Pseudo Solutions for Real Educational Problems

Ask an intelligent question and get a ________ reply!
Here's an experiment. It seems to work well with functionaries from educational systems in India, Bangladesh and several other countries in South Asia and beyond.

Bring together a group of educational personnel such as academic supervisors, district and state / provincial educational officials. Pose a critical educational problem before them. Of the kind that they probably deal with on a daily basis, such as:
  • How to improve learning among children? Or
  • What action to take so that classroom processes become more interactive than they are at present? Or
  • How to enable children to enjoy learning mathematics (rather than being afraid of it)? Or
  • How to ensure and increase teacher attendance?

 Now, monitor the responses you get. They will usually include answers such as:
Teachers must be dedicated / devoted to the profession.
  • We must ensure that the system functions well.
  • We must increase monitoring and do it properly.
  • Teachers must be made aware of their responsibilities.

That didn't surprise you, did it? These are the typical answers one hears (you can probably increase the list greatly). But why should these answers worry us?

Because these answers are positively dangerous!

Either they reveal that our education system is in the hands of people who don't know what to do. Or, what is worse, it is in the hands of those who know what to do but are trying to hide behind these kinds of answers.

You can decide for yourself – after taking a look at the explanation below.

The key issue is that instead of actions and concrete steps, those responsible come up with other things instead. From an educational planning point of view, a step or an action is something that you have to do, that you can set in a clear time-frame, that can be budgeted, broken down into clear parts to be implemented. It is not a vague statement of good intent.

And by coming up with statements that are not actions or steps, those making these statements are actually preventing solutions from really coming about. Here's how.

Give a quality instead of an action
A commonly offered 'solution' – 'teacher must be dedicated to his profession' – is not an action but a quality, the outcome of many other steps that we would have to take. Since those talking are often even responsible for recruiting teachers (and they did not take into account whether the potential teacher had a sense of 'dedication' or not), they need to discuss exactly how this dedication will now be ensured. E.g. by conveying to teacher that they matter, are valued, by visiting them, developing and disseminating performance standards (and using them to identify good performance, in an objective manner), or by setting role models in the form of the seniors themselves following a code of conduct, or a thousand other activities…. But instead of concrete action, we are presented sermons. Basically, offering a quality instead of a step merely looks like a ploy to avoid the necessary!

Defer the solution through 'action' that keeps on requiring further action
Do you remember those little 'Russian' dolls we used to get long ago – you lifted one and found another doll inside it, and another one inside, and so on. This variety of 'pseudo-solution' is just like those dolls. Here, the proposed solution is nothing but a guise to postpone committing oneself to actual action. For instance, you commonly hear suggestions such as 'Teachers must be trained properly', which begs the question: 'What should we do to ensure that teachers are trained properly?' Answer: 'We must have proper trainers.' But: 'How will we get proper trainers?' Answer: 'By recruiting them properly.' And so on. The solution is never really in your grasp; it keeps on evading you because it contains in itself yet another question, the answer to which contains another one…. Even Socrates with his Socratic Method would have had a tough time pinning down the actual action required. Lesser mortals like us just go mad and give up!

Show resolve, not necessarily solve!
Here, the answer to the critical problem is in the form of some very resolute-sounding statement. It gives the feeling that people are 'very serious' about doing something (never mind if scratching the surface shows that it can't really be converted into action). Pseudo-solutions of this category sound like this: 'We must ensure discipline.' Or 'We have to cover every single school.' Or 'The inputs must be made regularly.'

Nothing wrong with these statements, except that they are only resolutions and not clear steps or concrete action. They don't take into account that the present action, which is so strongly being proposed to be improved, may itself not be the right action to start with. Or may not even have anything wrong to begin with. For instance, before concluding that inputs must be made regularly, we need to take into account that perhaps the inputs may be inappropriate, and making them regular will not help. Also, the feeling is that having said that they will be regular, what are the steps to make them regular? (E.g. use of scheduling software and training everyone it its use, or interactions to discuss the needs of the different components of our programme in terms of regularity as well as the nature of inputs needed, and exploring whether more than just regularity it is how well they are implemented that needs to be improved…)

Once again, the feeling is that having declared something solemnly, it will now happen. Unfortunately, it doesn't.

Everyone except us!
This is encapsulated in statements that exhort everyone to pull up their socks (or equivalent), except the people making these statements. Hence in a discussion on the kind of improvements required to increase the effectiveness of an educational system or a programme, it will be said that teachers must be devoted / dedicated, that supervisory staff must be capable, that managers must be professional and administrators sensitive and flexible apart from being committed. Such statements will be made about categories other than that of the solution givers, of course! And of course it is still not clear as to how the suggested change will be brought about.

The monitoring myth
For some reason as yet not very clear, a lot of proposed solutions have to do with monitoring – it is pointed out that monitoring is very poor, ineffective, irregular, and several other words that I'm sure you can reel off. Well, excuse me, but monitoring is extremely limited as a solution. A commonly used example: I'm monitoring the weight of a child regularly and it keeps on decreasing – all this regular monitoring does not help me if I don’t know what to do – the kind of nutrition to ensure, how to obtain / procure and prepare the required nutrients and enable the child to ingest these in an appropriate manner over the required period… I can keep monitoring without necessarily bringing about any improvement.

The dangerous part is the feeling that programmes and systems work only if they are monitored. Not necessarily – in order to work well, those involved need to feel that they are doing something worthwhile, that someone cares that they are there, that the task is challenging yet doable and enjoyable, that they are equipped to do it, enjoy doing it and are supported in their actions. Under these circumstances monitoring can indeed play a role to enhance effectiveness, but it is no substitute for the basics that need to be in place. It's a little bit like a car that has a very good speedometer and odometer (monitoring devices), but no engine (implementation requirement)! Good monitoring is not necessarily equal to good implementation.

An accompanying myth is that better planning is the solution. In fact, if you look at the kind of technical professionals brought in by donor agencies, multilaterals, development partners and even governments, there seems to a far greater concentration on the planning and the monitoring/evaluation parts, but very little on the stuff that comes in between the two – i.e., implementation! And that is why, when educational functionaries are asked to come up with solutions or steps that will lead to specific outcomes, they tend to suggest action related to better planning and monitoring, rather than improved implementation.

The thesis, and a question
So that's the thesis – that when asked to identify actions / steps / solutions to address critical educational issues, those responsible come up with things that might look like them but are not the real thing. And it is this that has kept us back, preventing the huge amounts of money and effort being invested from translating into reality.

But if this is actually the case, is it due to sheer incompetence, or is it a deliberate ploy to ensure that real change does not happen (because behind it all, people are very uncomfortable with an education system that actually works). If you're a conspiracy theorist too, let me know!