Can PISA scare India yet again or will our unique multiculturalism stand us in a good stead?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial survey that evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students who are nearing the end of their compulsory education. In 2018, it introduced a new category for testing, in addition to literacy, numeracy, and scientific knowledge, global competence.

PISA outlines ‘global competence’ as learners’ capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues to understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others. It is a test to see if a learner can engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures and if they can act for collective well-being and sustainable development for all. A year after PISA’s decision to incorporate global competence, India is gearing up to enter the fray.

Simulation of an architectural dig at Daly College, Indore

A closer look at India’s decision to taking the PISA test

In 2019, after a decade of boycotting PISA, which Indian Express reports, was a decision taken under UPA government who cited “out of context questions” as a reason, India is finally biting the bullet to re-enter the arena of global competence testing. In the wake of an overall systemic shift in the educational policies in India that have encouraged learning ecosystems to transition from rote learning to competency-based learning, taking the test seems like a good plan. As a result, early in January this year, the HRD Ministry signed an agreement with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to seal India’s participation in PISA 2021. The test will be adapted to local cultural contexts as well as languages and will be taken by the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) and schools in the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

At Humayun’s Tomb, where Flow facilitator is conducting a school programme that mainstreams heritage and culture

Global competency test’s relevance to India

While India has been toying with the idea of taking the PISA test for several years, it did not sign the deal until now perhaps daunted by its poor performance in the past. Interestingly, the fear of performance may also be assailing some of the world rankers! Key western countries, some of which have ranked well in literacy, numeracy and scientific thinking, did not opt to take the test on global competence when it was introduced in 2018. These countries included England, the United States, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland. OECD has suggested that the primary reason for this could be their apprehension that the pupils will not fare well when tested on their understanding of world issues and their dispositions around intercultural perspectives, which in turn is built on the foundation of cultural empathy.

For a country like India, where multicultural competence is of an essence to build future citizens, taking the test seems like a natural choice. Especially with the big talk on tradition and culture and the overall sense of representing the plural nature of our country in forums where India speaks her speak, should its future citizens not give evidence of dispositions for multiculturalism? OECD press releases so far, however, do not enlighten us about India’s preference for taking this component of the test. The decision of the ministry in this regard, when we do get to know of it, will reflect on how we think we have shaped the minds of learners, are they aware of discrimination against caste, class, colour, religion, gender, and sexuality? Do they understand these categories that inform our culture? Have we built the generation next’s skills and dispositions on matters of cultural competence? Are we ready to see where we rank?

Learners at work

At Flow, we strongly believe that the approach to building engagement with culture lies in allowing learners enough opportunities for exposure to cultural stimuli, building awareness on the complex nature of these stimuli and allowing them to interact with these in real-world setups. Such engagements will foster in learners the human capacity to perceive connections across cultures, peoples, and practices. The mindset leading such learning engagements has to be transdisciplinary too so it can build models that draw from the richness of a variety of knowledge systems.

Learning innovation now has to take into account that the pathways to achieving plural goals lie in creating a bouquet of opportunities for learning. These opportunities have to be designed as if they were nuclear reactors: each module capable of engendering exponentially more modules. Organizations attempting to solve learning inadequacies need to move away from piecemeal solutions that stop where they begin, and look at ruptures in systems and try to suture them. It requires us, Flow included, to be constantly on our feet to think of multi-pronged solutions using combinations that range from tactile to visual to aural to cerebral.

Museum learning class at Maritime Museum gallery in National Museum, Delhi
Flow’s VR cum heritage project, Culture Connectors

This approach to learning innovation has led us to combine experiential learning enabled by cultural spaces with immersive digital interactions. We are constantly trying to build a bridge between real-world environments and those that can be manufactured through technologies. We see value in both. We are attempting to occupy that space that respects tangible heritage as well as intangible, yet-to-arrive-fully post-internet reality. We owe it to our learners to create innovative learning strategies, products, and services that can help them thread the uncertain future, whose map is getting increasingly difficult to make, with confidence and courage. What they need from us, is a dynamic learning space that can have in-built structures that can be broken and re-imagined, structures that can and will evolve. Are we ready? We are finding our answers, are you?




Flow India is an education and culture organization with a human-centred design focus.

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Flow India

Flow India

Flow India is an education and culture organization with a human-centred design focus.

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