Stories, thoughts and ideas

On challenges facing the schools

By Vijay Gupta

21 July, 2023

Shikshangan is focused on helping schools remain relevant, and continuously raise their effectiveness (that is, better learning for every child). Therefore, from time to time, I like to ask myself this question – what are the challenges schools are facing, or likely to face, in remaining relevant, and prosper?

My current list of challenges are as follows – one, increasing competition from other schools as the number of school-going age population has started declining; two, coaching classes taking away students from Std. 11-12 and later from Std. 9-10; three, the challenge of what should be the syllabus one should teach in the rapidly changing work-life.

One of the responses, I believe, to these challenges should be to focus on making sure that every student becomes a “self-directed learner” by the time she reaches secondary stage. This idea is also expressed as “learning to learn, or learning how to learn”. Such self-directed learners do not need the excessive support of coaching classes, and will prosper in rapidly changing work-space where one needs to constantly upgrade one’s knowledge and skills. Since the process of helping students become a self-directed learner is not easy to copy, or implement, it also creates a sustainable competitive differentiator from other schools.

Of course, to prepare students for entrance tests like JEE/NEET, we need to reorganize the syllabus of Std 9-12 in such a way that it leaves enough time for students to practice, as well as go deeper into the concepts. At Shikshangan, we have done a lot of work on helping every child become a self-directed learner. My next blog will share my thoughts on how to do it.

On helping every student become an “independent learner”

By Vijay Gupta

16 August, 2023

Self-regulation skills develop in human beings during the second decade of our existence. Some teenagers will develop it naturally, while others can benefit from some help. Self-directed learners are first a self-regulated person. At Shikshangan, we have identified 9 learning to learn skills, which includes skills like – reading/listening with comprehension, taking notes using appropriate Graphic Organizers, problem solving, planning, seeking help etc. I believe that schools should directly teach these skills as children enter the middle school, and use the next three years to ensure that every student is comfortable with these skills. Therefore, by the time a student enters Std. 9 she is a self-directed learner.

One other way of teaching these skills is a teacher modelling these skills as she is teaching students in the classroom. For example, teacher must use appropriate Graphic Organizers while teaching in the classroom. I also suggest that students should work on exploratory projects in groups of 3-5 where all these skills are utilized. Engaging in such exploratory projects will hone their independent learning skills.

As I argued earlier, helping students become self-directed learners will ensure that such students are not attracted to coaching classes, as well as, a school which makes this possible will be able to withstand the increasing competition from other schools much better.

One other “knowledge area” which schools should focus on is building “entrepreneurial disposition” of students. Such students will be able to prosper well in rapidly changing work-life. More on this topic in my next blog.

On developing an “entrepreneurial disposition” in students

By Vijay Gupta

20 September, 2023

I think teaching entrepreneurial disposition to adolescent students (say, in Std 9-12) can be a game changer for our education set-up. As you can imagine, such young people will prosper in the rapidly changing work-life, where many jobs/careers will vanish and new ones will come into existence. Children with entrepreneurial disposition will create jobs by creating new enterprises, as well as, while working within an enterprise.

By entrepreneurial disposition (let’s say, ED) I mean two inclinations – one, problem-solving to make life better for people (and thus add value to their life), and two, thinking on a scale. As you would notice, I have not mentioned “profit-orientation”. I believe profits would follow if one is bringing value to people’s life. Also, entrepreneurship also includes “social entrepreneurs”.

As you can imagine, solving a problem (to add value to people’s life) needs using the knowledge and skills one has learnt in the school and otherwise. In addition, new knowledge and skills may need to be learnt to solve a problem, and that would require “independent learning” skills. Therefore, ED and learning to learn (which I talked about in my earlier blog) go hand in hand.

I believe getting students to work on real-life exploratory projects from the early stage can give them a kick-start to building their ED. Many times, a project done at some early stage becomes the seed of an entrepreneurial venture! At Shikshangan, we have done a good amount of work on training students in entrepreneurship. In my next blog I intend talking about how to engage students in exploratory projects.

On doing “Exploratory Projects” with students

By Vijay Gupta

20 December, 2023

By “exploratory projects” I mean long-term tasks where students are exploring some problem, or a challenge, to find out some answer. Usually, such projects are done in groups so that the scope of work can be expansive.

