Why does one want to solve problems in the society? Our mind is a river and these problems around us are like rocks which obstruct its flow. When the mind-river get obstructed, one cannot live in peace. Some rocks smaller, some bigger, some huge. This article is about one such huge rock that affected me 4 years ago and how I tried to alleviate this obstruction. My name is Dhananjay. I am 37 years old, an engineer by profession and I also has spent 20 hours a week for last 4 years trying to solve some problems around me. I co-founded an NGO (non-governmental organization that is not-for-profit), Joining the Dots Foundation predominantly run by volunteers.
Around late 2015, I was browsing through MHRD website reports to understand the state of education in India. I learned about the ASER reports there. Out of curiosity, I went on to read through the entire ASER (Annual School Education) website. The reports that I saw that day had a very deep impact on me. Probably a little less today than that day with best hopes that our efforts will change this condition. One of the findings in the report said 40% of Grade 5 students cannot read Grade 2 text books. As I browsed through more and more statistics, I started getting enlightened and perturbed at the same time. As someone who wishes nothing but best for India, these statistics told me that I was living in an idealistic world while the reality had huge issues. You can read the ASER reports to get to know about the depths of the problem. I read this report, 3 months after we started the NGO. We had supported 53 students financially to pursue their college education at the time. All our satisfaction from our earlier efforts got shattered.
Validation – How real was the situation?
The ASER report couldn’t be turned down. Pratham Foundation is a credible name and they had surveyed half a million students with the support of over 25K volunteers to get these statistics. When many world bank surveys thousands, this NGO surveyed half a million students. So, we couldn’t look away from the report.
My foundation works with 32 government high schools and 240 government primary schools, where good number of quality teachers exist. We went to all these great teachers to validate the report’s findings. Not a single one of them challenged them. Every one of them acknowledged with a concerned tone. Then they showed us a lower level learning report of their school to show the state of this problem. 1/3 children in every school had a learning deficiency. The assessment was a simple test: proficiency with basic alphabets, writing 5 flowers, 5 animals, etc. were the kind of questions asked. In this, every 3rd child scored less than 30% (15/50 marks) in the assessment test. The test was conducted to 6th grade children aged between 11-12 years.
Root Cause – Why are kids not doing well in school?
Validation of these reports were key. It was like going for a medical test expecting a negative result. If it were negative, we feel relieved that no action is required. But when validation turned positive, and that too so unanimously positive, we are relieved in a way and worried in many ways. Relieved because of the awareness and affirmation. Once again, we spoke to teachers at length. And my tireless talking skills came to good use here. After 2 months of speaking with many teachers we came up with the root causes:
- Shortage of teachers: Primary schools have 1-2 teachers to teach children of 1-5 grades.
- Shortage of rooms: Majority of the schools have 1-2 rooms. Children of different grades shared classrooms which wasn’t helping.
- Right to Education: Students couldn’t repeat classes or fail in the exams. They were promoted to next levels even when they weren’t ready.
- Creative Learning: Primary schools students require more playing and creativity-inspiring curriculum. These schools were the worst when it came to infrastructure and learning materials. There was no scope for any creative learning.
- Parental Neglect: In most cases we found that when parents were active and encouraging in their child’s education, children did well. The ones who had issues were mostly victims of parental neglect.
The Solution Journey
It took us 3-4 months to pass the validation and root cause stages. Now we were back to our whiteboards. If you look at the root causes: #1, #2, #3, it requires policy changes that needs to be fixed. #3 is subjective to the teachers and has some policy aspect to it. #5 is the biggest challenge requiring culture change. We were quick to realize solving any of the above would take a lot of time and energy. We needed some short/medium term solutions so that as a team we could make informed progress.
Stop the Bleeding
Though the problem takes birth in the primary school level, its ill-effects are felt by higher grades. We decided to fix the most bleeding section of education and started brainstorming for solutions.
