|“What we need (and don’t have) are people who study and understand education thoroughly. Why is this a problem? Education is more than computers, teaching by rote, and importing some modern teaching ideas from abroad. How much systematic effort have we made as a nation (or have school groups made) to develop effective teaching aids, curriculum or teaching ideas, worksheets, areas of known difficulty for teachers or students, standardized tests, quality standards, methods of teaching Indian languages, etc.? On the other hand, such a body of knowledge / experience is developed in almost all other fields, be it building construction, tailoring or communications technology.”
-from a note written about a month before EI started operations in 2001
A question I would regularly ask myself and the early EI team is whether it would make any difference if EI did not exist. I share some reflections in the spirit of that question.
In our early discussions, schools and education experts were sceptical about whether student learning could be measured. One respected principal told us that learning ‘was not such a thing that we could put a thermometer into a classroom and measure it’. In the early years of Mindspark, a big question was whether children could learn using technology. The pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme where today – thanks to COVID partly – many harbour the wrong notion that there’s an online class for everything. What has EI’s role been during this transformation and what needs to be our goal – as a company and a nation – for the years ahead?
Why EI? We were inspired by the statement that “…choosing a type of education means choosing a type of society…” made by UNESCO’s Delors Commission Report of 1996. While we were serving schools and building a world-class education company, our vision has always been to make India and the world a better place. We believed then, as we do today, that we should build a society where every child first acquires basic skills and then learns skills like critical thinking. This will not only allow the child to be a productive member of society and enjoy a good life, it would also enrich society. Assessment is a tool to ensure quality learning, which itself is a tool to a better life for all.
Education is not child’s play, it needs deep expertise: Once we learn to read, we think that it is very easy! This makes it extremely difficult to understand what it takes to teach a child (and is the reason societies tend to pay pre-primary teachers the least and college professors the most). Good teachers, curriculum developers and assessment creators need to go deep and understand how children learn and the pitfalls they face along the way. It is still difficult to find a course on how to teach fractions or essay writing or photosynthesis to children, and even such courses – which we think will become common in the future – focus only the topic, not the human dynamics involved in actually teaching a concept. EI has had a good amount of success in demonstrating that there is a science to how children learn, and patterns – like misconceptions – that are discernible. We call it the Science of Learning, and have recently started a Science of Learning Institute with the Gujarat Government.
Learning outcomes are important and can be measured accurately: We have been able to show that even though it is not possible to use a simple ‘thermometer’ and measure learning, learning can actually be measured even more reliably than, say, the effectiveness of a salesperson with a very tangible sales ‘target’. Not only can poor learning be easily identified, it is possible to compare two interventions and conclude which causes better learning. The process is not easy, as it may take time and require a number of students to be tested systematically, but it can be done and yields extremely useful insights. We were the assessment partners for what is even today the world’s largest Randomised Control Trial in education, the APRESt project. And this was possible because of two things – one very small – the individual, high quality Question – and the other very big – the concept of Large Scale Assessments.
Quality of the question – ‘ASSET-type questions’ – A unique EI insight that I have not seen emphasised enough even internationally, is the quality of the question. Many schools have told us that the success of EI’s offerings is due to the effectiveness of questions across our products. The quality of learning diagnostics at EI is probably unparalleled in the world, not only because, working in India, we have data for a very large number of students, but also because of our emphasis on creating questions that entice, challenge but diagnose deep-rooted issues in the process. I remember we presented the famous EI ‘pencil question’ at the Teacher’s College Columbia in 2009 – renowned as one of the top teacher training colleges in the world – and the faculty shared, first with condescension and then – as we presented the data – with some diffidence – that they were not aware of the result.
Large scale assessments for actionable insights: None of these ‘wins’ were achieved easily – there was no shortage of sceptics at every stage. When we conducted our first large scale assessment in municipal schools of 30 towns across India in the early 2000s, we were invited to present the same at an educational conference. As soon as we started talking about the project, we were challenged by a senior educationist, “Did your study find that children had low learning levels and have not acquired the skills they should have? We already know that – without spending time and money and testing lakhs of students.” Our answer was in our presentation slides – our study did not simply show that, it showed the types of errors – many of them unintuitive and which the experts could not predict – and which could now be addressed by the teacher or through changes in the curriculum. We went on to do large state-wide assessments in a number of Indian states and even some other countries.
Personalised, Adaptive learning: Since we were assessing cohorts of students regularly over a number of years, especially with ASSET, a few years of doing these assessments showed us that there were very clear patterns in the way children answer specific questions. Each question seemed to have a finger-print which allowed it to be identified just from its performance graph. There was a similar pattern in the errors children made as they moved up the classes. We decided to test if we could use these patterns of individual errors to select ‘remediations’ that would try to ‘teach’ the child. Children would take a path customised based on their answering patterns, and would move at their own pace. EI’s personalised, adaptive platform Mindspark was thus born!
EI Alumni: Apart from its products, something else has had a huge positive impact on the Indian education system and beyond – and those are EI alumni. Being one of India’s first educational companies, EI alumni have made a mark across the spectrum. The education secretary of a major state recently shared with us that when he got an application for an important project from an EI alumni, that was all the confidence he needed to hire him. EI alumni led the conduction of PISA in NCERT in 2009-10 and have started educational companies that have grown successful in their own right.
Some exciting projects…: Naturally there have been more exciting and impactful projects than I can list here, but I’ll share some that stand out. We conducted what may have been the largest admission test for any new school when the Dhirubhai Ambani International School selected EI to test new applicants for classes 1 to 8. An EI team went to invigilate the tests and were equally excited to find parents like Sachin Tendulkar and Saif Ali Khan, who waited as their children (some of them equally famous now!) took tests for classes 1 and 2. Everyone knows Google contracted EI to conduct EI’s largest school-based independent assessment to date, but do you know who signed the project for Google? Sheryl Sandberg, now Facebook’s COO. I remember working through the night at the India Today office as they finalised their cover story based on EI’s Student Learning in the Metros Study. And watching the children do Mindspark and visiting their homes during the Delhi Mindspark Centres project – later made famous by the JPAL RCT study – was an amazing experience for all involved!
….And some that fizzled out: We launched ASSETPlus, a kit of Science Activities that would be mailed to parents, and offered centre-based Science Activity Classes in Ahmedabad. We even made the questions for India’s Child Genius, a quiz show on the Star World Channel conducted by Siddhartha Basu. But you probably haven’t heard of any of them!
The Next 20 years
Serious research and work on the ground in education that leads to rigorous, meaningful and measurable learning improvement has to replace government claims as well as slick products and marketing that seem dominant today. Technical capacity in education – including a deep understanding of topics like assessment, question-making and children’s misconceptions – has to increase among everybody working in the field of education – be they governments, private companies or schools. Strong educational research will be critical for this to happen. India seems to be understanding the importance of Foundational Learning but the power of technology to achieve Foundational Learning is not fully appreciated and should change. The private sector has to focus on quality and not just market demand – only industries where this happens grow successfully. Finally and probably most importantly, the role of the teacher will change from mainly a transmitter of knowledge today to a mediator and facilitator of learning. The teacher will become a respected professional truly at the centre of learning assisted by many tools and technologies.
If the last 20 years seemed exciting, buckle up for the next 20, for, as they say, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”