Tyranny of Indicators:
Regenerating Learning Ecologies
World Education Reports, Human
Development Reports, World Bank Reports, Country Government Reports, adorn bookshelves in
international development, government, university and NGO offices all over the world. Millions of dollars have been spent to produce and
disseminate these publications, which profess to give current and accurate information on
donors and governments efforts to develop and educate populations around the
world. In all cases, report after report set
forth a series of indicators in the form of statistics and graphs, narratives and
case studies to measure how far (or how short) they have come in achieving the
goals of Development and Education.
Development and Education: the
two cannot exist without indicators. How else
will it be known who is educated, who is developed, and who is
not? Without indicators, how can human
populations be ranked to see where they fit in the Education and Development hierarchies? How will the design of new policies/projects, the
issuing of new loans, the doling out of benefits to the poor, be decided? How will achievements and failures on the grand
march to modern Progress be demarcated? Clearly,
as these reports demonstrate, we need indicators to know where, what, and who we are.
Today, if we are to nurture diverse learning societies, we must resist the tyranny of indicators. This resistance will be complemented by the regeneration of learning ecologies. Briefly stated, a learning ecology grows out of a localitys self-understanding and its vision of its future. It can be visualized as a set of spaces, relationships, conditions, values, technologies, processes, etc., through and by which those living in the locality are able to interact, learn and grow together. This ecology is co-created: by the distinct characteristics of the locality, by the contributions and convictions of its inhabitants, and by interactions with other localities. I will further elaborate on learning ecologies, in the latter half of this essay, as well as offer some suggestions for analyzing and understanding them.
problematic for several reasons. To expose
how they serve the Status Quo and sabotage learning societies, we need to examine them on
at least four levels: what they measure, how they measure, why they measure, and what the effects of such measurements are. This reflective analysis will allow us to see how
indicators take on an institutional life of their own and how little space exists for
questioning or changing them. It will also
clarify what we will need to guard against when thinking about and assessing our own
Infiltration and Dependency
what indicators are used to measure, and therefore, why they are a threat to learning
societies, it will help to start with a concrete example.
The World Education Report 2000, in its opening paragraphs, states that:
Education is a human right and a vital means of promoting peace and respect for
human rights and fundamental freedoms generally. It
contributes to a more peaceful world. Several
pages later, the report goes on to list the content of fundamental education:
- thinking and communicating skills
(reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculation);
- vocational skills (agriculture,
building, weaving, technical and commercial skills necessary for economic progress);
- domestic skills (preparing food,
- skills used in self-expression in
arts and crafts;
- personal and community hygiene
- knowledge of physical environment
and natural processes (practical science);
- knowledge of human environment
(economic and social organization, law, government);
- knowledge of other parts of the world;
- modern qualities (personal
judgement and initiative, freedom from fear and superstition, sympathy and understanding
for different perspectives);
- spiritual and moral development.
specific details may change, one finds lists like this in nearly every international,
national, or organizational Education report.1
These lists grow out of and fuel the human capital or human
resources paradigm, which sees human beings as units, who need certain
knowledge and skills to participate in the dominant political economy. The best
human resource is the obedient citizen, soldier and homo economicus,2
because they serve as cogs in the wheels of modern Progress. Ironically, the education promised by
such lists is exalted as the vehicle to empowerment.
But in reality, this paradigm fragments and misrepresents human learning processes,
by classifying them into abstract and decontextualized skills and knowledges and reducing
them to what can be officially monitored in the classroom. Worse, it completely degrades the fullness of
human potential and the human spirit. It is
oriented toward behaviorism, the ideology that human beings can be manipulated and
controlled (like rats and dogs), if only they are offered the right balance of rewards and
- Illiteracy and literacy rates
- Gross and net enrollment ratios, at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels
- Dropout, retention rates
- Population total and distribution by school ages (0-6, 7-14, 15-21..)
