EI Dialogues with Sourav Banerjee, Room to Read (S1E3) | Educational Initiatives


There’s too much of a distance that he has to cover from her own tribal language to the state language to Hindi to the
market language and then to English which is a very foreign language. So how
much you load a child Hi, my name is Pranav Kothari. I work at Educational Initiatives and look after the work that EI does in assessments and personalized
learning for low-income children. I have the great honor of introducing Sourav
today on the show. I have really been mystified by this person who has
constantly re-engineered Started by working in the government
space, worked at USAID as in the donation in the donor space, moved on towards an
implementing side at Room to Read, an international organization and being the
India country head for them. I’m very curious to learn about the focus on what languages should children be learning when they’re starting school.
How does technology shape up the growth and the scale that the
organization might want to achieve especially when it’s increasing the
amount of partnership that its doing with the government. Thank you so much
for joining us and I look forward to having a fantastic conversation with you.
Thank you. You’ve spent almost 20 years working in
this sector as donor, as someone within the government, as someone working with
the government, part of national agencies, international agencies. Can you
give us a bird’s eye view of how has this sector evolved over
the last two decades? Well, that’s kind of interesting question because you
you’re right that it’s like it’s been about 25 years and I’ve seen it from all
those angles of a donor, of an implementer, of the government. If you
look at evolution, I would say that, if I try to look at the last
25 years that I have been working in this sector sometimes it feels like it’s a
case of one step forward two steps backwards. There have been a
lot of initiatives taken either by government or by NGOs which
individually have been very brilliant initiatives but somehow they
have worked at cross-purposes so you’ll have cases of governments coming and
and kind of reversing programs done by other governments or NGOs
working at cross-purposes. So if you look at the overall landscape except for the
access part, which definitely has improved. There’s much more
children now in school and first generation learners in schools, but on
the quality side that debate still is unresolved. I remember the kind
of issues that we used to discuss in 1994 -1995 when DPEP was launched is almost similar
to the issues that we talk about even today. There’s equality issues, equity
issues. So somewhere, I think we have not really made a lot of headway on that
and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One of course I
guess this whole thing about the education governance. I think
that’s been a big drawn I would say a challenge, and the kind of reform that
you would have expected in education governance over the years, that has not
happened and the political influence in this whole governance system of
education is pretty strong. It starts from hiring of people, postings, of
the kind of curriculum you will have the kind of training programs that you do,
the way you do training programs, all of that somehow has not happened. And
probably, I think as I reflect back I think a lot of it probably would have to
do with the whole issue about the political will to really make a change.
I don’t see that really in the last 20 years.There have been several
governments, but the whole issue of politicians wanting to have a strong
education system whatever party may be that somehow is missing, and
the kind of debate that you would expect within political circles on education,
that probably doesn’t happen. Education reform has largely been led by
the bureaucracy which I think has its limited reach unless there
is a political ownership of the whole thing, it really won’t reach that level.
So things like, this whole whole push now for skill development
which is no doubt an important thing. Skill development and the lack of
skills is something which is critical and people are working on it but the
political push that you see for skill development, nobody is ever questioning
the fact that why are you doing skill development? It is basically essentially
you are doing certain things in addition. Ideally your education
system should have produced this, your education system has not been doing that
and then you invest in additionally to build those skills. So instead of
investing so much on skill development why not invest that money on fixing the
education system? So these kind of political discussions, I think these
are more political discussions and they don’t happen. As a result this whole
education governance has not really improved over time. So that’s probably
because our young adults today who don’t have jobs, are in some ways
more the audience that the political parties want to focus on, right? So is it
because of that that skilling is getting more attention? It is. I mean it is.
