The notion of education conjures up images of class rooms, text books, tutorials and high-stress examinations in my mind but little did I realise that education can equally be a process of observation, discovery, self-learning, also associated with outdoors and a fun-filled experience. A few weeks ago, I was invited by Creya Learning, a Hyderabad based start-up that focuses primarily on tool kits and methods for experiential learning, to visit them. Creya had been mandated to run a summer camp being conducted by Telangana Social Welfare Residential Institutions Society (TSWREIS), an arm of the Telangana Government.
To establish context, TSWREIS has been carrying out annual summer camps called Summer Samurai across 70-80 locations in the state for the last seven to eight years. Basically, these are schools for children of Scheduled Tribes which means children are enrolled from the most backward districts and hail from the poorest families in the state. The students at camp are from secondary school, typically 5th to 12th graders. The highlight of my stay was a visit to this camp which took place a little ahead of Sangareddy town in rural Telangana.
Summer Samurai is the brain child of R S Praveen Kumar a retired Indian Police Services (IPS) officer. His vision is to provide world class experiential education to underprivileged kids. During my visit I was stunned to see the degree of English language fluency the children commanded and the constructibles they were working with. These included among many things working with robot and IOT kits. Kids were showing me see-saws they had made and were giving me a refresher on fulcrum and load. They were involved with story-boarding for movie creation and editing; outdoor survival; learning the knots; first aid classes through skit enactment and lots more. All of these I was a witness to. The joy, the excitement, the high fives and their warmth took me by surprise. This got me thinking and I spent several days reflecting on this visit.
Students with their See-saw Model
Story Boarding for Film Making and Editing
Interacting with Students
Two thoughts came to my mind. The first, a conversation I had had with the COO of a major NGO in the education space in India only a month before. I was telling the COO about my daughter who had the privilege of going to J B Petit school, Mumbai and how as parents we could not have been more satisfied. Basically, we were discussing how I could bridge the gap between the exposure my daughter got and the girl child in the public school I had visited knowing very well that it could never be a perfectly level playing field. But my point to the COO was the need to at least narrow the gap between the privileged and non-privileged as much as possible. At that time, I only expressed an aspiration without knowing how this could be achieved. My visit to the Sangareddy school provided me the insight and clarity I was looking for.
The second was a conversation thread initiated by my colleague Unny Radhakrishnan from the first ILSS cohort who put this post up recently in our WA group. To quote him “There are many non-profits in the education sector (including Central Square Foundation and the ones incubated by them). Most or all of them are focused on getting basic language, maths etc education fixed. Are there any initiatives in India where education is also encouraging children to think critically, question social practices etc and help them grow with a humanistic mindset? Otherwise aren’t all these efforts feeding into the same social/economic systems by providing more foot soldiers? The very same systems which development sector is questioning?” I got the answer to this poser from my visit to the school in Sangareddy.
Answers and Conclusions
What Sangareddy taught me was whilst scale in education is crucial it should not be the most important dimension to the education challenge we are facing in India. The emphasis on churning out an army of foot soldiers just because it meets the demands of governments and donors may be adding to the development challenge rather than lessening it. A humanistic education calls for a significant enhancement of the experiential dimension in secondary education which is what is missing in our current system. Experiential education triggers a shift from studying to learning; from examinations to discovery and can supplement academics with a non-linear payoff. It does not have to be restricted to an annual summer camp and in fact should be easy to instil in a student’s daily life. More than academic fluency, what we need is our children to acquire crucial 21st century skills of communication, collaboration and critical thinking. With the help of technology and with nominal investments in tablet devices one can bridge the gap between privileged and lesser privileged children.
So, I would advocate scale with quality. This will ensure not having to discard our current investments by undoing our education system a decade down the road. And it seems as if the likes of this wonderful IPS officer, the Government of Telangana and Creya Learning are showing us the way.
Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. Views expressed are personal.