Expert Take: Are schools losing relevance in Kashmir?

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Dr. Farooq A. Wasil.

Dr. Farooq Wasil is not an accidental educationalist in the thriving tuition market of Kashmir. A practising educator, a published author and a columnist, Dr. Wasil carries a worldwide vision and exposure about the evolving trends of education. Based on his expert insights, he calls Kashmir’s education system fraught with frivolous features.

The expert opinion calls for serious research and revamp at a time when the average learning outcomes of students in Kashmir are below the national average, and the dropout rate is higher than the national average.  

“Schools almost are becoming irrelevant in Kashmir,” Dr. Wasil, a doctorate in Education and the recipient of the President’s Best Teacher award, India 2007, says. “The fact is that children as early as grade 6 start enrolling in coaching institutions and their enrolment in schools is notional.” 

Schools cannot take credit for the performance of student in board or competitive exams and school assessments are not very credible, the GEMS fellow at Cambridge University continues. “The quality of teaching and learning is not up to the mark and quality of provisions is abysmal.” 

The biggest question mark is on quality of leadership and teacher competence, argues the author of several textbooks including Pedagogy from Perception to Perspective. “The traditional model of imparting knowledge is not working,” he asserts. “In a traditional classroom the path is one and the goal is also one. But it’s time we abandon the one-size-fit-all approach and look at creating multiple paths and reaching the big ideas through a process of inquiry and exploration.”

Felicitated with the Lifetime Achievement Award and recognised as one of the 100 world’s greatest leadership 2015-Asia & GCC for his contribution to the education sector, Dr. Wasil’s long and illustrious career spans more than four decades. He has carved a significant niche in the educational landscape of GCC, India and Africa. He served as Secretary of the CBSE Gulf Council from 2001 –2002 and then Chairman of the CBSE Gulf Council from 2002 – 2003. His repertoire of leadership competencies encompasses a range of portfolios that include Executive Principal of English High School Sharjah UAE, Deputy Head of GEMS Asian curriculum schools, among others. Currently, he’s Chairman of Vasal Education Group and Director of Thinksite Services Pvt. Ltd.

In an insightful interview with Free Press Kashmir, Dr Wasil talks about the light in darkness and how Kashmir can do better on education front.

Dr. Farooq Ahmad Wasil.

Could you provide an overview of the current state of the educational landscape in Kashmir?

Education has been subject to what is called ‘The tyranny of normal’ uniform schooling worldwide, standardised curriculum and time tables, the demanding academic content and testing do well by the brightest and weaker pupils quickly left behind and find it hard to catch up. According to the World Bank, more than 250 million children worldwide are not learning basic skills, and the gap between rich and poor students is widening.

A simple question to ask is, how has the world of a child changed in the last 150 years? And the answer is it is hard to imagine in any way in which it hasn’t changed! But if you look at school today versus 100 years ago, it is more similar than dissimilar. 

According to a recent report by the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, the average learning outcomes of students in Kashmir are below the national average, and the dropout rate is higher than the national average. Schools almost are becoming irrelevant. The fact is that children as early as grade 6 start enrolling in coaching institutions and their enrolment in schools is notional. Schools cannot take credit for the performance of student in board/ competitive exams and school assessments are not very credible. The quality of teaching and learning is not up to the mark and quality of provisions is abysmal. The biggest question mark is on quality of leadership and teacher competence. The traditional model of imparting knowledge is not working. In a traditional classroom the path is one and the goal is also one. But it is time we abandon the one-size-fit-all approach and look at creating multiple paths and reaching the big ideas through a process of inquiry and exploration. 

In fact, a study by the Azim Premji Foundation found that there’s a significant disparity in the availability and quality of school infrastructure, resources, and teachers between rural and urban areas, and between government and private schools in Kashmir. Large number of government schools as well as private schools are operating in dilapidated conditions.

What challenges are hindering the progress of education in Kashmir, and how can these be addressed? 

It goes without discussion that the speed at which the world is changing doesn’t match the speed of our learning or better put as adapting. We are still stuck with the old notions and our traditional methods of teaching-learning. One will have to have the hunger to learn, desire to adapt and to keep pace with the demands.

The one who fails in the above will soon be outdated and history. The vision for future and exposure of the required skillsets accordingly is the only key to progression. 

The 4Cs of 21st century skills are: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity. The few more added recently in the list based on demand are: Character, Computational Thinking and Citizenship.

To get an insight about future demands and challenges, we first need to understand where are we heading. It can visibly be stated that the existing age is of computers. But then, again, future is not the same as the present. It’s going to be all the more advanced technically- AI, Cloud Computing, Coding, Blockchain, Digital Intelligence, and some physiological aspects like- Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Empathy and many more. 

The question arises, are we ready to polish the existing skills and adapt the future ones. Confidently it can be said, the Children are, while the Education System is not! Or it can be clearly said that there are changes but the stride is incompatible. The supply of information and training is not as per the future demands, it is only suited to the present. Also, not to forget that the demographical reach of these skills is totally imbalanced. By the time that skill is acquired across the country- within no time it becomes obsolete or needs to be updated again. The limitations of resources and the mindset are the biggest challenges in meeting the expected transformation.

