In the mid-1980s, two names quietly entered Indian academia. They were powerful agents of change. Over the years, they have ushered the nation into postmodern ways of speaking. In its homes and its hearts, the country at that time was still struggling to cope with the demands of modernity.
The two names are “innovation” and “narrative”. Administrators and teachers have taken their time learning how to fit these nouns into everyday grammar. Politicians and business leaders investing in education have been quicker. Journalists noticed the change and fulfilled their expected role of getting the word(s) out. The Program of Action (1992) awakened and urged the aging Vice-Chancellors to recognize the importance of the role that ‘innovation’ was to play at the imminent dawn of the new century. Curricula had to be redesigned to make them capable of inspiring the innovative spirit of young people whose imagination had been stifled by kindergarten teachers. Universities rose to the challenge of repairing what had been damaged during the thoughtlessly playful kindergarten years. A new narrative of education reform is born.
A few years ago, I met a young man who had designed a five-day training module to instill the spirit of innovation in school teachers. A whole panoply of VIPs had endorsed this effective module. When I met its creator, the remarkable module had already been administered to almost half a million teachers, distracting them from their fixed teaching habits. Among the teachers he had trained, a few dozen had been selected to be recognized as leaders. State governments were vying with each other to stage the five-day innovation stunt among their apathetic teachers.
According to a recent report by this newspaper, an American innovator had attracted a record number of big investors in a new device capable of detecting a wide range of potential diseases from a few drops of blood. The device has drastically reduced the price and hassle of a standard blood test. This disruptive health-tech device ruled the US market for several years before it was revealed to be a fraud.
The success of this project helps us understand the intimate relationship between “innovation” and “narrative”. Both have achieved keyword status. Together, they marked the arrival of a new culture. However, one was more important than the other. While narrative had sustained weight, in the final analysis it was subordinate to its verbal companion, innovation. Herein lay the new goal of teaching and research – to carve a mind that could usually innovate in any sphere of choice, including the art of creating a narrative.
Innovation thus became the supreme goal of the work of the humble professor. Universities set up cluster resource centers where exam-weary youngsters could seek refuge to assemble a new device or invent a solution to an old nagging problem. The mission to create such a space in schools had to wait a while, but now that wait is over. Entrepreneurship has finally become a “subject” and teachers have been trained to deal with it effectively. Their goal is to nurture young adults who don’t dream of a job; instead, they create jobs for others. The innovation is in the story.
Older pedagogical theory was vaguely aware of the importance of ‘innovation’. The origins of fuzziness were many, but the main reason was grammatical. Innovation was stuck in a web of similar ideas whose ancestry had long been respected in the history of science and the arts. Verbs like ‘create’ and ‘invent’, and nouns like ‘investigation’ and ‘pursuit’ had formed a nebulous whole. Construction had dominated the philosophy and pedagogy of education for too long. This old tradition did not allow “innovation” to come by itself, or to become an objective in itself. Teachers had to cultivate young minds in a slow, loving fog of daily attendance. The ability to do something differently germinated in a few in the end, but it couldn’t be predicted, let alone tested with a few drops of saliva. It was when “innovation” became an independent goal that the new era of education began. From then on, the teacher no longer has to worry about general development. The narrative of specific goals would soothe old anxieties like overall growth. The teacher could now sit down and plan her lesson just in time using an app purchased from the Education Market.
What started with words gradually became reality. A counselor in the mid-1980s once illustrated the future by showing a little pill in his palm. A time will soon come, he says, when you can drop a pill like this into a dirty, stagnant pond and watch its water turn blue and clean enough to drink. These words had power. Everyone present became aware that drinking water should no longer be a systemic challenge.
A well-honed capacity for innovation tops the list of “21st century skills” to be taught in higher education institutions. This title is also from the mid-1980s. Apparently, there was something magical in the air of that period. Narrative capture has become a political art. Education is usually a slow sector to react to pressures, but now it seems ready. The speed and volume of research output are key factors in a university’s place in the rankings. Old-fashioned courses that allowed leisure to think are no longer necessary.
Some rare advice to rethink came a few years ago from a book called Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K Seeber. Although there is little evidence that he caused anyone to look closely at the reality facing students, the book makes his diagnosis abundantly clear. Maybe we don’t have to worry about the book’s impact since the evidence is everywhere. It lies in the speed at which innovations are claimed in research papers produced and published overnight. Education has undergone a transformation in that it is no longer necessary to cultivate patience to make sense of things.
The author is a former director of NCERT. His latest book is Smaller Citizens