- Percentage and number of out-of-school children, who are of primary school, secondary school, or tertiary school age
- Gender breakdown, at all school levels
- Numbers and kinds of facilities, equipment, and materials in schools
- Percentage/number of private schools as compared to government schools
Indeed, because the majority of
indicators used in Education and Development reports are linked to one or more modern
institutions, I would argue that they are measuring the institutionalization of a population. A
societys ability to achieve (or to fail) in the indicator is entirely based on the
extent to which it has been infiltrated by and become dependent on modern institutions,
such as the Nation-State, the Global Capitalist Market, the Mass Media, and the Education
System. The more a population is dependent on
these institutions, the greater its levels of monoculture and bureaucratization5 , and the higher its ranking in the Development
hierarchy. The reach of modern institutions has been limited in
under-developing countries, so they fail to measure up. On the other hand, a
techno-industrialized-militarized country, loaded with modern institutions, sets and
surpasses all Development standards.6
Again, the institutional dependency cannot be missed. To score high in these indicators, the population must be deeply entrenched in the market economy. It must have adopted transactions of buying and selling and attaching a cash value to each and every thing. Other processes of sharing, of appreciating intrinsic values, of nurturing the commons, of subsistence, etc. either have taken a backseat, have been scoffed out of existence or have been outrightly destroyed.7 People must have been converted into human capital and human resources. They must utilize modern mass media and technology, must be privy to government schemes and development programs, must rely on Western medicine and hospitals to secure its health and so on. In other words, human development can be achieved in only one way: by becoming totally reliant on the tools, values and goals of modern expert-led institutions.8 The more these manifest themselves in peoples lives, the more developed people can be.
Quantitatively, by Experts Only
Related to the
above critique, we must note that the majority of indicators used in Education and
Development are quantitative in nature. That
is, they measure how much or how many (never how come?
or so what? or why?). But
several problems are associated with such quantitative measurement. First, like qualitative analysis, it is highly
biased. This isnt a problem in and of
itself; the problem only arises because its bias is hidden from plain view. Numbers are marketed as objective,
neutral, just the facts. They dont even attempt to reveal
their subjective nature up-front, the way qualitative research does. But in country after country, these indicators
rely on data collected from government agents, whose research tactics (from
question-framing to answer-collecting) should be scrutinized. Some researchers have found
that quantitative measurements encourage a culture of lying, as money or other materials
are often used as rewards and/or punishments in the course of record-keeping.11
A: To Plan,
Control and Socially Engineer
been expertly ranked and filed, we are then sentenced and condemned: Least Developed, Most
Backward, Illiterate, etc. These catchy
labels are used to convince people of their own inferiority and of the need
for The Treatment to cure themselves of that inferiority. A variety of propaganda
techniques are employed, which (coincidentally!) house themselves in institutions like
international agencies, governments, schools, etc. Experts
use diverse media to broadcast the diagnoses of their indicators and the sanctity of their
plans. Follow our prescriptions and you too can move from Undeveloped to Developed,
Backward to Forward, Ignorant to Educated
And if our plans fail, well, that is
simply your fault (the people, the poor,
usually). You didnt implement it
properly. With such impeccable logic,
dominant institutions legitimate their reign over peoples lives and their
livelihoods. They feel further justified in destroying local paramparas (living traditions) and forcing people
to fit into the global political economy. Indicators play a dual role in this process:
they are defined by experts, to corroborate the Status Quo, and they define experts
plans, to extend the Status Quo.
Re-Colonization and Dehumanization
The technocratic social engineering enabled by indicators ensures that no other vision of human society can be nurtured. First, because it is assumed that no other vision of humanity exists. There is a linear path to Progress; follow it and you will arrive at The Promised Land (which is where all under-developed countries should aspire to reach). This predetermined plan effectively controls both the present and future. As Vinay Lal (1999) describes:
the more insidious
part of the notion of development is the manner in which it colonizes our notions of time
and space. The present of the developing
world is none other than the past, sometimes the very remote and mist-shrouded past, of
the developed world
The future of the developing world: well, there is no future,
since its future is already known to Europe and America; indeed, the developed world lives
in the distant future of the developing world.
