Interview for WISR book 31st May 2012
Professor Anil K Gupta
Professor Gupta has been a professor in the Centre for Management in Agriculture at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, since 1981. He is the founder of the Honey Bee Network, a fellow of WAAS, and the Executive Vice Chair of the National Innovation Foundation. He is also co-ordinator of the Society for Research and Initiative for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions ( SRISTI).
Authenticity – According to Professor Gupta, one of the most significant challenges facing education and learning, both in India and beyond, is ‘a lack of authenticity’. He felt that classroom teaching was now so focused on instruction and curriculums, that teachers had forgotten the importance of observation as a learning tool. The chasm between what one says and practices can not be a matter of personal preference for a teacher. No matter how much autonomy and independence one may seek, one is constrained to perform a social role. This chasm is not just between teacher and taught but also other actors in the knowledge network including parents, policy makers, managers of the system and larger socio-cultural context. Surely, authenticity like integrity can not always be legislated. But we can create learning situations in which the need for it can become more apparent and compulsive. Innovations are required which make chasm eloquent, manifest and thus difficult to push it under the carpet of exigencies.
As part of his work with the Honey Bee Network and the National Innovation Foundation, Professor Gupta takes groups of international and local people, on learning walks ( shodhyatras) around different regions of India. These walks are designed to demonstrate the importance of learning through observation, interaction and empathetic assimilation. There are four teachers from which learning is triggered: teacher with in, teacher among peers, teacher in nature and teacher among creative communities at grassroots.
Only by walking through the slums and rural villages of India can you observe the potential for innovation and creativity among the poorest people in society. Only by giving students an opportunity to interact with their subject matter through real world experience can you encourage them to genuinely value learning. His argument was that teaching had become so constricted by curriculum and standards that any connection with the real world had been lost. Students are instructed, they are not encouraged to learn through observation and internal dialogue.
Responsibility – Professor Gupta also argued that once you have encouraged students to observe and reflect on what is going on around them, you must encourage them to take responsibility for what they see. He felt that students should be encouraged to ask how they should use their learning, or to question whether or not they are accountable for what they learn about. He used Chris Argyris’ theory of double loop learning (in which an individual, organisation or entity is able, having attempted to achieve a goal, to modify or reject the goal in the light of experience) to demonstrate the limitations of our own system. He modifies it to add triple loop i.e. when internal dialogue changes the criteria for defining what is a valid knowledge.
Feedback on past mistakes is not affecting the way we organise society or the way we teach our students. Students are rarely encouraged to change the way they live their own lives based on the mistakes of their predecessors. They are not being taught to take accountability for societal problems but are instead taught that they are separate from them. As a result the potential for social feedback to affect how we make decisions is lost and the mistakes of the past are repeated – a single loop system of learning.
Deviance – As well as a lack of accountability, Professor Gupta felt there was a lack of deviance in the educational system. In other words students should be encouraged to question what they are being taught, and teachers should be encouraged to learn from their students. If teachers can acknowledge the fallibility of their own knowledge, learning becomes shared and students become active contributors to the knowledge system. He observed that the popularity of social networks ( with obvious limitations though) is partly indicative of this desire for shared and communal learning, so ignored by the mainstream education system.
The Honey Bee Network – The Honey Bee Network was founded as a direct response to what Professor Gupta saw as a system of education and innovation that ignored the poor. The network looks for grass-roots innovators and connects them with each other and the wider world, giving them both a voice and an identity. It scopes, documents, and asses’ grassroots innovators and their innovations in a number of different countries globally (including China, Malaysia, Spain and Brazil). It then connects the innovator with industry experts (such as fabricators, medical labs, service designers etc.,) who can help them to develop their innovations, and finally it provides access to funding through a micro venture finance mechanism.
The Honey Bee Network is founded on the premise that the best innovations comes from a cross-pollination of ideas, in which knowledge is shared between people from all sections of society. But this can only be achieved by making knowledge available in local languages and in multiple formats, supporting the smallest rural farmer or artisan or mechanic in developing his ideas. Our knowledge system is dominated by ‘asymmetry’; the creation and affirmation of knowledge is controlled by a small section of the global population, often with a vested interest in the preservation of the status quo.
One of his proudest achievements is the inclusion of the Honey Bee Network within India’s National Innovation Foundation of which he is now executive vice-chair. By giving the ‘faceless innovator’ a voice in the national innovation system, the Honey Bee Network has made a significant contribution to the creation of a new knowledge system, one in which traditional knowledge producers at the top of society recognise the potential contribution of those at the bottom.
Future of Work – Professor Gupta felt that in the future we will need to completely reclassify the knowledge system. We will question the kind of knowledge we want and need and what we currently see as important. The kind of knowledge system Professor Gupta envisages is one in which we create new connections that break down existing knowledge silos, between nature and technology, nature and medicine, medicine and social policy. But the inertia in the system and the control exerted over knowledge by large vested interests means this transformation will be slow.
Alongside the transformation of the knowledge system will come a transformation in the way we work. Professor Gupta suggested that in the future only 25%-40% of our time will be spent working in a fixed place along traditional lines. The rest of the time will be split between ‘walking’ and observing the world and asking questions about what we are doing. We are going to spend ‘less time doing things and more time deciding what to do and how to do it efficiently’. From this perspective learning is very much built in to the fabric of work.
Professor Gupta summarised by arguing that the current education system was without sensitivity or empathy; ‘we know a lot, we feel very little, and we do even less’.
Anil K Gupta