That’s what I’m saying the political parties, the political leaders, they’re the
thinking of the short term because those are like, you can immediately see the
benefits of those interventions and therefore focus on those interventions
which give you quick benefits. The whole thing about education being a long-term
thing…and I think somehow politicians have not got the thing that
If you can really create a strong education system, it’s a huge
political legacy that one can build but somehow nobody is thinking that long
term. Everybody is thinking short term and therefore do things which are very
short-term, which can give you benefits immediately and show people that you’ve
done something. The longer-term effect of that is
not being taken care of, and as a result the larger systemic changes that are
required, some how doesn’t happen. How does Room to Read operate? What is the
theory of change, what is the organization currently doing to improve
children’s ability to read? So, I guess, the theory of change at a basic level is
very simple it’s like we believe it stems from the belief that world change
starts with educated children and so education we think solves a lot of the
problems that the world is facing including poverty, equity, conflict among
others so the need for education is paramount. The earlier you start
education the better. Illiteracy is a big gunner, is a big barrier
and so our focus has been to make it literate in the first space which is the
foundational learning is what you call it at the same time we realize that
illiteracy and poverty is again quite related. So, illiteracy leads
to intergenerational cycle of poverty so we feel that investing in girls
education is therefore very important because then if you can actually
educate the girl you can start breaking the cycle of poverty. So we have
determined that we would focus on illiteracy and girls education. So the
idea is you create you have more children who are literate, there are more
girls who are educated and therefore these together forms empowered citizens
which lead to change. So that’s the broad theory of change. Given that
Room to Read is an international organization with many
different countries, operations, many different countries where you’re doing
the fundraising. How does India fit into that strategy? How is Room to Read
India operating within a larger umbrella organisation? So Room to Read as an
organization again we are now in about 14 countries. Since we are an
organization who are focused on two particular areas of Education which is
girls education and early grade literacy it makes us easy
that way because the larger mandate is the same across all the countries that
we are going to work only in these two areas, we are not really diverting and
going anywhere the fund is that way so we have always been focused on these two
areas. So there’s a larger program design which is followed
across all the countries. So, how you would deal with students, how will you
train teachers on a early grade reading, or what kind of inputs will give to girls
in a girls education program is constant across all the countries. What varies is
the local context of the girls in education in India would have a
separate two separate set of challenges as compared to say Vietnam. So you’ll
have to kind of contextualize your program, country specific and that is
allowed. Every country within the larger plan takes the global
program design and then contextualizes it to the country context. Like India for
example, in literacy has a huge issue about home language school language
things which may not have be there in many other countries. So this whole
challenge of transitioning a child so the issue is not really training a child
in his first language, it’s actually second language, because the first
language is always different from school language. So that transition thing.
So you are, for example, you’re talking about a child who is of Bengali heritage,
is speaking Bengali at home but happens to be living in Delhi and
has to go to a Hindi medium school. Is that the example you’re talking about? There
are very there are actually varieties of these things. India is naturally
multilingual I would say so there would be cases like say for example, if I take
example of say Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The school language is Hindi,
that’s the state language of Rajasthan but children there invariably would
speak Marwadi, and Marwadi and Hindi are not entirely the same. So there’s a
transition that a child has to do from Marwadi to Hindi.
If you go to even the southern part, southwestern part. where you have
the tribal areas of like Sirohi, there the child speaks is a very different
language which is a Garasiya language, which is a
tribal language. The market language there is Marwadi and the school
language there is Hindi. So the child has to be transitioned really from Greahasya to
Marwadi to Hindi. And it’s not that one language to another it’s always and
most often is the question of the child already speaking all these three
languages in various versions. So it’s not that you are teaching her an entirely
new language/ The language is there in the environment but you just have to
teach them how to read and write that language.
