Anurag Behar – Plenary Talk at Asha-24


Anurag Behar is the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, Vice Chancellor of Azim Premji University and Chief Sustainability Officer of Wipro Limited. Anurag has been closely involved with efforts to improve education in India for the past eleven years. He has been a vocal advocate of the importance of public systems, in particular the public education system. He delivered the plenary talk at the Asha-24 conference at the University of Florida at Gainesville via video-conference. A synopsis of his talk follows.

A recording of the talk is available here. Other posts about the conference are available here.

“On a Sunday, at a Block Resource Center in Barmer, Rajasthan, a group of teachers were discussing cell biology. On a day that could have been their holiday, these teachers had traveled 30-40kms, at their own expense and in their own time, with a stated intent of “learning to be better teachers.” These were teachers of a government school in a remote part of India, and this sight is not an isolated instance.” Anurag stressed that such commitment from govt. school teachers has been observed across various districts that the Azim Premji Foundation (APF) works. The anecdote, perhaps, changes the way we perceive govt. school teachers in India.  

With this understanding, Anurag’s talk focussed on 3 major areas – the journey of the Azim Premji Foundation; their learnings along the way; and what they believe to be fundamentally important to education.

The Journey of APF

APF’s journey began in 1999-2000, when the core team traveled across India to meet with people working in the social sector. A strong intuition led them to conclude that working on education could have the greatest multiplier effect. They decided to,

  1. Be an operating organization as opposed to a grant-making organization.
  2. Work with the Public education system, and
  3. Try to improve the system, rather than try to augment it.

Over the next decade, the foundation tried various projects such as developing workbooks for Rajasthan, assessment reform – from rote memorization to higher order skills, forayed into Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Education, with a video-based approach through CDs, and many more. In 2009-10 they moved from a ‘project mode’ to an ‘institutional mode’ of working.

Today, APF is focused entirely on aspects of quality and inclusion in public education. They run the Azim Premji University and offer masters in education and development with an intent of developing professionals who can contribute to education and in social segments of the country. APF does field work in 45 districts across Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, MP, Chattisgarh, Karnataka and Bihar – on school, district and state levels. They work across grades and subjects; with school administrators, Block Education Officers and district level officials. The focus is on capacity development, curriculum development, policy, teacher education, assessment and better management. All this is done in collaboration with the State, through their district and state level institutes – to improve the system itself than try to augment it.

Learnings on Education

Anurag summarized APF’s experience in education with these 3 learnings –

  • Education is a deeply socio-political process, not a technocratic endeavor.

From defining the essence of education (Is it for developing a workforce or a just, humane and democratic society?) to the location of the school (Is it in the ‘higher caste area’ of the village or the ‘lower caste area’?) to what transpires in a classroom (Are all children treated equally? Are some children sent for cleaning duties based on their caste?) – the socio-political nature of education is inescapable.

  • Education is incredibly complex.

Working on education also means working on all things connected to it. This implies material, pedagogy, teachers, management, administration, policy makers etc,  for substantial change. An implication of this complexity is that change takes an inordinate amount of time. Transforming education is a generational issue; it doesn’t happen over a few years. Additional institutional structed have to be created to make education sustainable.

  • Education is a matter of expertise, great depth and specificity.

The role of a teacher is one of the most complex duties that one can undertake. Just the knowledge of a subject matter doesn’t make a good teacher. Understanding good teaching processes, pedagogy, classroom behavior, interpersonal skills are the metrics that teachers must be well versed with.


What is important for Education?

From the various experiences with the Azim Premji Foundation and outside, Anurag picks 3 threads that he believes are vital today –

1. Pre-service teacher education (B.Ed and D.Ed systems)

India now has 16,000 colleges to educate teachers through the B.Ed and the D.Ed system – far from the number that other countries in the world have. Additionally, 90% of these institutions are private and were established only in the last 20 years, when the sector was deregulated with extremely low oversight. The D. Ed is a 2 year diploma course after class XII – not something that you see in many other parts of the world. This ensures that the teachers are neither proficient in any subject matter, nor do they have the maturity to handle a class of students.

Anurag, in his talk, proposed an integrated 5-year program in Teacher Education/Sciences after XII, as recommended by the Justice Verma commission on education. The program should have subject matter threaded together with educational aspects to prepare them to teach. Professionalism of a teacher has a serious impact on the environment of the class/school and such an integrated program can make strides towards a making professional teacher.

2. Capacity building for existing teachers

India currently has 8 million teachers who have been trained inadequately, but will determine the future of school education for the next 25 years! Definitely not all are bad teachers. School teachers follow the same performance curve as any industry: 20% teachers are extremely motivated, 60% average and 20% disengaged. We need to work towards capacity building of existing teachers while trying to improve the quality of new teachers entering the workforce.

3. Invest in institutional structures

As mentioned earlier, to make education sustainable, institutions have to be built. There exists a need to plug institutional gaps at various levels – teacher education, creating experts in education (Ms/PhD in education) etc. We have 400-500 educational experts graduating annually for all of India, while Canada – with a significantly smaller population – has 2000 a year. This is not because of a lack of opportunity. The govt. has invested in DIET centers (District Institutes of Education and Training) that, although funded, have 68% vacancies!

Anurag addressed the rise of private schooling by suggesting that the widespread notion about improved education in private schools being a fallacy; private schools cannot not solve India’s education problem. Contrary to what news organizations tell us, a large percentage of teachers do their job well when provided the right resources.

Q&A session

Asha volunteers enquired about APFs involvement with the home environment, which has a greater impact on educational attainment than the school itself; and on matters of nutrition, which has shown to have a huge impact. Anurag recognized the importance of these aspects, but mentioned that the APF does not focus on these. On the question of vocational training, Anurag says, “We are clear that we cannot do everything. We are clear that we want to focus on basic education. But, we (in general) overestimate the importance of vocational training and underestimate the importance of basic education to vocations.”

He had two suggestions for Asha –

  1. Stay with the same organization – help in developing them as institutions through sustained funding and sustained support.
  2. Deeply reflect upon your journey so far, and develop a socio-political view of education that you are committed to.

Lastly, on the question of measurement, he asserted that assessments cannot be used for system level decisions and addressed the issue of ‘teaching to the test’ that inevitably arises. Anurag ended his engrossing talk with a memorable quote, ‘The desire to see measurement is a function of your distance from the issue.’