Abhijit Sinha, chief executive officer, Project DEFY, believes that India’s century-old education system is highly commercialised and not conducive to learning and creativity by design. Through Project DEFY, he wants to make education an interesting process of self-discovery and growth. Project DEFY is breaking the existing factory-model of learning by helping communities create their own schools, called NOOKs (absorbed from Nukked, or street corner in Hindi). The two tenets of its approach are: 1. “learning happens naturally” and 2. “information is available freely”. Project DEFY’s spaces offer a sense of security where children and adults can safely express, experiment and experience the new domains of learning.

What according to you is the Future of Work?

For the last four hundred years or so, we have always designed education as a tool for employment. In some cases, it might have worked (as industries would not change as rapidly). We still have the same education model, where we train for 15 years, where industry is changing in under five years. I think the challenge is to get away from letting industry define education. I feel it is a sort of cat and mouse game that you can never win.

This is the point where we should change education completely, even though its original meaning was defined by industry. We have to have education that can define industry and not the other way round. The problem today is every industrialist you speak to today, says, teach coding to children, or teach them AI. But what is the point, it might change when they are out. The single aspect you want to teach kids today is adaptability.

We basically have to change the way we look at which is the cat and which is the mouse. Education cannot be the mouse anymore.

This is one perspective. But this discussion becomes meaningless when you go to a village.

There are no data science or AI based jobs there. Industrialisation said that the future of work is urbanisation and we are moving towards 60 percent industrialisation by 2030. Which means industries clearly said that the future of work cannot be farming and cannot be growing food or other rural jobs. In your future of work mental picture, there is no space for a village. That is both difficult and naïve. We cannot possibly think that we can move the world in a certain direction, without taking the rest of the 60-70 percent with us. The conversation there is become inclusive. If you are talking about a Global future of work, it is a higher population, then why are we not being inclusive?

So what does Project DEFY do and what are your challenges?

What we do with marginalised communities is to create self-learning spaces. Basically spaces that have a few computers, internet and a community of learners. Imagine if you had a school and did not have teachers and your goal to learn was not to pass exams, but rather, you would come there every day and think ‘what do I want to do/learn today?’ So that is the kind of space we are creating. The idea is for them to come and explore and figure new things every day. The challenge is that the urban life is already sold to them. The aspiration has already been built. The parents believe that their children should not do farming and move to cities and prosper. So, the very challenge is to make them believe that they can still live in the village and prosper. The inherent understanding is that you cannot prosper in a village. So, getting that faith back is the toughest challenge.

We also see that when it comes to gender roles there are many prejudices. The options to life one has, severely reduces. If you think about it, there are so many jobs that are completely wiped it. Example rural entertainment and theatre which was a massive industry.  You don’t see too many traveling troupes or theatre artists anymore. Therefore, our challenges are more than the material challenges. Yes, there is lack of money, but that is a solvable challenge. The difficult challenge is what we have made our people to become. There is an amazingly large inferiority complex. Our challenges are behaviour and belief based. It is not tangible and you cannot put your finger on it.

Share some examples of how have you tried changing behaviour. Have you also worked with them to draw up career pathways?

There is certainly a higher degree of imagination I can find in rural areas compared to urban areas. The space we create is essentially a playground. You have all these beliefs of self-worth and all that. We just say park all that aside. Just come here and start playing. Sit together and have fun. Start building the first small things. Once they start doing that, we ask them, ‘what is that you want to do, but can’t do?’ Then they start thinking about what is it they want to do, who they want to be for now. They start seeing a lot more is possible. Both from experimentation and interaction.

Of course, they are browsing and seeing all sorts of options and not just what they see in their line of sight. At that point, we have to do nothing – just let them be. We only need to start that process of trying stuff out. Just asking yourself the question of ‘what do I want to do today?’ that leads them to think of ‘what do I want to do tomorrow?’

From what you describe, you are redefining the classroom. What does the future of a classroom look like?

It just will not exist. I know it is hard to imagine that. It did not exist 400 years ago and it will not exist a 100 years from now. People have always learned. Interestingly, you know we have had Universities like Nalanda (which came into being in the 5th century AD). There were no schools back then, people directly went to University. You learned by yourself and were not waiting to turn 16 or 18 to start working. You start working from the age of 7, sit with the potter or the carpenter and figure what you liked doing. Slowly, you get to a point where you are good enough and sell your own goods. If you get to a point, where you are really good, then the king offers you a seat. If you imagine in today’s terms, in a way you are funded by the king. You are there to create newer things in the name of the king. Now, as for the others, who do not get through, they join you and become your apprentices, and thereby you create a mentor-student relationship. Basically, people learned without a schooling structure. We have done pretty well without classrooms.

Did you know that the early models of the schooling structure came from the Persian army? They wanted to create a training space so that people followed a structured discipline. The intention behind creating a school was never for people to become creative and open minded. The intention was for people to follow instructions and to behave/ civilise.

What would learning for life, as opposed to learning for a career look like?

I think everyone is learning for life, they just don’t want to call it education, usually. People really forget how much they learn outside schools. It really hurts me. You focus only what you learn in school, because that is called ‘education’. Life is already a great education system, the school is only a formal tuition teacher. I think people should continue to ask themselves what they like doing and pursue just that!

What are skills that people should pick up, not for a job, but for life?

Being able to work with others. Especially empathy, allowing diversity, working with others from very early ages. The other important skill is adaptability. Learning how to learn is very important. People are so trained to live in structures.

Nisha Ramchandani is the principal author of 'The Future of Work' series.

Published Date: Mar 27, 2019 04:03 PM | Updated Date: May 08, 2019 07:05 PM IST

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