By Akshay Saxena:
India has more students in high school than Great Britain has people. India also has one of the worst performing school systems in the world. And no, it’s not just our government schools. Our private schools on average tend to be equally bad. There’s a lot of talk about how our government schools are one million teachers short. That however, is only the tip of the iceberg. If one were to start looking at teacher performance (even simply teachers that show up to class every day), that number would be orders of magnitude higher.
Our state and central governments have largely failed our over 5 Crore high-school students and there are almost no signs of this situation improving. Parents are voting with their feet and their wallets. The test-prep (coaching class) industry in India is already over $8B and growing fast. While there continues to be plenty of bluster against coaching and “rote-based” methods from the government, elite government institutions and policy makers – all of them conveniently omit the fact that the true problem lies with their curriculum, policies and quality of service delivery. The board exams across the country have gotten easier to “crack” by rote over time and curriculum (especially in Math and Science) remains rooted in the proverbial Stone Age.
The lecture-centric, talk-and-chalk classroom has failed. You will be hard-pressed to find academics, teachers or policy makers of note who are proponents of classrooms centered around a teacher delivering a 35-minute monologue with notes written on a board that students copy. Yet, this is the reality of most classrooms and all of India’s school regulations, government funding and teacher training centers around producing teachers who do precisely this.
Each time we’ve sat down with teachers, principals and school leaders, all of them – unequivocally and unanimously – have acknowledged the problem with lecture-based teaching methods and expressed a desire to do something different. The stereotypical image of a teacher who doesn’t care is the farthest from the truth. Like most professionals, teachers care; they want to get better and they need help.
There are several tools they can use – pedagogical, technological and behavioural. But fitting these around the constraints of syllabus, regulations and parental expectations is incredibly challenging. There is also a lack of evidence that any of these work in their specific context.
So the challenge is not that there’s an absence of tools and widgets but really that there’s no clear way to integrate all of these in the classroom in a meaningful and effective way. This is what Avanti aims to change through a blend of curriculum, technology and teaching practices.
Most research in Science and Math teaching triangulates to the same basic principles. Allow students to discuss and debate important concepts; let them struggle with material; allow them to learn by doing and prioritize student-driven work. When we first started working with students in Pondicherry, we couldn’t afford expensive teachers. So, we got to see what students could do when they were allowed to study in this way without conventional lecturing. Over 50% of our first class cleared the IIT JEE Advanced. The question for us became:
If students can do so spectacularly well without teachers – how amazing could they be when their teachers helped reinforce this process instead of opposing it by using all that time lecturing?
In other words – if teachers in class started to coach students in a student-driven learning process, we would start to get a lot closer to a better and more scalable model for education. This is the fundamental thesis of our work. Here’s a YouTube video that talks more about this.
Over 90% of all students qualifying the IITs come from 23 towns in India. You are 7 times more likely to go to a top college if you come from urban India. Much of our solution design and rollout focuses on bridging this divide. If it can’t be done in every tehsil, if children can’t access it close to their homes, if a rural teacher can’t be trained to deliver it – it won’t solve the problem.
800 students showed up at our orientation in Karauli, Rajasthan. There are no English medium Sr. Secondary schools that offer science. Most kids don’t even know what the IITs are. And yet, some students in learning our English materials translated to Hindi are acing our nationwide tests.
It is remarkable to see what our teachers have already achieved. From Kupwara to Bellary to Raghogarh to Chhapra, young teachers often in their first jobs are transforming the education ecosystem of these towns. A lot of our students are girls – many of whom would not have taken coaching otherwise. Many had no clue that they could take the JEE. All at once they have positive role models, high-achieving graduates who are excited to work with them and teach them. Our teachers are creating their own ecosystem, their own places to stay, to go out. These communities are growing as more like-minded young people join them. From teachers using their spare hours to help the local MLA to volunteering in other local schools – this integration of smart, ambitious young people into the ecosystem of these towns is to this day our most remarkable accomplishment.
We are committed to creating a market-based solution to this problem. It is impossible to do so running schools (since they are all required to be charitable trusts as per Indian law). Also the regulations schools need to comply with (land, buildings, minimum teacher qualifications) make it impossible to innovate starting from a clean slate.
Most parents of high-school students (even low-income families) spend as much (if not more) on 12 hours a week of tuition than they spend on 30+ hours of school education. Coaching is where they demand results and coaching is where they are willing to pay.
It clearly makes sense for everything we develop to eventually be delivered within schools and we’re working with some incredible school leaders to develop a modality to make this happen. This said, until something changes with school regulation, innovation will likely happen outside schools.
Images posted by Avanti Learning Centres on Facebook.