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‘Schools need to foster connection and shun discrimination’

An exclusive interview with Dr Rajeev Sharma, former faculty at the IIM, Ahmedabad

By Aruna Raghuram for ET TECH X TIMES, February 27, 2024

Dr Rajeev Sharma, former faculty at the IIM, Ahmedabad, has worked extensively in the field of education. In this interview, he speaks about schools that educate differently, the importance of non-cognitive skills and co-curricular activities, and what strategic leadership means for school principals

Aruna Raghuram

Dr Rajeev Sharma worked at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at IIM, Ahmedabad for over two decades, till his retirement in 2017. Prior to that he had taught psychology at Allahabad and was a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA.

At IIM, Ahmedabad he was involved in researching innovation in education, educational organizations like schools and colleges, entrepreneurial opportunities in the education sector, enhancing academic performance of first-generation learners and children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and community involvement in the educational process.

He designed and taught a course titled ‘Enterprise and Innovation in Education’. He developed and conducted programmes for principals of schools, colleges and other institutions of higher education. He also coordinated and participated in consulting assignments sponsored by the National Literacy Mission and Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India.

Dr Sharma authored a book titled ‘Not Just Grades’ in 2018 that was based on case studies of innovative schools. These schools, with limited resources, have managed to provide children the opportunities for personal development along with academic excellence. They aim to establish a healthy learning environment.

In an interesting and insightful interview, Dr Sharma talks about schools that educate differently and other topics…
Your book ‘Not Just Grades’ profiles 10 innovative schools that educate differently. What do these schools have in common?

While we were working with schools across the country, we were struck by the fact that children were not happy, teachers were under a lot of pressure and parents were always complaining about the schools. And, these were among the best schools in the country which received lots of applications and produced good results.

We wondered what was wrong. We realised that education was becoming very competitive and mechanical. There was intense competition for grades and pressure on children to get to the top. Parents were worried about grades as it would impact college admissions. Principals and school managements said this is what parents and society want. Schools that have a healthy learning environment are places of fun, joy, growing and fulfilment. Instead, we found that school life had become stressful for children.

We started looking for schools that were bucking this trend. We were not looking for expensive schools that few families could afford. Most children go to government schools or middle-range schools. We found schools with large enrolment and low fees that were doing things not just for education but for the growth of the children. Some were offering free or low-cost education and still they were able to deliver. They were not just educating children in the academic dimension but inculcating lifelong skills and enabling personality growth and well-being for the future. And, they did not charge high fees.

The 10 schools profiled in my book are: Chandrabala Modi Academy (Ankleshwar), Loreto Day School (Sealdah), Nilobray Vidyalaya (Ralegan Siddhi), Bombay International School (Mumbai), Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Vidyamandir (Jamnagar), Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School (Thane), Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya (Delhi), Parikrma Humanity Foundation (Bengaluru), Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul (Hariyala) and TVS Matriculation Higher Secondary School (Madurai).
1. What are some of the admirable initiatives from across these ten schools?
2. Innovations should address the needs of children and the communities from where they come from. I will describe a few significant innovations below that have fostered better connection in schools and given a chance to children from underprivileged and marginalised backgrounds.

The schools in the book have devised different ways that principals and teachers can connect better with children. Children are motivated and learn better if they feel wanted and accepted in the school.

Circle time: Many schools have adopted the practice of ‘circle time’ when children sit in a circle and each child has time to speak. Children can talk about anything. They can talk about a movie they have seen, the fight they had on the streets, or their home situation.

Storytelling: In the Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul (Hariyala), the Swamiji talks to the children individually and tells them stories. The children feel deeply connected and inspired by this practice.

Project-based method: Pedagogy can be used to improve connection as well. For instance, the Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School (Thane) uses participative style of teaching in the form of project-based methodology up to class 4 or 5. The school doesn’t use textbooks or lecture method. There are 5,000 children in the school from different backgrounds. The children are active learners not passive recipients of information and knowledge. They also connect better with peers and teachers while working on projects. Children are given detailed assessments, but with no mention of grades.

Absence of discrimination: Loreto Day School (Sealdah), has 50 per cent of children who don’t pay fees. But the children are all treated the same. The Nilobray Vidyalaya (Ralegan Siddhi), founded by noted social worker Anna Hazare, gives priority in admission to children who have failed multiple times and who have indulged in antisocial activities! In this case, the fact that the school accepts the child changes the whole world of the child.

