Cracking the Code: Rethink, Reframe and Act!

Posted By Smita Sircar On Wed, Mar 28, 2018

This is an article penned by Smita Sircar, Innovations Director – edLABS and Ecosystem, Gray Matters Capital that was published in the ” FACES OF BUDGET PRIVATE SCHOOLS IN INDIA REPORT 2018″ by CCS India. The report was launched on 28th March 2018.  The report can be downloaded here.

A Global and Local Challenge

Education faces two key challenges: a learning outcomes gap and an ever-widening future employability gap. In fact, the former feeds into the later.

Reports from United Nation’s and World Bank state that more than 260 million children worldwide are out of school, and half of those in school are not learning. Six out of 10 children and teenagers in the world are failing to reach basic levels of proficiency in learning. Globally the push to ensure free primary and secondary education by 2030 has helped push enrolment numbers up but there has been a “trade-off of quality for quantity”

In India, too, we are facing the same challenges. As per Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016, we have achieved near-universal enrolment in elementary schools (Class I-VIII), but many children lack foundational skills. The report observed that 27% of all children in Std VIII were unable to read a Std II level text. Almost 57% were unable to solve a 3-digit by 1-digit division sum.
The findings of ASER 2017, highlight the need for India’s education system to do a serious & immediate rethinking on equipping our 14 to 18 year olds with knowledge, skills and opportunities for the 21century world as they reach adulthood.

Schooling without learning is a terrible waste of precious resources and of human potential. The low levels of learning outcomes indicate the systemic issues in the way education is imparted.

Add to this the threat posed by hyper automation and the rise of Artificial Intelligence that could wipe out the jobs which exist today. McKinsey has estimated that due to base level automation from 2016-2030, about 400 million jobs will be displaced globally and of this 60 million would be in India.2  Reports by industry bodies such as FICCI and NASSCOM have postulated that almost 9 percent of the workforce in the future would be deployed in new jobs that do not exist today and nearly 40 percent of Indian workforce would be in jobs demanding radically different skill sets.3

Reality Check: Zero Dissatisfaction into a Crisis

Given the low level of learning outcomes and future disruptions in employability, are students, parents, teachers and schools demanding for a system level change? These direct stakeholders seem to have accepted the status quo.

Across all socio-economic strata, children in Indian schools go through immense stress to score high marks for getting admissions into colleges. College is important for students and parents because it is a path to that dream job or at least a survival job.

This continues to take their focus away from what is important in the future i.e. building 21st century life skills such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, grit and problem solving along with inculcating in them leadership and entrepreneurial skills – the essence of quality education. These 21st century skills unlike marks, are intangible and difficult to measure; while they greatly impact an individual’s chances for success, they have to be embedded in the education process of a child.

No wonder, then, most direct stakeholders are focused on achieving the direct tangible academic proficiency goal that is rewarded by the system today. Parents are working hard to send their wards to the best school, teachers are busy teaching to improving academic proficiency and students are busy studying at school as well as tuitions. Hence, on the demand side there is “Zero Dissatisfaction” on actual quality of education imparted and its long-term effectiveness. This effort to keep up with the system is making most direct stakeholders myopic. We have to empathetic to why the direct stakeholders have accepted the status quo and are consumed in their pursuit for marks alone. The risk is that achieving just marks will not be sufficient for the child to be empowered for future success.

Thus, though there is absolute need for large scale change, what is observed is that there is “Zero Dissatisfaction” in the system, leading to the lack of demand for quality education from students, parents, teachers and schools.

Cracking the code

Are we then at an impasse’? If so, how can we move the system forward?

It is apparent that we need to crack the code towards meaningful change and build an education system that empowers a child with skills and belief to thrive in the future.

With more than half of India’s population being below the age of 26 and an estimated 250 million people entering the workforce by 2030, cracking the code is needed for India’s much awaited ‘demographic dividend’ to materializes.

We need to Rethink, Reframe and Act to crack the code. The rest of the article gives pointers to rethink our base objectives, reframe to empower and inspire the innovators and doers to act on changes that will tip the system forward.

Rethink: The Big Question and the core objective

As elucidated above, the future changes in workforce will be exponential and we are all heading into era of life-long learning. The big question to rethink and find answer to is the true purpose of education and its relevance in empowering a child to be future ready.

The current system expects a child to be on a treadmill to achieve marks as a passport to a future dream job. This has hindered schools in their quest to impart all round quality education. However, if those jobs are not present in the future or require skills that are radically different, we need to pause and reflect on whether it still pays to be myopic.

If not, then the emphasis would need to shift for most of the stakeholders parochially hankering after the yardstick of marks, reducing education to a hyper competitive rat race to a self-learning exploration that facilitates a student’s quest for identifying his or her true potential. We would have to move from the current education model that works in the form of an assembly line manufacturing unit and supports the 3R’s (Rote Learning, Writing and Arithmetic) into a congenial environment for self-learning where a child discovers purpose and is encouraged to pick up 21st skills and habits that will enable her to thrive in an ever changing and complex future world.

Imbibing practical and obsolescence proof skill sets is the need of the hour. This is where self-directed learning needs to kick in and education system’s contribution to entrench it as a life-long habit to insulate careers gets underlined. This will improve the prospects of every child being well positioned to self-earn in the future, either by joining the workforce or turning entrepreneurial.

It is, thus, evident that the education system has to transcend into a “Self-Learning to Self-Earning” model which is more self-sustainable from a future of jobs point of view.

This seems like a tall order if we want a top down solution. However, given the diversity and heterogeneity of our country, it seems unlikely we will find a one-size-fits- all solution. Therefore, the system should enable multiple workable solutions to emerge that are relevant to the socio-economic context of different regions. It should empower innovators across the system to find their micro-solutions, that will combine at a system level to achieve our mutually beneficial end objectives.