I use the region of Rajasthan again as an example. As mentioned earlier, it is called a BIMAROU (sick and backward) state because of its low literacy rates and income levels. But the area is rich in diverse and vibrant artistic, linguistic, musical, cultural traditions (which is why it is a major foreign and domestic tourist attraction). These traditions certainly require higher-order thinking skills, solid fluency in local language, creativity and aesthetic sensibilities, rhythm and soul, but they do not have much to do with literacy (reading and writing texts). Indeed, most of the schooled and literate of Rajasthan do not participate in this powerful creation, nor are they even well-acquainted with it, because they have been taught to view it as backward and uncivilized. Nor are many of these traditions linked to the market or government. Rather, this valuable diversity mainly lives in informal social sectors, where it is struggling to survive amidst the aggressive programs and campaigns of the formal sector.
In sum effect,
what indicators do is silence us into total submission.
They depreciate and destroy our gifts and talents; they disregard our diversity;
they deny us the opportunity to set our own priorities; they colonize our present and our
future. Indicators support a culture which
undermines and exterminates our own local, mutually-created measures of
success, the good life, and happiness. Their definitions of reality stifle
both our interpretations and our imaginations. By assuming an aura of infallibility,
indicators ensure that we do not interrogate institutional assumptions, goals, interests,
etc. This is also accomplished by having
experts automatically label anyone who dares to think outside of established frameworks,
as anti-poor, romantic or utopian. Apparently, speaking out against injustice or even
simply asking What if? is unacceptable to those educated for the Brave New
World. Rather, we should remain silently
obedient, so that the hegemony of dominant institutions can continue unfettered
No. Now is the
time to end our silence, to reclaim our powers and possibilities, to reject the tyranny of
indicators, to begin to understand and assess learning ecologies on our own terms.
envision a learning ecology in several ways. One
way is to begin with its counterpart in nature. There,
ecology is the complex set of interrelationships among life forms from plants and
trees, to animals and insects, from air and water, to soil and sunlight that emerge
from interdependent processes and actions. Such partnerships require cooperation,
self-awareness and self-regulation, resilience, conservation, flexibility, diversity and
cyclical-ness (as opposed to linearity). [Although Education and Development indicators
completely ignore such qualities, they are no doubt crucial for facing the serious crises
before us today.]
Another way to understand a learning ecology is to look at systems thinking. In The Web of Life (1996), philosopher-physicist Fritjof Capra defines a system as an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts. Systems thinkers suggest that the essential properties of a system are the properties of the whole; to understand these properties one must understand the contexts and connectedness among the parts. Systems also display emergent properties qualities that appear at a certain level of complexity within the system, but do not exist when the systems parts are separated from each other.
What makes systems thinking unique is that it challenges several assumptions. For example, traditional science posits that nature and knowledge follow an observable hierarchy, that big builds upon small, and still bigger builds upon it, and so on and so forth. The metaphor commonly associated with this hierarchy is building blocks. This thinking is readily apparent in Development beliefs like, First a country needs roads, schools, hospitals, a certain per capita income, an entrenched market economy, technology, etc.; only after all this can it even begin to discuss something like learning societies. Systems thinking topples these building-block hierarchies and replaces them with a concept of networks within networks. There is no above or below, first or last, neither in terms of knowledge or actions, nor in terms of human beings. Rather, systems thinking is contextual and holistic thinking. It respects and prioritizes networks of relationships, the spontaneous and constant interactions within themselves and amongst each other. This perspective challenges the reductionism of Education and Development indicators, as well as the simplistic analyses and piecemeal solutions they lead to.
- Learning is rarely linear or
planned; it is messy, organic and often spontaneous;
- Learning occurs in authentic
interactions and partnerships, which emerge through varied self-organizing processes;
- Learning is unique to the person
and the context; it cannot be replicated, because no two learning spaces or relationships
- Unlearning, self-learning,
co-learning are all vital and integrated aspects of a learning ecology;
- Learning grows from a dialogue
between meaningful questions and practical mistakes;
- Learning generates and builds upon
complex and diverse networks/webs of human living.
For a learning
society, understanding and assessing its learning ecology first begins with contextual
vision-building. In each place, individuals and collectives would come together to
co-create their vision of how they want to live and learn together, both in the present
and in the future. This vision would be based
on the unique contexts of that place, the unique personalities of the people, and the
unique energy and spirit that emerges when they come together in relationships. In this
way, How far have we come? would not be the question asked by learning
societies. It would be more like: Who
are we?; What values are important to us?; Where are we going and
why?; What kind of world do we want for our children and grandchildren? And later, How do we get there?
vision-building process, to which each and every member of a learning society contributes,
has several effects. First, it signals the downfall of experts and expertism. When
ordinary people take conceptual control over their lives and their futures,
they not experts are defining their assumptions and priorities; they are
deciding what knowledges and activities are valuable and what need to be unlearned.
Second, since the vision of a learning society is locally rooted in each places own
environments, her-stories, knowledges, values and meanings, learning ecologies will differ
from place to place. Context and diversity will not only be valued; they will be vital. This ensures the demise of an abstract monoculture
and forced conformity to it, and the end of faux
vision-building also forces societies to get beyond the basic human needs
mentality that plagues the Development discourse today.
No one denies that clean water, nutritional food, adequate shelter and clothing are
important to our health, but visioning asks us to consider:
a) the paths that we take to achieve these
material requirements: Are they wasteful,
destructive and/or disempowering? Do they
cause dependency on powers beyond our reach? Or
do they lead to greater justice and balance among us, and between human beings and the
b) what other conditions, beyond these material
necessities, contribute to a learning society and the fulfillment of individual and
community potential: For example, where in our
vision do we place healthy families and friendships, multiple opportunities for self- and
community-expression, dynamic leadership, organic decision-making systems, etc.?
out of these questioning and searching processes is a societys own sense of its
learning ecology. Indeed, a learning societys vision and its ecology grow into and
out of each other. One cannot be properly
understood without the other; they are interdependent, as each helps to define the other. The vision of the learning society will lead it
toward deciding what to see and value in its ecology. While the ecology composed of diverse
actors and media, multiple interactions, and organic, interconnected process-effects
will constantly help to shape and actualize the vision and to deepen and evolve it.
Moreover, neither the vision nor the ecology is static or readymade; rather, the learning
societys agents, relationships, processes, will constantly feedback to organize and
re-organize the direction, balance and energy of each.
A number of interesting processes exist today, which offer people meaningful ways to envision their learning societies and describe/co-create their learning ecologies. Many of these Study Circles, Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, Dialogue, Circles21 have been illustrated in this and past volumes of Unfolding Learning Societies, while others, such as Ecological Footprints, Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Resilient Communities, Global Eco-Village Sustainability, and Asset-Based Community Development, are readily available on the web.22 All of these methodologies/processes/tools serve to challenge the hegemony of indicators and the overall Development and Education discourse they grow out of. Therefore, they all are inspiring in their own right. Moreover, I feel they all offer ways to generate the ideas, relationships, spaces and interactions of a learning ecology.
What can communities gain from using these tools or creating their own? For one, they can discover a more holistic perspective. This mainly occurs because obstacles/dangers are considered alongside hopes/convictions. To understand a learning ecology in terms of spaces, relationships, processes communities need pursue all angles. This approach further ensures that we do not get caught up in quantitative vs. qualitative traps. After all, both are subjective, both contain some valuable perspectives, and yet, both are only partial truths (with a small t). When trying to understand our localitys learning ecology, we will therefore need to ask ourselves, Do numbers and percentages and rates make sense here? Or would it be more meaningful to understand this part of the ecology through stories, arts, etc.? Or are there other ways to creatively assess these areas?