In the Parikrma Humanity Foundation (Bengaluru), children come from slums. These children face violence and alcoholism at home. They are given meals in the school as there may not be sufficient food at home. After passing out, they are able to compete with children who come from very different backgrounds.

Limited use of technology: The schools in my book are very innovative without using technology. Technology can be used as a supportive aid and for projects. For actual teaching and learning, it can be distracting. The best way for children to study is from the text-book, specifically designed worksheets and by participating actively in projects. The development of cognitive skills happens very differently when children read from printed text as compared to the screen.

  1. You have conducted several programmes for school principals. What are the important components of strategic leadership that you would emphasise?
  2. Principals are leaders of schools, with a very different responsibility from leaders of industry and corporates. One, their skills and perspectives should foster a climate of learning and teaching which is open and creative. Two, they should come up with innovations in community engagement, pedagogy, stress reduction and other areas.

Three, principals should ensure that their schools are not isolated from the community. For instance, the TVS Matriculation Higher Secondary School (Madurai) is a large school with 5,500 children. In this school all stakeholders – parents, teachers and children – are well connected with the school system. Four, principals should not get into micromanagement. They should focus on developing long-term perspectives and a vision for the school to benefit all the stakeholders.

5. How important are non-cognitive skills for children?
There are two kinds of skills children need – cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills can be further divided into two types – intrapersonal (imagination, creativity, perseverance and self-control) and interpersonal (listening, empathy, cooperation and leadership) skills. Research has shown that children who do well in academics, jobs, family and well-being, are those who possess strong non-cognitive skills.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a subset of non-cognitive skills. My book explains the key components of SEL – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. Schools are increasingly realising the importance of SEL.

6. What is the importance of co-curricular activities for school students?

Co-curricular activities take place outside the classroom yet aid in academic learning. They also help a student build important life skills such as leadership, team spirit, organizing skills, and confidence. Participation in co-curricular activities also leads to the development of soft skills like listening, sensitivity, dealing with frustrations and persistence in the face of challenges.

Co-curricular activities represent time for children to be free and engaged with what they want to do – sports, games, debating, theatre, music and dance. Time for co-curricular activities has reduced the world over because schools are increasingly focusing on grades and learning of subjects. Of course, games and sports are now seen as ways of improving student CVs which helps in college admissions. However, some schools do not have good teachers or adequate facilities for co-curricular activities. Fine arts, music and dance need to receive adequate focus in schools.

7. What is the significance of ‘higher order thinking skills’ in children?
Higher-order thinking skills are those which extend beyond rote learning and promote evaluation and analysis. These skills aid in critical thinking, creative thinking and innovating, and problem solving.

When children are active learners, they participate in their learning and cultivate certain skills – curiosity, questioning, appreciation for listening, persistence and feedback. These are essential components that help them develop higher order thinking skills. Children use these skills to problem solve. They feel the challenge of solving difficult problems. They can do this if they are not driven by marks and grades.

As an example, in the International Baccalaureate (IB) system there is a course called ‘Theory of knowledge’ where children focus for two years on thinking and working on a project.

8. How do you see the role of AI in school education?
The AI (Artificial Intelligence) tool ChatGPT is a good source of information. But education is not just about acquiring information. It is a social learning process which happens effectively in a group situation. AI can help a school in management, analysis of data and policy making. But in teaching pedagogy and learning, I am sceptical about the role/impact of AI.

9. What is the role of private schools in the Indian educational scenario?
Unfortunately, private schools are acquiring a bigger and bigger role in India. A small number of children go to good private schools. Others go to budget private schools which do not offer quality education. Elite private schools serve only the higher economic strata. As a result, inequalities in society are increasing. Also, most private schools prepare children for exams not for life.

The best way forward in education is to have more schools in the public domain. Some state governments are investing in government schools. That is the way to go.  The amount of money the government can spend is higher. Moreover, government schools are accessible to students from all strata of society.

In Finland, which is known for its high standard of education, most of the schools are public/government schools. Finland has been among the top ten countries in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings ever since OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) started the assessment.

Interestingly, it is very difficult to become a primary school teacher in Finland! School teachers get very good emoluments and are valued as much as university professors.

10. What are your views on NEP 2020 when it comes to school education?
NEP 2020 has far-reaching thinking and perspectives. My problem is not with the policy but with the implementation. To mention one anomaly. The policy says that elementary education should be imparted in the mother tongue. Still, so many English medium schools are being opened. Policymakers and the those who implement the policies need to be on the same page. I would like to see how the policy unfolds in other areas.

I believe that education is a lifelong endeavour in which parents, children, community and policymakers have to come together.

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