Mainak Roy (Simple Education)

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Visions of Education: In Conversation with Mainak Roy (Simple Education)

In this episode, Kushal Sohal speaks with Mainak Roy – CEO, Simple Education. Mainak Roy calls for an improvement in understanding between stakeholders across the educational space; this is the precondition for enabling more complete educational experiences.

Q) What do you understand the purpose of education to be? 

“Society needs to live in harmony while they navigate the challenges that keep coming up. As citizens we need to constantly navigate challenges and while we are doing that we must do so in harmony with every other being that is there, not just human beings but animals, nature… everywhere. For us, education’s purpose is to enable us all to do that: live in harmony.”

Q) Are there any particular values or ideals that you strive for in that educational space, a set of principles or concepts that you particularly cherish? 

“There are three broad concepts and they are in many ways interlinked. The first concept would be one of self-awareness – how self-aware are you? The second element would be the ability to critically think. And the third would be the ability to operate with alignment of head, heart, hand and soul. Gandhi has said we need to operate with alignment of ‘head, heart, and hand’, what we are adding is this element of soul. The spiritual is very important to eastern educational philosophies, for instance you can go back to the days of the gurukul. These all need to be channeled into service towards all beings, not a single successful human being – but of service to all.”

Q) Are there certain activities or experiences that are best able to create those moments? 

“The element of soul is a difficult one to navigate through particular practices: it is a way of life. We are working on identifying practices that will enable us to build and nurture such skills. When we talk about soul, we talk about well being and harmony. How do you teach someone to take care of themselves? We are working on this. We have, however, seen students build better connections. One of my favourite practices in our schools is called ‘silent time’ – students work on a mindfulness practice for just five to ten minutes. We realised that children’s energy is at its peak after recess, so we sought to slowly channel this energy into the classroom environment. This small practice immediately enabled students to focus better inside the classroom, they would be more centred. They appeared much more in control of what they wanted to do. Things we educators label as student’s distractions are essentially them being unable to exercise their energy. Through this practice we see them better able to channel this energy in constructive directions.”

Q) What do you think needs to change across India structurally on the education front? You work with stakeholders across the educational space, what are the key challenges and what are you trying to champion? 

“We broadly work with four partners. One would be our students. The second would be the parents. The third would be our teachers. The fourth would be our principals. What we saw was that the parents, teachers and principals were communicating with the students, but they were not communicating with eachother. They had their own biases and presumptions about each other. When you are working in a low-income community, the first thing that comes up is that the children are often the first generation in the family to go to school or to aspire to go to college. So, the first thing that comes into the conversation is that parents are not able to offer support. In a private school, the parent may be able to offer support so hence the child grows the way they do. But, in a public school that is not the case. That is one bias that is there. So, what we have seen is by working with teachers, principals and parents in their own spaces and then bringing them together, we have been able to breakdown those biases. We see these at Parent-Teacher meetings for instance, more questions are asked, and the conversation moves forward. Technology too has played a part in breaking some of those barriers, for instance the sharing of videos via WhatsApp between teachers and parents. These videos explain step-by-step activities to do at home and have become even more important during this Covid-19 pandemic. So, the first thing that needs to change is the way that we look at each of our stakeholders, we have to assume best intentions. It is about enhancing a sense of respect for the teaching profession as well as responsibility at each level.”

“We also need to be looking at the child as a whole human. This is something that has been spoken about a lot. But over the last three or four years, if you look at the public educational reforms that have happened, they have happened in a very siloed manner.  You would have a socioemotional learning curriculum that would be implemented statewide, but it would be one period a day that is given to socioemotional learning. In that structure, what you are insidiously saying is that socioemotional learning does not have to be a way of life, you do not need these skills throughout. As long as you have these skills and you do that fifteen minutes of meditation in the morning – that is okay? When you start looking at a child as a whole human, then you start ensuring that they get equal amount of care in all aspects of their growing up at all points in time. So, this is very important – how do we integrate wellbeing? How do we integrate socio-emotional learning? How do we integrate so-called “soft skills” such as communication – those are not “soft” at all! These need to be integrated into everyday lessons, everyday pedagogy.”

“Thirdly, as a society we need to start talking to our children more. During the pandemic, we have seen some parents stuck in the house with children, they do not have a way out but to talk to their children. Because they have now started talking with their children, we are hearing stories of parents better understanding why their children did something etc. We are hearing stories of parents being far more focused on trying to find out how they can support their children; this all comes from the fact they have started to actually talk with their children. If you look at the whole education system, there is not a single point when we actually talk with our children. They are always spoken to, like lecture methods in classrooms and colleges –  this idea of ‘I am going to come in and tell you things’. The curriculum is being made without thinking about students or without student participation.”

 Q) If you were to inspire the next generation of educators, what would you be encouraging them to do now? 

“At the crux of everything I have said is a very fundamental principle of valuing humans for who they are. If you think of how we want to talk to our principals, our teachers, our parents, our children as whole humans – it all comes down to the basic respect that every human being deserves. That is the shift. Today, if you take up any problem the world is facing – be it the way governments are working to navigate Covid-19 and the policies that are coming out, not only in India but in the USA and many other countries – you will see that fundamentally there is one point, when you genuinely break it down. It will be the value of life. What we see is that for a certain type of people – based on caste, class, religion etc – there is no value of life even ascribed to that particular group. I think fundamentally we need to shift that conversation, to one where we value each and every human. That is the role of the educational space, to shift the conversation in that direction and also shift actions. As a teacher, you cannot completely believe in this idea and still walk into your house and ensure that the domestic helper is eating from a different plate or drinking water from a cup that is kept in a different place in the kitchen. I think those things have to change. Fundamentally, it is easy for a lot of us to say we believe this. But, there are actions that we do on a daily basis which are completely against these beliefs. So, we need to start shifting this conversation and even before that, educators and others need to shift these actions within themselves. One of the things that we have understood in our implementation of some of the socioemotional learning principles is that our teachers are very worried, they are stressed and anxious – they have mental health conditions that they are suffering from and sometimes they are not aware of these. For someone who is walking into the classroom with anxiety already in their home, for us to expect them to deliver a mindfulness lesson may not work. It is like asking somebody who has done a psychology major to write a code in python. It is not going to work that way. That is where the work starts for this generation of educators. We need to first make these statements: work in alignment of head, heart, hand and soul, critically thinking through, be self-aware – all of this in service of all beings. This will mean that we will be able to build a world where everyone is able to navigate through challenges in harmony. As individuals, we have to be the personification of this vision. I understand that it is not easy to do, but we have to be on that journey constantly. And once we are, then I think how to bring that into discourses with children will come in naturally.”