Runa Khan
Ashoka Fellow since 1994   |   Bangladesh

Runa Khan

Runa Doja has developed a series of "user-friendly" goal-oriented textbooks to replace the ossified rote learning methods employed in the Bangladeshi school system. The text books, which…
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• 4.2 million people have access to Friendship’s health services • Friendship’s education programme benefits 15,800 households in 5 districts • Friendship’s Disaster Management teams are active in 47 communities covering 162,000 people •The Good Governance Programme is active in 21 Chars hosting 70,000 people •Friendship provides Sustainable Economic Developments services through its 3 operating entities Looking ahead, the education program is working with computer based offline learning that uses curriculum based videos. Work is under way to establish six static clinics and a fifty bed land hospital in remote locations of southern coastal belt by 2017. The programs on agriculture, disaster management, good governance, etc. will also continue growing to reach out to more people.

This description of Runa Khan's work was prepared when Runa Khan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.


Runa Doja has developed a series of "user-friendly" goal-oriented textbooks to replace the ossified rote learning methods employed in the Bangladeshi school system. The text books, which emphasize critical thinking and self-directed learning, have been instrumental in significantly improving student performance.

The New Idea

In 1979, while teaching kindergarten and junior school students in Chittagong, Runa Doja discovered that instead of being encouraged to interpret and understand the information presented to them, students were taught to memorize and simply regurgitate their lessons during tests. Runa observed an utter lack of coherent development in the children; they learned the alphabet and simple vocabulary, but could not use this knowledge for even rudimentary communication. If asked to deviate from the standard lesson plan the children were helpless. Runa was spurred by her teaching experiences to create an educational system that incorporates a variety of participatory methods in order to encourage critical thinking. She calls this system "methods of conceptual motivation." As her students' test scores began to improve markedly, Runa decided to develop a series of goal-oriented, self-instructional text books that would encourage students and teachers to become more engaged in the learning process.

Runa's unique approach to textbook design serves a dual purpose. First, the goal-oriented nature of the textbooks motivates students to complete each unit because they feel a sense of accomplishment as they learn a new, concrete skill. Second, because the books are largely self-directed, the teacher is free to spend more time with individual students, rather than standing in front of a class and reading directly from the textbook. As a result, students have more confidence in themself, begin to think critically, and therefore gain more from the time spent in school. As Runa says, "all I did was what any book should do–increase inquisitiveness for learning."

The Problem

With a population of over 120 million and a literacy rate of only 37 percent, Bangladesh needs a revolutionary change in its outdated school curriculums. While the government and private organizations have attempted to address the problem, they have had few successes. Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, the English language has been banned twice as a medium of instruction in the Bangladeshi school system and educators have not had the political and cultural stability to develop comprehensive texts that address the changing needs of school children.

The textbooks and teaching methods in Bangladeshi schools are outdated, reflecting the legacy of a colonial past that has little use or relevance in the present context. The unimaginative textbooks are also prohibitively expensive, particularly for rural school children. Children often graduate from school lacking the critical analytical skills necessary to achieve their full potential. Bangladeshi school children complete the fifth grade incompetent in basic skills such as locating their country on a world map and understanding directions or cautions on medications and pesticides. The small percentage of students who are fortunate enough to continue their education are not taught how to integrate academic, textbook knowledge with the practical skills needed to improve their lives and the lives of others.

In addition, the average teacher to student ratio in most national primary schools is one to 60, making it virtually impossible for teachers to organize and guide their students effectively or give attention to individual students. Moreover, since the classroom does not provide the necessary environment for learning, most of the educational experience is expected to occur at home with the aid of private tutors. Children from underprivileged families often do not have the resources and time to pursue their education outside of the schools. Runa has begun to address the problem by introducing through her books a method of learning and teaching that is effective, inexpensive and easy to implement on a nationwide scale.

The Strategy

The essence of Runa's strategy lies in conceptualizing the role of all the actors in the teaching and learning process and framing the rules accordingly. Runa has taken into consideration Bangladesh's inadequate education system, the shortage of experienced teachers, the inability of the parents to afford private tutors, the high dropout rate, and a host of other socio-economic factors while writing her books. Her textbooks offer teachers and students clear objectives, comprehensive work plans and simple activities designed to enrich the educational experience. Doja's textbooks also reduce the cost of training teachers and the time required to prepare class lessons.

Keeping in mind the cognitive development and vocabulary levels of different ages, Runa has designed her books with diagrams and illustrations to make each lesson simple, easy to comprehend and most importantly, fun. Runa's books also include detailed notes before each lesson and questions after them, which are extremely useful for the teacher whose work, in turn, is considerably reduced. Runa's unique approach to education is simple and easy to implement not only at the primary level but at all levels of education, and is a model that can easily be adopted in many developing nations.

The early success of her books–primary schools across the country are adopting the textbooks and workbooks–has prompted University Press Limited, one of the country's most esteemed publishing houses, to publish all of her six books. This has encouraged Runa to write more books on Geography, History, General Knowledge and a series of storybooks for children. Many of her textbooks come with audio cassettes, which help build vocabulary, refine pronunciation and to make lessons interesting and provocative for children. These factors help to hold the child's attention and encourages them to participate fully in the educational process.

Since Runa's methodology focuses upon the basic tools needed for learning and absorbing information, her books can easily be translated from English into Bangla and other languages to be used widely in schools nationwide. One of Runa's immediate goals is to move beyond the primary level and target secondary school children. Runa conducted a comprehensive survey to determine which grades in Bangladeshi schools have the highest level of dropouts and what these children commonly do after school. She has created a curriculum and a series of textbooks specifically designed for students likely to dropout. The educational package provides both the incentives to remain in school and the skills needed to pursue a career immediately after leaving. Her textbooks incorporate information on agriculture, engineering and accounting in daily lessons. This will enable students to be better equipped to assist their parents in a particular vocation or initiate their own careers.

Runa plans to set up a textbook writing institute that could replace the government controlled Bangladesh Text Book Board. This may seem to be an ambitious goal, but given that Runa has been approached by the Board to re-write textbooks and curriculums for grades one to ten, one cannot easily dismiss her goals. At present Runa has turned down the Board's offer because she finds their terms too limiting and is determined to persist in her own creative vision.

The Person

Runa's diverse background includes teaching, writing books and promoting women's entrepreneurial ventures. She graduated from Lady Brabourn College in Calcutta with a Bachelor's degree in Geography and later completed another Bachelor's degree from Eden College in Dhaka.

Apart from successfully producing textbooks for children, most of which she has designed, published and marketed herself, Runa has been involved in designing and marketing clothes for women. Her boutique, Mearee, sells designer clothing and employs about 40 women.

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