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This article was first published 3 years ago  » Getahead » What India's NEP should really be

What India's NEP should really be

August 06, 2020 09:10 IST
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'Learning to learn should be given more importance than what is actually being learnt,' recommends Zaki Ansari.

*IMAGE: Yes, to self-learning. Learning to learn should be given more importance than what is actually being learnt. All photographs: Kind courtesy Andrea Piacquadio/

Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid -- Robert Allen Zimmerman

The new education policy is thoughtless.

It is blind to India's education crisis and lacks an emergency response.

In fact, it is not new, it is a rearrangement.

What problems is the new policy solving for?

Are those problems worth it?

Does the policy consider the pace of change needed to make its effort meaningful?

India has a triple problem: One, it needs to skill its masses in vocations that will improve their well-being in the near future.

Two, it needs to fix its higher education for quality and quantity.

Three, it needs to make education accessible to all as quickly as possible in spite of the missing teachers and infrastructure.

The new education policy does not focus on skilling the poor with vocational training.

There is no focus on defining quality in education or measuring it; and 'if you can't measure it, you can't improve it'.

For higher education, there is no effort towards achieving the Humboldtian vision: 'That education is a means of realising individual possibility rather than a way of drilling traditional ideas into the youth to suit them for an already established occupation or social role.'

India's young can be an asset only when they are skilled and educated.

Otherwise, they are a burden.

Nevertheless, the education deficit looks insurmountable, at least by current methods of schooling.

Incremental steps will not do.

India faces intellectual demise.

There is no time.

It needs an overhaul, a revolution.

The choice is to do something radical about it right now or suffer widespread misery.

Not mere economic misery, but true misery that comes from masses of uneducated people decaying into bigotry and dogma.

Instead of being radical, the new education policy is a simplistic upgrade to the methods of the West.

What is best for the West may not be for India, which has a different education problem.

To be 'new', the education policy should have completely overhauled the system with the focus on the poor, skill development, and above all, education for the joy of it.


Fantasy education policy

Instead of critiquing the finer point of a non-policy, I am going to imagine a fresh one.

Before you read any further, here's a disclaimer and some words of caution: The author is not an educationist. Nor is he well educated. Neither is he a specialist or an expert in any particular domain.

When he imagined an education policy for India it was a fantasy, much like children pitting superheroes against villainous teachers, or adults building sport teams with impossible talent.

This is a fantasy policy that may spark alternative debates.

Of course, a serious matter like educating India must eventually be left to the well-educated experts.

With that click-wrap behind me, time to snap out my claws...


