‘The specific problems we face cannot be solved using the same patterns of thought that were used to create them.’ Einstein
Most of us know that the Indian education system is in a mess! At the higher end, my experience at the London School of Economics in 2001 was that, while British higher education needed Indians (we are among the few willing to pay for an education), it has to factor in the fact that the only real skill we have is that of rote learning. A comment I heard during my more recent visit to a tech hub in the US, was that, if a computer game required a character to jump two summersaults instead of three, they would call in the Indians to make the change. But the decision to change would be taken by an American. And, from my stints on interview panels gauging entry into management school, it was clear that many young engineers had fewer skills than my neighbours’ servants and drivers, and earned correspondingly lower salaries.
And yet, it is the problems at the other end that I have grappled with over the years – the difficulties that most Indian children face in getting access to a primary school, staying in them, and gaining an education – reflected in the pathetic state of many schools in the public education system, the absconding teachers, the large student to teacher ratios, and the multiple age groups in the same room being taught simultaneously by a single teacher. I don’t need to throw statistics around to support my case, our literacy rates are well known, as is the fact that many government teachers utilize their time to run shops and money-lending businesses. The various NGOs that I have worked in and supported have tried many things – all sorts of alternatives to formal schools, as well as bridge courses, remedial centres and placing additional teachers to get formal schools to work better. I used to think; if only we could get schools up and running in every village and locality, get teachers to actually teach, and get parents to send their children to school instead of into carpet factories or off to rear goats, we could address this problem. Why did I grapple? Because it is a problem worth addressing – no country without vast oil reserves has transformed itself from poor to rich without decentralized governance and universal elementary education, and we don’t have oil. And if we do not address it, we will not derive the advantages of demographic dividend that a young population is supposed to bring to an economy.
It was therefore a depressing experience to attend a recent development conference at Glocal University in Saharanpur (UP, on 25th and 26th October 2013) that focussed upon health and education in UP, and to sit in on two excellent presentations on the state of education in the country. The first was by Prof. Willima Wadhwa of the University of California and of the Indian Statistical Institute, who explored myths and realities regarding the right to education. The second was by Prof. Pankaj Jain of Gyanshala, who talked about education policy options. Prof. Jain, may I add, had been a professor at IRMA in the 1980s and I had been among his less illustrious students. Prof. Wadhwa pointed to the fact that children in grade 5 did not have the competencies of those required in grade 2 (she is the head of Pratham’s ASER programme that conducts the tests that make these observations). She also suggested that there is no evidence for the common presumption that private schools are better than government schools in terms of learning outcomes – the differences are attributable to selection biases (private schools attract those from better-off homes with better-educated parents, and do not give admission to those they deem unsuitable) and non-school factors.
Prof. Jain exploded some more myths – he said that everything that can possibly be tried has already been tried. Teacher education norms in India match world standards, teacher-training and support norms are considerably higher than world standards, and India is already a world leader in providing incentives (free meals, books, etc.) for children to attend schools.
He said that a major problem in India is that teachers are heavily overpaid, and I am going to expound on this because the most quarrelsome of my siblings is a teacher, as is my best friend (and both are on this reading list), and I need to protect myself. In an OECD country, a teacher with 15 years of experience earns at the per capita income of the country, whereas in India s/he earns at seven times the per capita income. Great, you would say, teachers are critical elements of society and nurture future generations, what is wrong in respecting them by paying them well? Well, most of the cost of education is teachers’ salaries, and if these are high the natural outcome is fewer teachers or else state bankruptcy. The public education system cannot therefore implement any civilized norm on student to teacher ratios simply because the number of teachers required to maintain such a norm would drive the country bankrupt. The right to education act, which requires public, private and informal schooling institutions to maintain acceptable student to teacher ratios and teachers’ salaries at par with heavily overpaid and underworked government teachers is an example of wishy-washy policy making. It is simply not possible to meet both these requirements simultaneously. It is also not possible for government teachers’ salaries to be reigned in, or allowed to inflate away; they have powerful public sector unions to protect their interests, and are also a huge source of bribes into the political system – if anything, the problem will only get worse with the new pay commission for public servants.
This brings me to my topic for the month – problems that defy solution, problems wherein scientific-rational approaches cannot be applied because of lack of a clear problem definition, incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements, and differing perspectives of stakeholders, problems such as ‘how to withdraw from Afghanistan’, ‘how to sort out Indian education’ and ‘how to complete a PhD in three years and remain sane and solvent’.
A 1973 paper by Rittel and Webber termed these as ‘wicked problems’, with ‘wicked’ meaning resistant to solution rather than anything evil, and contrasted them with relatively tame ‘solvable’ problems in mathematics, chess and puzzle solving. They said that complex interdependencies within wicked problems result in efforts to solve one aspect of it revealing or creating other problems. They also said that ‘the search for scientific bases for confronting such problems is bound to fail because they cannot be definitively described, and as the policies that respond to these problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false it makes no sense to talk about optimal solutions’.
The issue of global warming brought about a new superlative category, that of the ‘super wicked problem’ (yes, I know, it sounds like the buses on Indian roads, with categories like deluxe, super deluxe, super luxury, etc., applied liberally to old clangers), with the additional characteristics of time running out, no central authority, and those seeking to solve the problem also causing it.
And finally, we have a situation where every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of inter-related problems, a system of problems, or what is termed as a ‘mess’. How do we know that we are in a mess? According to Robert Horn, a mess has the following characteristics –
1. There is no unique, ‘correct’ view of the problem – there are differing views and contradictory solutions.
2. Most of the problems identified are connected to other problems.
3. Data is uncertain and missing.
4. There are multiple value conflicts at play, as also ideological, political, economic and cultural constraints.
5. There is often a-logical, illogical or multi-valued thinking around the problems, with uncertainty, ambiguity, and great resistance to change.
6. There are numerous possible intervention points.
7. The problem solvers are out of contact with the problems and their potential solutions.
I would like to conclude with some thoughts for the policy advocacy industry within the Indian development sector, which often complains that Indian policy makers are impervious to their pleas and suggestions. It may be that they see you as just another donor-funded special interest group with no accountability and a limited mandate, and treat your views accordingly. Alternatively, it may be that your clear cut and articulate solutions to well defined problems do not recognize the chain of complex interdependencies between problems, and therefore do not make sense to those who have to live with the outcomes of policy suggestions. Because, after all, the reality of development is that most issues fall within the categories of wicked problems, super-wicked problems and messes, whether in India or anywhere else in the world.
Some additional reading for those with an interest in wicked problems:
Horn, Robert; 2001; Knowledge Mapping for Complex Social Messes; presentation to “Foundations in the Knowledge Economy” at the David and Lucille Packard Foundation on 16th July
Levin, K., B. Cashore, S. Bernstein, G. Auld; 2012; Overcoming the Tragedy of Super Wicked Problems: Constraining Our Future Selves to Ameliorate Global Climate Change; Policy Sciences 45(2), 123-152
Rittel, Horst W.J and Melvin M. Webber; 1973; Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning; Policy Sciences 4(2), 155-169