That’s one level of complication. The other level is what you are talking
about so in urban areas like in Delhi in Bombay, you will find children coming
from various parts of the country. Even someone coming from Tamil Nadu or
from Karnataka or from West Bengal and they all have to now learn Hindi or
English. So that’s the other level of complexity. So all these complexities
are very unique to India, which you probably not find except for, the other
countries that we work in, only Laos has this kind of a complexity. But other
countries are more more or less monolingual. So again, the global design
then has to be contextualize to take care of this kind of challenges. So, I’m
really intrigued by this child who is speaking Garasiya at home, market –
Marwadi, school – Hindi, and then there is the whole allure of
English. Oh yes! I mean that’s an additional complexity, which is
also a foreign language. Because at some level a Garasiya, or a Marwadi, or Hindi, or
a Bengali or any Indian languages would still follow the Akshara script. So you
have a certain science of how you of do the Akshara thing, of your
vowels and consonants and stuff like that but English is a very different
ball game altogether. So obviously that’s a very different complexity. We
have really not even gone to that extent like till now all our programs have
been in the local language. We have not tried English as in as a foreign language and
there’s a lot of demand from most programs to try ask us to do English.
We ourselves are not very confident that we can handle English the way that we handle our local languages. So how do you handle this tension? Because I hear you say on one
hand there’s demand for English but on the pedagogical side it’s the
vernacular language and so how do you Pedagogically, we all think that
vernacular is where the child should start their education and English you can
always transition at a later stage if you feel If you know the basic science of
learning a language, you can always have a new language later on. So we do
argue that with various state governments on the need to push English
to a later date and start with the home language or the school or a vernacular
language. But again, I would say as I was talking about in the beginning, about
the whole political consensus around English and not English… so there are
the market forces, there are political forces well which do not always
follow a sound pedagogic principles so there’s always this thing about English
coming in and so the best that we could do is what you we have offered
governments is that so we have a strong library component. So we said that
we can see and supply you English books so that the child can at least get
a bit accustomed to what English is but it’s probably too premature for us to
start teaching English because that’s a very different ballgame. So some
countries, like Japan where the Japanese language has enough economic
opportunities that you may never having to ever learn English.
But in a country like India, where the economic opportunities available to
only native language speakers may not be sufficient. So in
that scenario, Is India obligated to infuse English early
into the curriculum even if it doesn’t make the right pedagogic sense? I think
English is difficult to shy away from.
At some point of time you are right that market would demand that you have
English and the way globalization is happening, the kind of opportunities that
you have globally it makes sense for children to even go and learn English.
What our concern is to start English at a very early age because I think the
your first start of language reading, writing should always be at the language
that one is comfortable with, that’s one part of the thing. The second thing is we
don’t even have the right infrastructure for teaching English to a
large extent. One, because see reading writing can not happen unless you have
simultaneously listening and speaking happening with you. These are
all correlated. So if you have an environment where the child is not
speaking the child is not listening to English, you certainly start teaching him
to read and write English, it’s just not going to work. And then you have this
whole thing of not adequate teachers the teachers themselves are not gone through, there’s a lot of other things to be resolved before you even talk about
English. So that’s about the illustrious past Sourav, what’s the future like? What
is the five ten year dream? What are you looking forward to the most?
So I think what we have we’re now focusing… so it’s
been about 12 years that we have been working more than 12 years over we
started in 2003 so it’s over 15 years that we are working here. Till about 2012
I guess we were very closed. We were very inward looking, so we were
trying to develop the model both in terms of a girls education program and
literacy. So the model itself evolved over time so we started off with a
library program then we brought in instruction and we kind of changed our
instruction design a couple of times to figure out what makes more sense to the
point now where we are pretty confident that we have a model works we have
evaluated them and assessed them rigorously to say that the model works
in any kind of situation. We have tried them in various
situations and found that it’s working. I think the way forward now is basically
we also realize that this closed intervention in a few schools here and
a few schools there, I mean even a hundred schools or 500 schools doesn’t really
make any difference in the whole landscape of India where you’re talking
about a million schools. So I guess what we’re trying to do
is looking at scale. That has been the predominant discussion that we’re having
within the organisation for the last two-three years we have been looking at various
researches around scale, what Brookings has done what MSI has done, and we have
tried to develop a kind of a model for scaling up. Which