  1. Minimise classrooms
    1. Finish classroom driven teaching for reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic (3R) by age 7.
    2. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, is all that is needed.
      Theoretically, if you have mastered the 3R, you can build up your own education to whatever extent you want, provided you have access to study materials and scholars who can guide you now and then.
  2. Scrap classrooms. Stop teaching
    1. After the 3R are accomplished, scrap the classroom.
      Send away the teachers.
      Set the expectation that learners will now teach themselves.
      Gradually, one really small step at a time.
    2. Put out prescriptions of the levelled-up modules in various subjects, and their study materials like books, papers, and videos.
      Keep them for universal access on designated sites, free for the world to use.
    3. No to money for classrooms.
      No to money for teachers.
      There are very few of these and it will be impossible to scale up conventional classrooms with teachers in them.
      India needs dramatic results in a few years.
      It is dying intellectually.
      This sense of urgency is the secret to the success of every project, enterprise, and entrepreneur.
    4. Yes, to overnight, and scalable internet infrastructure, and access to it through free or subsidised devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
      Even the poor can afford an asynchronous school over a device when the child works with the family in the field or in making pots or whatever the family vocation demands.
      (There is a complex argument about the 'transactions costs' or 'cost of communications' within systems and how that falling cost wipes out the need for campuses and business organisations as they are.
      Somewhere Coase Theorem from economics also comes into it.
      But that is a different article).
    5. Yes, to self-learning.
      Learning to learn should be given more importance than what is actually being learnt.
      Critical skill in a world where what we know often changes soon after it is published.
      The goal must be for the learners to achieve mastery over successive modules that are levelled up, like a game, within each subject matter.
      In math, there can be modules rising from basic counting to the elusive proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.
      How soon you meet Fermat is up to you.
    6. School buildings can be visited with an appointment for only a few things:
      1. Carrying out practical work that requires special equipment and the guidance of a 'school worker'.
      2. Seeking the help of a school worker, on specific difficulties in self-learning.
      3. Attending events where peers develop social skills and make friends they can jam with during online self-learning. Events can be as simple as a debating club meeting.
      4. For examination and certification.
        But strictly no formal teaching at the schools. Ever.
  3. Scrap year-long grade systems
    1. Education is not mass production of goods.
      People should not be trained in batches.
      Quality control must not reject a few and promote other to the next batch.
      This was done because the cost of communication dictated the one-teacher-many-students design of a classroom.
      The Internet makes this expensive design dispensable.
    2. Some fast learners will finish in 2 years what most people will need 5 years for.
      Why hold them back?
      Some slow learners will need 7 years to finish what most people will take only 5 years, why rush them unnecessarily?
    3. Remove stigma from slow learning.
      Slow learners can be thorough.
      Fast learners can be functional and without depth.
      It takes all kinds.
    4. It should be possible for a learner to reach, say current grade 12 level in physics and chemistry at a young age while lingering at grade 5 level in biology and surpassing graduation levels in economics.
      The learner progresses at different levels and speeds with different subjects.
    5. The growth in the learner's ability to progress further in any subject will automatically be restricted if s/he is not conversant with the principles of some topics in a related subject.
      It may not be possible to keep rushing ahead in physics if you are not keeping pace with the math for it.
      The system will care for obsessive people who get enchanted by one thing at the expense of everything else.
      The system will make such learners discover the dependencies in the ontology and correct their progression.
      Contextual learning is another key skill to survive the fast changing future that everyone learns alongside the prescribed curriculum modules.
  4. Scrap examination schedules
    1. No point testing those who are not ready to be tested.
      No batch processing here either.
    2. Students declare they have mastered a module and demand they be tested for it and be awarded the credentials.
      They apply for an exam date.
    3. My guess is people will finish 5 years' worth of exams in 2 to 3 years.
      Despite the nature of our procrastinating species.
      All work expands to fill the time available, states Parkinson's Law.
      The trick is to not have any available time.
      When there is no term, every week that goes by without working towards an exam date is a week lost.
      We might just invert Parkinson's Law.
    4. Learners can explain what they have learnt by chatting with a panel, writing it out, drawing it out, dancing it out, whichever way they can.
      All they need to do is convince the examination panel that they know everything in the modules.
      If an irritating Rip Van Winkle insists on a conventional written exam, that too should be possible.
    5. To avoid producing bigots, examiners must demand that learners demonstrate informed scepticism of the material in the module and convincingly argue against what they have studied.
      Learners must be expected to present a list of ideas and facts that if proven to be untrue, what they have studied in the module will also be untrue.
      For instance, a learner may say that the understanding of electricity in a module will go all wrong if it is discovered that an electron is not negatively charged.
    6. All examination methods must test for the delivery of the Humboldtian vision.
      This way you still get full marks for a 'wrong' answer if you can be convincing about it.
      You may argue there should be no split between organic and inorganic chemistries.
      Or the binomial classification of all life forms is wrong because it is based on morphology when a more accurate method can be evolved now on our new understanding in genomics.
      Learners must be tested for a healthy disrespect for knowledge.
    7. Examinations must be devised for testing not just facts of the subject or your informed scepticism of it but also for your discovery in the subject matter.
      Noam Chomsky famously declared to his students at MIT, 'It is not important what you learn in my class. It is important what you discover. To learn this way means to be in a position to inquire and create on the basis of the resources available to you... That's what an education system should cultivate from kindergarten to the higher graduate school...'
    8. Pass marks must be 100 per cent.
      As Sal Khan's schools do, 'we must test for mastery'.
      Knowing enough is not good enough. Without 100 per cent marks, you are moving ahead without a piece of knowledge that may be fundamental to another piece in a higher module.
      I believe learners will find this very much fun and extremely easy to crack if done from the start of their education.
  5. Curriculum
    1. More subjects must be included to cover domains like 'theory of knowledge' itself, the Humboldtian Ideal, art criticism, literary criticism, foreign cultures and histories on par with Indian culture and history, etc., besides vocational subjects like music, painting, accounting, the theory of trades like sound mixing, video editing, plumbing, wiring, turning, fitting, drafting, programming, data management, Web development, online marketing, etc.
      (Note: Vocational training does not contradict a rigorous course dictated by a Humboldtian vision).
    2. Learners who want full credits and certificate to practice a vocational skill should be able to take on practical training where their workshop studies must be underwritten by their first employer.
      Industries get a steady supply of qualified cheap labour; learners get affordable education and are assured a start in a trade of choice.
    3. Poor people who go for practical training in trades can continue learning through their lives at their pace to get credits for the higher modules in the subjects of their choice.
      They can do this because there are no classrooms to go to and they can decide on their pace of learning and fix their own exam dates.
      Imagine your plumber studying microbiology in his free time.
      Possible. Only he may not stay a plumber for long.
    4. Nobody should ever be encouraged to leave school.
      You may go on to join the London School of Economics for a post-graduation, but you can still be connected with your Indian education system online because you have still not completed those modules in grade 11 biology and you loved it so much.
  6. Endnotes
    1. We are in a post-industrial economy.
      Batch processing talent like they were goods in the marketplace will not work anymore.
      Not for the rich countries.
      Surely not for India.
    2. Learners must be consciously taught to teach themselves.
      School workers are only there to help.
      This is the real education.
    3. A revolution is, at first, impossible.
      Then it is possible.
      India is in a dangerous spot.
      It needs this educational revolution more than richer countries do.
    4. This revolution is going to be cheaper and more practical with mobile phones and tablets and connectivity all over the place.
      Even if it gets to be more expensive, I do not see what choice we have.
    5. The education system of the nature I have mooted here must stay focused on allowing poor learners to take up vocational training needed for quality work.
      It must allow these learners to begin industrial work and earn a living while continuing to learn alongside for as long as they want to.
    6. Those who can afford to stay on in school with full-time focus must, on an average, do better than rich kids in fancy IB schools.


