This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Pratham co-founder, Dr. Madhav Chavan, on the ASER 2019 report.
It’s been 20 years since I have been part of the Pratham family, and when we started our work in Karnataka what I enjoyed most was working at the Balwadis with the children and teachers. That’s why I think this latest ASER report is so crucial when we think about the future of our country, because it lies in the hands of those children. In this new decade, we have to fulfil our promise to the young children of India.
The data tells us that this is probably the last generation of Indian parents who will still be uneducated. We’re seeing that mothers now have at least a 3rd or 4th standard education level, and that’s going to make a huge difference because the report shows the direct correlation between the education of mothers and the learning ability of their children. We’re seeing this through the work being done by Pratham and its partners, where learning systems and the state of children’s education is brought to the agenda of the Sarkaar, Bazaar, and Samaaj.
To me, the ASER report is like an x-ray of the country’s learning system, and it’s the first time we have focused on this age group. The end result of education is not simply to enable children to learn how to read and do math, it is also to help them become better human beings and citizens, and fulfil their potential. Emotional and cognitive skills in the early years of childhood lay down the foundation for that growth. We see how children’s confidence and sense of agency grows when they are allowed to free-play and explore using their own sense of scientific enquiry. The ASER survey allowed them to do exactly that, in terms of solving puzzles, putting things together, letting their imaginations guide them, talking about their emotions, and translating them to make sense of their world. That is why this report gives us a new opportunity to redesign early learning for children in the Anganwadi in the early school years.
Early Childhood Education
One of the things that stand out from the report is the importance of early childhood education, in the larger sense of cognitive and emotional learning. The problem that we have seen in the Balwadis, as Dr. Madhav Chavan points out, is that the motive is to get children ‘school-ready’ but imitating a school set-up and gearing children towards that is not the purpose of early childhood learning. I remember in the early 2000s, we would talk about it in terms of socialising the child rather than getting them school-ready. It was about ensuring that the child is comfortable with other children, and this is what the early childhood education movement has been endorsing for years. But many people were focused on Primary Education and Elementary education, and we forgot that this system is not ideal at all. This report gives us the opportunity to resume our focus on preschool ages.
At Pratham, Dr. Chavan is changing this, especially with the “Hamara Gaon” program, which is a community-based program that aims to lead to a lifelong learning journey for everyone involved. Rather than conducting remedial education from one village to the next, the idea is to ensure community ownership of the program in thousands of villages. The donor community is also coming around to this idea that we need to invest in a long-term association and build an understanding and ownership of what education should be. We have been busy trying to tackle issues of illiteracy and remediation, but we need to also address education holistically. It is not just about reading and writing, but rather about the development of the child and the society as well.
We are seeing a change in education patterns over generations. In villages there are fewer school dropouts, especially with mothers having completed at least a certain level of education. What we saw at Pratham when we started out 25 years ago was that the demand for education was just maturing. Putting your child through 14 years at an institution to learn things you did not understand was a big ask, but people saw that at the end of those years their children could dream of livelihoods and opportunities that they couldn’t. Now I feel as though we are on the cusp of another change. During my travels, people talk about how even their Bachelor’s degree or educational qualifications are not necessarily guaranteeing them a good job, and a lot of people are frustrated by that. We’re at a point where people are realising that we need to shift our approach to education, and maybe the Samaaj institutions can lead that conversation.
As Dr. Chavan points out, there are also going to be massive changes in the economy, with regards to the kinds of jobs that are available in the future. With the technology revolution, many industries will not need humans to perform certain repetitive jobs, so there is a challenge that is emerging in our society. The biggest thing that we can do as humans is to bring up our own children, it’s care work for the old and the young. It also means we need to harness our creativity, because that is something technology cannot replace yet. Economies constantly create new opportunities, so this is a real opportunity to de-link people’s sense of self from what they do with their hands. We are seeing this younger generation take up this challenge, with so many young people giving up so-called lucrative careers to try very different things. This is important because children should feel like they are able to innovate the future for themselves.
The Potential of Digital Tools
There is a digital divide that is emerging between generations, which I noticed when visiting the tribal belts in Gadchiroli. However, the fact is that we are moving towards a digital society, so we do need to think of how we can safely and creatively offer children the benefits of digital technology while reducing the risk of harm. Through our work at EkStep, we are exploring new ideas of how parents can engage with their children, and how technology can be used to develop cognitive and emotional skills in younger children, at scale, by offering material for the adults around them to understand and use.
Technology can be an asset to education, and a way to bring in the Bazaar into this project of democratising the system. Through EkStep, we have developed a software infrastructure that is open source and free for anyone to use. This has become the backbone of the DIKSHA program, and we are working with the Sarkaar as well to bring this to people across the country. The government has put QR code in 500 million textbooks around the country, so that teachers and children can scan the code and access our platform to learn more. And teachers are also using the platform to create better digital content themselves, because it is the teachers in the classrooms who know what their students specifically need.
