Mumbai: The government's National Achievement Survey (NAS) on school education, conducted in 2021 and released in May 2022, assessed the health of India's school education system and evaluated children's learning competency at classes III, V, VIII and X. NAS 2021 covered about 3.4 million students and 118,000 schools in 720 rural and urban districts. It noted a seven-percentage-point fall in student's general performance since 2017, when the last survey was released.

Around 24% of students surveyed did not have access to digital devices, a stark gap given that digital education replaced in-person learning during India's lengthy Covid-19 school closures. Almost 37% said that they faced difficulty learning at home.

Are research efforts on education in India asking the right questions and getting the right answers? Who should be setting the questions? We asked Anurag Behar, CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation. The Azim Premji Foundation runs institutions and programmes for improving school education in India, and for human development, focusing on seven states which have over 350,000 schools. The foundation also runs the Azim Premji University. Behar has also been a member of the committee that developed India's National Education Policy, 2020.

Edited excerpts:

What concerns do you have today about research on what's happening in the world of education, particularly in schools?

Research is sort of secondary. What concerns all of us is that the quality of education that we have in our country, and elsewhere in the world, is not what we want it to be. So the question really is, how do we improve quality. Quality has many aspects. Are children learning exactly what we want them to learn at the appropriate age? What do we want them to learn, beyond just math, physics and languages? What values do we want education to develop? Education is a wonderful and complex process. Is the education system that we have set up developing our children to become responsible, engaged citizens of the world? Are we delivering on all that? That's what concerns all of us.

The important question here, then, is whether the kind of research that is being done is serving this purpose of improving education. If we stay focused on very basic matters, then we'll get to some reasonable conclusions. But when you look at particular matters, i.e. research focused on this basic question of how do we improve education, my sense is that we are falling way short, in terms of both the amount of research that we are doing, and also the kinds of research that we do. There are many, very complex reasons for that.

You've written recently that we need to fundamentally change the power equations in our research ecosystems. You noted that the voice and role of practitioners is non-existent in the research ecosystem, and power concentrated with academia and policymakers. Could you share some examples of the gaps that research is not addressing?

Yes, we can take many examples. Anybody who picks up a research journal on education, and looks at the kinds of issues that are being researched, will be fascinated. Let me describe those issues. Why go far away from home, when we can confess to our own mistakes. There was a time when we conducted an extraordinarily rigorous randomised control trial-based research programme, for five years. At the end of that entire research period, if we take away the spin it might have been given to add a positive note, what we basically discovered was that if there are two teachers for the same number of children versus one teacher, then children learn better.

Now, is that something that needs to be rediscovered? Why did we frame the research that way? Why did we ask the question which led us in that direction at all? This is one kind of research where, when you are at a distance from the particular matter on hand, you end up asking questions which seem like you're going to discover something wonderful, but eventually you're discovering something which is obvious. So, one of the issues is that there is too much research, which is rediscovering the obvious. That is because of our distance from the particular issue.

Then there is a second category, where research is on a very particular issue which may be worthwhile to research, but you can't carry those findings anywhere else. The notion that you will discover some universal learning is not happening. The word 'research' is so imbued with meaning now, that when you do research, you imagine the findings will have large scale, perhaps universal implications. But you're researching something so particular, that the implications of your findings are very small.

I'll give you an example. How engaged is a local community of parents and the broader community, perhaps in a village, with the school? It's a very important determinant of what goes on in the school. Now, if you start researching how a particular school did a fantastic job of engaging the community and parents, you learn how they did it. But the 'translate-ability' of what you discovered from there, is very small beyond that particular school. Why? Because the overall principles of how the school would engage with the community are fairly well-known. How to implement these in a particular village, or a particular mohalla [neighbourhood], is a matter of human interaction and human dynamics. It's like asking, 'how do you do good parenting'. We can read all kinds of books on the principles of good parenting, but eventually, when it comes down to actual parenting, we're just parenting. That's what I mean when I say a lot of the research is very obvious, and very particular.