  1. Grimm's fairytales
    Where imagination begins for many.
    I like to think of our fantasy education policy as a story told by a child in the system.
  2. Kostya Ryabtsev's Diary
    A storybook I had as a child.
    Kostya documents life in a school a little similar to what I have imagined now.
    One important thing I discovered in the book is Kostya's references to the Dalton Plan.
    ( Kostya Ryabtsev's Diary (external link))
  3. The Dalton Plan
    It is a method of education by which pupils work at their own pace and receive individual help from the teacher when necessary.
    There is no formal class instruction.
    Students draw up time-tables and are responsible for finishing the work on their syllabuses or assignments.
    Students are also encouraged to help each other with their work.
    The underlying aim of the Dalton Plan is to achieve the highest mental, moral, physical and spiritual development of the pupil.
    ( The Dalton Plan (external link))
  4. The Coase Theorem (...and the internet)
    A tire factory has a transaction cost when it bargains with a rubber plantation.
    If the cost of running a rubber plantation is cheaper than the cost of bargaining with it, the factory will buy out the rubber farm.
    Now turn this on its head.
    If the cost of managing a school infrastructure is only to make communication (transaction) between teachers and students cheaper, then the school and classrooms will not be needed when a technology like the internet brings such communications cost down to almost zero.
    ( Coase theorem (external link))
  5. Sal Khan
    A resource, second only to Wikipedia.
    He is the first educator I heard insisting on 100 per cent pass marks.
    He has taught contextual self-learning to millions without actually calling it that.
    ( Al Khan - Let's use video to reinvent education (external link))
  6. Noam Chomsky
    Theoretical linguist, cognitive scientist, and philosopher.
    Also a revolutionary.
    ( Noam Chomsky - On Being Truly Educated (external link))
  7. Sir Ken Robinson
    Educationist who speaks frequently about how broken is an education system that is preparing children for a working life that we cannot predict anything about.
    Below is a link to the most loved lecture ever.
    Perhaps the most viewed talk on TED Talk, it has over 66 million views.
    You will enjoy it.
    ( : Sir Ken Robinson do schools kill ativity (external link))
  8. Wilhelm von Humboldt
    The philosopher and linguist who developed liberalism during the European Age of Reason.
    Also laid the foundations of modern theory of education.
    ( Wilhelm von Humboldt (external link))

Zaki Ansari (external link) is a partner at Sigmoid Frogs, an Internet strategy consulting firm.
After spending nearly 20 years in journalism, more than 10 of them at, Zaki moved into the Internet and content strategy space.
He says: "I work with specialists, but remain a generalist, toiling in spaces between departments; a place where inventions happen. I used to be a copy editor. Now, I am a content jockey, jamming with online readers who are writers too."


*Kindly note the image has been posted only for representational purposes.


Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/


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