Who needs classrooms?

Who needs classrooms?

Monday November 16, 2015,

10 min Read

Education in India is woefully deficient, both quantitatively and qualitatively. That is hardly a novel observation. Indeed, it is the reason Pratham, the organization I head, was founded in 1994, with the motto, “Every child in school and learning well.”

During my years of working in this field, India has made efforts to improve the status of education, but these repeated reform efforts haven’t delivered what is needed because they are aimed at merely expanding and enhancing the existing structure and systems. The futility of these measures has led inexorably to the conclusion that the system is not only inadequate and incapable of meeting the demands of a changing India, it is fundamentally bankrupt.


The traditional model of the Indian school has never served the vast swath of the student population from socio economically disadvantaged families, because it is simply designed to push out those who cannot survive the cramming grind to reach the tertiary level.

So impervious is the system to genuine improvement that for the past couple of years I have been asking my colleagues whether Pratham should perhaps change its motto to, “Every child not in school but learning well.” As shall be seen from the admittedly radical vision I propose below, I am only half joking.

Since 2005, we have been facilitating the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, ah-sir meaning “impact”), which is based on data collected by volunteers in close to 15,000 villages around the country. Year after year, the reports show that although very high percentages of children are enrolled in schools at the elementary level, the amount of learning they experience is appallingly low.

Root of the problem

In 2012, the overall enrollment of children up to age 10 stood at 96 percent. However, less than half of those in the fifth grade can read a second grade text, and three out of four have difficulty solving a simple division problem. Barely 30 pecent of children make it to secondary school and fewer still beyond as barriers of gender, distance, costs, and simple inadequacy of infrastructure and qualified teachers make it impossible to pursue learning.

The quality of learning among those who do make it past eighth grade is so poor that two Indian states participating in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey for 15-year-olds still in school stood 72nd and 73rd among 74 global participants. What is worse, their modal scores in reading and math literacy were at the lowest possible level just because PISA did not allow an even lower grade.

The focus on “completing the curriculum” and imparting knowledge rather than learning skills, is at the root of the problem. Most children start lagging behind from the primary stage as the teacher rushes through textbooks in front of a multi-grade class or one that is full of students at vastly different levels of skill attainment. The front of the class is “taught,” while the rest simply lose interest. Predictably, by the time they reach secondary school, children in the back of the class who have neither skills nor knowledge, often find themselves unprepared to advance even to vocational training, let alone tertiary education. They start manual work and somehow learn on the job what the system could not teach them.

The system reflects industrial revolution-type thinking of a factory assembly line, wholly unsuited for modern times. Classes are regimented with the goal of passing mass examinations. We focus on language and grammar rather than communication; we focus on cramming laws of science while ignoring the understanding of technology — a linear process that kills initiative and curiosity. Children are neither learning the basics required in the past century, nor are they being prepared with life skills required to navigate a much more challenging future.

Colleges isolated from society

Thus the Right to Education (RTE) Act, enacted in 2009, is proving to be a “right to schooling” act with very poor correlation between years of schooling and the actual learning/education acquired. Unfortunately, RTE followed previous (unsuccessful) efforts to set things right. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (educational for all mission) was aimed at enrolling all children aged six to 14 by guaranteeing that primary schools would be available within one kilometer of all homes and would provide students with a proper midday meal as an incentive for continued attendance.

Although enrollment levels have been high and over 87 percent of schools provide hot cooked mid-day meals, attendance in many states is between 50 percent and 80 percent, indicating that the enticement of food is not adequate to spur participation in a dysfunctional academic system. Before that was the ‘New Education Policy’ of 1986 that supposedly made primary education a national priority, including the allocation of substantial new resources. The Constitution of India itself directed the State in 1950 to provide free and compulsory education to all children up to the age of 14 within 10 years. At the center of all these initiatives was the ‘school’, which was to take charge of children’s education.

Although we acknowledge the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” our schools and colleges are isolated from society. Barring a small percentage of exceptional individuals, those appointed to teach at any level have neither the knowledge nor skills to educate. Meanwhile, the human resources of skilled and knowledgeable people in other occupations have no role to play in transferring their competencies to the next generation. This is purely because the process of certification is monopolistically controlled by boards, universities and government institutions that are hidebound and barely changing.

