Watering the learning tree

When we spoke to teachers, they were more interested in a product that would help them optimize the already existing system rather than changing to a completely new paradigm.

Source: The Hindu

Naveen Mandava and Varun Kumar talk about education, information and what running a start-up has in common with commando training.

It seems odd to meet the founders of BGM Policy Innovations (PI), Naveen Mandava and Varun Kumar in a coffee shop in Banjara Hills, away from their office in Secunderabad and listen to them ‘talk’ about their work. Given their way, a typical interview would mean accompanying the two on a trip to a school or two and observing their tools at work. Whether in the nitty-gritty details of running a company or the larger questions related to the work they do in the field of education — the duo is all about primary information and learning from experience.

When Varun Kumar, grew curious about the state of education and health across the country he didn’t turn just to literature or newspapers. Instead, he got on a motorbike and travelled across 16 states to see for himself what was happening.

“I wanted to see what were the reasons behind the problems we hear about in the news, from the viewpoint of the people going through them,” he says explaining why it seemed the best way to do it.

Naveen, on the other hand, grew interested in education research during his time at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) where he did extensive research and work on the field. He went on to do his PhD but never completed it. “A PhD is like an ivory tower. It looks very attractive and does work for most people but I wanted to work on the field that will have a more immediate, direct impact on people,” he says. “The idea is to be closer to the problem,” concludes Varun, stating what seems to be their company’s working philosophy.

A conversation with them ranges from simple arithmetic and grammar, anecdotes from days on the job to the larger epiphanies they’ve had while working in the field.

Saying that Naveen and Varun are from two diverse backgrounds would not be entirely true – both of them studied to become engineers but it was not before they each took different journeys of self-discovery that their paths crossed in a friend’s garage in Secunderabad where Policy Innovations was founded.

Naveen, co- founder and executive director was born in Andhra Pradesh but grew up in Kolkata and has since lived in Bangalore and Delhi before shifting base to Hyderabad. His earlier mentioned experience on the sector and his research on education during his stint at CCS, Delhi provide the policy framework within which PI operates.

Varun who is the director of operations is originally from Lucknow, went to Kharagpur to study engineering and worked in Andhra Pradesh handling operations for the ‘spices’ division of ITC. Varun’s passion for information, obsession with systems and his hands-on experience complements Naveen’s experience and deep understanding of education in India.

Ask them about their working relationship and Varun says, “Naveen is obsessed with problems and I with solutions. He spots various issues and areas that need attention and I help in coming up with a feasible way of dealing with it.”

Policy innovations is working towards providing a comprehensive and specific assessment of the child’s performance using ‘Quantum’, a tool which differs from the marking or grading model of testing in that they focus on competency levels in different topics rather than give importance to an aggregate score. The answer sheets are looked over by experts who then give very specific remarks for every mistake committed, using which both the student and the teacher can benefit.

Why choose to work within a system that has been criticised for being restrictive and putting immense pressure on students? “When we already have such a system, working with it is the best option. Examinations determine content whether we like it or not, so maybe changing testing methods will lead to changes in content but that is a long way in the future,” says Varun. “When we spoke to teachers, they were more interested in a product that would help them optimize the already existing system rather than changing to a completely new paradigm,” concludes Naveen.

Their philosophy is fairly simple. “We are in the business of information rather than education,” says Varun. “We’re not trying to radicalize the system but we think that giving the right information to the right people at the right time can do a lot for the student sitting in class, and the teacher who is responsible for enabling his or her literacy,” explains Naveen. “With Quantum, we highlight difficulties faced by each student separately and the specific nature of the test makes comparison between students difficult as one student may be good with algebra and poor in arithmetic while another might be good in arithmetic and poor in algebra.”

While Quantum is still in its early stages, they hope that, by narrowing down assessment to the competency of each student and making this information available to schools, parents and content creators, the process of teaching can be more ‘child specific, topic specific and even region specific if necessary’.

“As a third party we also have the advantage of looking at things from a broader perspective. A teacher may not be able to identify a trend in misconceptions and mistakes when she is correcting a large set of papers one by one but we can by looking at a larger data set.”

At work

On work in Assam, Naveen and Varun were given the responsibility of explaining the importance of the test to parents from low income communities. “With the idea of making it an audio visual presentation we first brought in a designer from NID to make a few symbols that we could use to communicate but we realised the symbols meant nothing to these people. Finally we played a game of Pictionary with the group, asking them to draw a good school or drinking water or a good teacher and using these positive or negative attributes which they associated with we formed our design. These are the symbols we now use to explain these concepts to people in remote areas,” explains Varun.

It is this kind of focus on the end-user and openness to learn from them and mould a product according to the needs of the people using it that defines Naveen’s and Varun’s work ethic. The same goes for running their start-up, “We have to know what satisfies the people we’re working with, in order to retain them,” says Naveen. “Everyone gets a kick out of something, and the trick is to find out what that is.”

“The media makes entrepreneurship look like a very cool, easy job,” says Varun talking about what Naveen describes as his colleagues pet peeve. “Starting your own company is ‘cool’ but in the same way commando training is cool. It comes with extreme mental stress. Since we don’t have investors we work on a bootstrapping technique where our work funds itself. It’s like being asked to cross a jungle with just a bottle of water – you have to save it till you find the next source. You have to be ready to travel light, spend nights in cheap hotels and friends will start yelling at you because you’ve missed all their weddings!”