Published: 24th March 2021
The Ramji Raghavan interview: How to learn is more important than what to learn. That's what the NEP is all about
This social innovator founded Agastya International Foundation and has been a part of many central government forums with the sole aim of not just educating, but sparking curiosity as well
Being held at gunpoint can be life-changing, hypothetically at least. But when it happened to educationist and social innovator Ramji Raghavan, that too in his 20s in San Juan, Puerto Rico, all he thought about was his mother. Not the successful bank job he was holding, nor the fact that he has a bright future ahead that would take him to the US and the UK eventually — all he could think of was his mother. "I couldn’t help but wonder 'if I was on my deathbed tomorrow, what is it that’s going to bring me satisfaction?' The answer certainly wasn’t what I was doing then," he says. But of course, this was all in retrospect. The point is that he started to ask the right questions. And he found the answer in founding Agastya International Foundation in 1999. Since then, this non-profit based out of Bengaluru is committed to sparking curiosity, nurturing creativity and building confidence via its campus that focuses on the underprivileged.
In the context of the pandemic too, it is important to ask the right questions, "If questioning doesn’t happen then the opportunity is missed. I did not have the pandemic to goad me, but I was questioning," says the 65-year-old who is a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education, Government of India. But there is a need to ask the right question. "When Siddhartha Gautama saw suffering, he questioned its source. When Gandhiji was kicked out of the train, he questioned the action. Many saw suffering and Gandhiji was certainly not the first one to be kicked out, but they questioned it," says the entrepreneur, who calls London Business School his alma mater. And indeed, Agastya’s culture of innovation and a bias for action has brought them to a stage where Pravaha Foundation and Agastya International Foundation have collaborated to form Navam Innovation Foundation to create a 15-acre Innovation Lab & Center of Excellence (ILCE) in Telangana's Kamareddy district. To this effect, they have even signed an MoU with the Telangana State Innovation Cell (TSIC). We get talking with the acclaimed speaker about the pandemic, pivoting for quicker action and plans for the future. Excerpts from an insightful conversation.
The campus | (Pic: Agastya International Foundation)
We keep wondering about how you made the difficult decision of quitting your job and pursuing the cause of education. Was it easy?
I had an idea of building a school in the Himalayas. It would be focused on nurturing creative kids who would come out and hopefully transform the world. That was the Shangri-La. I had that sort of dream even as a student at Rishi Valley and as I grew older. But I followed a commercial career in banking. Sometimes you question what you want to do in life, something we all go through. In 1990 I used to visit India a lot. I was in discussions with my father KV Raghavan and the former principal of Rishi Valley Dr S Balasundaram on education, why India isn’t developing fast enough, what’s keeping it down and we had a few interesting discussions about how there was a lack of creativity in learning. There was a need to not just build a school, but to build a school to transform teachers so that it can have a multiplier effect on the system. My father would say it is a function of what you want to do in life — you have to figure out what it is that you want to do, what are you really good at doing and what your purpose is. If all three come together, then it gives your life some meaning. Though I had a job and was travelling around the globe, it did not give me inner satisfaction. So with that belief and the intellectual support, I realised that time has come to cross the bridge and make it happen.
When the pandemic descended, what were some of your first thoughts and what are the kind of discussions your foundation had?
I told the organisation that the fact is there is a crisis and that we have to face the brute. The question is can this reality be turned into an opportunity. We are one of the world’s largest in terms of hands-on, physical experimental learning and reach. If we brought digital on top of this, not instead of it, and blend it, we could emerge as the world’s largest blended learning platform for underprivileged communities. This will create a new and phenomenal Agastya. So this was our new mission.
He is also on the Governing Council of the Marico Innovation Foundation, been a board member of Vigyan Prasar and a lot more
Then you had to make the vision happen. Fortunately for us, we have always had a culture of innovation and a bias for action. So when we outlined the new mission, it meant we had to create digital online modules that integrate with physical. Because we were so used to innovating, we pivoted fast and started creating models. For example, we created Explore Play Learn and integrated it with the child’s home. We demonstrated how a home can be used as a physical lab, simply by using everyday available objects. A lot of activities like science experiments could be done. As it is, in our country, hands-on learning is not emphasised, for which we are paying the price. Upon that, if we go pure digital, any remote chance of hands-on learning goes out the window. A blended approach is key.
But is blended learning exclusive to only people who can access the internet?
Not really. Many still don’t have access to the internet. But that’s the reality. Are we saying you don’t have online access and hence you can’t learn? You can learn. But how? That’s the question. For instance, we have developed a low-cost Home Lab Activity Kit. The child can open the kit and do scores of experiments. They don’t need the internet if they don’t have access to it. There is another version of the kit. Using a little book we provide, you can perform a lot of activities. We have also launched smart TV in a village with which, you can have online and offline classes for 20-30 children at a time. All children don’t need access if a village has it. These are ways with which you can fill the gap.
The campus | (Pic: Agastya International Foundation)
What is the Agastya model that you are trying to replicate?
Right from the early years, we use the metaphor — are we trying to fill the glass with holy water or raise the level of the ocean by a millimeter. Filing the glass is like starting the school I dreamt of. We changed the model and said we wanted to spread the holy water among various individuals and try to increase the average creativity level of an entire nation. That is through scalable models. How can we do it? The system lacks hands-on experimental learning. Since my father used to be the Chairman of Engineers India and my uncle PK Iyengar was appointed Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, they convinced me to go with hands-on experience because we are surrounded by science and it is important that the syllabus is oriented towards science. In this case, the campus is no longer a school, it is a school for schools. We don’t issue degrees, we build a whole bunch of hands-on experimental centres on our campus and we will bring school students and dropouts from the surrounding villages to experience this way of learning. And do the same thing with teachers. Thus, the campus became a creativity lab.
Ramji Raghavan | (Pic: Agastya International Foundation)
Apart from being a member of Central Advisory Board of Education, you have been a member of the Working Group on Attracting Children to Science and Math of the Prime Minister's National Knowledge Commission. How have your experiences been?
These are great forums to learn from. One of the things you learn is to think in terms of scale and policy. Then you get to meet many smart people across the country, which expands your network. These are forums where you can add value and advocate for your ideas. Although I was not a member of the drafting committee of NEP, their members are well aware of our work, especially the Chairman, Dr Kasturirangan. He has known me and our foundation since 2005. We have been championing how to learn rather than what to learn and how to think instead of what to think and that’s what NEP is all about. I would like to think that many people are noticing our example. Even Jayesh Ranjan in Hyderabad, who knows us for over 20 years, said that NEP reflects a lot of what Agastya has been doing. Being involved with government panels and forums has been extremely educational for me. The spectrum of people we deal with is wide. We have to learn how to manage the variables, there is no straight path.
Their Lab on Bike earned them the Google Impact Award in 2014 and ranked among the top innovations in education by Rockefeller Foundation
The simple vision of Agastya that even students know
- Aah! - When you see something different, new or counter-intuitive you go 'Aah!'. This stimulates curiosity
- Aha! - When going through innovation and you discover something new, you have the proverbial 'Aha!' moment
- Ha-Ha! - You should have fun at what you are doing what you doing, that shows you are absorbed in it
Hence, they want to spread the Aah! Aha! Ha-Ha! spirit
Number crunching time:
- 172: The acres of the Kuppam campus
- 200: The number of mobile vans they have
- 80: The number of science centres in diverse locations
- 500 plus: The number of night schools they run
- 60: The number of Labs on Bike they have
- 4,000: The number of teachers they train via their four-day teacher training programme year on year
- 16 million children benefitted so far
For more on them, check out agastya.org