Ask for a solution before suggesting one
Many NGOs, I know, are of the mindset where they churn out solutions in their headquarters: “We know it better” is both a mindset problem and an attitude problem that plagues even the best of the NGOs. As an NGO, one must develop respect for ground reality and the actual stakeholders of a problem. So, we went to the same teachers and asked for a solution. Surprisingly everyone suggested for 2 extra part-time teachers to fix the lower level learning issues. Their idea was simple: in addition to the full-time teachers teaching the curriculum, a few part-timers could bridge the learning gap. Not that we disagreed with their idea, but the execution wouldn’t be easy. I remembered my mentor at Ericsson, Jorge Canas say ideas are overrated and that execution was key. This was running behind in my mind as every teacher suggested the same solution. When we estimated the operational cost of this solution, we saw that we needed to recruit 64 part-time teachers (32 schools * 2 teachers); that meant that we had to shell out an annual expense of ~$100K for them and this was recurring cost. This is time heavy and finance heavy. So, I realized that this wasn’t a scalable solution. But I also didn’t reject their solutions outright. I didn’t have an alternative solution at the time to counter their solution.
We were at a point where the root causes were not solvable and the medium-term solution was so cost-heavy in recruiting people that it added to the existing problems. As a problem solver and a leader, one must embrace such times. One shouldn’t complicate the solution in analysis; analysis is only to understand the problem and gauge the solution and results. In such times, one must be crazy and dumb. Crazy enough to believe that you can solve the problem; dumb enough to keep look down at the weight of the problem. I wasn’t frustrated. I wasn’t worried. I told myself that one day an idea will strike, and we can resume work. My code debugging days taught me this. A program will not work for hours or even days, but one fine minute you will find a solution. One must be patient and persistent. “Reformer must have infinite patience”. I am no reformer, but anyone trying to solve a big problem must have infinite patience. Otherwise you can destroy the entire process. I personally have tasted failures: which I would call “learning-s”. I will write about my failed experimental “learning-s” in another article.
To sum it up from 2010-2014 I had taken up many social initiatives and failed miserably i.e. learnt gloriously and that learning kept me patient. From those learning experiences, I’d say values are key. Design your core values and never get de-aligned from them. They are your saviors in difficult times.
That idea day did come. After a month. I wasn’t consciously bothered about the problem. But my subconscious did do a lot of work,and handed me a solution. The idea was simple. Why don’t we take the help of senior grade students from 8th and 9th grade to help students of grade 6th and 7th to bridge the learning gap. It sounded very fresh and practical. In India, as we don’t give children due credit for their capabilities. They are capable of solving many of their own problems. Also, this was practical because it was easily scalable with no new need for extra teachers. This was also economical. I took this to my team. Despite the skepticism, we decided to run a proof-of-concept in one school to see if it could work. The proposed cost of this entire pilot was less than $200. So, my team was okay with it.
Choosing the hardest person
To experiment and run a pilot, we had to choose a headmaster who’s school would be piloting the solution and would be working with us. Despite having many agreeing headmasters to work with, I chose the most skeptical headmaster. If our solution worked, it had to be scaled to 32 schools and each school were well acquainted with other schools. If I chose the extremely agreeing Headmaster, they might say the teachers were great and only that team could do it. So, I chose to work with the most skeptical team of teachers. I told myself, if I could convince them and show them the results, then everyone would adopt it. If a student with no interest in Mathematics joins some tuition and scores 100%, then every student would jump into it. I did the same. I chose a rigid teacher’s school who was stubborn and resistant. This got my team a little confused. But I had to take big chances and own the repercussions.
Proof of Concept
I started talking to the headmaster and as expected, he rejected our solution outright. He was surprised that we chose him over many other candidates. He was the best headmaster when it was about improving the school’s infrastructure. Every school he administered had great facilities such as clean drinking water, desks to sit, gardens etc. But he never focused on the quality of education. He was also a hard worker. Within 4-5 discussions I convinced him for the Proof of Concept. Hours of listening to the headmaster actually worked. If someone is very hardworking but rigid, it is possible to convince them. Just hear them out. This I learnt from my previous failures and that worked. We had an idea as well a platform to try it out. From there on, we didn’t have to do much. The headmaster did all the work. He procured all the required study material. He chalked out the process where every senior student taught the junior student for an hour every day. He appointed the senior students who could teach as well. We didn’t have to do much.
