Interview: Bringing Compassion Into Education, So That Children Help Each Other

In conversation with educationist Geeta Dharmarajan about the ambitious multi-NGO-led national campaign to help 150 million school children who can read teach the 150 million who can’t.

About half the school children across the country can’t read. Credit:

New Delhi: While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others are talking about a ‘New India’, research-based knowledge has thrown up a challenge that may well be a spanner in the works of this ‘great Indian dream’. About half of the school children across the country – who are going to comprise the workforce of ‘New India’ – can’t read.

Alongside this failure of the Indian schooling system is a nation-wide attempt by NGOs at course correction. Titled ‘Each One Teach One’, the campaign is the brainchild of Geeta Dharmarajan, Delhi-based educationist and founder of the NGO Katha.

A Padma Shri recipient for her contributions to holistic methods of education, Dharmarajan is aiming to make the 150 million children who can read teach the other 150 million, who can’t – so the anomaly can be corrected. The final aim behind her project “is also to integrate learning with schooling” so that it goes beyond its present marks-based framework and helps produce skills required in the 21st century, like creativity and innovation.

In an interview to The Wire, she talks not only about the whys and hows of the campaign, which will be taken to government and private schools in many states along with partner NGOs in the near future, but also about how she developed a methodology for school education based on story pedagogy – which is being implemented in hundreds of schools run by the Delhi government.


What is the rationale behind the ‘Each One Teach One’ campaign?

Every three years, Katha works on a strategy to take the organisation forward. The ongoing strategy was ending in March 2017. So I was looking for one. Since this is also the 30th year of Katha, I was looking at what has been our learning so far, what are our strengths and what are the challenges in the society.

I realised that one of the major challenges today is that there are 300 million children in schools across India, out of whom, according to various research studies and surveys, probably only around half can read. The other half, about 150 million, can’t.

Now, when we are looking at say, mid 2030, it will be these children in primary schools who are going to be in the workforce. Secondly, like we didn’t know in 2000 that there will be mobile phones and other technologies which will rule our lives, 50% of the jobs that would be available to India then is not yet known to us. We don’t know where technology is going to take us; we don’t know what kind of skill sets our young people are going to need at that point of time. Therefore, the situation is very similar to 2000. People are looking at creativity and innovation as 21-century skills. So we then have to develop the imagination of our future workforce. Ironically, today, there is no way can we ensure that for all our children.

Today, what we are saying is, if you have a lot of money, then yes, we will give you a lot of stuff which will have the scope for a lot of imagination and problem solving, etc. But India can’t depend only on children who have English-medium education. We have to think bigger than that. We have to say, if India wants to become a world force in a certain number of years, we need to think what kind of skills we have, what kind of soft management skills our children have, what kind of creativity and innovation have we made available to all the children. If we have to achieve that, how can we have this inequity in our quality of education? So this was the main question that I was trying to address when I was thinking of a new strategy for Katha.

Your thoughts are deeply related to India missing the deadline of 100% literacy by 2000. The 2016 UNICEF report said it will need half a century more to reach that target.

The deeper I got while thinking about this, the more I realised that the government is not looking at all of these 300 million children. We are not looking at the 150 million children who can’t read. UNICEF had said that to have quality education we should have 100% literacy and India had the deadline of 2000 to do that, which we have already missed. Now the September 2016 UNICEF report on India said that it will have to wait till 2050 to get there. But that is too late. We are only in 2017. Now it seems like unless all of us citizens get involved and say that this will not go on, we want a better India, 2050 is too far away and we need to speed up the process, the situation is not going to improve. That is the way the 300 million challenge was something that I thought about.

The campaign is about the 150 million children who can read reaching out to the other half that can’t. Why do you think it is a workable idea?

We have 150 million children in private and public schools who can read and they don’t have the habit of sharing their knowledge with anybody. This is simply because, constantly, what all of us, as well as the schools, have been telling them is that you have to progress alone to reach that place called success. Otherwise somebody else will take that space. So then you don’t want to share your skills, else your job will be taken. I am not looking at taking away anybody’s job through this campaign.

Katha founder, Geeta Dharmarajan. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

What I am looking at is creating a sense of entrepreneurship based on knowledge. A kind of entrepreneurial skill that goes back to the knowledge that we are giving to our children. Since we have an exam-related schooling, the child is only learning how to pass a test, pass an exam and go into the next class and then write another exam, for say an IIT or IIM and get a coveted seat. So they are constantly driven by exams and there is no space for innovation for them, no space for imagination. They are not reading much today, a problem that is constantly coming up; reading doesn’t happen because it is not relevant to them. We have to make reading relevant, and that is what the campaign is trying to do.