Open schools

The Education Policy of 1986 said in its very first paragraphs that linear approaches will not suffice to meet the challenges of the future. Open Universities and Open Schools have arisen but they are the system’s stepchildren. Even though they have opened doors to those who cannot enter mainstream institutions, they are burdened by all the features of traditional universities except for distance-learning materials they provide.

All the above raises a question, the mere asking of which may strike some as bizarre: Why are schools and colleges needed at all?

Their job ostensibly is to transfer knowledge. But they also serve two other functions — not terribly well, but better than their provision of instruction. First, they provide day-care for young children, keeping them safe and out of trouble as parents go about their work. Second, they provide an environment in which to learn social skills. These are important functions that need to be taken seriously and developed systematically with significant contribution from human resources in the surrounding community, while reorganizing the learning process from early childhood to adolescence.

Fortunately, the development of new information technologies offers significant opportunity to change the organization of the overall learning process. By creating new pathways for children to learn in nonlinear ways with interactions and access to the wider world that current schooling doesn’t provide, technology helps enable a rethink of the whole system.

Here, then, is what I propose

First, we should move away from the age-grade system that is now formalized in the RTE act. Instead we need an age-stage system that allows children to meet learning goals in both the social and academic sphere when they are ready, transitioning to each stage at their own pace.

I envision three main stages. The first stage, for children up to the age of eight or 10, would be to learn to socialize and attain basic learning skills, including elementary reading, writing, and math along with speaking, expressing, and thinking. Such ‘schools’ would have many features of day-care centers with parents and/or older siblings taking turns to participate in the classroom. This would be as much for the sake of the children’s learning as it would be for improving the ability of mothers and fathers to deal with children and help them learn at home.

The role of parents in bringing up and educating children deserves much greater emphasis. Just as maternity leave is now recognized as a necessity, allowing time for parents to participate in their children’s learning — with compensation for daily wage workers if need be — should be possible. After all, we have a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Why couldn’t parents be compensated for this work of national importance?

The pedagogy to teach basics of learning skills is not rocket science. I would expect older children to deal with texts and problems at a simple level more or less independently and to be able to use computers or tablets to retrieve and enter information. I see this neighborhood day-care cum school catering to no more than 100 children, which is about the average size of an Indian primary school.

At the second stage, for children as young as nine to as old as 16, the ‘school’ would really be a social hub or a Children’s Club. It would cater to about 500 children from different communities, with community spokes that are learning centers with digital learning equipment and a couple of facilitators supervising about 100 children in batches. Half the children would be playing, painting or engaging in other enjoyable activities at the Club while the other half would be working at the learning centers.

Local artists, craftspeople, and athletic coaches would engage children at these Clubs while counselors would help with issues of growing up. Online assistance and audiovisual material created by expert communicator-teachers in different subjects would be available so that children could plan their studies with the help of mentors. There would be no need to learn an entire curriculum at any particular age; rather, students would navigate studies in one subject or skill at a time and get certified in phases by varied authorities whenever they are ready for examinations that could be taken multiple times in a year.

Focus on teachers

In tertiary education, for children 16 and above, online courses accompanied by availability of licensed tutors would become the norm. The tutors would be compensated with vouchers, either given free by the government or by donors, or purchased depending on the students’ family circumstances. For example, a student might choose to learn accounting online and hire a tutor locally or online to help out. If the student is learning sciences, a facility with laboratory equipment should be accessible.

And why should a student in rural Odisha not have access to the best teachers of Delhi, especially if those teachers are government paid? Elite institutions have created artificial barriers of admission while their teachers draw salaries from public funds. Lectures, notes, and assignments of any teacher paid by the government should be online. Teachers who are found to be unqualified should all become tutors or assistants in courses given by the masters.

Presumably the reason for my reconsideration of Pratham’s motto is now clear. Remember, this is the land of Ekalavya — a hero of the epic ‘Mahābhārata’ — who because of his caste was denied access to the knowledge of Dronacharya, the great teacher of the Pandavs and Kauravs princes. When it turns out that Ekalavya has taught himself to become a superbly-skilled archer, he is not only denied certification but inhumanly prohibited from using his “illegally acquired” knowledge.

It is time to create pathways for the Ekalavyas who are denied access to the masters and high quality content with a chance to compete for high level certification. What I have proposed may appear anarchic and impractical. But there are elements of what is possible tomorrow in the reality of today. India should seize the opportunity to reinvent its education process.

About the Author:

Madhav Chavan is the Founder and CEO of Pratham. This essay was originally published in Reimagining India.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory)