Ratna Viswanathan on making government schools joyful places to learn

Technology is only the enabler. It does not drive learning


In the age of chatGPT, it is crucial that children imbibe good education without becoming victims of technology. This is why it becomes even more significant for social impact organisations to partner with state governments to improve the quality of teaching and learning at multiple levels. Reach to Teach, is one such organisation that champions the cause of 'good education' outcomes in Government schools. Reach to Teach works directly at a systemic level building upon its extensive work with communities at the field level over the past decade. To date, they have engaged with numerous government schools through their ‘frugal innovation’ and ‘appropriate technology’ approaches in the states of Gujarat, Haryana, and Arunachal Pradesh. In an interview with THE WEEK, Ratna Viswanathan, CEO, Reach to Teach and a former civil servant throws light on the many ways in which her organisation is making a difference in the lives of hundreds of children on the ground.

How does Reach to Teach bring joy to classrooms?

Government schools are treated as post offices where the teachers and the school authorities themselves have zero agency over what to teach and how to teach. They are simply asked to follow instructions. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, where we have an agreement with the government, along with Niti Aayog, we are rewriting content from Class 1 to 12 without touching the curriculum or the syllabus. We are introducing experiential learning and activity-based learning to make the experience of learning interesting for both, students and teachers. This way we also bring agency back to the teachers. Teaching no longer becomes a monologue and becomes interactive instead. Parents are also integrated into the system to ensure we have ideal levels of enrolment of children in schools. 

In today's day and times of chatGPT, how do we ensure that actual, physical classroom teaching remains unaffected by technology?

Technology is only the enabler. It does not drive learning. At the end of the day, AI (Artificial intelligence) is only an input which also comes from human learning. Digital innovations are great, no doubt in providing access to learning, but they cannot be the only way of learning. What is a smart classroom? that helps in planning better and teaching a larger audience. Human interface and interaction are extremely crucial and will always remain so. The point is that education should not be driven by technology, rather technology should enable education. 

How do you assess a student's grasp over his or her learning?

We have just done a baseline assessment. So what we do is give the same question to students of classes 3, 5 and 8 and see their responses. that's how we will know whether there is grade-appropriate learning or not. We train teachers and also in every state where we work, we try to equip the state by building capacity for it to run on its own once we have exited it. 

Post Covid enrollment in government schools has increased significantly. Do you think parents from the middle and upper middle classes should also consider municipal schools as good options for their wards, especially when private schools charge exorbitant fees?

Definitely. A lot of parents have been shifting their children from private schools to government schools because the latter have done extremely well concerning education and facilities. It is about intuitively understanding what it is that a child wants.  

How do you put the concept of frugal innovation into practice? 

It's about what you innovate at a local level and it need not have anything too expensive, state-of-the-art classrooms, smart classes and internet connectivity etc. It is about using whatever is available to leverage and create different concepts and innovations that are frugal. They are local and coined out of what is available. For instance, in a school I went to, a headmaster had conceptualised a small tiffin box in which he asked children to put money to make them learn how money grows. They'd return the money to each child with a small interest added to it at the end of each year. In another school, the teacher kept a tray with paraphernalia including stationery and asked the children to pick up what they wanted and put the money as per the price labels on the item. Nobody was supervising but a camera was put up and none of the children knew about the camera. So 99 per cent of children honestly put the money in each time they took. Now that was a lesson in honesty. So, it's a small but crucial example of how we can teach the most basic ideas in the most profound and hands-on manner. Also, I feel the concept of frugal innovation hasn't yet been captured fully in government schools. It is important to capture local knowledge and disseminate it within the community.


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