IIT & IIM alumnus sets up school in rural Bengal to develop thinking minds
Arghya Banerjee is an educationist with a vision to help children think for themselves. Through his dream project, Levelfield School, he challenges the conventional modes of learning that encourages a tender mind to memorise and learn monotonously without understanding the real value of what is being taught.
In a rustic town of West Bengal, he has kindled hundreds of minds with his innovative approach that respects the students and their flexibility to adapt and know.
Despite the odds, Arghya is convinced he is on a merited level playing field. His young students are happy and willing although their conservative parents are somewhat still befuddled by his ways.
As per the Nationwide Asset Test result, (2013 Winter Round, conducted by Educational Initiatives) – Levelfield School, Suri, Birbhum District, West Bengal, ranked among the top 10 schools in the country. This was an excellent achievement for a new school from a provincial town where children did not know ‘English’. In 2011, Levelfield School won the prestigious Sankalp Awards for impact enterprise in education.
Levelfield School was started with the aim to provide high quality education at an affordable price for the local kids in towns and villages. Arghya reminisces, “As a founding member of Irevna, an equity research outsourcing firm, I ideated and executed its recruitment and training initiatives. Within five years, Irevna was a 100 crore company that employed 500 people. However, I was surprised to find that most of the Indian graduates were not job ready. We had to teach them basic skills like logical thinking, succinct writing and effective communication. Giving such lessons was quite a late intervention for a 25-26 year old employee. He should have learnt these competencies at the school level itself.” Arghya was concerned that most job seekers did not read enough. “If you don’t read enough, you do not get a sense of how things really are.”
By now, his entrepreneurial instincts had paved the way for an extraordinary vision that was slowly being nurtured within. Around the same time, Arghya was looking for a right school for his three-year-old daughter. He deliberates, “Chennai is a good place for schools. Even then, most of the institutions advertise air-conditioned classrooms and large campuses but they don’t really talk about ‘how’ things would be taught.”
He started toying with the idea of opening a kindergarten and primary school with a remarkably distinct methodology. It was difficult for him to start a school in Kolkata because he needed a huge amount of financing and a partner to whom he could convince his modus operandi. Arghya says, “Most people are afraid to try out something new. They want established ideas. They would ask how many schools are practicing or using this format. Obviously my answer was none. That’s why I built the school in Suri, my hometown.”
Arghya spent the first 10 years of his life in Suri. Many promising students could not succeed due to the lack of exposure in a small town. He believes, “Talent is equally distributed everywhere. You have to hone these skills early in life. By the time these children get older, the gap between them and the urban kids is so large that it’s impossible to bridge. I also wanted to give my daughter a non-city life. With an initial investment of Rs 50 lakh from my savings and bank finance, I set up Levelfield School with the intention of giving the students from these lesser known places a level playing field.”
In the first batch of April 2010, Tanushree, who lived in a nearby village, joined Levelfield School in Class II. Like the other 20 students from Bengali medium schools in her class, Tanushree would just stare blankly at her teacher when she spoke in English, the medium of instruction. Arghya and his dedicated team laboured with their in-house teaching materials and new techniques to work at her skills holistically over the past few years. In 2013, she took the Asset test and was placed in the top one percent all over India. Tanushree speaks, argues and debates in fluent English now. Her reading abilities have improved and she can read most of the books meant for her age. She and her team came first in a recently held panel discussion contest in their school.
Students like Tanushree have made Arghya determined in his pursuits. Other than Asset, he made his students appear for standardised tests by Olympiad and Macmillan. Their performance was far better than students of the city schools. “Our lowest score in Maths for a Class III student was 88 percentile. It gave me a lot of confidence that these children are growing and improving. I don’t really need to be apologetic about my ways. I feel satisfied today when I see their test scores, how well they speak English and how independent and intuitive their thinking is,” beams Arghya.
In building Levelfield, Arghya faced some of the biggest hurdles from the parents. “We meet them thrice a year to discuss their child’s progress. Most of the meetings go in discussing the schools’s methodology. I interact with the parents in large groups as well to discuss our educational philosophy.” He argues, “Even if you are studying for four hours in a day getting the correct skills, then you are moving in the right direction. It’s useless memorising for 10 hours in a day!” He explains that for a subject like English they do not teach from one text book many times over. Instead, they encourage their students to read 20 books throughout the year.
Arghya and his team have arduously rewritten children’s classics with exercises inserted in between the lines, probed the method scientifically over long hours and graded these materials according to the level of difficulty. Up to Class IV, the whole focus is on getting the students prepared to battle a whole range of subjects in the upper classes. “They need to write, speak, read and solve better.”
He is bewildered when parents, conditioned by schooling stereotypes, still ask about the textbooks. In good humour, he says, “Then I understood the definition of a book. In their mind, it has to be something that is boring and has to be memorised. Otherwise it’s not a book. Anything you read and get pleasure out of that does not qualify as a book.” Even while teaching history, geography and English, Arghya does not follow narrow subject boundaries. “In a class of English language, a battle due to a border dispute will have elements of history, geography and some science as well.”
He selects his teachers who have studied in good colleges with good results, communicate well and most importantly have some common sense. B.Ed degrees have no value for him because it is part of the same education system following the conventional path. He admits, “I have been totally uncompromising in my ways. Because I was starting my own venture, I did not have to prove my credibility to anyone. With no partner, I had zero interference and just did what I believed was right.”
Several innovations enable the school to charge an affordable fee, while retaining the best quality. Arghya has ensured optimal utilisation of school premises through multiple timings for students, focused on ability rather than experience in recruitment of teachers, intensive teacher-training program to make fresh teachers classroom-ready, developed in- house teaching aids, and created a solid teaching infrastructure. “Our approach is about application-based education as opposed to rote learning. We have a policy of no private tuitions, no textbooks and no homework. We endeavour to strengthen the life skills by virtue of which students can acquire knowledge. We emphasise on reading skills and logic, encouraging students to learn from unconventional sources like Japanese puzzles, literature, documentaries and movies.”
At present, Levelfield has 300 students from LKG to Class VI. While it will grow organically to Class X, it also plans to expand to other district towns and Kolkata in the coming years. With the model proven, Arghya wants to partner with business houses who would invest into building more branches of Levelfield Schools, in and around Kolkata. “If there is a real estate firm who sets up the new school then I would like to run that school.” He is also dabbling with the idea of using technology to create an application for reading development and thinking orientation math, and to spread the same to iPhones and Androids.
An alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Ahmedabad, the crusader says, “The big change that needs to happen should be in the exam system. You change the exam, you change the whole system. If the exams are based on rote learning, no matter how much you teach, learning with understanding is not going to happen. We Indians are very exam oriented. We do whatever it takes to do well in exams. If we make the exams thinking-oriented, young talent will bloom to its fullest potential in India.”