Third, and perhaps the most wasteful research of all, is that a lot of it is trivial. That's why I was writing about [the disconnect with] practitioners. In that particular article you mentioned, I wrote an example of research on the implication of having a boundary wall in schools on the learning level of children. Why would you research that? If you were to research the effect of a boundary wall on children's safety, one could understand, but why would you research its impact on learning levels? It sounds like a good question if you're distanced from the reality, and you think that somehow it might be playing a role, and you go around hunting for secondary literature and you figure out that that's something that you're interested in, and then you go after it because perhaps you're in a university and you can get the funding for it.

Thus, the obvious is being researched, the particular is being researched and the trivial is being researched. Sometimes these are not neat categories, and they can intersect. A classic example of the intersectional category is a randomised control trial-based research for a research paper questioning what is going to happen if we start placing cameras in classrooms. [You could find that] attendance will go up, or we can observe how teachers are teaching and tell them how to teach better. Do you need to do that? Don't you know how human beings react when a camera intrudes in a workspace of that kind, which in some sense is a personal space? Don't you know that there are ethical issues and basic human issues? Why would you do something of that nature when it's not the most important thing to do. Because you're disconnected [from the field of practice], therefore you have this hypothesis which you're trying to test.

In a country of our size, I must not suggest that all research by every individual or organisation is doing research of this kind. Of course, there's good research happening, people are doing wonderful work, but it's just too little. Most of it is stuff like this.

You've said that we are caught in a double bind, where those who know what needs to be researched do not have the capacity for research, and those who have the capacity for research are too often disconnected from reality. Could you highlight three issues that you feel should be focused on more, and two-three issues which should not be focused on?

I don't think it's possible to do that. You can't say three issues on this side, and three issues on that side. I've already talked about the categories of research you should not do. The reason is quite simple. I want to go back to where I started, which is that the key issue in education is to figure out how to improve it. We don't need to do more research on how to characterise or explain Indian education, etc. We need to figure out how to improve things.

Now, don't take my numbers too seriously, but 95-98% of the issues relating to how we can improve education are well understood. We have a problem with our teacher education system in India. We know that. The Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) system is of poor quality, corrupt, and so on. This has been known for a while. The National Education Policy, 2020 has done a fantastic job of confronting that issue, which needs to be fixed. We don't need to do research there. The shops which are selling B.Ed. degrees have to be shut down. A lot of new, good programmes inside good institutions should be started.

Then let's take examinations. We know that we are too dependent on examinations for assessing our children, and also that those examinations are too rote-, or procedurally oriented. They don't really assess whether children have understood concepts, can apply those concepts, or have developed the capacity to think critically, etc. So examinations have to be changed. There are even simpler matters. We know that there is an inadequate number of subject teachers in higher grades, and they have to be appointed. So at this kind of a level, it's not possible to say these are the big things on which to do research. That's not possible.

So, what could one do? From a structural perspective let the practitioners--the teachers, principals, block education officers, or the people who are writing textbooks--ask the questions that seem most important to them. Let them discover what works. Because if there's a challenge that a teacher or a school is facing, some other school must be doing a good job of addressing it. Let them discover that.

If you recollect the second category that I talked about, research on the particular, the most important thing is to drop the notion of universal learning from research projects in education. There is no universal learning. Imagine that if you do a better job of researching the particular, then those who face similar situations can be a lot more inspired by that, but it will have to be translated in their context.

Will requirements of education research remain the same forever? I don't think so. If the challenges that we're talking about change significantly, then perhaps the priorities in research would also change. First of all, let go of the notion that research should be explanatory. There's no point in trying to further explain and characterise, for example, how inequity in our education is still determined by caste hierarchies. We know that. There's no point in rediscovering that our teacher education is very poor, it's suboptimal. So there's no point in doing all that and no point in discovering the obvious or the trivial. Take what I call the particular and then expand that basket, and reconfigure our understanding of what research is used for in a field like education.

Let's look at some findings from NAS 2021, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Around 250 million Indian children could not go to school, and about 1.6 billion children globally, during the pandemic. India had the second longest school closure. What kinds of questions would you like answered at this point, given that we are grappling with traditional as well current problems?

The questions are actually reasonably simple and clear. That's why my emphasis is on letting the practitioners decide what the questions are. If you're a practitioner out in a classroom or school every day, the question is quite clear and is as follows. Take one of 10 teachers in a school, who is teaching class VI. This teacher is facing a classroom of let's say 25 children, and perhaps 15 of them have learning levels of class III or IV. Not only have two years of teaching been lost, children have also forgotten what they knew earlier. Therefore, in that illustrative class VI, there will be children at the class III level, some at class IV and some at class V level.