So far, we have seen about 100 million downloads, and we are seeing that teachers and students are using it evenly. The aim is to allow people the agency to teach, learn, and create better accountability structures as well. The technology platform is constantly evolving, but what we need to keep in mind is the importance of being tech-enabled, and not just not tech-led. Keeping in mind the diversity of our population and our needs, technology must be used in a way that we create something unified but not uniform. We need to think about how to use technology to allow people to create their own solutions based on contextual situations; to distribute the ability to solve using digital tools. A teacher in Jharkhand may have very different requirements than a teacher in Kerala, and we are seeing that teachers are innovating rapidly, while using the same platform to do so.
I think India’s social sector is a little tech-phobic, I used to be too, but we need to embrace this because technology can really be used as a tool to enable and assist progress in the education sector. There are fears of addiction, that children are going to be stuck to devices and screens, but this was the critique of television as well. It’s up to the Samaaj to learn how to deal with this and how to draw boundaries for children. Throughout human history we have been warned of the dangers of technology, and we do need humanists, experts, ethicists, along with technologists to sit together and talk about how to control for addictions, how to address inequality, and how to limit access if needed. I don’t see why my grandson should have access to an iPad while a child in Gadchiroli does not. The digital world should be made equitable, so we have to find a way to do this. Some state governments are putting digital devices in schools, and as Dr. Chavan notes, we are experimenting with this in villages on a fairly large scale. The hope is that by the end of 2020, we will have placed digital devices in libraries in about 5000 villages, and if the donors are happy, maybe that number will increase. We need to go beyond using technology for education, to now educate people on how to use technology.
Fostering a Culture of Learning
What has happened with our education system is that we only see it in isolation, but education cannot only be limited to what happens in institutions. We need to open up those walls of schools and colleges, and bring learning to all aspects of children’s lives. Dr. Chavan notes that even in the Anganwadi program, the focus is not just on the Anganwadi and what the teachers there do, but how to collaborate with the mothers and help them engage with their children so that the learning process continues even at home. We need to shift our culture of education to a more democratic one, where informal learning is also valued. We need to restore agency to parents, to the home, but also to the larger community as well.
The statistics tell us this as well – parents believe that if their children get good marks in school, they will be able to get a good job, but of India’s 1.3 billion population, our workforce is only 500 million. 800 million people are not a part of the formal work sector, and out of the 500 million who are, the people who will take a salary home at the end of the month is not more than 18% according to the ILO. The numbers are telling us that this correlation between education and a salaried job is not necessarily true anymore. If we look at women, 75% of them from the ages of 15-64 are not part of the workforce. So, we do need a cultural shift, and with adult learning we are seeing that. People are going beyond the goal of literacy; they are ready to learn and they are using YouTube and other platforms to do so.
There is also a societal question, at the core of childcare, about the responsibility and role of the family, the state, and corporations, especially since we are trying to encourage women’s participation in the workforce. I have been to many international conferences where feminists and progressive institutions are demanding that the state play a much larger role in the care of children, by offering facilities so that women can work. We have not tackled this question enough in India, and it is a difficult one to problem-solve for.
It also brings us to the question of what kind of institutional structure we should be imagining for the future, whether it progresses from the Anganwadi system and whether we can try different models to experiment with. I don’t think there will be just one solution, but it is time to try them out, do research, collect evidence, and then carry out at scale. Dr. Chavan makes an excellent point about the distinction between the social responsibility and the state’s responsibility in terms of the upbringing of children. We may expect the Sarkaar to provide certain resources and structures, but if we just give up autonomy to the state, what happens is that we think ‘This is not my job’ because someone else is being paid to do it. What we really need is a centre where children can come together, which everyone plays an equal part in creating and maintaining. This is the socialisation of education, where the walls are broken down – you don’t have teachers telling parents ‘This is not your business, you do not have the expertise.’ With an increasing number of parents being educated, we can begin to imagine a more equitable day care centre where children will learn better. Instead of being stuck within structures of syllabi and textbooks, we can collectively redefine what learning means and how children should learn. So rather than putting the onus on the state, we should start thinking about how to de-structure this whole system.
At the same time, in order to scale we need the state to work alongside the Samaaj. Perhaps the framework of early years can parallel the kind of structures we see in the healthcare system – with a combination of home-based interventions where the state goes physically to the house, along with primary health care centres. As Nandan mentioned, we’re seeing a kind of evolution in the way we think about learning. In the 19th century, we saw primary and school education, whereas the 20th century was all about higher education and the importance of degrees. However, this century is one of lifelong learning, which means that these structures that we have been using need to evolve along with our attitude towards learning.