Satish Jha, President & CEO, OLPC India Foundation talks to skillingindia.com on children’s learning and education.
“By making children curious, by nurturing exploratory instincts and making learning enjoyable we can help children learn faster and engage their minds in ways that can find newer ways to understand various questions that engage them,” says Satish Jha
What is the magnitude of differences in children’s performances across countries and to what extent are these differences related to their socio-economic background?
Satish Jha: Children’s performance is generally a function of the environment that they grow up in. Much depends on their early childhood. A child deprived of nutrition in early stages may not develop all the capabilities that we associate with normally developed brains. Similarly, early exposure to variety and complexity of what goes on in the family and peer environment helps children acclimatize to their surroundings and connect the dots more easily. If we dotted them across a scale, maybe we can see their performances all over the map. However, given a socio–economic environment their learning and subsequent performance may follow similar patterns.
In India it’s easier to notice that the majority of high performers and achievers are concentrated around higher income habitats seen more in larger cities. Not only income levels but, nutritional, infrastructural and social levels facilitate in their development. Also, the presence of better schooling infrastructure, stronger peer groups and greater connectedness to the rest of the world tend to influence the general performance across the board.
If at birth, most children have similar capabilities, the environment can still make a difference that can leave some of them to be average craftsmen while the privileged may excel in finer aspects of their chosen vocation and may achieve excellence as well. Hence, the gaps in performance due to socio-economic environment can be as wide as the canvass itself.
How far is parental involvement in education impacting learning outcomes?
Satish Jha: Parental involvement does aid learning as children grow up watching them in the early years when there is no formal schooling but, most of the survival skills get developed. Parents are aware of their impact on children’s growth and usually nurture them to learn better, become more sensitive to their environment, help connect the dots and even nudge them in certain areas of learning they find children are naturally inclined towards.
On the other hand, imagine a first generation learner whose parents have not had an opportunity to be literate. They are unlikely to understand the world around them as well as the more successful and the privileged. However, in the random distribution of talent there are always exceptions while the average follows the broader rule of engaged parenting improving educational outcomes. Also, learning is a function of individual curiosity. Nurturing can help in pushing children towards higher performance while the notable results are generally specific to talented or gifted individuals.
How is learning to learn improving learning performance of children?
Satish Jha: Our education system follows knowledge creation, pedagogy and technologies that support “education” rather than learning. It’s premised on knowledge being finite, which was a general belief in earlier times when the pedagogies that were generally in use in schools were developed in that way. However, now it’s increasingly obvious to people that knowledge is far from finite. In one year we generate more knowledge than nearly the cumulative knowledge until a year ago.
Clearly the learning paradigm has to change from memorizing to figuring out how to find out all about something we want to know. That may be need based or driven by the curiosity of the learner. What is needed is an ability to explore and understand and take it to the logical next step in the line of enquiry. But, that does not happen by waving a magic wand.
There is a much deeper reason why some societies continuously innovate while most others continue to follow. Why some societies create technologies while most consume them a few cycles later. This usually lies in the way we teach, we learn, we enquire and explore. By making children curious, by nurturing exploratory instincts and making learning enjoyable we can help children learn faster and engage their minds in ways that can find newer ways to understand various questions that engage them.
How has One Laptop Per Child initiative helped in the progress of development of underprivileged children in our country?
Satish Jha: India has not been pro-active in using the opportunity offered by One Laptop Per Child. One way to look at OLPC opportunity is to see it as a pinnacle of human achievement in marrying pedagogy and technology that can help the poorest of the poor to learn as best as the privileged anywhere despite the various challenges including that of infrastructure, learning environment, books, quality teachers among them.
However, there have been some leaders in its adoption and our experience is that children very quickly become bilingual, usually in a matter of months rather than years, their grammar improved to a point they could write on their own in a few months of access to OLPC, they became curious, their cognitive faculties improved greatly and they began to enjoy learning.
Moreover, they began to make the teachers and parents curious about what they did. These children will not have the challenges that an average village child who could only think of becoming a driver or a mechanic, and could not follow their aspirations and normally felt trapped in. They are turning into natural learners, acquiring the skills of critical thinking and problem solving.
What are the next steps that OLPC plans to take in this direction in India?
Satish Jha: OLPC is a movement. It does not sell laptops to anyone. It offers all societies an opportunity to address the questions they have been struggling to deal with forever. It shows how to educate all children despite a lack of resources, electricity, classrooms, quality teachers, books, games, access to the rest of the world, family environment or the century’s old habitat they live in.
In a way, OLPC helps in starting without having to fix everything else, firstly because children cannot wait to learn for want of everything else first. It gets them to the next stage without bringing electricity first by using solar power or hand crank or animal power. It can get children started in a way that teachers can also learn with the laptop. The OLPC laptops come equipped with the material or content that is just as useful for all teachers and triggers their curiosities as well.
We reached out to various state governments as well as the Government of India to explore what they can achieve with OLPC. We hope they would begin to appreciate that India needs OLPC to meet its own challenges. There’s a need to nurture the next generation of Indians in ways that helps them stand at par with the best on the planet and this should drive the government approach towards OLPC. Also, I feel that the Government should treat education as a necessary investment in building India’s future. For no investment can potentially match the investment made in early education.
Interviewed by Arva Shikari