An ambitious entrepreneurial model is building education solutions across the subcontinent
India has the largest school system in the world, with 250 million children enrolled in over 1.5 million schools across the country. While we have made strides in enrolment for all grades and genders across rural and urban areas over the past decades, the vast majority of our students are not reaching grade-level competencies. According to India’s National Education Policy, before 2020, over 50 million students did not attain foundational literacy and numeracy in elementary education. In 2019, UNICEF reported that more than 80% of our children failed to receive the academic foundation and 21st-century skills required before leaving school.
This inequity has lasting implications for individual happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. According to the World Bank, 176 million Indians are living on under Rs. 147 (£1.60) daily. There is an urgent need to break this cycle. Given the scale and diversity of India, and the depth of need, we need a movement of leaders – teachers, students, parents and others – to educate every Indian child and enable them to unleash their potential.
Leadership in teaching
At Teach For India, we believe that all children must have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and that collective leadership is the path to that vision. We recruit the brightest, most committed young people to teach full-time in low-income schools for two years. Our Fellows not only provide their students with a holistic education, but they also impact their schools and communities through targeted projects.
Today, we are a movement of 1,000 Fellows teaching 32,000 children and 4,200 alumni, collectively reaching 33 million children across India. 77% of our alumni continue to work in the social sector. Our community is thriving with entrepreneurs who have founded over 150 organisations working towards finding solutions for different problems in the puzzle of educational inequity. Beyond the Fellowship, we support our alumni entrepreneurs through a nine-month incubation programme to help them build organisations in the education space. This has provided support to 41 alumni entrepreneurs so far, and 92% of their organisations continue to operate today.
Until 2017, our impact was limited to urban areas and English-medium schools; in rising to the scale of the challenge we needed to expand our reach. In response, we piloted TFIx, an incubation programme to help education entrepreneurs launch teaching Fellowships in remote locations. Over the past five years, TFIx has reached over 200,000 children across the country. One such example is Anubhuti (founded by Sakshi Srivastava), which works towards achieving life skills for 25,000 children from Uttar Pradesh slums.
Leadership in students
The power of students’ voices is evident in their role in sparking global movements, such as those started by Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg and others. Longitudinal research by the Quaglia Institute shows that, when students are given a voice, they are three times more likely to experience feelings of self-worth in school, five times more likely to be both engaged in and have a sense of purpose in school, and seven times more likely to be academically motivated.
With a bold and ambitious vision to reimagine education in partnership with students, in 2017 we started the Kids Education Revolution (KER). Every year, the programme brings together hundreds of changemakers and educators from across the country to engage with each other and unpack what it takes to build student leadership.
KER works to uphold three principles at all levels of the system. First, we provide safe spaces for voice informed by studies, as detailed in Lynn Holley and Sue Steiner’s 2005 research, which show that safe spaces affect what students learn and how much they learn and that, when students believe their class is safe, they are also challenged to assess their viewpoints and biases. Safe spaces take many forms, but include honest conversations, circles of dialogue and listening, and classrooms where mistakes are integral stepping-stones to learning.
Second, we treat children and educators as partners. In this model, students have the ability to look at the traditional schooling system through a new lens and purpose, allowing them to question and work to change it. They develop a belief in their voice and understand the importance of every voice around them. They also operate with a deep sense of commitment, respect, reciprocity and shared responsibility.
Third, we see children as changemakers. The purpose of education should be to empower every child with what the Design for Change programme calls ‘I can’ mindset, in which students learn they are not helpless, but can drive change. When children identify a problem they care about and go through a process to find a solution, they grow in their learning and leadership in unprecedented ways.
KER also draws on the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, whose 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, states that education can be an act of love when educators intentionally choose to value and present love to their students and into the pedagogical process.
In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of schools in 190 countries across the world. UNESCO estimates that one year of school closure can only likely be recovered after between 9 and 14 years of additional learning, equivalent to a child’s entire education. Now that schools have reopened, we propose a radically different approach of investing the thought, resources and actions to effectively bridge the gaps and reimagine a better education system by fostering student voice, leadership and agency. This will require not just a pedagogical shift, but also a philosophical and behavioural shift of all stakeholders in the system.
The 8Cs: 21st-century skills
Our experience has highlighted what we call the 8Cs: the essential skills central to developing leadership and children’s learning. Below are examples of how some of our student leaders have exemplified these in action.
Courage: I take ownership and act
“When I was investigating some illegal work happening in our community dumpyard, I was recording evidence on my iPad but I got caught. The men there confiscated and deleted everything. They started telling me that they would kill me. But the next day I came back with my friends and documented everything again.” Rehan Shaikh
Compassion: As I work towards my goals, I take care of myself and others
“When you start becoming open to a person or a friend , then the person starts to share their personal issues and why they aren’t speaking up.” Nandini Ved
Collaboration: I work with love, in partnership with others, towards shared goals
“As a part of my project, I am working with 15 student leaders in our school who are working on diverse issues, and collectively we are working with almost 400 people.” Raghvendra Yadav
Communication: I listen and share, knowing that in doing so we grow and learn
“Our actions contribute to communication, too! By expressing ourselves, we have the power to hold people together as speakers and listeners.” Koyena
Creativity: I imagine a better reality and believe that things can change
“I go to public places with my djembe to perform poetry and songs. Through my performance, I aim to spread the idea of ending hatred and discrimination and practising equality instead.” Sunny Sharma
Curiosity: I learn what is needed to meet ambitious, evolving goals
“I wanted to know about the problems faced by the city and the biggest problem I found was the city garbage dumpyard… I did research [to]… understand the diseases and other harmful effects it causes to the people living in the community.” Farhan Siddique
Consciousness: I reflect, see self-awareness, and I can control how I see the world
“A while ago, kids from government schools used to come and tell me about the problems they are facing regarding their exams and the way their teachers used to teach them. I realised that I have never taken a step towards making a change and I have been a hypocrite all this time. This pushed me to join a project and work towards making a change.” Deepigashree
Critical thinking: I seek to understand why I do what I do
“Before making other people aware, we need to make ourselves aware. So first we read information about the policies and then we did surveys to collect data on the current reality of the communities.” Anjali Tiwari
Shaheen Mistri is the founder and CEO of Teach For India, a non-profit that addresses educational inequity at scale; she also founded Akanksha Foundation in 1989 and led its operations until 2009
Manasi Jain is Chief of Staff at Teach For India
Muskan Tanwani is a rising first-year student at Ashoka University
Follow Teach For India on Twitter here: @TeachForIndia
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.
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