For several years now we’ve seen the ‘Make in India’ slogan painted across the country. The recent call for becoming ‘atmanirbhar‘ is also signalling the move towards a self-reliant India. However, the ostensible reason why these have not become a success lies in education: We still teach our children to listen, instead of teaching them to make. We need greater focus on this via policy injections like NITI Aayog’s Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) initiative.
In times of a pandemic that is scary and confusing to children, policymakers should shift gears and focus on a hands-on approach to learning.
ATLs are a series of innovation labs or ‘maker spaces’ placed in over 5,000 schools across the country under NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission with thousands more awaiting their grants. Central and state government schools, corporation schools, affordable private schools and mid to premium private schools — all apply for this grant. They are distributed across the country from sparsely populated rural districts to dense urban centres.
Launched in 2016, the labs focus on fostering a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in middle and high school students. Once selected, schools receive a sum of Rs 20 lakh over a period of five years. Schools can use the first tranche of money to procure equipment that ranges from art and craft supplies and basic electronic supplies, all the way to advanced prototyping tools like 3D printers and laser cutters.
The grant further provides a small monthly stipend for an existing school teacher to take on the role of an ATL in-charge. There is also a network of technical mentors volunteering their time under the Mentors of Change initiative. There are however three primary issues why ATLs have failed us in making kids ‘atmanirbhar‘.
First, there is a lack of alignment between the academic outcomes prescribed by the NCERT, CBSE, ICSE and state boards and the spirit of tinkering that ATL maker spaces embody. The former is heavily prescriptive with laser sharp outcomes and high level of accountability tied to assessments, testing and scores. The ATLs, on the other hand, allow children to take their time to find problems, use design thinking and create effective solutions. Consider this: A Class 9 student in the regular science class is expected to learn, memorise and reproduce concepts of speed, distance, velocity and acceleration; in social-studies they learn about disaster management. In ATLs though, they are methodically taught the steps in how to build a drone and how to use a microcontroller.
The effectiveness of these are under scrutiny as they are disconnected. In an effective ATL, the traditional rules of classrooms don’t apply. The teacher becomes a facilitator gently nudging students while focussing on the practical applications of using drones in disaster management. The specific disaster use — flood relief or fire-fighting — is left to the students to explore, build, break, fail and learn. ATLs foster theoretical knowledge with hands-on experience building technological skills and problem solving for real-world challenges.
Second, there is a mismatch between parental expectations and the positioning of the ATLs. Our unidimensional worldviews persist: That a comfortable and secure future requires a degree from a ‘good’ college. Since the path to this college degree requires students to write competitive entrance examinations, subjects like Mathematics and Science are seen as essential and crucial things to learn. Everything else thereafter is dispensable.
However, equally important future-ready skills like innovation and problem solving in maker spaces on the other hand are as important. If a child scores 75 in Mathematics and Science and has done no work in the ATL, the parents expect more effort from the child but in general are satisfied with the school. If the child on the other hand has an excellent project in the ATL but has no scores to show in Mathematics and Science, parents will hold the school and the child accountable. This needs to change and policy moves can be pushed in light of the pandemic to push changes albeit on the margin.
Communication of future-ready skills in parent-teacher meetings, school celebrations, websites, social media are important. Bringing in successful innovators to speak to parents about how they’ve benefited from these skills can be institutionalised as well.
Third, it is common knowledge at this point that the majority of our schools operate with crowded classrooms and limited staff. Recent reports suggest that 14 percent of government secondary schools do not have the prescribed minimum of six teachers. The duty of ATL in-charge, given that schools are understaffed, is usually allocated to a science teacher because the vocabulary of innovation, technology and 3D printing are thought to be best understood by them. These teachers are often in charge of addressing parents’ concerns, organising celebrations, competitions, administrative assistance and evaluating exams.
Moreover, in government schools, election duty, census surveys, maintaining records for dozens of government schemes, entertaining guests and observing celebrations of several local, regional, national and internationally important days. The ‘in-charge’ teacher has the best intentions but often the least time. Two key things need to be done. The first is to hire more teachers: The importance of this cannot be emphasised more. But, a second and more feasible solution is to relieve the ATL teachers from all the other duties and allow them to focus on building innovation and entrepreneurship in the school. This will also feed into the culture of focusing on ATLs versus traditional subjects.
Inspiring citizens to become independent, innovative and entrepreneurial individuals requires urgent, crucial and long-term strategising of education. We must start reforming how we educate our children in the millions of schools around the country. With the foundation to do that being laid in the ATLs — these 5,000 schools can be encouraged to roll up their sleeves, problem-solve, make, build and innovate. In the short term this will inspire thousands of children to be excited to learn and go to school to build something new everyday. In the long term, the act of creating, making and solving local problems will become a crucial centrepiece of an ‘atmanirbhar‘ India.
The author is the India Implementation Lead at the Playful Journey Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Views are personal