This island of excellence stands out in a rotten education system
Education is one of India’s biggest failures. Before independence, India’s best minds came from public schools. Today, they are so rotten that poor parents transfer their children from free public schools to expensive but better private schools.
In a PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) competition in 2012, India came second to last among 73 countries despite being represented by its two best states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. The official reaction was to stop participating in PISA and to criticize the PISA methodology. In contrast, Vietnam viewed PISA as a means of discovering and correcting its educational weaknesses, and has risen today near the top of PISA. Fortunately, India has finally emerged and plans to resume PISA competition in 2021.
Rote learning is the rule in most Indian schools. The goal is to learn the answers by heart and not to question teachers, experiment with new ideas or argue. The government emphasizes inputs such as classrooms, toilets and lunches, not learning outcomes.
TS Eliot once asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? The Indian school system focuses on information rather than knowledge, and certainly not wisdom.
Fortunately, experiments are underway to change the system. Recently, I visited Agastya International Foundation’s “Campus Creativity Lab” in a rural area of Kuppam district, Andhra Pradesh. Launched by Ramji Raghavan, it targets five fundamental changes in learning. These range from ‘yes’ to ‘why’, from ‘watching’ to ‘learning to observe’, from ‘passive absorption’ to ‘exploration’, from ‘textbook bound or internet addict’ to “practice”, and from “fear” to “confidence”.
School children experience hands-on techniques in arts, crafts and science. They imagine projects and carry them out. Raghavan describes his three techniques as “Ah, Aha and Ha Ha”.
“Ah” is what children exclaim when simple, counter-intuitive experiments, patterns, and experiments are used to create wonder, delight, curiosity, and excitement.
“Aha” is what children say when they gain knowledge encouraged by a spirit of inquiry, exploration, discovery and perseverance through projects and discussions.
“Ha Ha” is the replacement of typical student fear and anxiety with joy and fun, creating positive emotional connections to learning.
Raghavan recounts how two rural schoolgirls from her school sat under a peepul tree and started discussing why it was cooler there and whether different leaves produced different types of chill. They developed this into a project that won them an Intel-IRIS Science Award in a national competition.
In another case, a girl told the class how her father, a laborer, came home with blisters on his hands. Through discussions with other children and teachers, she used school facilities to develop a new glove with padding in the exact places where her father had wounds, and open places in between for ventilation. It’s the kind of learning and innovation that can ultimately create Silicon Valleys in India.
Agastya is not just a school. It has a 172-acre campus that welcomes 650 school children from nearby neighborhoods every day. It covers thousands of villages with 200 mobile labs that allow village children to conduct science experiments with the best lab equipment that public schools can only dream of. It even has bike labs to transport the wonders of science experiments to more villages.
AHA TO HAHA LEARNING: More institutions like the Agastya Foundation are needed to help open young minds
Agastya now has a large presence in India. It manages 70 different scientific centers. It organizes evening schools in 540 villages. Having discovered that some children have a talent for teaching, Agastya has trained more than 14,000 instructors of young people, who are simply children trained to teach other children. This develops early leadership skills and makes learning friendly and fun.
As his fame has spread, seven states now send their teachers to Agastya for teacher training, to find ways to engage and open young minds. Since its creation, Agastya has reached more than 10 million children (half of them girls) and trained more than 250,000 teachers.
When I was at Agastya, I met a delegation of teachers from Great Britain who had come to see what they could learn from Agastya. I found it comforting that even in a stinking swamp like Indian upbringing, certain islands of excellence command international respect.
Agastya is blessed with visionary founders and strong support from Infosys, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and a host of other corporate donors. Even so, it only makes a small dent in the pathetic quality of Indian education. We need comprehensive school reform. Until then, a thousand institutions like Agastya are needed. Their reach may be limited, but they can help open millions of young minds that would otherwise remain locked in dysfunctional public schools.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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