At the same time, communities who seek to understand their learning ecologies will necessarily value and invite many different groups and groupings into their conversation: individuals, siblings, families, neighbors, neighborhoods, villages, religious groupings, work-related groupings, bio-regions, etc. There will also be flexibility with notions of time and space, since most of the elements of the ecology will likely emerge and evolve over varying periods of time.
table offers a few convictions/values that might manifest in a localitys vision of
its learning society and describes some of the aspects of the learning ecology that
corresponds to them. It is not meant to be
exhaustive, but should simply jump-start our imaginations out of the stupor of Education
indicators.23 It is also not meant to suggest an index for
learning societies to measure themselves against as that would endorse exactly what
I critique about indicators: expert-led abstraction, generalization and control over a
diverse, contextual process. As we say in
Mewari, the local language of Udaipur: Seekh
sareera upajeh/ Dida lageh dahm.24 Rather, it is just meant to give a sense of the
breadth and depth of understandings and possibilities that can emerge when communities
Elements to Map in the
Elements to Map in the
Organic, Local Food
Dependency on High Technology/Media
Intake of Foreign Products and Loans
Chemical, GE Food
Self-Organized Citizen Groups
Distribution of Wealth
Appreciation of/ Access to Nature
Nuclear/Air/Water/ Ground Pollution
In trying to understand and describe our localitys learning ecology, we arent simply making diagrams or collecting information. Rather, we are using a variety of tools and processes to encourage deeper dialogue and reflection on what matters in our communities, on what exists and what could be imagined, on where we want to go and why. Our individual priorities and our common ones will emerge both from our vision and convictions of a learning society, as well as the contexts and possibilities of our local learning ecology. Therefore, our learning ecology will never be static, abstract or objective the way indicators are, since each actor/relationship/process will play an important role in co-creating it.
past two years, we have tried to explore our own learning ecology as part of the Udaipur
as a Learning City (ULC) process-project.25 What
we value in ULC is the diversity of realities for learning in Udaipur, and the capacity of
each human being living here to reshape these realities and create new possibilities for
the future. We have discovered that the learning ecology of Udaipur (like that of many
other places) has several dimensions to it. For
example, just taking one of ULCs convictions, that of diverse human expressions, and beginning to
describe the learning ecology around it, has led us into a number of areas (and the
obstacles/threats to them): manual, meaningful work (vs. mechanized, dead-end work); local
creations and performance arts (vs. mass media); interaction with nature (vs. destruction
of nature); Mewari language (vs. its extinction).
The following mind-map helps to illustrate some of the specificities of these
aspects of Udaipurs learning ecology.
Re-affirming and energizing in this process has been how our understanding of Udaipurs learning ecology has grown, as our interaction with individuals, families, work environments, natural spaces, etc., has grown. For example, an exploration of storytelling in Mewari led to the recognition of Mewari dohas (poetic verses), kevtas (proverbs) and pahelias (riddles) as powerful points of local knowledge and resistance. The gathering and sharing of these then led to communication with a number of different caste communities in and around Udaipur, which has consequently opened ULC up to a diversity of local festivals, rituals, and media. These, in turn, will no doubt further expand the realities and possibilities of the learning ecology of Udaipur.
I have only offered a few examples of what any learning society may chose to look at in its learning ecology, which can clearly be further expanded and layered upon with additional actors, spaces, relationships, technologies and processes. Indeed, the process of generating Udaipurs full ecology can only occur when people of all ages, of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all schooling levels, come together at various moments and in various spaces not just once, but again and again to understand themselves and each other as co-creators of their city and society. This implies their valuing of the mini-ecologies in specific neighborhoods and families, as well as their seeing the whole ecology the linkages at all levels, across all spheres of life. We feel our varied and multidimensional work with children, youth, families and adults in Udaipur as a Learning City is a step in this direction.
tyranny of Education and Development indicators, in order to see, assess and nurture
learning ecologies, has tremendous implications for current policymaking and
project-planning efforts, particularly for the Education for All (EFA) global initiative.