you call it the ‘I do. We do. You do’ model which is basically first you
demonstrate what is happening, you create evidence, then you work with the
government very closely to build up the institutional system to scale up things,
and when when you say build up institution system it would mean things
like say for example, in our case, in the literacy program you work with the
government to see that the instruction design is aligned to the curriculum or
the training models are the ones that goes into common training programs. All the
materials are one that the government can actually replicate. So create those
systems so that the government can replicate and that’s what you call the
‘We do’ phase where we and the government work together before you let it off to
the government to scale it themselves, which we call the ‘You do’ phase where we
we expect that our involvement will be only marginal to give the technical
assistance etc. So this model we have again started implementing that. So
we have started with Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand, two states where we have got
pretty good success, in a sense that in in both the states we have moved from the ‘I do’ model to ‘We do’ model we have been able to bring down the cost by
1/5th yet the impact remained the same. The
impact was actually better in the ‘We do’ model, which was counterintuitive but when
we kind of analyzed you to figure out that it
sense because what was happening in those in those districts where we were
working with the government, was there was a larger ownership of the government
to kind of take that forward. Unlike in other cases where we do it
hundred schools maybe but there are thousand other schools where something
else is happening and so the teachers are confused and all of that. So I think
that that’s where we want to go, so the ‘We do’ thing is we want…
we are discussing with governments to kind of have this model applied to more and
more districts before the government takes it out front. That’s what I guess the
way forward in the next five years. I think we see ourselves doing more of
these collaborative programs with government across various states. So would
you say that when working with the government, one of the things
you have seen is that when it’s collaborative, when there’s greater
ownership, when it’s sort of in some ways census applying to all schools, it’s not
that your results are getting compromised, in fact they have taken the
best of what you have to offer, they’ve done an iteration on that and deployed
something that is more relevant, more contextualized, more useful on the ground.
And it is interesting because what we have also done a bit of research on
various scale up pathways that have been tried in India. Because unfortunately if
you look at the history of India, not many programs, NGO programs, have
actually scaled up. And what we found was there are two kinds of scale-up
pathways that we could figure out. One is where the NGO itself has expanded. So
from 20 schools you move to 20,000 schools and and two lakh schools. we found
that doesn’t work, because a non-profit by its very nature, it’s not
configured to kind of scale that way. So the moment you scale yourselves you lose
the control that you have, you lose the intensity of the work. So that
doesn’t work. The other other pathway of scale-up has been where government
would have taken your idea and just scaled it up. So that again has not
worked, because in most cases it is someone in the government whether it’s
the minister secretary who has just liked your idea and
said they will do it across the entire state. And it doesn’t work that way
because there’s no ownership created at the teacher level. The teacher
thinks it is for him, it’s still the program coming from top and there’s no
ownership. So this ‘We do’ model helped in that way because we engaged with the
government at various levels of the governmen during a longer period.
So it was almost a period of one year of engagement where we we were talking to
DIETS, we’re talking to a SCERT, we were talking to the teachers the
messaging was designed properly. What is the message that the project director
would give or what is the message that a block officer would give and teacher would
give. So all those things have to be kind of tied up really to see that their
ownership and the messaging happens correctly. So what you
want to do is you want the teacher to know that it is a government program it’s
not a Room to Read’s program. Because the moment he sees this a Room to Read
program, he knows that two years down the line Room to Read won’t be there. So
I have no real stake to follow what is being taught. So to make that a government program, you really have to build in all the government stakeholders
into that process and that process takes long, but once you have that then the
results are assured. You mentioned about how the government should listen
but listen to the right people and the right organizations. How does one
determine as to what is genuine, what is fly-by-night, what has depth,
what is based on research, and what just looks snazzy? If you were in the
government shoes, how would you decide and what advice would you
give them? I mean, I understand its difficult but I guess you need to set up certain systems. So one thing is of course measurement. Every
organization who is implementing a program, what are measuring, and what are
they showing as their outcomes, that’s very critical. And outcomes I
would say at the child level not really other so there would be organizations
and there was a time when a lot of organization were doing only teacher
training. A lot of teacher training happening but then ultimately
when the teacher goes back to the school it’s a very different challenge that they
face. So actually looking at those the contribution of each of the
organizations and I think every organization has its own strong points.
