Make poor kids confident, they'll master any lesson

The World Bank's 'Learning to Realise Education's Promise' report comes as no surprise to many of us in the education sector.

"In rural India, just under three-quarters of students in Grade 3 could not solve a two-digit subtraction such as 46 – 17, and by Grade 5 half could still not do so," says the report. "This learning crisis is widening social gaps instead of narrowing them."

 Economists say that by the next decade, the Indian population will be the youngest in the world. While populations in much of the world will be touching an average age of 40, India's   will be 29. So, we are sitting on valuable human resources, potential and possibilities. It is also said, however, that by 2020, while some 17 million Indian students will be out looking for jobs after graduating from colleges every year, some 84% of them will be deemed "unemployable". These statistics do not even count the 20 million children who -- for reasons of gender, poverty, conflict, discrimination, disability and access – are not enrolled in schools.

 In short, India will have the highest number of young, frustrated, unqualified and unemployed youth in the next decade. Just imagine the social, economic and, most importantly, law and order ramifications this will have in our country.

 This, indeed, is a crisis.

 For years, we have focused on improving access and getting children to school, not paying attention to what happens in the classroom. The World Bank report says one of the key problems in India is that the curriculum has been designed for the elite, and disadvantaged sections have gotten left behind because they are not able to cope with it.

 Our education system was designed by the British to  create clerks to help the few thousand colonial administrators run a country of 400 million people.  It was not designed to promote thought and curiosity.  It focused on students memorising some basic facts by rote, and some English language skills. An examination system designed to test memory and based on reward and punishment is at the centre of this system. This has to change. We cannot continue teaching with the methods of the 19th century and hope to prepare our children for the 21st century.

 We need to move away from assessments that lead to a numbers game – of competitive scores and ranks -- and does not reflect true learning. We need to definitely redesign the curriculum – but not only just for the poor, but for all children.

 The world – and education – is changing at a frenetic pace all around us. Many countries are changing their systems of learning to keep pace. Finland, for instance, has moved away from subjects to theme-based learning. It has scrapped all assessments and is moving towards student self-assessment. Between 2009 and 2015, Peru achieved some of the fastest growth in overall learning outcomes due to consistent policy action. South Korea and even a poor country like Vietnam showed  that their 15-year-olds performed at the same level as those in some advanced European countries.

 So, change is possible.

 If a comparative study of curriculum is made with some of these fast-improving countries, one can recognise that we pack in irrelevant and tedious details that force students into rote-learning without proper comprehension. This is irrespective of whether the child is privileged or poor.

 Yet, the change we require is not to dumb down the curriculum for our poor children based on an assumption that they do not have the ability to work at par with the privileged.

 I tell a different story.

 I have had hundreds of students from the slums graduate from our four 'Parikrma' schools in Bengaluru in the last five years with excellent grades and are now employed as software engineers in multinational companies, chefs and managers in 5-star hotels, and many others have gone on to reputed colleges, including National Law School, Bengaluru, National Institute of Fashion Technology and Shrishti Institute.

 They are all first-generation learners, but have been able to compete on equal terms because we created a sensitive but equal learning platform. Great effort has been taken to make the children feel safe and cared for. Our learning has been that if you make children believe that they have the ability to do well, they actually do well. We had to get our teachers to understand that if they could win the trust of the children, then the students would do anything not to disappoint.

 So, we concentrated on building self-esteem and confidence first. The grades followed automatically. Parikrma children believe they are in no way inferior to anyone. That's why they are inter-school football champions, they win gold medals for the country in International Taekwondo championships, win WWF quiz contests, secure scholarships for Duke University programmes and represent the country in Global Youth Leadership Summits held in USA.

 This confidence and self-worth makes them work harder so as to protect their own and their school's reputation. They are taught to be dignified in poverty and yet be practical about wealth. Our learning is that students from poor backgrounds need a more motivating and nurturing environment for learning. They don't lack the ability to master the curriculum.  If poor children across the country are lagging in learning, it is we educators who have failed, not the children.

 (The writer, founder-CEO, Parikrma Humanity Foundation, runs English-medium schools for under-privileged children in Bengaluru)

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