Now the question is, how does a teacher handle this. That's the basic question that's striking me. Now, the pedagogical practices to bring children who are at class III or IV level to class VI are well understood. They don't need to be rediscovered. The question is, how can that teacher facing that classroom be helped, because that teacher covers middle school and has not really practised class III teaching for a while. That is the question.

What might be the answers? A kind of teacher handbook needs to be developed, such that this middle school teacher who is unused to teaching class III or IV level children, can then be helped with the pedagogical practices. These kinds of teaching-learning material and workbooks can be developed for the teacher inside the classroom.

Then, and this is very important given the time crunch in terms of getting children back to the appropriate class level as soon as possible, research what we should be doing with the syllabus, such that we can reduce the syllabus without compromising on the learning outcomes we want. Essentially, reduce content. These are the issues that are really urgent and important today.

This [catch-up] is so urgent and important that it is just proceeding apace. The same practitioners in the state systems, in schools, in the State Council of Educational Research & Training, are doing it and it's not as if they are doing it without knowledge, understanding and wisdom. No real research has happened to inform this. So the research ecosystem is, I would say, more or less disconnected from this entire [catch-up] that's happening. A couple of years later, the research ecosystem will perhaps want to explain why it is that this part of the country did better, or how did state X improve things a lot more, etc.

Going back to the basic point, education research needs to focus on improvement. The research ecosystem, which is perhaps too incentivised to publish papers, should forget about that and get deeply involved in the matter at hand. Think of it as short cycle research to help construct that handbook that I talked about, or construct the teaching-learning material that I talked about, or to help reconfigure the syllabus in an effective manner.

What are you doing to address the post-Covid gap in this space, as an active practitioner at a university level? What insights are you bringing back from the many schools you visit across the country, and in areas that you are working in?

Because we have such a large team on the ground, we work directly with thousands and thousands of government schools. Therefore, we have tried to focus our research entirely on questions that arise from the ground in the here and now. In fact, it's because of this that we caught the issue of learning loss very early, which is rightly the most important issue that the country is trying to tackle. We caught this issue by September-October 2020. That's how we were able to research it with a fair amount of rigour with a very large sample of students in December 2020, and by January-February 2021, we published perhaps the first research report on learning loss [during the pandemic].

It took us 5-7 years to reconfigure our own understanding of how to determine research priorities. What are the questions to ask, how to research them rigorously, and quickly enough to be useful. That's about research within our organisation. Then we've had a substantial programme on external research grants that we give out to other organisations.

We've been talking today about school education, but any field of human action, whether it's public health or livelihoods, are very similar fields. These are fields of action, not explanatory fields like sociology, physics, chemistry or biology. [In these explanatory fields], you should be researching and developing knowledge. You don't necessarily know what is going to come out of it, but expanding the frontiers of human knowledge in such explanatory fields is very useful in itself. The dynamics in the fields of action, such as public health or livelihoods, are very akin to what we've been talking about in education.

You've been seeing a lot of stories of optimism and good examples during your school visits that other schools or education systems can replicate across the country. What are some examples?

Let's start with the bad news first, which is just a reaffirmation of what all of us know, that there's just an absolutely staggering loss of learning. As I keep saying to everyone, it's nobody's fault. It's not the state governments' fault, or the teachers' fault. It's nobody's fault. If schools were shut down, children have not learned and that's it. But the loss of learning is staggering and across the board, in large schools, small schools, urban areas, rural areas.

The good news is, first, that most state governments, who are really responsible for running schools, over the past five-six months have started taking significant actions to try and recover lost learning. I don't think these actions across all states are adequate or adequately thought through. And of course, implementation is the crux of everything. But the important point is that what I saw nine months ago, when too many states were in a state of denial, is no longer [the case]. Second is that actually, we know what to do, it's just a question of how it has to be done. Third, there are extraordinary heroic people, and I'm not talking about 10, 15, 20 people, but about thousands and thousands of teachers who, throughout the pandemic, somehow engaged with the children, and who today are doing things that are way beyond the call of duty, beyond what one would expect of an average teacher, to just help these children who have lost two years of learning. Those are three really positive things that I see.

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