It is well acknowledged that creating a compassionate and empathetic society brings about a lot of changes in children. It makes them feel less stressed, more fulfilled and, therefore, gives them more happiness. So what I have tried to do through this campaign is put all three things together.

Looking at why is it that 150 million children are not reading and how can we make them read, why is it that 150 million children who can read are so stressed that they are not able to help anyone else? Besides this, can we go back to the Indian way of thinking where we have values like daya (compassion)? We would automatically get up if an old man got into the bus. We had that in us because we were given those values. So how can we tie up these values with present-day living so that children have a richer life; they have a life which they are creating? This will help us see a lot of things happening in the world of children which we are not looking at as adults.

The ‘Each One Teach One’ campaign was a way through which I thought, if we say a child who can read is helping a child who can’t, then we have a solution which is a very simple. Take each child and see to it that she gets what she wants, instead of looking at 300 million at one go, or saying that Delhi has two lakh children who can’t read. We are not looking at those big numbers but looking at each child, how are they looking at each other at an individual level, and do, say, buddy reading, getting to help each other. Because children, by nature, are good at heart. It is the system that sometimes makes them self-centric. So can we bring them out of that? Can we create a kinder world through this?

Katha has roped in many campaign partners. What is their role? And where all will the project be implemented?

It is going to be in 17 states and we have some amazing partners with us. Katha is the lead partner. Say, our partners Sesame Street and Child Rights and You (CRY) are doing knowledge sharing with each other. Sesame Street has a module in Marathi with the muppets. Though CRY is working in Maharashtra, it didn’t know what Sesame Street was doing there. So we have put them together so that the work that CRY is doing can integrate the muppets into it.

We are also making an e-kit. We are training women trainers associated with another partner SEWA. These women joined SEWA so that their children can have a better life. Reading is one way in which their children can get a better life, upward mobility. So the SEWA trainers will work with the women associated with them so that they can motivate their children to join the campaign. Say a child who can read in class five helps a class three child to read. A class three kid who is good in maths may perhaps be able to help out even a class five child who is not good in it. So we are trying to create a lot of symbiotic relationships through this campaign.

Another partner, PVR Cinemas, is going to run a short film about the campaign and put book bins for us in all its theatres. We are starting it in Delhi and taking it to other states. The books collected will go to children’s libraries that we are putting together. We have already set up 50 model community-owned children libraries with about 300 books each. This is because the first thing you want to do once you learn reading is, need books to read.

Another partner, Helpage India, has set up a library with 2,000 books. Once this takes off in a bigger way, we can build pressure on the government to create little book corners for children in all public libraries. We have over one lakh public libraries across India. A dedicated corner for children’s books will help revive the concept of children’s libraries, which we had once but they died down over the years. In Delhi, there is only one public library for children in Sarojini Nagar.

Though what divides one state from another is language, but stories link cultures. So once we can build a national framework based on story pedagogy by fine-tuning such issues, we can create a format of learning which is tied to change and empowerment and leads the child to act.

UNICEF had said that to have quality education we should have 100% literacy. Credit:

Katha also works on a methodology of school education based on story pedagogy. How does that work?

When I started in 1992, I put together this idea called Katha Relevant Education for All Rounders. What I really wanted then was looking at learning and schooling as two separate things that happen to children. Learning does not always happen in every school. And schooling is not something that always makes learning happen for children.

For instance, learning happens through storybooks, and when they meet people and talk and learn about something. It is also about the kind of books you read. But in schooling, I am looking at a textbook which asks me questions. The answers to them are in bullet points. So, if I give three bullet points for three questions of one mark each, I get three full marks. And if I do that, I pass an exam. I don’t have to do anything else. So what this system of schooling has done is shrinking of knowledge and growing of this marks system. A child is doing everything for marks. So the relevant education thing came up in my mind because I was looking at enhancing life skills of our children. Basically, I wanted to go from literacy to literature, income generation to independence; wanted to include family well-being which will take into account all life forms, a tree there, an animal here, a sense of my community, my world. And within that, I was looking for empowerment of the community as a whole. Katha started working with children on these four rights.

It brought us to the question, how do you go from literacy to literature, what is that great thing about literature. For many of us it was those stories that made us readers. So how do I get it for children who are not able to get that. From 1990 onwards, we have no textbooks in Katha schools, only storybooks. Creed was developing at that time. In 2001, since we had done so much with stories and not just with storytelling, I found that many times in stories, the reader has to be a critical thinker. We have to make connections with the character, with the plot, why it happened, how it happened. Connecting the dots in my maps is important to develop creativity, gives rise to questions. If supposing we take this as a basis of our learning and take the why, what, when, where, how to history, geography, science, etc, the child gets involved in it. Then, the child is asking questions rather than the teachers driving them.

Say, photosynthesis. How is it that all the leaves are green; what is called chlorophyll, how can we have a door which lets thing in but doesn’t let things out. Then you can talk about our skin, that the skin is breathing but it doesn’t pour out the blood. How does it do it? It brings us to: what is nature. We realised that we are then able to talk about all of these. Also, we realised that if you bring in these aspects into a concept, the children remember better because there is a rational way of developing their thoughts.

You developed this methodology based on Bharata’s Natya Sashtra.

Yes. I did my PhD on Bharata’s Natya Shastra. I took a lot of these from it as a basic starting point. Because the legend goes that Bharata came down to earth from Indra Lok to impart the knowledge of the Vedas and wrote Natya Shastra to make big ideas simpler. So I tried to look at how to use story, drama, art and decipher kindness, equality, gender, and then go on to issues like climate change, etc. I tried to plot it out.

We have story stations and story junctions. Say, we are talking about gender, poverty, equity, political system; each of them is a story station. We link them up through stories and then they come to a story junction. At that point, a science teacher can take off in a different direction while a history teacher can go another way, till their narrative meet again. All done through stories and they keep coming back to questions and link up one topic with another. So subjects integrate with each other, like life itself does. So life can be integrated into classroom learning. That is why we say we at Katha don’t teach curriculum for a test but a curriculum for life.

Also, Katha schools focus on active story based thinking where the child is asking questions. It may not be a related question but we try to see if it can be linked up to what is being discussed and expand the ambit of the topic discussed, which becomes the sub-plot. This way, we are answering the child’s question, not asking him to shut up. In a usual classroom scenario today, there is so much to do as per the curriculum that there is no time for questions, certainly not for the one that the teacher thinks is not related to the subject. Long before CBSE came up with continuous assessment in schools, we were talking about it. This active story based learning leads to what we call TADA moment – Think, Ask, Discuss/debate and Act. When internalisation of knowledge happens, you don’t forget it and from that wisdom develops.

Also, when two people are talking, say the teacher and the child, there is a rasa that is building up between them. So, the child is the rasika while listening to the teacher and vice versa. This way, you get involved with each other. Then it becomes child-centric learning, not any top-down method.

This methodology has been adopted in government schools in Delhi. Presently, how many schools are using it in the classrooms?

We have been running the Katha Lab School in Delhi based on this methodology. In 2012, the central government asked the Delhi government to adopt this model in its schools. We began with some directorate of schools and later moved to only Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) schools. The state government implemented this methodology in 650 MCD schools. Recently, Ambedkar University of Delhi (AUD) did an assessment of the schools run on this methodology, said it had a positive impact on the children.

In 2016, the state government handed over two MCD schools to Katha to run ourselves. This year, it gave three more schools. So we now run five MCD schools ourselves which we are looking at as model schools of this methodology. For the first time in an MCD school, we have a robotics lab. Along with it, there is drama, music, art. We are looking at different ways that creativity happens, with or without technology. We are also working through Skype to pass on knowledge from one classroom of a school to another in a different school. We don’t want only babus to be created through schooling, something that the British did to suit their needs and not nurture intellect. What we need now is creativity and innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

How has Katha been able to maintain its standards?

You need to have good teachers and the way teacher education happens in our country doesn’t allow creativity to happen in classroom. So we have to look at what is it that the teachers are learning before we start this. Often learning stops for a teacher after getting the job. But teaching is a process of learning. That is why we started a page ‘Parho Pyar Se’ on our website for teachers to read and internalise it.

Also, if you put the focus on the child, like we do at Katha, I find that the child can push their teacher to give her best shot. I am putting more and more faith on the child. A child can move things, can bring change. In this kind of scenario,  the child is able to decide what she wants to read, how she wants to read. We also take teachers from the community we work with because then they know what the children wants.

Katha has a publication division to produce its own books.

Books are at the basis of this methodology. It is the book that can retain the quality of it. Very simple activities are included in our books that we self publish to help a child reach that TADA moment.

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