Back in 2007, when I decided to quit IT, move back to India and enter the social sector I was not very optimistic of a long inning. But leading Sikshana has been such an exciting and rewarding experience, I am still part of it after 7 years. With focus on having fun while helping every child learn, we were reaching new milestones at a rapid pace. But in the last one year whenever I gazed beyond the horizon I would begin to wonder if we were heading in the right direction. And as much as I tried, being on the ship made it very difficult for me to be objective. I had to disembark, at least for a short while and thankfully personal commitment forced me to take a sabbatical and move to US 5 months ago.
Out here in the silicon valley I did some volunteering and a bit of consulting in the area of non-profit and education, spent few days in the classrooms of low income schools, observed my own daughter's schooling up close, read quite a bit and finally had enough time to contemplate!. In these 5 months, I got a chance to work with some of the most intelligent and passionate people in the for-profit and non-profit sector working to make the process of education better. I got to experience the positive energy that a bunch of dedicated school administrators and teachers bring to schools every day. Saw the power of the community running a decentralized public school with excellent infrastructure and state of the art technology. I began to wonder what we could do back in our rural schools in India, even if I could get just a fraction of what I am seeing here.
Having spent so many years in Sikshana, force of habit, I started to look closely at the outcomes of all the efforts here. The kids in most schools here are getting the best inputs one can possibly imagine, excellent pedagogical plans, dedicated teachers, wide use of varying types of technology with many schools getting close to being 100% digital classrooms. But we all know how US stacks up in the world with regard to education and a quick web search will pop up some scary numbers right here in the heart of the silicon valley in terms for high school dropout rate or college readiness. My own observation here so far has been mixed with kids in elementary schools being very engaged in the learning process and as I progressed to middle and high school the interest among kids in learning appeared to be dropping dramatically.
There are multitude of reasons for this situation and many people are working on figuring out solutions, but one area where I don't see enough action is on addressing the lack of motivation to learn among kids. Here I recall a line from our founder ESR, "If a child has decided not to learn, you can't teach them. You first need to get them to want to learn". This has been the DNA of Sikshana from day one and guess what, I think I found why I was feeling uneasy when looking beyond the horizon! We had started drifting!
Right from day one, Sikshana has been focused on motivational inputs for the children, teachers and the parents. The impact of the program was measured in quantitative terms by assessing the children's learning levels and the rest were mainly qualitative metrics which worked fine when we were in a few schools. Then the program expanded rapidly, to cover more schools and we started seeing dramatic improvements in the quantitative assessments. Gradually, scoring 100% in the student assessments started to become the focus of the team. We even changed the tag line from "Empowering government schools to improve themselves" to "Quality education for every child". I could see the subtle shift here, where we started taking responsibility of ensuring every child learns rather literally. Also the new breed of corporate donors came into the picture and started focusing on the impact measurement, accountability etc., and pretty soon with over 1000 schools to work in we all started to focus only on the academic outcome. The end result started mattering more than the process itself and this was the problem. But even with the shift, the motivational inputs are still being delivered at the school level and all that is needed now is to bring it to the forefront.
Looking from outside, I can clearly see the value of Sikshana. It is probably the only one of its kind with focus on motivational inputs and operating at such a large scale of nearly 1200 schools with over 180,000 children. This is a program that works today, with all the existing constraints and at just over a couple of hundred rupees per child per year it is a program that is worth sustaining for the long run. With just a few tweaks the program can live up to its full potential and help every child who needs a little bit of motivation to start learning.