There are various ways in which one must understand the education sector. Not only in terms of teacher and school quality but also in terms of the systemic factors affecting the level of said quality. Systemic factors surrounding education include all factors which can directly, or indirectly, affect the resources (tangible and intangible) that are available for education. Furthermore, these are the factors which affect the quality of education that the government can provide to its children. These can be the ones in our immediate time and vicinity, such as the values of the generation, skills needed in the current age, or the politics of our state; or these can be the ones further removed from our immediate vicinities, such as the enduring practice of “chalk and talk”, the system of end-of-year assessments, school timings, or the values enshrined in the constitution decades ago. Thus, for us to completely understand the dynamic environment that education is, one must look at it from a systems perspective.
Although there is a wide variety of literature surrounding systems thinking, this article tries to delve, not into the different frameworks of systems thinking or the process, but rather different perspectives that one can look through.
Majorly, one can break down looking at the educational discourse from five different lenses. Historical, Political, Philosophical, Economic and Social. Any additional lenses would either expand our understanding or contribute to either one of these lenses.
When we look at education from a historical perspective we can begin to understand the historical trajectories that have led to the practices that we see around us. It can help us understand how the seemingly ingrained practices became so. Looking at education from such a perspective helps in knowing that the systems that we often take for granted, can be looked at from a perspective where they do not seem perpetual anymore, and thus open for change. Additionally, it can help inspect the practices and traditions as well as study their context. Thus, it can inform us if any of those practices need to change depending on the needs of contemporary reality.
The second lens that we can look at education from is that of politics. Here, we look at the larger political ecosystem under which various policies related to education get formed. It helps understand the influence of political will on the issues of education and helps us understand that the policy decisions are as much dependent on their ability to help retain power, as they are on their merit and potential for long term public good. It can help understand that policy decisions are rooted in the wills of different sections of society; and demystify the seemingly arbitrary and at times, contradictory in principle, decisions that one might find surrounded by.
Such an understanding of the sector can also uncover unrelated factors which affect the way the education sector is shaping up in the country.
The third lens that one might look at education from is the philosophical lens. Under this lens one looks at the ideas themselves, that are being advocated or challenged. "Should students be taught empathy?" or "Is it okay to talk about religion in school?", or "How can one know what is the real knowledge that one is imparting?" are some of the questions that one might ask under this enquiry. It is a meta-analysis, and it questions the goals, meanings and forms of education itself. Instead of talking about why a certain reform or policy was or was not implemented, it puts the underlying values of the reform under the microscope. Such an enquiry is useful as it helps validate or change the goals that we are all pouring finite resources in to achieve. Other questions that might be addressed under such a discourse would be, “What is worth teaching children?”, “Who should be the one imparting knowledge to students” and perhaps “What is the purpose of education in a society?”.
The fourth lens that one might look at education from is Economics. Under this, one would look at the various economic trends and ideas that affect education or conversely, how various changes, decisions and ideas have been influenced by economics at the local, national and global scale. It would take a look at the budget allocations and help understand the reasons for low and high financing of education from the lens of a country’s and the world’s, macro and microeconomics trends. Such an enquiry also helps question the validity of various approaches which have been hailed successful for an economy but fail to uplift the education system to serve its intended purpose.
The last lens that one must look at, and perhaps one of the more important one is the sociological lens. The sociological lens allows one to understand the effects of education practices, and origins of those practices, in society. For instance, a question such as “Why are literacy levels among females lower than males?” would be looked from a social lens rather than as just a problem of infrastructure in schools. Such an examination helps understand how education trends affect different strata of society and it helps debate the concepts of education, such as “What is worth teaching?”, from the perspective of different groups in the society. It talks about the inequalities present in the system, the role of education in abolishing those inequalities and the social evils that the education system itself might be fostering. It investigates the role of education in upholding societal values such as peace, liberty or justice. Questions that one might answer while looking through this lens are "How the mid-day meal policy affects the lower economic class?", or "How does the curriculum and classroom practices affect different caste categories?", or perhaps "How inclusive are the classroom practices for girl students?"
When one looks at the education system, not just from the lens that is easily accessible but multiple lenses, one can start to understand the nitty-gritty and the complexity of the problem that we have at hand. One can begin to trace the consequences of one’s actions in domains which are not directly related to the ones we are working in. In such cases, our perspective expands and we look at working towards our goals in a much more sustainable manner. This is when we can start thinking about working on the problems not in a piecemeal fashion, but by considering them as one whole system.
The author Anirudh Agarwal is an Associate with the Research, Monitoring & Evaluation vertical at Leadership For Equity. Anirudh holds a Masters degree in education from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and has previously worked with Teach For India and The Akanksha Foundation. He can be reached through email at email@example.com