We added an incentive component for senior students and that was Rs 600/- worth of books. This was small but that’s all the money we had for this proof of concept. And as the headmaster was so involved, we just had to encourage him, and observe the pilot. The rest of the headmasters and the schooling community were surprised as to how we convinced a headmaster like him. But this also meant an additional validation to our concept and program.
We had a team of 5 sent for the final evaluation of the proof of concept. We conducted a few assessment tests and as we corrected our papers, we found a 80% success rate i.e. of the earlier failed students, 80% of them passed. The 20% failing students were due to poor attendance because they were forced to sit at home and work; and one student was mentally challenged in our case study. We were smiling. The proof of concept had worked in the written test evaluation. But we had to test them orally as well.
Every student had to read a paragraph in Telugu, English and Hindi and answer few basic mathematics questions. Almost all of them did well. Some had stage fear but at that time of challenge, we could see the bond between the senior teaching-students and the junior-learning-students. It was heart-warming to witness. This was out of 150 hours of working together. The senior teaching-students rooted for their juniors to do well. In one case, a senior even went on to lift his junior student by his shoulders: that made him get through stage fear. My little students had become empathetic leaders and I was super proud. It was a great day. I was satisfied but I also understood how much more work was due after this result. Nonetheless, while returning back I took my team for dinner to celebrate the hope in our efforts to help more students.
We did the proof of concept in 2016. By 2017, many headmasters showed interest in running this project in their schools. We spoke to a few more and scaled the project to 10 schools. The scaling-up process after Proof of Concept step involved deciding our next steps between Limited Availability and General Availability. Limited availability is scaling to roughly 1/3rd of the target impact schools to make sure it works and General availability is scaling across all schools – 100%. Many people jump from proof of concept to 100% scaling. That’s dangerous as you wouldn’t have find out issues of scale.
At the end of the academic year, we saw 70% success rate. By now every headmaster was convinced about the idea. We documented our observations: some schools didn’t do well because they didn’t run the sessions regularly; some mapped up to 5 junior-learning-students for every senior-teaching-student; some selected every student as a junior-learning-student for the program whereas the program was meant only for students with lower grades having learning issues. These observations and results helped us design best practices. Before scaling to 100% in 2018, we made every teacher agree with best practices in the MOU documents that we sign. For 2018, we implemented this in all 32 schools. Bridge project is well known across Palamaner, Andhra Pradesh today and has been willingly accepted across.
As a leader of this organization, I feel very proud that we pulled this through. It sure took time but has proven it’s potential. By 2020, we plan to meet Education ministers of different states and submit these reports. Why another 2 years? We want to study this solution more in these 32 incubating schools so that we would learn more and be able to to deal with possible challenges ahead and prepare better.
We only have one solution to stop the bleeding. The root causes still remain untreated. Couple of steps we have taken on this front:
Local Student Volunteers
One of our engineering student-volunteers, Shaista, went to college on a JTD scholarship. She has volunteered in helping students of her village. She wants to bridge the learning gap. She teaches them for 2 hours every day. Her efforts have proven that if 1 or 2 students from each village take the initiative of bridging the gap, then students will definitely improve. In 2019, we plan to scale this solution to 25 villages and study more.
Primary School teachers
We have started talking to 10 primary schools on how to solve the root cause of creative learning. It’s a difficult challenge, but our discussions are making progress.
Hope my experience shared helps anyone across the world or India trying to solve this education-quality problem. Am open to answering queries or take suggestions/feedback. Education of school kids beyond cities is as much your problem as mine. Let’s work together for a better tomorrow.
Co-Founder “Joining the Dots Foundation”