In Search of A New Paradigm of Quality Education…

Manish Jain, Shikshantar Andolan

“The illiterates of the future will not be those who are unable to read and write,

but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”      - Alvin and Heidi Toefler

 After a decade of focussing on access rates to schooling, the issue of quality of education was finally brought to the forefront of education debates at the World Education Forum in Dakar (Senegal, April 2000). It was recognized that access and quality cannot be separated from one another. Indeed, in India today the concern about quality can be heard from several segments of the population -- if one is willing to listen closely. In 1993, the Yashpal Committee Report made the astute observation (which has been ignored) that there is a lot of teaching and training going on but very little learning or understanding.  I have been told by several rural parents in different parts of the country that “Your schools have spoiled our children. They are not able to get a government job in the city, nor do they have any respect for our family work (labor), our local culture, our values, or our relationships. Woh na ghar kai, na ghat kai.”[i]  In other conversations in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, several business leaders have openly stated that, “Most college graduates -- even IT students -- lack the creativity, teamwork ability, communication skills, and self-motivation to succeed in the fast-moving economy. We need to retrain them when they enter our organizations.”  Social reformers and spiritual leaders would add to this list, a comment on the burgeoning destructive values -- greed, selfishness, hatred, insensitivity, violence, consumerism, loneliness, insecurity, fear, laziness, etc. – and emerging ethical dilemmas (e.g., artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cloning, patents, etc.) that threaten the well-being of society. The crisis of quality becomes even more poignant if one asks a young person “what he or she wants to learn.” The answers tend to range from blank stares to “whatever you want to teach me” to “whatever is needed to pass the exam.” Upon deeper interrogation, the vast majority of school graduates will readily admit that their school education was/is irrelevant to their daily lives. Of greater concern, however, is that their natural capacities to be lifelong learners who can learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their lives have been rendered dysfunctional by their schooling experience.

 In order to start improving the quality of education, we need to first understand where and why we have failed.  Educationists (ranging from the UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank to NCERT to big NGOs) have tended to focus on some combination of: building more infrastructure (such as classrooms, toilets, furniture); training more teachers in joyful activities and providing them with progressive ‘child-centered’ and 'gender-sensitive' textbooks and didactic Montessori teaching aids; setting up more Village Education Committees to raise funds and monitor schools; or introducing more tests and minimum standards. Along with these reforms, there are those who believe that the quality conundrum can be solved by a few more  ‘add-ons’ – value education courses, vocational training, hobby classes, GK (or good-for-nothing knowledge), random chunks of local knowledge, and computers. All of these interventions, however, remain within an extremely limited realm of vision and action, in that, they continue to look at quality education through school-colored glasses. They function with a set of arrogant assumptions that reinforce the role of education as an instrument to mold and ‘socialize’ (that is, control and indoctrinate) human beings to fit within the institutionalized framework of the Military-Industrial Nation State and/or the Global Free Market Economy – limiting our roles to the obedient Worker, Clerk, Soldier, Citizen, Consumer. These assumptions include:

-           Human beings are empty/deficient which implies that those who have not gone to school are ignorant;

-           There are a few intelligent children and a lot of dumb children – this can be measured by IQ tests;

-           Every child learns in the same way and this can be planned and standardized;

-           Literacy is only about reading, writing and numeracy;

-           Knowledge is inherently fragmented and can be delinked from experience and context;

-           Competition, pressure and discipline through rewards/punishments brings out the best in human beings;

-           There exists a rational and objective truth which means that every question has a right or wrong answer;

-           Meaningful learning can only take place in the classroom and through the instructions of a teacher.


