Can we create more ‘Ranchos’ and less ‘Silencers’?

Tools that learn, adapt and adjust to a child’s learning levels can change the ASER report 2012 status that says our children are passing by rote.


On being cold called by his engineering professor, Rancho (Aamir Khan in the movie 3 idiots), defines machine as he understands them, while his classmate “Silencer” proudly blurts out the bookish definition.

The fact that our country’s education system is churning out more “Silencers” and less “Ranchos” is evident in the recent Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012 report. Along with various drawbacks in the Indian education system, the survey also points out that more than half of all children in class five are at least three grades behind in terms of their reading and math skills. It means that these students like “Silencer”, passed the examination on the basis of rote learning and were promoted to the next grade. But on being tested for understanding of the concepts, their level was much lower.

Children are attending school and passing with understanding levels significantly lower than their grade levels.

Abhilasha Bhate, 11, is in class 7 in a low income school. Seven months back, Bhate knew theoretically that in the number 45, 5 occupies the units place and 4, the tens place. But on being asked to divide 45 pencils in bundles of 10 each, she could not apply the rule and answer how many bundles would be made and how many pencils would be left. She would manually place each pencil in bundles. But now she is able to solve the problem by just looking at the number. What changed in seven months? Bhate has been using Mindspark, an adaptive-learning program, according to which her initial level of understanding of math concepts was class 3.

Adaptive learning, per se, is not a new concept. It is a method of computer-based teaching that adapts to the pace, style and level of understanding of the individual student rather than assuming that the student’s level would correspond to his age or grade in school, the premise being that the learning pattern of each child is different. Mindspark builds on this premise and assesses the current understanding of each student and from there on progressively questions students about the concept. If the student responds correctly, the next question presented is marginally-difficult compared to the previous one which enables the student to self-learn the concept gradually and thoroughly. However, if the student’s answer is incorrect, the program offers explanation of the basics and then begins questioning from that level onwards. The rationale behind the questioning approach is that students learn when they have to think, either to answer a question or to do an activity.

Private schools using the Mindspark tool from Educational Initiatives.

Mark Parkinson has experienced Mindspark both as a head of The Shri Ram School and also as a parent of an 11-year old who has been using it for the last 2 years. Parkinson says that Mindspark provides practice which is an essential component for mastering math skills. “Since my son and his peers started using Mindspark, they are spending far more quality time practicing Maths than they ever did before,” Parkinson says. He adds that if a child was told to do 50-100 practice questions for weekend homework, most children would react with horror. However, Mindspark makes them practice the same number of problems in a fun way that doesn’t seem tedious.

Bhate is one of 270 children that come to the Mindspark Centre in Govindpuri, an urban slum in Delhi. There is another centre in Chattarpur area of Delhi that caters to under-privileged section of the society. This is the first time in India that an adaptive learning program has become available to the lesser privileged. Mindspark’s maker —Educational Initiatives (EI)– is in the process of opening four more centres in different slums of Delhi. In addition to slums, Mindspark is integrated in the class 1 thru 10 curriculums of about 100 private schools and 20 public schools across India.

EI positions Mindspark as “Assistant Teacher” in that it provides feedback about a student’s understanding of a topic or lack thereof in a specific way rather that teaching in a one-way process. After the teacher teaches a new topic in class, the students go to the computer lab the next day to be tested by Mindspark about the same. The test suggests to the teacher the misconceptions and problems faced by students on an individual basis so that the teacher can channelize her efforts accordingly in class the next day.

The rationale behind the questioning approach is that students learn when they have to think, either to answer a question or to do an activity.

Empowering the teachers is only part of EI’s objective. The big picture goal is to impart learning with understanding which is reflected in EI’s motto. Sridhar Rajagopalan, managing director at EI, says,  “‘learning with understanding’ is a new term we had to create in India because it is believed that what happens without understanding can also be ‘learning.’”

But why does EI use technology rather than training teachers to further this goal? Pranav Kothari who heads Mindspark explains: “The best teacher is one who adapts teaching to the unique learning pattern of each student. This can only happen in a one to one scenario. But because it is not practically possible to allocate one teacher to only one student, the power of technology provides this scalability.” Moreover, he says that even if this allocation of 1:1 is made, the process of learning new concepts is more nuanced than a person who has ‘learnt’ them realizes. For this reason, Mindspark utilizes adaptive logic, interactivity and intelligence of a machine.

However, Professor M.M. Pant, who is an expert at the intersection of education and technology, says that using machines to impart learning discounts peer learning which happens, for example, on forums like quora.com. He points to many advantages of peer/social learning like getting multiple perspectives, out-of-subject-matter learning like team-work etc. “Although adaptive learning provides a positive shift from one-size-fits-all, peer learning is another step away,” Professor Pant says.

At a time when a lot of noise is made about Right To Education (RTE) and eradicating illiteracy, Mindspark is a step towards questioning: Are our “literate” really literate?


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Smita Kothari has graduated with Masters in Journalism from Harvard University. Currently she is a freelance features writer and can be reached at smitapkothari@gmail.com more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Smita Kothari has graduated with Masters in Journalism from Harvard University. Currently she is a freelance features writer and can be reached at smitapkothari@gmail.com more
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  • hemang

    very well narrated…

    • Aarushi Prabhakar

      Thanks Hemang 🙂

  • abhinav

    Nicely Captured !!!

    • Aarushi Prabhakar

      Thank you Abhinav!