E K Shaji

Ashoka Fellow
e.k.-shaji-pic.png
India
Fellow since 2018
Jodo Gyan
This description of E K Shaji's work was prepared when E K Shaji was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Shaji is building critical thinking and problem-solving capacities in children, by enabling teachers and government administrators to innovate curriculum and pedagogy for this.

The New Idea

Shaji realises that it is critical for children to learn real life skills like problem solving and critical thinking to be successful in the world today. The rote learning method of teaching in Indian government schools is not equipping them with these skills. While there have been attempts to train teachers in implementing new curriculum to teach these skills to children, these interventions have not scaled, and have not sustained as a classroom practice. Shaji recognizes that, for the curriculum to stay relevant key players in the system need to constantly innovate. As first step, he created a ‘resource group infrastructure’ in the education system comprising of key players, that took ownership of innovating mathematics curriculum and pedagogy. The new curriculum and pedagogy for mathematics education developed by these resource groups has enabled children to build skills like reasoning ability, critical thinking and problem solving.

He is changing roles of key players like teachers and administrators to become academic leaders, who in turn are taking ownership of innovating new curriculum and pedagogy rather than just delivering an existing curriculum . He is creating a sustained ‘resource group infrastructure’ in the education system by building a culture of team orientation amongst the administrators, who take ownership of creating new curriculum. With changed roles the relationship between students, teachers, administrators and bureaucrats is starting to change to a new culture of collaborative learning that is bringing the joy of learning and teaching back to the classroom.

The Problem

India has a student population of close 350 million (Ministry of Human Resources and Development data) aged between 6 and 15 years, who are studying in around 1.4 million (14,07547) government schools. Recently released Annual Status of Education Report 2018, concluded that, the proportion of youth not enrolled in schools or colleges increases with age. At age 14, the percentage of youth not enrolled is 5%. By age 18, this figure increases to 30% when it is time for these young people to enroll themselves in the higher secondary and college level courses. Close to 50 million students drop-out of schools by 10th standard. This is alarming and the root-cause of this dramatic drop out rate lies in the design of the education system in terms of roles, and capacity of key players.

Moreover, Shaji observed that the schools in India are not teaching children the skills they need to thrive in the world today, i.e. to think critically and solve problems. The current curricula and pedagogic practices don’t take into consideration the importance of these skills that are most relevant to real life situations of children, instead these promote and sustain a culture of applying rote-learned formulae to arrive at answers overlooking the need for children to analyze the problems and come up with solutions on their own. This culture of teaching has led to students and teachers remaining unengaged with the learning process.

School education is largely procedure oriented, wherein a problem is given to students with a set procedure to arrive at a problem. Thereby promoting a culture of rote learning that leads to creating fear and low confidence in the minds of children. Learning as a process becomes a burden for children than being a joyful and creative process.

Key players involved in education system share transactional relationships with each other. Administrators see themselves as people holding teachers accountable and teachers see themselves as people who need to transact the curriculum given to them by the administrators or higher authorities. The hierarchy with set deliverables assigned to different players in the education system makes it difficult for them to innovate and find solutions. Teachers are expected to memorize content and technique and then deliver as it is to children in schools. Education officers are expected to monitor how effectively teachers are delivering the content. The system doesn’t show any faith in the ability of these players in innovating curriculum and coming up with pedagogic practices that make learning effective. There isn’t any platform that brings these people together in terms of synergizing the efforts, building everyone’s innovating capacities and changing the nature of relationships they share with each other.

In the rapidly changing world, where in there is a greater need for children to learn critical thinking and problem solving, the current school curriculum and pedagogic practices stand outdated and irrelevant. Given limited resources and a large population, the conventional way of creating a curriculum and pedagogy that can just be replicated in the entire country has always been the preference, thus overlooking the contextual realities and relevance to the changing world order.

The Strategy

Shaji’s approach to learning is guided by prioritizing the key principles of conceptual understanding over computational skills, contextual relevance over procedural methodology, and creating and sustaining a culture of co-learning and innovation by everyone involved. Through his organisation, Jodo Gyan (Cumulative Knowledge), Shaji is building capacities of key players in the education system like teachers, block resource person, community resource person, district education officers, state-level bureaucrats etc., to be able to design and deliver learning that is relevant to the children’s everyday lives and enables them to become a generation of problem solvers.

He enters a state government by engaging and building relationships with decision makers who usually are bureaucrats. He ensures at this stage that the decision makers understand the principles and the relevance of his methodology in transforming learning outcomes like increased test results, increased capacity of teachers and administrators in designing curriculum and pedagogy. Shaji doesn’t charge any money to the state government for his intervention as he feels that’s one of the roadblocks in partnering.

