Padmanabha Rao

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
This description of Padmanabha Rao's work was prepared when Padmanabha Rao was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Rama and Padmanabha Rao are providing a viable and attractive solution to multigrade and multilevel learning common in rural areas of India. By bringing together parents, teachers, and children, they have developed a system for creating an effective learning environment supplemented with versatile educational materials.

The New Idea

Rama and Padmanabha Rao have developed a learner-guided method to teaching that not only increases learning but also reengages teachers in their responsibility as educators. They have proved the effectiveness of their comprehensive plan in over 40,000 schools across India. The curriculum is locally relevant and compatible with the state's curriculum. Low-cost but highly effective, their methods aim to make learning an enjoyable and sustainable continuum for India's rural children.
By addressing the multigrade learning system, they are also tackling segregation of children based on gender, age, caste, and learning difficulties. The objective is to provide an alternative pattern for the learning environment and a methodology aimed at self-learning and cooperative learning. In addition, their system nurtures a sense of self-discovery that is connected with the local culture and the local environment without losing touch with larger developments.

The Problem

Government-run rural primary schools lack resources and support for both teachers and students. Teaching in small, remote rural schools is an isolating experience for primary school teachers. Frustrations arise when a single teacher has to handle 25 to 40 students at five different grade levels, with each child learning at a different pace. A rigid government-imposed curriculum using poorly written textbooks adds to the frustration, and teachers often become indifferent. Teachers are commonly absent from school, leaving children with even less of a chance for learning. Although many teachers are well qualified, there is little commitment to the profession. A lack of accountability perpetuates this apathy.
More than 70 percent of the rural schools have students belonging to government-recognized castes and tribes. A majority of these students are first-generation students. With the classroom activities addressing the fast learners, those who lag behind often drop out of school. The persistence of poor infrastructure and lack of basic facilities is due to a chronic shortage of funds. Generally, the community is indifferent to the dismal state of the school system. It is not surprising that rural schools have high dropout rates, low levels of female education, and few children moving to higher education.Several state governments and NGOs are trying various methods to attract children to attend schools, retain them, and facilitate learning. Most of the efforts to combat the child labor problems have resulted in public awareness but have failed to sustain the interest of the children and the community. Some alternative schools have had some success, but most have remained as excellent islands of expertise, unwilling to share and develop appropriate solutions for a wider audience.
Rama and Padmanabha Rao are determined to share their successes with all players in the field of education–government, nongovernment, and private.

The Strategy

The Raos have a three-part strategy. First, they have developed a comprehensive curriculum that is appropriate for children at all grade levels. It not only gives them the freedom to learn at their own pace but also incorporates material that is pertinent to their everyday lives. Second, they have established satellite schools to implement their curriculum. Third, they are currently establishing a network of teachers and others involved in children's learning to form an educational advocacy group.
Their curriculum centers around carefully designed "study cards" and "work cards" supported by a pictorial "achievement ladder" in three subjects: language, mathematics, and environmental studies. The ingenuity of the Raos' design of this educational kit is that children from different grades (one to five) and different learning speeds can use the same materials.
Each grade has well-defined milestones, which typically involve five types of activities: introduction of fresh concepts; reinforcement of concepts; periodic evaluation of the child's understanding of the concepts (administered by himself or a peer group, and recorded by the teacher); remedial activity to shore up the child's grasp (if needed); and enhancing understanding of the concept (if needed).After analyzing the current situation for rural multigrade, multilevel education, Rama and Padmanabha realized that all existing methods of education had forgotten to incorporate play into children's education. In the beginning of the year, students set out with their teachers for a "village survey" to collect information. They note everything from nature's living things, to housing, people's eating habits, agriculture, transportation, health, festivals, and much more. They categorize this information and systematically display their new knowledge around the classroom. Teachers use this in their lessons throughout the year. The children study in small groups according to learning pace. Self and peer evaluations recorded by the teacher take the place of exams. This method of individualized learning has proved to be quite effective. After finishing the course of study (equivalent to class five) many students appear for the entrance examination for class six. Nearly all have passed and continued their studies in regular government or private schools. The Raos' main campus provides residential accommodation and special classes to those students who take up the seventh standard state exam to continue higher studies.
While working with single teacher primary schools in rural India, Rama and Padmanabha saw demoralized students and passive communities that found no meaning in the existing schools. In an attempt to turn this situation around, the Raos gradually initiated 18 satellite schools in and around Rishi Valley, Madanapally. These are currently reaching out to more than 700 children. The satellite schools are conceived and conducted on the principles of community involvement in the educational process. The village provides the land, and community participation extends to landscaping the school grounds and cultivating trees and plants. Because of this involvement, there is a sense of pride and ownership of the school among villagers. Each satellite school has the potential to serve as a resource center for the village as well as a catalyst for constructive change.
Rama and Padmanabha attracted village youth to impart basic training for becoming teachers in the rural schools. They train them to understand the pedagogical situation of the community, the physical organization of the school, the responsibilities of teachers to their students, and the content of the teaching material. Satellite schools also function as resource centers for nearby government schools. Each resource center conducts hands-on refresher courses for teachers and trains them how to design and produce new teaching materials. This continual exchange of ideas and methods fosters a sense of participation and encourages the renewal and refinement of the educational process.
The Raos are very particular that spreading the methodology is not just handing over ready-made things. They build capacity in the community by training their teachers to develop new material on their own. Although difficult and time-consuming, the process gives the community ownership of the education process and yields outstanding results. The methodology has been refined in the course of innovative trainings conducted in various parts of India, particularly those aimed to equip government schoolteachers and teacher trainers.
Currently, the Raos are establishing networks among educators and practitioners addressing multigrade learning to develop a policy and advocacy group. With pronounced recognition and support by the state government, the Raos are engaged in raising resources to run the satellite schools more effectively. The project has reached a level where trainees are now empowered to impart the methods of using the Raos' multigrade and multilevel approach.

The Person

Rama and Padmanabha Rao–both with master's and postgraduate degrees in English–joined Rishi Valley as teachers in 1987. By then they had experience in teaching children and wanted to work with communities to improve education for the underprivileged. Since 1988, they have been jointly in charge of the Rural Education Center. Rama and Padmanabha share responsibilities in developing curricula, methodology, teacher training, involving the community, and in addressing the multigrade and multilevel teaching learning. They also conduct workshops for UNICEF, state governments, and NGOs. While Rama is oriented more toward community development and organizing mothers, Padmanabha Rao focuses on developing the training methodology.
They have traveled widely both in India and abroad to share their experiences in multigrade teaching and learning. The experiments and results of the RIVER project of Rishi Valley are documented in the Ends of the Earth (Random House 1996) by Robert Kaplan. They have presented their study papers in several forums including Voices of Change International Conference 2000 at Homerton College and Cambridge University (Sept. 2000). The couple lives at Rishi Valley campus, Madanapally, with their son.