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Educational Focus: Are We Striving for the Wrong Goals?

   /   Jan 21st, 2014Education, India, Opinion

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Recently, Unnayan Learning Hub was featured in a news story that focused on how we, the co-founders, gave up our careers to transform the lives of children in underprivileged areas. But watching the report, I returned to the same questions I ponder whenever I think about this educational venture: Where will the kids I am teaching be 10 years from now? And what do we want for these children in the long run?

Working as a Teach For India fellow for two years, my colleagues and I worked relentlessly to improve the academic outcomes of children. We often discussed getting them to reach an academic level equal to students from top end private schools, enabling them to become doctors, engineers and lawyers. But are we too optimistic about such educational ventures? Are we being unfair by fostering dreams that are unrealistic?

Children at Unnayan Learning Hub – and any other underprivileged children in India – face sometimes insurmountable challenges to achieving their goals, which can be illustrated by the stories of two children growing up side-by-side in Delhi.

Rehan, Grade 5, studied in a plush school in New Delhi and always ranked first in his class. His parents are both engineers at multinational companies and their family income exceeds Rs. 3,00,000 ($5000) per month. Rehan dreams of being a doctor.

Nearby, Khushi attended a Municipal Corporation of Delhi School in Sangam Vihar, an unauthorized colony. She was one of the brightest girls in her class and also aspired to be a doctor. Her father is a fruit seller, earning around Rs. 3-4,000 ($50) per month, and her mother is unemployed. When Khushi reached 10th class, she realized that she needed to join a coaching institute to prepare for her medical entrance exams, but at a cost of Rs. 1,00,000  for two years she knew her father could not pay the fees. Instead, she bought the books and studied.

From here her story may diverge in two ways: she may succeed in getting into a government college, such as AIIMS or Lady Hardinge Medical College, where the fees are Rs. 4,200 per year; and her parents could borrow money and go out of their way to pay her fees. But without the preparation of a coaching institute, she may fail to get into a government college; she will look to private colleges but her family will not be able to pay the fees. With her dream of becoming a doctor shattered, she will perhaps take English classes and apply for call center jobs.

Across the city, Rehan will join an MBBS course irrespective of whether it is private or government, as his family can comfortably afford the fees. But Khushi feels cheated and betrayed: all her teachers promised her that she would become a doctor if she worked hard.

As teachers and entrepreneurs in education, we are constantly telling our children: “If you work hard and score good marks in your exams, you will realize your dreams – if you listen to what we say you will become a doctor, engineer or lawyer.” But is it right to build such dreams for all our children?

At Unnayan Learning Hub, we believe that we can achieve more by focusing on short-term goals rather than laying claim to changing a child’s future. If we focus on improving learning outcomes and on grade-appropriate knowledge and understanding, rather than preaching about future careers and assuring children they will achieve their goals, we will do more justice to our students.

There are some exceptional examples of students from meager backgrounds achieving great heights in India; but India is a country of huge masses, not exceptions. And as the stories above illustrate, even the brightest student from Sangam Vihar sometimes cannot reach their goals, where others would be able to succeed.

As teachers and entrepreneurs, we need to focus on the capabilities of the whole classroom, rather than the individual exceptions: we have a responsibility to improve the outcomes of all our children. Big firms, such as McKinsey, Accenture, Microsoft and Facebook, hire selectively and in small numbers; but by offering children in colonies like Sangam Vihar an opportunity for a better education, they might secure a position at TCS, Wipro or Infosys – a job that would still transform their families’ lives.

India will continue to aspire to the McKinsey’s, Facebook’s and Microsoft’s; but we also depend upon the hard work of thousands more TCS’s, Wipro’s and Infosys’s. Similarly, if two or three out of my class of 28 might succeed in becoming a doctor, what will happen to the other 25? Is it right to force-feed a dream which might never materialize despite their best efforts?

Focusing excessively on motivating children’s academic efforts with the promise of a future career will do more harm than good for the majority of students from underprivileged communities. Instead, let us not focus on what might happen in 10 years; let teachers prioritize teaching the curriculum, developing good character, and propelling children to achieve the best of their abilities. When the time is right, a career will take care of itself.

Devanik Saha was a Teach for India fellow, teaching in a low-income government school in New Delhi; he is now the CEO of educational venutre, Unnayan Learning Hub.

Photo courtesy of subject.

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