No one welcomes a person who comes with the bag of problems. Efficiency and productivity are highly proportional to skills. If the demands are not recognised now, the planning and execution will go for a toss. The unskilled population will be pushed back further as it truly goes with the saying- Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

The transparency at each level and a collective dream to bring it to reality is the only key. We will have to take calculated risks. Maximum skill development and creating job ready individuals for various fields is the roadmap. The right steps, at the right time, and in the right direction, can guide our state to the pinnacle of a successful future.

In the age of rapid technological advancements, how do you see the integration of technology influencing education in Kashmir? Are there specific initiatives or trends worth highlighting?

The new-age learner needs in-depth knowledge of learning technology for effective use. He needs critical thinking skills to cope with information explode. And effective use of social media in information, and utilize well the wide-open learning spaces.

The new-age learners spend much of learning outside physical classroom. Collaborate with academic and social communities. Like to be part of learning space not “classroom”. More interactive in virtual world adaptive to dynamic learning pedagogy. The digital journey of educational institutions is a recent one and in most of the cases it is missing. I have not seen fully integrated technology driven teaching/ learning and assessments in the schools in the valley, however there is evidence of use of devices to support the teaching learning environment. I strongly believe that technology is an enabler but pedagogy comes first. It is only the teacher with sound pedagogical knowledge that can leverage technology for better learning outcomes.

Ensuring inclusivity in education is crucial. What steps have been taken in Kashmir to make education accessible to all, particularly addressing gender, disabilities, and socio-economic disparities?

According to UNESCO, inclusive education is seen as “a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing exclusion from education and from within education.” The goal is that the whole education system will facilitate learning environments where teachers and learners embrace and welcome the challenge and benefits of diversity. Within an inclusive education approach, learning environments are fostered where individual needs are met and every student has an opportunity to succeed. Inclusive education is a real implementation of the basic human right to education. It is not only about attaining universal access to education, but universal access to meaningful and purposeful knowledge and learning for all. 

Although the context in every country and region is unique, we all share common concerns in education regarding justice, equity and peace. Students need to acquire the competencies and appropriate qualifications for life in an ever-changing and increasingly plural and interdependent political and economic landscape of the 21st century. 

Inclusive education brings all students together in one classroom and community, regardless of their strengths or weaknesses in any area, and seeks to maximize the potential of all students. Inclusion is an effort to make sure that diverse learners – those with disabilities, different languages and cultures, different homes and family lives, different interests and ways of learning – are exposed to teaching strategies on a more personalized platform as teachers in inclusive classrooms vary their styles to enhance learning for all students. 

Inclusion requires some changes in how teachers teach, as well as changes in how students with and without special needs interact with and relate to one another. Inclusive education practices frequently rely on active learning, authentic assessment practices, applied curriculum, multi-level instructional approaches, and increased attention to diverse student needs and personalization. 

In terms of government schools, the Right to Education Act passed in 2009 mandates that all children between the ages of 6 and 14 are entitled to free and compulsory education. However, the implementation of this law has been uneven, and many children still face barriers to accessing education, particularly in rural and marginalized communities.

In the private school sector, there has been some progress in recent years in terms of promoting inclusion and diversity. Many private schools have started to adopt inclusive policies and practices, such as providing support for children with disabilities and offering scholarships or financial assistance to students from low-income backgrounds. While creating an inclusive education system in Kashmir is a challenging task, it is also an achievable one. 

With the right policies, investments, and partnerships, state can create an education system that is truly inclusive and equitable for all children. As of now there is very little provision for inclusive education in govt schools and very notional in most of the private schools.

Considering the evolving job market and global changes, how can education in Kashmir adapt to equip individuals with the skills and knowledge needed for the future?

This is a new world of interactive, global and personalized learning. Bright young students are reinventing a new society of unlimited choices, options and personal potential. Education institutions of future will be personalized for every individual learning style. So how do educational institutions account for such an enabling environment for future employability? 

Community, curriculum, coherence, climate, and character are building blocks of a good institution. An effective institution connects people to create community, connects curriculum to achieve coherence, connects classroom and resources to enrich the learning climate, and connects learning to life to build character. A daunting task demands a seismic shift in provision of education and quality of human resource. We must train our students to successfully manage the complexity and diversity of our world by becoming more fluid, more flexible, more focused on reality and radically more innovative.

Teachers play a pivotal role in the educational process. What challenges do educators in Kashmir face, and how can these challenges be addressed to enhance the overall teaching and learning experience?

As technology infiltrates every aspect of life, will it then make the teacher, as we know her today, redundant? This is a question that forms the basis of many debates on 21st century learning. Yet we cannot ignore the human factor that is so critical for a value-driven education. Teachers may need to be trained in new competencies and skills to facilitate 21st century education by combining curriculum and technology as involved practitioners, allowing students to move away from rote learning and tackle real-world challenges and develop solutions for them. 

