Perhaps epitomised as backward and bearing all the hallmarks of a country still developing, India, nonetheless, has become a hotbed for both inclusive and parsimonious innovations. Whether it is the cheapest car in world, or the Aravind Eye Care Hospital that provides free modernised surgery to the poor, or the low-rate phone calls offered by Bharti Airtel thanks to its ingenious business model, modern India is flourishing with the omnipresent jugaad spirit. Other examples of enabling valuable products and services to become affordable to those deprived are shown at the Honey Bee Network’s vast database. Among the noteworthy initiatives that target lower income households is the Mitticool natural refrigerator, which is made exclusively from clay and does not require an external energy source. Another is the Washing and Exercise Machine invented by a 14-year-old girl, which is a “semi-automated, mechanical, and pedal-operated washing machine”.
All-encompassing innovations also are visible in the education sector, where the focus often rests on the ridiculously cheap Aakash tablet, designed to bridge the digital divide and improve the teaching process by including a different approach towards education. Efforts to improve the learning outcomes of the economically disadvantaged include the government’s Mid-day Meal programme, which gives children more incentive to attend and become engaged in schools. However, in spite of these welcome and rather notable improvements, a third of the population remains illiterate and improving the learning outcomes that translate to a meaningful employment remains the government’s and educators’ biggest challenge.
Thus, why do efforts to improve learning outcomes for low-income students often fall short? A possible reason may be that these students are provided with an education that is distinctly different from both their everyday life and interests. Consider that rural children undergo an education in city-based professions and that education centres specialising in, for instance, rural development or agriculture are located in urban environments. This mismatch causes both rural and urban children to regard their knowledge as not very useful because they cannot use it in their current environment, although most are likely to abandon their education before they reach that stage. The newly founded Gramodaya schools in villages and other rural areas is meant to address this educational divergence. They will offer rural students an education in rural development and in vocational-based professions that will enable them to use practical knowledge and sustainable techniques long since overlooked. The Gramodayas are intended to be community-based learning centres where peer-to-peer learning is central.
Another reason is that well-intentioned teachers with capability lack the equipment needed for quality teaching, not just in terms of resources but also pedagogical knowledge. Deprived areas typically will not adapt teaching innovations or aids unless they are dirt-cheap and come with a guide. Nevertheless, several thrifty innovations provide excellent alternatives to purchasing expensive learning resources. One of these involves making better use of the school building, whether by painting, creating interesting patterns, and so on. Building as Learning Aid (BaLA), by the architectural research and design firm Vinyãs, is an excellent way to turn school buildings into learning resources; as an example, painting angles on the floor underneath doors enables a child to learn basic geometry better. BaLA promotes an experiential form of learning in a child-friendly environment that involves and evolves all their senses, it allows children to learn at varied paces, and establishes an inclusive school environment in which peer learning can occur. Another similar programme is the (Learning is Fun & Experiential) LIFE Lab, which supplies low-cost, hands-on science models to disadvantaged schools that encourages an experiential learning in science; it hopes to boost the creativity, confidence, and interest in children. Take the “balloon car”, for instance, which teaches the three Newtonian Laws; the simple materials required are a balloon, a straw, an ice cream stick, and four bottle caps, but it requires a healthy dose of ingenuity as well.
Of course, both these very promising programmes have not yet been adopted widely; however, making these innovations visible to teachers and students around the country that, in turn, improve the students’ learning experience is equally important. The Education Innovation Bank at IIM Ahmadabad identifies the teaching innovations of select teachers so that they inspire others who seek practical advice in teaching poorly funded schools; in essence, it is a network where teachers can share ideas with each other.
Ultimately, these chosen examples illustrate the ability with which good quality education can be accessible to disadvantaged school students by using cheap, existing resources in innovative ways. Though they may not be enough by themselves alone, they do show the enthusiasm with which innovators embrace their mission to augment the learning outcomes of these children, with little cost to the schools.