Much research from diverse disciplines and from practical experiences in a wide range of countries has emerged which raise many questions about the legitimacy of these assumptions. Continuing our thinking and action in education based on these assumptions is extremely dangerous for humanity. Not only will such kind of homogenizing educational frameworks prevent us from comprehending the complex ‘gray’ areas in life and imagining new systems and approaches necessary to address the widespread societal and environmental breakdowns that threaten our planet, they will increase our difficulties by undermining and destroying diverse learning processes, multiple intelligences, reflective expressions, caring and collaborative relationships, intrinsic motivations, practical knowledge systems, wisdom frameworks and deep linkages with Nature. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to see the magnitude of the damage to the resiliency, creativity and spirit of the human species until it is too late.[ii] The terrible irony is that many people still believe that schooling in its present form leads to sustainable forms of individual and community empowerment. Despite the fact that we have 10 different toothpastes, 40 TV channels and thousands of politicians to choose from, our real choices – sustainable choices – in life, livelihood, culture, Nature, health, media communication, political power, etc. are actually decreasing day by day.  A first step in moving towards a new paradigm of quality education that nurtures human beings who can learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their lives is to strongly question one-sided claims (that have been based on dubious quantitative World Bank rate-of-return studies) about the economic and social gains made in society because of schooling and literacy and to conduct a serious analysis of the real gains and losses to our society from schooling.

A second step towards a new paradigm in quality education is open up our mental models and start valuing opportunities for playing, working, praying/meditating, engaging with and creating different media, interacting across generations and communities and being with Nature as all part of a larger seamless web of lifelong learning. But in recognizing this, we should be careful not to fall into the trap of again seeing human beings as passive recipients in these environments. Rather, human beings dialectically interact with their social, biological, physical, and spiritual environments – these environments impact them but human beings can also purposefully create and reshape these environments. This happens when learners themselves start to consciously think about their learning aspirations, learning styles, learning contexts, learning resources, meaningful learning experiences as well as about how they can contribute to other peoples’ learning. All this means that talking about ‘good’ schools alone is not enough if we seek quality education. The human mind, human knowledge, human wisdom, and learning in human communities are too complex. We must appreciate, value and negotiate this complexity rather than continuing to try to kill it.

A third step we can take if we are serious about a new paradigm in quality education is to start asking new questions – questions that allow us to critically interrogate economic, political and social systems and their linkages to education; questions that can open up new shared visions and possibilities for moving beyond existing systems; questions that are open to all learners to reflect on, not just the ‘experts’. Such questions might include: What is a good human being?; What is a healthy society?; What is progress?; What is social justice and equality?; What is knowledge, wisdom and truth?; What is peace, ahimsa and love?; What is interdependence?; What is diversity?; What are the limitations of historical analysis and scientific analysis?; What are the dominant power structures in place and who controls them?; How are different institutions and technologies reshaping what it means to be human?. These questions can help to open up new parameters for assessing quality education in any community. Despite what some might argue, there are any not absolute universal answers to all these questions. In fact, discovering and creating individual and collective meaning around these questions in different contexts is an essential part of the learning process.

A fourth, and perhaps the most critical, step that we can take in moving towards a new paradigm of quality education is to create spaces for genuine dialogue on the above three steps. This means that we need to move beyond campaign and propaganda modes of public engagement. We need to get out of the culture of approaching each conversation as a debate to be won. We also need to give up a hierarchical mindset of superiority and inferiority. In advocating for new spaces for genuine dialogue, I do not mean that we should naively ignore the larger power games that are going on in society. However, we should recognize that playing the same indoctrinating game ultimately undermines the agenda of quality education that liberates human beings. Lastly, I would vehemently disagree with those who would that there has already been too much discussion on education in India, it is time get on to action. Genuine dialogue requires an atmosphere of trust and honesty, of active listening, of being open to question deep-rooted assumptions, of speaking with both the head and the heart, of breaking out of static roles and relationships, of allowing for and valuing mistakes. Such as atmosphere is lacking in schools and educational policy circles in India today. Dialogue, action and reflection must go hand-in-hand. This is the essence of quality education.

 There are some who will argue that all that I have written is not practical. To them, I can only respond with the challenge that in this age of global societal churning, continuing with ‘business as usual’ is not practical.


[i] For some interesting studies documenting this phenomenon, see A Matter of Quality, SIDH (1999); 

[ii] There are many examples of this short-sighted thinking which we can now see and are paying the price for e.g., the extensive damage done by massive deforestation in the 1950s and 1960s, the long-term problems to Nature and human beings created by fall-out from nuclear testing, the debilitating harm to soil from fertilizers and pesticides, etc.