Learning will no longer be an endless pursuit of a degree that endorses learning but will be a shift towards more relevant competency-based programs that encourage problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Learning and school are an extension of community, the future will make us face complex challenges using technology, looking for sustainable solutions, finding our way through countless bytes of information, keeping up with the accelerated pace, structured around meaningful projects and leisure activities relevant in the real world. 

Living and learning will be more closely intertwined as children are prepared to participate in a complex society. Education is changing your classroom. Lifelong learning will soon be the world’s greatest growth industry. Learning will no longer be a brief phase in life. It will become a central part of our existence. In an era of constant and increasing change we will discover a new appreciation of learning and understanding of its place in the future. We will learn to love learning. The role of the teacher in the 21st century is shifting towards influencing the learning behaviour of students, not controlling the flow of information. The most effective schools of the future will be the ones with excellent teachers.

The capacity building and upskilling of teachers is critical to manage these challenges and expectations of a new-age learner. A school is as good as its teachers and to develop effective schools you need great teachers and this cannot be achieved in vacuum, it needs abiding and sustained commitment, leadership and resources and great deal of planning and institutional building. Availability of quality teachers is a national issue and Kashmir is no exception. Over the years research has indicated that teachers play a vital role in improving learning outcomes and hence it is imperative that the state target teacher recruitment and training as a priority.  

How do you perceive the role of communities in supporting and enhancing education in Kashmir? Can you share examples of successful collaboration between schools and local stakeholders?

Since time immemorial schools have been the most comforting abodes known to man, be it the Gurukuls prevalent in ancient India, the Casa Bambinis propagated by Madame Montessori or the modern day home away from home. Schools are more than mortar and cement, whiteboards and wires, projectors and playgrounds, swimming pools and seminar halls, auditoriums and audio-visual rooms – they are the soul of a community; they are the institutions that nurture the future civilizations of a nation.

Education is a collaborative and relationship-based enterprise and community involvement remains at the heart of engagement. However, the current school environment has some kind of insecurity with other stakeholders and lack transparency. Parents are key stakeholders yet they have very little influence in decision making process. 

When parents are exercising a choice, they must choose a school that values unique learning journey where your child feels safe and supported and can reach their potential. The best school for your child is the one that will provide them with the opportunities to be a lifelong learner and the ability to have friends. 

School success should never be judged solely by exam results. However, to disregard the importance of exam results entirely would be an abrogation of a school’s responsibility. Schools must undergo a comprehensive self-audited tool to understand how toxic or enabling the learning environment is and take measures to make campus inviting and invigorating. There is very little collaboration between different stakeholders and an element of mistrust.

Drawing from your experience, how do international trends and educational models influence the local educational practices in Kashmir? Are there lessons or inspirations that can be derived from global experiences? 

Many countries that have recognized education as the key for future competitiveness and prosperity are interested in applying best educational practices to create the world’s best performing education systems and schools. 

Their strengths in education consist of socio-constructivist conception of learning, excellent school operations, highest quality teacher training, modern and effective learning materials, constructive assessment and evaluation, and flexibility across the education system. Many of these practices and expertise can be used for the benefit of other education systems. Quality components of international education is based on multiple factors. 

Technology is fully leveraged and integrated to create engaging learning environment and cater for different types of learners. Leadership and capacity building is at the heart of human resource management where educational audit is a norm but not a quick fix. School outreach and family school partnership is deeply rooted in school culture and high measure of accountability. 

Investigating the effects of government policies on education is crucial. What positive initiatives have had a notable impact in Kashmir, and where do you see potential areas for improvement in the current policies?

The current regulatory environment is somewhat punitive and not very developmental in its character. While it’s important to regulate, its equally important to create an enabling environment for these schools to sustain and survive. 

To see that education is a fundamental right and if the regulator is not in a position to create opportunity for children to be in the schools and this has been ably supported by the private school enterprise, it’s important that regulator and the private school owners become collaborative in decision making process with the sole purpose of helping children to receive quality education.

Integrating disruptive technologies like machine learning and extended reality sounds exciting. How are these technologies transforming traditional education in Kashmir?

With the advent of the new millennium, mankind is on the threshold of a major transition. The transition is to a global society, the foundations of which have been laid by the amazing advances in science and technology. 

Modern world is shaped by forces of capitalism and communication technologies which respect no frontiers. They’re unleashing unpredictable processes of development in diversified areas which are beyond the realm of human imagination. 

Despite obvious constraints these forces are undoubtedly promoting globalisation of life and ideas. The global communication network has in a way circumscribed all of us on this earth into global town or city, where we share each other’s joys and agonies. Radio waves respect no frontiers and from an altitude of 30- or 40,000-kilometres, national boundaries become singularly inconspicuous.

Contemporary society is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. Culture and civilizations are mingling and embracing each other. It’s the perception of one earth, one world and, one people that have been generating a new climate of a common interest and survival. Every effort has to be made to break our limited horizons and embrace the possibilities that lie ahead. 

AI is a reality and our institutions are to be in a state of readiness to manage the disruption that technology is going to bring. I keep saying that either you disrupt the educational landscape by embracing technology or be disrupted.

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