27 Dec 2017 17:17 IST

‘It’s time to rethink the goal of education’

Akanksha Bapna of Evaldesign released a handbook on skills such as critical thinking and empathy

Akanksha Bapna, founder and CEO of Evaldesign, an impact assessment firm, has been trained as a scientist. She completed her PhD in bio-chemistry from Cambridge, and was a post-doctoral scholar in Stanford. It was during this time that she started volunteering for a non-profit education organisation in California, and raised money for funding education projects in South-Asia.

While coordinating one of those projects, she decided to study education policy, which she did by enrolling in the Master’s programme at Harvard.

After its completion, she came back to India, where she worked with the poverty action lab (J-PAL). She worked with the Haryana government, trying to set up a research team for them. Since the last seven to eight years, she has been entirely focussed on the evaluation space in education.

Evaldesign was started in 2013 with a view to evaluate education programmes. Its last big piece was in Bihar, where it evaluated 270 schools and 16,000 students. So far, it has evaluated around 50,000 students.

Recently, Akanksha launched a handbook, Measuring 21st Century Skills, which includes skills such as critical thinking, creativity, empathy and executive function. BLoC spoke to her about the company, the need for the handbook and more. Excerpts.

Can you describe the evaluation process?

Evaluation essentially means checking the outcome of your input. The idea of evaluation is to understand the impact of a programme. For example, if I give a textbook in a school, I need to ask if it is improving a child’s learning. If I’m giving an entrepreneurial training, is it helping the child absorb those skills?

We work a lot with the organisations that implement projects on the ground and from that, we design a model based on the kind of geography that’s available, the number of schools or students that might be a part of the sample or the size the organisation wants to evaluate.

We then design the research methodologyspecifically for that setting. A lot of it is constrained by the ground conditions, so randomised control trial (RCT) is a robust way of evaluating the programmes. We try to use this methodology as far as possible

But it isn’t always feasible, because RCTs are expensive , and budget isn’t always available. So we use semi-experimental methodologies, where we cannot randomise our sample.

What is the one good and one bad thing about the Indian education system?

Surprisingly, I have found that bureaucracy has it sight in the right place and they want to do the right things. Unfortunately, they are restricted by a lot of other factors.

Meanwhile, we need to focus on rethinking the goal of education — why are we educating children in the first place? This can lead to a lot of subsequent changes down the line. Currently, the teacher is more of an information giver. But now we have Google and smartphones that provide us information, so what does that leave the teacher to do?

To facilitate the ability of someone to learn, we need to rethink the kind of people we are taking in to the teaching task-force. How are we training them and what motivations do they have? These are the two aspects we really need to focus on.

Why do you think your handbook will be useful?

We started with the objective of bringing out the book to make life easier for a lot of people who want to understand what these skills are. So many organisations are trying to teach and learn them. Internationally too, there is a lot of discussion — I am part of the working group of OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), and they are also trying to outline the skill-sets for 2030.

Currently, many are thinking about the important topics they need to learn in the next 15-20 years. So we realise that it (the handbook) is a significant addition and it would be nice if people can access that, especially now that the government is also involved in it.

We need to rethink our priorities and hopefully, this will contribute to the conversation around skill-sets and people will start thinking about putting it in the framework of the main curriculum. We hope to make a dent in the national curriculum.

How does education benefit from skill development at a young age?

There are two major growth phases (in children), where a lot of acquisitions can happen. One is very early, from 0 to eight years; the next stage is during adolescence, where a lot of brain re-organising happens. Research also shows that the acquisition of skills such as critical thinking supports other cognitive abilities such as math.

If you think critically, you will be able to solve a math problem; if you are able to comprehend something very well, you can understand language better. So these skills feed into each other. If you think education means subject knowledge, then skills such as critical thinking and creativity will help you take up subject knowledge better.