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Tyranny of the classroom

In a conventional classroom, every learner is subjected to the same set of lectures in the same way for the same duration

Albert Einstein famously quipped that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that yardstick, the current belief in national policy circles that brick-and-mortar training centres are a panacea for India’s deepening youth skill crisis can be considered insane. We know that our higher education system thrives on a steady diet of uninspiring classroom lectures. We also know that most of our degree-dispensing colleges generate millions of unemployable graduates. And yet we are seeking more and more conventional classroom intervention to address the skill gaps plaguing our youth. Hope, as they say, is not a good strategy.

The disorienting aspects of our demographic dividend are volume and velocity. To grasp its import, let us visualise one crore fresh graduates coming out of Indian colleges every year, and then factor in that 90 per cent of them need skill education before employers are even willing talk to them. Can we deploy one lakh classrooms? Where are the one lakh industrial grade trainers of high quality? Even if we knew, how much would they cost anyway? Is it possible to provide personalised attention to each and every young jobseeker to fill the skill gaps and complete the mammoth task before the next year’s graduates hit the labour market? It is easy to infer that we are staring down the proverbial barrel.

Importance of duration of learning

Conventional classrooms, by emphasising fixed duration over learning effectiveness, resign themselves to variable outcomes. The tyranny of the classroom is that every learner is subjected to the same set of lectures in the same way for the same duration. In the end, a few learners shine, some survive, and the rest are left behind. After the fixed duration, the classroom model moves on, with not a thought spared for those left behind. This is how we end up with 10 per cent employability in our graduates after a decade and half of formal education. Repeating the same ineffectual script in the realm of skill education will not produce different results.

Contrast this with adaptive learning, which views attainment of competency as its central goal, the duration of learning being largely irrelevant. It recognises every learner as unique and creates a personalised and optimised learning pathway for each of them. Consider the scenario of Farzana and Manish, both aged 21, who hope to become science teachers. An adaptive system would start them off with a well-designed competency assessment test. The test might reveal that Farzana is 80 per cent job ready, while Manish lags at 40 per cent. At this point, Farzana would be well advised to close her gap in the area of pedagogy (that is, how to teach science better), while Manish would need intense remedial classes to boost his subject matter expertise (that is, how to teach science).

Since Farzana is close to her competency target, an adaptive system may simply direct her to watch 10 curated short videos on pedagogical techniques, administer another test on that topic to see if she clears it, and then proceed to declare her ready for a job in less than a week. On the other hand, given the extent of Manish’s troubles, the system may prescribe him a set of 20 video lessons, 10 mentoring sessions, and five exercises over the next three months. In the end there would be a comprehensive competency test for Manish to write and clear. When all is done, both Farzana and Manish would have attained the right competency level, but they would have followed distinctly different learning paths tailored to their individual selves.

Stamping out differentiation

Brick-and-mortar training centres are not the place where one can implement adaptive learning effectively. After all, conventional classrooms encourage one-size-fits-all instruction, squeezing every learner into a straitjacket and proceeding to stamp out all differentiation. No matter how much we revere stalwart classroom instructors, and expect each classroom to have one, that rare tribe is diminishing by the day. Most young learners of today will never experience anything resembling teaching excellence in their own classrooms. In other words, the chalk-and-talk format is refusing to scale up to the unique opportunities and severe challenges presented by a very large and diverse population of learners. Most classrooms in the country now offer the antithesis of high quality instruction. Look no further than our formal education system for corroborating evidence.

As our nation’s youth aspire to give wings to their dreams through skill education, to forget the tyranny of the classroom could be fatal indeed. In the words of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!

Santanu Paul and Asokan Pichai are chief executive officer and chief learning officer at TalentSprint.

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2020 8:04:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Tyranny-of-the-classroom/article14596549.ece

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