Reframe: To empower the innovators

Let us reframe to look at not what divides us but what unifies us in our quest to enable learning of the child to thrive in future and support all innovation towards that.

India has innovators present across the system; be it teachers and academicians who are experimenting with pedagogic styles; school leaders who are taking the lead to transform their schools; parents who are encouraging their wards to explore multiple sources of knowledge; entrepreneurs who are introducing breakthrough ed-tech solutions or policy makers who are receptive to innovation in the education system

It is easy to classify the stakeholders as Government, not-for-profit or for-profit organizations that serve the education sector in the country. We could also classify on basis of funding to support the sector; be it government, international organizations, foundations, philanthropists, CSR funding and impact investors. Lastly, we could define on specific roles in the system – played by teachers, students, parents, school leaders, entrepreneurs or policy implementers.

Instead, we should reframe on basis of innovation and redefine ourselves as innovators and doers within the system that are building or enabling workable solutions towards our common objective.

The need is for collaborating on vision and moving beyond ideological stands and behavioural biases to achieve affordable quality education for all. Let us focus on finding workable solutions that deliver disproportionate value in terms cost, quality, engagement, ease of adoption & distribution and empathy towards all especially the students, teachers and parents.

Cracking the code will require innovation at all levels, synergizing efforts of every stakeholder and incentivizing behaviours that are aligned to the end objective.

For example, both government and budget private schools (BPS)have a role to improve access and imparting quality education. Private schools which account for 23% of Indian schools and over 35% of total enrolled students can have an important role to play in galvanizing the system to make it a race to the top to provide quality education. Therefore, the school that will ultimately enable such learning is private, public institution or a combination of both should be moot. Parents should have the choice to select based on value provided and afforded. Some of the work done by Centre for Civil Society (CCS) on voucher system since 2007 can be a model to build in innovative incentives in the system.


Public policy and structures can help in behaviours and action that can create and magnify change. However, it is also true that change resides in the passionate work of the unreasonable man/ woman which are not driven by external incentives and structures. We have to empower these innovators, if we wish to find workable solutions.

There are many positive changes that can aid innovators, doers and stakeholders in finding workable solutions at scale. Some examples of these are

Mobile Penetration in the country and Quality Knowledge Sources through Mobile Access.

There are a billion plus mobiles in our country and the recent competition of telecom players has made data inexpensive. This can herald an era of ‘On-demand’ knowledge with students being able to access courseware, online teachers via videos and podcasts or any information they seek with a veritable click of a button or a tap on their tablet or mobile phone.

A study supported by Gray Matters Capital showed kids are excited about accessing digital platforms but most of these platforms haven’t been designed for stickiness resulting in lack of commitment. So, there is a huge opportunity on cracking this problem by designing educational products that are engaging. This year, Gray Matters Capital will be setting up an accelerator – GMC Calibrator – in mobile based “Self Learning to Self Earning” space for very early stage enterprises/social enterprises/NGOs to come up with solutions that tap into this opportunity.

Societal Platforms

Content is also becoming accessible and democratized through societal platforms that provide that base level content on which innovators/entrepreneurs can create socio-economic context specific solutions. Ek Step – a collaborative platform launched in 2015 to reimagine learning opportunities for every child and the National Teacher Platform – a self-learning module based platform for teachers to improve their teaching efficacy and getting certified. Shiksha Lokam, provide access to free digital interactive content, but also a platform that would provide reference models anchored in evidence based work for schools to adopt and customize to their specific needs.

The Catalytic role of Impact Investors

Impact investors like Gray Matters Capital are taking a systems approach and partnering with innovators from across the spectrum to inspire, innovate, replicate and collaborate towards finding solutions. Gray Matters Capital sees education as the most powerful means of social and economic empowerment and reposes faith in entrepreneurs and enterprises in the form of investment capital to bring about this change. It endeavors to demonstrate a new way to do education impact Investing which catapults us into a positive future.

It is looking at Innovative funding mechanisms to support these changes through its education sector focused initiative called edLABS.

edLABS provides very early stage funding to ‘visionary edu-preneurs’. The aim is help build breakthrough solutions for Indian mass market that address education gaps, 21stcentury skills and future of work.

The innovative funding mechanism (up to 1 crore) doesn’t bind the enterprise to debt obligation nor does it dilute the equity of the founders. The pay back to edLABS is percentage of top line over next few years and is, therefore, variable and dependent on enterprise scaling successful. Other than capital, edLABS provides global view, advisory support, networks & scale.

Since its inception in March 2017, edLABS has made 5 diverse investments in
behaviour architecture firm – Final Mile; education reform organization developing AR/VR curriculum – Chrysalis, AI supported maths tuition platform – Scorace, online learning marketplace with vernacular skill-based MOOCs –Unanth and 21st century skill learning platform and organizer of Creativity Olympiads for kids – Kidovators.

Further in its ecosystem work, edLABS is working to strengthen affordable education by partnering with NGOs/Trusts and businesses aligned to its vision. Some examples include school transformation enablers like Mantra4Change and Muni Schools which has come up with frugal innovation models which other schools can replicate.

Its partnership with CCS and NISA is to support them in their journey of improving learning outcomes in BPS.

NISA has already developed a quality charter for enabling quality education in its schools and is asking its members to sign up to it voluntarily. This self-selection method is powerful to identify motivated early adopters who become change agents by not only declaring their intent but also showcasing their micro-innovations. It opens up the possibility of these micro-innovations getting adopted and replicated across other BPS schools.

Over the next few years, this ripple effect would enable change to happen from within the school system, hence be more sustainable. These schools could not only be budget private schools but choice schools for value and outcomes.

Together, let us innovate in our domains and synergies to crack the code to provide affordable 21st century education to all.

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