Not only does it break open the box that learning has been put in
where, when, and how it can happen, who controls it and for what purposes it takes place
but it also necessitates a rethinking or broadening of priorities. Individuals and communities who see themselves
integrated in a larger web of learning (and of life) are unlikely to be satisfied with
one-shot solutions, like vocational training, value education, or computers in every
school. Nor will they accept that every
child in a good school constitutes a healthy learning ecology. In fact, as living
and learning become synonymous again, it will be excruciatingly evident to all of us that
no single institution or policy can ever capture the fullness, dynamism and diversity of
the human spirit no matter how creative or flexible it is. This means
educationists, service providers, government officials, etc., will no longer be able to
operate in a vacuum, but will have to re-conceive and enlarge their senses of what
matters for the human condition and for human learning: nature, media, economies,
families, languages, wisdom...
anticipate that one reaction to what I have written might be, What you are
describing is only possible for Rich, Developed and Educated countries and peoples. Poor, Backward and Illiterate people first need to
achieve some basic standards in these mainstream indicators, before they can start
discussing their visions of their learning ecologies. I feel this arrogance could be
shattered very quickly, if such critics stop and consider that many of the values
(self-reliance, conservation, cooperation, expressions) and spaces of learning ecologies
still abound in Poor countries although they are subdued and often stigmatized
because of Development and Education. It seems to me far easier to generate innovative
visions and actions in these poor contexts, than in highly
techno-militarized-industrialized-institutionalized countries, where wastefulness,
competition and thought-control dominate.
This is not to
say that regenerating learning ecologies is not possible in both situations. The
commitments and experiences articulated in numerous articles in this series make clear
that it is. However, it will take time and space, constant opportunities for diversity,
creativity and failing and trying again. And
for all of us, it will require serious efforts towards decolonizing the mind, body and
spirit. This means:
- rejecting the scarcity-making and
expert-controlled frameworks of Development and Education as manipulative, unjust and
- renouncing the limitations,
divisions and fragmentation promoted by modernity and its institutions of social
engineering; and reconnecting with holistic and convivial webs of life and living.
common accusation leveled at me, I suspect, will be a continuation of the first. That is to say that I am not concerned with
poverty, with malnutrition, with social justice, with violations of peoples lives
and liberties. Nothing could be further from
the truth. In fact, I have written this
indictment against indicators precisely because I am concerned with dehumanization at all
levels. I would argue like many others
from Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore to Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry that
human beings are in such dire circumstances directly as a result of the policies, values
and goals of modern expert institutions. If
we desire an end to cruelty, hunger, suffering and injustice, then we should seek an end
to these types of institutions, not an expansion of them.
The rejection of indicators and experts is one step in this direction.
evolving diverse learning ecologies in learning societies will not be without challenges. The intense power and privilege of State and
Corporate institutions, and the enormous consequences of their actions on peoples
lives, guarantee that obstacles abound. These
will range from the commodification of peoples learning spaces, to the
decontextualized planning of State and international experts, to relentless indoctrination
via television and textbooks. After all, the values at the center of institutions today
not only contradict those of learning societies, but in effect crush all other
possibilities for living and learning.
examples all over the world have demonstrated, stronger and deeper learning ecologies can
emerge from struggle and resistance, as much as they can from hope, faith and friendship. Indeed, assessing our ecologies can show us how to
reconfigure these obstacles into opportunities for unlearning, self-learning and
co-learning. It can reveal to us the multiple tools of dissent and spaces of resistance
that exist among the so-called weak today and how to link these spaces and
tools together to nurture and re-energize learning societies. To begin, we just need, in the words of Malcolm X,
to change our own minds, to change our minds
about each other, to see each other with new eyes.
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About the Author
<email@example.com> is a learning activist with Shikshantar and one of the editors
of Vimukt Shiksha. Through her work at Shikshantar and previous experiences with
international development organizations in Washington, DC, she has conducted research in
several areas of education and development: globalization, local languages, life
expressions, ecology, democratic living, creativity, conflict transformation, gender,
decentralization, community participation, and systemic change. Shilpa also loves learning
with/from youth and children and has extensive experience doing so around the issues of
self-esteem, creativity, collaboration, identity and conflict resolution. Her other
interests include pottery, dance, and organic farming. Shilpa is also in the serious
process of unlearning many things from her formal schooling (thought-control) and from her
many years of living in the US.