When students engage in such projects, they get an opportunity to apply whatever they have learnt so far, as well as come across things which they have not learnt so far and therefore they learn something which they need (and not what we adults have decided they must learn!). This is very motivating for students as they see the relevance of learning, and experience autonomy over their work (as against teachers directing all the work).

It is a good idea to get the entire class engage in the different aspects of the same project. Each aspect of the project, then, is explored by a team of 3-5 students. Such projects might go on from a couple of months to maybe, entire year. At the end of it, all groups consolidate their work into one report and present it to the larger audience (if possible, to a “relevant” audience). For example, if a project has been done to find ways to manage the traffic congestion in a city, traffic commissioner would be a “relevant” audience.

The project idea should be connected with the life of students, so that they find it meaningful and relevant. I have found a question like the following very useful to generate the project idea:

“What is that one change around you, over the last 5 years, that you are unhappy with?”

Students will mention several changes, and therefore we pick up one with common consensus, and then list down various aspects of this exploration, and constitute small teams of students for each, based on their interest.

As I have mentioned in my earlier blog, one such idea can become an entrepreneurial idea for some students.

In my next blog I plan to explore the idea of “motivation” – that is, what motivates (or gives energy) to our students to learn, or our team members to bring 100% of their energy to their work. 

On “motivation”, of everyone

By Vijay Gupta

17 January, 2024

Motivation (that is, what drives us) has had a long history of research. I came across Maslow while doing my MBA in 1980s. But what I want to share with you today is a wonderful framework suggested by Daniel Pink (read his unputdownable book called “Drive”).

Pink suggests that our motivation is linked to three levers – Relevance (is this meaningful for me; does it connect with my work; how does it help me;), Autonomy (do I have any control; do I get to decide something; do I have any choice), and Mastery (can I do it; do I have the requisite knowledge and skills; do I have a sense of self-efficacy;).

This framework can be applied for any set of people, including ourselves. For example, whenever you are feeling low, ask yourself – is it because I am not finding my work/task/job relevant or meaningful; is it because I do not have any autonomy/elbow-room; is it because I don’t I have the capability. The answer to these three questions will also tell you the way forward. If you are worried about a member of your team, as a supervisor, you can ask the same three questions and you would find something which can change the situation.

Let me show you this framework works at the level of students in a learning situation. As a teacher, when you start a new unit/topic, students are asking (in their mind) why I am learning this? If we can show them how this topic/knowledge is used in the real life, they are more likely to see its relevance. As an educator, in a classroom, we decide what students will learn, how they will learn and how they will be assessed – that is, very low autonomy! Can we try giving them choice from time to time? Finally, if students feel a low sense of self-efficacy for a given topic/subject, they are likely to become disengaged. Our job, then, is to ensure that such students are comfortable with the prerequisite knowledge related to the given topic/unit.

As you can see, this framework of R.A.M. gives us a tool to make our teaching more engaging for every student.

 In my next blog, I will share my explorations on the idea of “prerequisite knowledge” and how it can be the most powerful tool in the hands of a teacher to take along every student on the learning journey.

On “prerequisite knowledge” as a step towards good learning

By Vijay Gupta

31 January, 2024

One of my most satisfying learnings in recent times has been this idea that every new knowledge is built on some prerequisite knowledge (and not any previous knowledge). That is how our brain makes new connections (that is, new learning). Therefore, it makes sense that as we start teaching a new unit/topic/chapter, we identify the prerequisite knowledge for the unit, and make sure that every student is comfortable with that prerequisite knowledge.

I have started believing that “intelligence”, in large measure, is nothing but having this prerequisite knowledge. That is why in the classroom, those students who have the prerequisite knowledge for the given topic appear to us as “bright”, and those who don’t “slow”.

Many times the prerequisite knowledge is nothing but vocabulary. We assume that students are comfortable with “that” vocabulary but they might not. Therefore, it is a good idea to list down those words and make sure that students are conversant with them. 

In fact every word represents a concept, and in that sense vocabulary is also conceptual knowledge. Here is a meaningful statement that I came across recently – “all words are pegs to hang ideas on”.

In my last five years or so of living with this idea, I have found that a typical teacher finds it very difficult to identify the prerequisite knowledge for a given unit/topic. This happens because we see our subject/discipline as disconnected jumble of so many chapters, and not a connected web of concepts and skills, each building on some previous one.

At Shikshangan, we help teachers develop such a web for each subject across grades.