not the present.

Nonetheless, I’d like to share a few stories with you. Perhaps they can serve as catalysts as you consider how to reshape India’s educational systems and policies to meet the demands of the future.

 

Hewlett Packard Engineers

Let me tell you a story that predates the internet. In 1974, a group of Hewlett Packard engineers who had been watching lectures on electrical engineering on the Stanford Instructional Television Network were reassigned to an HP facility in Santa Rosa, California, two hours to the north and out of television broadcasting range. An instructor, Jim Gibbons, sent videotapes of the lectures to Santa Rosa. It didn’t work; the engineers weren’t learning. Accompanying the tapes with a graduate assistant didn’t work either.

Next the engineers tried something that did work. Whenever anyone did not understand a concept in a lecture, he would raise his hand. This stopped the tape. Most of the time, someone else in the group had the answer. They proceeded this way, learning without a teacher, until the end of the semester. Then Jim Gibbons carted the engineers to the Stanford campus to take the final exam.

Mind you, these engineers lacked the test scores to become Stanford students, yet they scored significantly higher grades on the exam than the resident students. Why? I think it’s because they took charge of their own learning. They learned from one another, in the course of conversation. Furthermore, they were learning in order to become better engineers, not to earn a credential.

The HP engineers had flipped the educational process. They did away with face-to-face lectures. They set their own pace and answered their own questions. They took charge of the way they learned. In other words, they democratized their learning.

 

Corporations

Western corporations are broken. Workers hate their jobs; customers complain of lousy service; investors receive meager returns. There has to be a better way.

In January 2012, two dozen authors, managers, and agile software developers met on a mountain top in Stoos, Switzerland, to try to reverse the situation. How could the practice of management be updated to work in a complex, unpredictable world?

The organization-as-machine, the model that served us from the dawn of the industrial age until the beginning of the 21st century, leads to a quest for efficiency. That works in stable, unchanging times, but it’s a formula for disaster amid incessant, disruptive change. The living network is a better model for today. Organizations need to conceptualize themselves as networks of individuals and teams who perpetually strive to create more value for customers.

This flips the corporation into an organization that respects people for their contributions rather than seeing them as cogs in the machine. The new order democratizes the workplace.

 

Corporate Learning

In America and Europe, the corporate learning function is dead or dying. A 2011 study by the Corporate Leadership Council reported that 76% of managers are dissatisfied with their corporate training function; 85% deem training ineffective; and a mere 14% would recommend training to their fellow managers. Workers and managers learn their work though conversation, collaboration, and on-the-job experience. My colleague Jane Hart calls this “learning without training.”

Enlightened corporations trust their people to pull in the resources they need. They’ve flipped corporate learning by putting the learners in charge of defining the curriculum. These corporations concentrate on building self-sustaining learning ecosystems, what I’ve called workscapes, instead of individual programs.

 

Education in India

India needs to train 500 million people in the next ten years. Some have proposed building thousands of new schools and challenges. Yet if the building program began in earnest tomorrow, there still wouldn’t be enough time to build the required classrooms — some six times what India has today.

What would those schools teach? The half-life of a professional skill is down to five years and is shrinking fast. It makes no sense to train people on skills that will become obsolete in short order. I’ll suggest that people need to learn meta-skills, such things as:

  • learning how to learn
  • critical thinking and conceptualization
  • pattern recognition
  • design thinking
  • working with one another
  • navigating complex environments
  • software literacy

India has neither time nor resources to prepare teachers to transfer these skills to hundreds of millions of people. The answer? Flip Indian education. Delegate the delivery of content to electronic means, and focus teachers on coaching, leading discussions, helping people over hurdles, and relating lessons to real life. Also, teach students and workers to help teach themselves.

The time is ripe for India to democratize education, to help students to think for themselves and realize their potential.

 

Reflection

A couple of days after my talk, nine of us piled into a van to visit the Taj Mahal.

Hour after hour, we honked and careened our way through chaotic traffic. We passed numerous private schools and academies. Mostly, we saw tens of thousands of abjectly poor people passing the time of day in hole in the wall kitchens and shops, wandering around in rubble, or defecating in fields. I wondered what comes first, educating the millions or giving them toilets.

By 2030, India’s population will outnumber China’s. The people we talked with at EDGE are entrepreneurial and optimistic. They are accustomed to thinking things over on an enormous scale. Never before in human history has a democracy of 1.3 billion people tried to reform education. Such transformation is mind-boggling.

Where is this headed, I wondered. By this time, our discussions about educational systems were over. I tossed about in bed in anticipation of an early morning flight home and reflecting on India.

What change does India want to see? Do we expect education to flatten a highly stratified society? Will the boys and girls playing in the dirt lead more productive, fulfilling lives because they can read and write? Will they have the patience to put up with the conservatism and cronyism of the Government of India? How will India create the jobs to challenge their young minds? Might not educating the masses be akin to showing the people of the former Soviet Union the riches of the west on television?

The more I learn about India, the less I understand India. I wish my new friends and their country well. They face the largest challenge I have ever seen.

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