Shaji’s work is not geared towards training teachers in curriculum, pedagogy and giving them ready-made material to use, since he feels this does not build capacity of the teachers and educators to innovate learning methodology on their own and takes away ownership from them. Once he gets a go ahead from the decision makers, he works with the entire value chain in the education department starting from SCERT (State Council for Educational Research and Training), DIET (District Institute of Education and Training) and going all the way up to BRP (Block Resource Persons), CRP (Community Resource Person) and teachers. He identifies nodal demonstration schools where all key players come together to learn, innovate and experiment new curriculum and pedagogy.

Shaji follows a four-year strategy with a state government. In the first year of the intervention, he focuses on building platforms (Resource Groups) where key players come together as a team. The conversations are geared towards understanding roles and purpose and process of education. The outcomes are largely around how effectively these players have come together as a team and how differently they see their roles in transforming the education process. By the end of year 1, many resource groups such as Block Pedagogic Resource Groups, District Pedagogy Resource Groups and State Pedagogy Resource Groups get formed giving the education department a synergistic structure.

In second year of the intervention, Shaji helps these resource groups dive deeper into understanding concepts and ‘learning methodologies’ related to mathematics. The focus remains largely on understanding ‘storytelling using local contexts’ as a method to teach mathematics, identifying contextually relevant problems that can be given to students, learning the process of facilitation that enhances children’s abilities to learn, pedagogy that makes learning joyful and engaging etc. These groups go through a series of capacity building workshops supported by Shaji and his team members. The outcomes for year two are largely around how deeply these groups are invested in enhancing the learning process and identifying enablers to sustain the group process towards collaborative innovation.

In the third year, Shaji focuses on enhancing the abilities of these groups to modify content, come up with pedagogic practices, manualize and draw up plans to effectively execute. Shaji periodically organizes capacity building workshops to keep these groups aligned and motivated. Once the system starts building supportive relationships with their realigned roles and co-learning becomes a norm and there is accountability and ownership to take this forward Shaji exits the partnership.

Shaji’s four-year interventions with state governments is different for each state. For example, in Meghalaya he has enabled the state and district pedagogy officers, block resource people and community resource people to come together as a team to facilitate the learning process of children. In the state of Sikkim, Shaji works with SCERT and DIET personnels. He has created State Resource Core Group in Sikkim which has representatives from State Academic Group, State Teacher Education Group, Schools Good Practitioners Group. All these groups are together contributing to changing the curriculum and pedagogy in the state. The state govt has identified nodal schools with support from Jodo Gyan that act as training centres for teachers and the resource groups.

Jodo Gyan has developed a continuous assessment framework that assesses children on their ability do mathematical calculations, ability to reason, think critically and solve problems. The method used is storytelling and it remains verbal for students. Jodo Gyan has already influenced the government of Delhi to not hold any examinations for students in grade 1 and 2. This new way of assessment is now noticed by the NCERT and Jodo Gyan is in the process of developing this further to be used in other states.

Shaji has a team of 58 people who currently work with 10 state governments in India impacting close to 25000 schools and 350 Anganwadis. In these states he has been actively working to change and realign the primary education system. As next steps he wants to get into the higher secondary education system and simultaneously influence and change how other subjects are taught such as environmental studies and languages.

The Person

Shaji comes from rural Kerala. He loved reading so much so that he finished reading all the children’s books in all the libraries in his small town. He started a library in his own school so his peers could also enjoy the joy of reading. As there were limited books available, and no magazines, Shaji started handwriting his magazines and books that became hugely popular amongst all the children in his town. During his college days, Shaji set up many initiatives like Students Activist Wing, Pratikarana Veti (Alliance for Response). As president of the student union he was instrumental in bringing a culture of reading, artistic orientation and activism to college students.

After doing his post-graduation in economics, followed by a post graduation in Journalism Shaji worked with ‘All India People’s Science Network’ and ‘Scholastic International’, it is in these spaces that he got further opportunities to work with govt institutions, school teachers and many NGOs working on education. His experience with these institutions offered him some very key insights such as- books/learning materials are not relevant to real life situations of children. In schools all learning improvement programmes were happening outside of classrooms as extra-curricular activities, a culture of rote learning pervaded the schools that left students with no conceptual clarity on subject matter and left them with gaining no skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.

Shaji thought improving the learning materials by making them context specific and focusing on building conceptual understanding will solve the problem. He started Jodo Gyan in 1998 and invested his time in developing learning materials to improve learning levels of children in subject matter as well as critical changemaking skills. Jodo Gyan became a creator of exceptional learning materials for mathematics, at the core of these materials was enabling children to become problem solvers. With the success of Jodo Gyan materials and many private schools buying the materials made Shaji question the very nature of how learning is imparted. He realized that this is a systemic problem and only supplying learning materials will never solve this. From 2007-2012 he and his team created a long-term strategy to work with state governments to create their own materials and solutions. After piloting to with the education department officials in changing their roles and giving them a new purpose in changing the way teaching is done, Shaji started scaling his intervention in 2013.