If you want to be great, you have to attempt something that may look stupid: Vineet Nayar
The founder of Sampark Foundation, believes we need to relook our education system and parenting
Increased investments in education, high enrolment rate and accessibility to education is good news for a country looking to become an economic power, with the backing of a flourishing industrial sector and skilled manpower. But the National Achievement Survey (NAS) shows that poor learning outcomes and high dropout rates are obstacles to achieving this goal. Around six out of 10 students in Class V cannot read Class II text; eight out of 10 cannot do simple math. Six million children in the age group of 6-14 are estimated to be out of school and 36% of the children drop out even before completing primary education.
Having funded various NGOs through the Sampark Foundation since 2005, founders Anupama and Vineet Nayar, former Vice Chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies, realised the only way to see actual change in the education sector is to roll-up their sleeves and get into solving this problem. And thus began Sampark’s primary school transformation programme through frugal innovation in teaching practices, tools and methodologies. They developed Sampark Smart Shala (SSS) that combines five innovations — a rechargeable audio device, 3-D Teaching Learning Materials, board games, multimedia workbooks, and Sampark mobile app, to improve learning outcomes.
This programme works with teachers in 76,000 rural schools in six states — Chhattisgarh, Uttrakhand, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana along with 2,00,000 teachers. The Nayars have committed ₹650 crore from their personal wealth to promote the cause of transformative learning through frugal innovation in government schools in India.
Vineet Nayar elaborates more about the programme, the need for innovation in education and how once he was almost thrown out of school.
Why do we need innovation in education?
If you go back to the genesis of the Indian IT industry, our engineers were not as good as their contemporaries abroad. What we did instead was to convert the art of writing a software into a process. We broke it down into designing, coding, testing, and applying testing to the case; in 90 days we trained fresh engineers who had no computing background to do a single task. That is the way the IT industry was created; and today we have about three million engineers coding better than anybody else in the world because we applied innovation and broke down the task because of which people who could not code now can. We need to do the same with education — how can we enable the same set of teachers to deliver better quality education?
Which problem area in education can innovation solve?
If you look at the Indian education system, although we have doubled the amount of investment in education in the last decade, the learning outcome has only gone down. So whatever has happened in the last decade in terms of statement of intent or intervention or attempt by private parties or government, the learning outcome has not improved. In my belief, the reason it has not improved is because people have not applied design thinking to try and identify the problem. In my mind, there are three questions that are critical for us to ask when it comes to poor learning outcomes: 1. Where does the learning outcome get created? The answer is, in the interface between the teacher and the child.; 2. Who creates the learning outcome? The teacher.; 3. And most importantly, what can we as private parties, governments and educators do to enable the teacher to do something that she has not been able to do before?
The truth is, unfortunately, our teachers are not very well educated and those are the only teachers who are willing to work in the rural schools. This is where innovation comes in — innovation that is frugal (because there is limited capital available), not technology-based (many villages do not have electricity), and disruptive. If we are able to bring in such an innovation into the classroom transaction, I can guarantee that the learning outcome in 7,68,000 rural schools will improve.
What is the long-term impact of offering quality education?
We have 144 million children in our public education system. And all kinds of data show that their learning outcome is poor. Moreover, 36% of children drop out by Class VI. Therefore, we have a very large pool of unemployed and unemployable youth. Eventually, the demographic dividend is going to be our country’s biggest challenge. And if we don’t solve it, we will not have employable professionals and our social security fabric is going to drain so much money that our country will not be able to afford it.
What are the other challenges you see with the Indian education system?
In rural schools, the problem is the competence levels of the teachers; the poor interest level of the parent in educating their children, which in turn affects the child’s attendance. The moment you create a very attractive classroom with teaching aids like we have done with an audio box, Mary Poppins-like Sampark didi, and Bollywood-style songs and dance, kids will start loving their teachers, and therefore the teachers are motivated to do more. Thus, by igniting the classroom transaction, and making it fun, it suddenly solves many problems.
In the non-rural or private schools, the problem is bigger. In the Industrial Age (when the Indian IT and Pharma industries were born), we were in the business of quality processes and systems; there was a significant domination of the Indian industries then because we knew how to organise people around a single skill and group them together to produce more. Today, in the digital age, we need disruptive thinkers and innovators; we don’t need people who take instructions. Whereas our entire schooling system is about taking instructions; our parenting is about ‘don’t take risks’, ‘fall in line’, ‘do engineering, do medicine’... In India, we are creating followers, instruction-takers. And this exactly what happened in the British Raj when we were producing the raw material of cotton, and they were producing the shirts. Today, we are producing the raw material called human capital and sending them on H1B Visa, but all the innovation is happening all across the world.
We need to produce risk-takers, people who think outside the box and leaders who will create jobs and solve problems. We need people who will start new kinds of businesses that are meaningful and innovative. This is where the education system is failing us.
Your focus shift to education:
I set up Sampark Foundation in 2005. My wife and I were cutting a lot of cheques and funding a lot of NGOs working towards agriculture and education innovation, besides others. We spent about ₹42 crores in the first 7 years. In the 7 years, it became very clear to us that we have not contributed to any change whatsoever. And therefore the only way to do that was to roll up our sleeves. I had enough wealth and recognition, so I decided to quit corporate life and get involved in my Foundation full-time. By 2013, we started rolling up our sleeves and properly thinking how we can solve these problems in education. That is how we came up with SSS. The learning outcome reports are very encouraging. We want to see if we can solve this problem by 2025, by when the Foundation will shut down. Most NGOs create dependence of the programme around them. The reason we have announced a deadline is because my managers and programme facilitators cannot create dependencies on themselves; instead, they have to create stability within the system so that it runs on itself.
We are very clear with all our stakeholders that we will not exist beyond 2025. We are on a mission mode. Our goal is that the learning outcome of two crore children till Grade VIII in Science, Maths and English should have shown a dramatic increase in 2,00,000 schools.
Can you share with us an experience from school or college that shaped who you are today?
I hated education. I never scored big marks, but I always did well in school. I did my primary education in Pantnagar, Uttrakhand. Once, while in Class V, I was getting bored, so, I started bouncing marbles in class and making a noise. The teacher got so frustrated that she started crying and complained to the principal, an American. She rusticated a few of us. I didn’t tell anybody at home and continued going to school and stood at the gate. We did this for about a week. The principal noticed this and asked us, “Why do you keep coming?”. I still remember my reply to her: “We are learning. We have good ears, so we can hear whatever is happening in class.” She smiled and called us inside. She took me aside and said, “Vineet, if this is the attitude, you will go far but you have to apply it in the right places.” The fact that she allowed me to be naughty and at the same time thought ‘there is something different about this boy’, changed my attitude towards education. Later, I studied at a school in Delhi where ambition level of students was large. There I learnt my second lesson — that you need to have very strong ambitions to be able to do something which nobody else has done. And my final lesson came at XLRI in Jamshedpur. I learnt disruptive thinking from there.
Words for aspiring innovators...
If you want to be great, you have to attempt something that may look stupid. It’s what I call the ‘greatness of stupidity’. That cultural transformation is very critical in our parenting today. Our educators, political leaders, and parents should learn that the only way we will create innovators and leaders is by allowing people to make stupid mistakes.