So you cannot work with one organization and expect that organization to advise
you on everything. And I think that’s kind of understood that every
organization has its strengths so you select organization based on their strengths and ask
them to contribute that portion of that. You mentioned that student learning
outcomes are important, but the general belief is that unless teachers
are trained, how would that trickle down into student learning
outcomes. But you said there’s an issue that teachers face when they go back so
if you could explain… So I think the biggest problem with the teacher
training is it’s a double edged sword. So if you have
teacher not going for training then there’s a problem, if you have
teachers going for training all the time, that’s also a problem. I think what has not
happened really and this is across the states if you see and across policies
we have not emphasized enough on the pre-service teacher training.
Ideally, that should have been your focus because that’s where the teachers are
getting trained. Again, similar to the skill thing that I talked about, you are
creating…you’re taking teachers to a system which is defunct,
then you place them on the schools then you additionally invest on them to build
their skills, which makes no sense! I mean, it you should have
rather invested the time when the teachers are being trained. So adequate
emphasis on pre-service teacher training is something which has not happened. Once
the teacher in the school I think the focus should be more on providing the
teacher on-site academic support rather than a lot of classroom based training,
which doesn’t happen, because the challenges in every school is very
different. Sourav, I hear you clearly on the need for higher quality of
pre-service training, the need for teachers to practice in the classroom,
get feedback on the practices, but this itself requires a higher degree of
capacity of the right set of trainers, of the right set of educators for the educators. Where will this capacity come from? Well, you have to kind of develop
that definitely. For example for in-service coaching is a very high
set of skills I mean you you can’t expect the current set of people that we
see in the system to be really good coaches. Many times it’s not possible. So
obviously you have to work towards those very systematically and
that’s one part of it but the second part is many times is not always the
capacity issue, it again boils down to a larger governance issue. So the
point is if you have the BRCs, and the CRCs, I am taking those as examples, they were cadres created to provide academic support but then you created
such a system that they left… all that they were left with was collecting data and
and they became in some way bosses to the teachers and they would
they would not really do the things that was expected of them.
But why is that happening? Because your education governance so to speak, you
didn’t have the accountability systems which you would have required from them
to happen. So it’s not only… capacity is an issue, but then also to to
create the right kind of accountability structures which would
demand accountability even for a teacher, education institution, if they are teaching
training teachers there has to be some way of measuring what they’re
trained. Is the teacher gaining any knowledge after the end of
the course? We currently don’t have those kind of systems. How are you
changing teachers attitudes? How are you changing their practices to go and to see whether what you’ve taught in the teacher is she been applying that
in the field. So we just don’t have those systems in place to kind of build on
those accountability on the whole teacher training… Sourav, how will this
accountability come through? We talked about the political will,
even when the government tried to sort of measure the impact of the teacher
training institutes the pre-service there was this big uprising there was this
big pushback from the owners of the teacher training institutes, right? So I
mean, is it is all hope lost? Are we going to get anywhere then? So, I guess
I mean I don’t think hope is lost, you have to keep trying I guess. As I
said, at one level you might hope that the political system comes up
and they kind of start demanding some of these things which I strongly
believe is one of the things that has still now been lacking
and it can make a difference if the politicians come up and start demanding
and this kind of accountability the other thing is, of course on how
you design many of these programs. So say for example, when you are doing a
large scale teacher training can you use technology for that matter? Many concepts
are much easier explained in a technological mode than doing the
face-to-face teacher training, where you waste a lot of resources to bring the
teacher out of school, set him in a center for five days, and bore him to
death, and yet doesn’t understand anything. So also innovative ways of
how to kind of deliver content to the teachers is one way of kind of easing
out some of the challenges. I would still say the challenges would remain in
terms of larger governance issues and accountability issues but at least you
can have a way of delivering the content to the best possible way. Thank you, thank
you so much for joining us and sharing some pearls of wisdom
really enjoyed the conversation thanks a lot thank you pleasure
yes likewise.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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