Reaching for quality in the countryside


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OVER a period of twenty years, Rishi Valley Education Centre has created a multi-grade multi-level programme for elementary education known as ‘The School in a Box’. The nomenclature is meant to reflect both the programme’s compactness and its portability: like a medium sized suitcase it can be carried around by a single teacher. The Box, has in fact, been transported to many regions in India. It is being used in several districts of Andhra Pradesh, including its tribal zones, in Karnataka’s formal government schools, in Chennai’s municipal schools, and in non-formal schools of UP, Kerala and Jharkhand. The original Box, in Telugu, has been transcreated in tribal variants of Telugu, Hindi, Kannada and a version in Tamil will soon emerge. Adaptations of the ‘School in a Box’ are being used in upward of 20,000 schools in the country.

Broadly speaking, the idea of replacing textbooks with a graded series of cards emerged after observing the ground reality in existing government schools of the eighties. Mono-grade schools with one teacher assigned to each class in effect functioned as multi-grade ones due to frequent absence of one teacher or another. On the other hand, teachers expected students to learn what was taught within a single, clearly defined unit of time, irrespective of disparity in their learning abilities. Half of the entire student body in most elementary schools was at the class I stage, with enrolment tapering off strongly at higher ones. A large number of children remained at the same stage from one year to the next. All this indicated not only a high dropout rate but also a very low rate of learning among those who stayed in school. Teachers were helpless because they didn’t have systematic support to help them handle multilevel situations effectively.

An analysis of existing textbooks also revealed their distance from the child’s immediate world. The books exhibited a top down approach, with little regard for drawing the child into a new world of learning. Our analysis led to a determination to overthrow the ‘tyranny’ of the textbooks in the two rural schools we ran. Thus began the slow building up of alternate learning materials, augmented in the classroom with puppetry, games and puzzles. The change in student attitudes was striking when the dropout rate gradually began dropping to almost zero.

Over a period of time, a set of work material emerged in the form of a series of cards in the three disciplines of language, mathematics and environmental studies. The cards represented a breaking down of the learning process into smaller units; groups of cards were then assembled into a set of ‘milestones’, which led the students from level I to level V. Each of the milestones consists of five units: introduction of a new skill or concept; learning to apply the skill or concept; evaluating what is learnt; remedial and enrichment components. The whole constitutes what we call ‘Ladder of Learning’ or ‘Achievement Ladder’. There is a pictorial representation of the Ladder prominently displayed on the classroom wall, with each step and milestone marked out in sequential order. The teacher has a clear understanding of every child’s progress, at his or her own pace, through the curriculum.



The evaluation component or diagnostic test forms the penultimate space of each of the learning units or milestone, clearing the pathway to remedial and enrichment cards. The process ensures that each milestone on the Ladder of Learning is reached, and the cycle of learning, applying and enriching a skill or concept completed.

After an initial period when they are introduced to the logos connecting the cards with the Ladder of Learning, students learn to manoeuvre across the Ladder on their own. The teacher in the multi-grade classroom becomes a facilitator, not a lecturer. She moves around the classroom explaining new concepts, correcting exercises, and recording student progress.

The educational scenario in today’s schools contrives to properly instruct largely the educated and the well to do. The routine of students listening to teachers explain a concept, of applying the concepts through homework exercises completed with the help of parents willing to spend time with the child or to hire tutors, is beyond the reach of low income groups and first generation learners. This sequence of understanding, applying, testing, remedying and enriching has to be built into the classroom environment in the form of work materials and time spent, if standard requirements of basic education – that require schools to take responsibility for teaching students to read and write and do basic arithmetic – are to be met. Our Box is constructed to meet this basic demand.

The Box does more than address the needs of the average learner; it is able to accommodate both fast learners and slow ones. Because individual lessons are not constructed to fit into fixed time slots, students move up the Ladder at their own speed. And children in the countryside who are in and out of school grazing cows or looking after their younger siblings, and who find themselves at a loss when they come back to school after long absences, can return to the step on the Ladder where they had left off, and move ahead instead of having to repeat the entire academic session. This feature of the Box lends itself for use in ‘transitional schools’, where children who have dropped out of school or working children who have remained illiterate have to be brought up to standards consonant with their age.



Creation of work materials eventually resulting in the graded collection called ‘The School in a Box’ had begun in the mid-eighties, with the modest goal of solving local problems in the one-room satellite school situated in Valmikivanam, a village of settled tribal Boyas and Dalits.

Over the decade, with help from central government grants, the number of satellite schools grew to sixteen. This expansion in the number of schools was accompanied by steady growth and refinement of work materials. P. K. Srinivasan, a passionate mathematics teacher from Chennai, contributed to the mathematics kit as did teachers from Rishi Valley School.

Young men and women from surrounding villages were trained in the use of graded materials and new arrangement of the classroom demanded by the multi-grade approach. A system of monitoring teachers at the satellite schools was devised with the help of the Ladder. At the end of each week teachers were expected to note down every student’s exact place on the Ladder. This provided the supervisor with an immediate picture of a child’s progress across several weeks; the immobility of entire groups of children was to be read as a clear sign of the teacher’s prolonged absence.



With teachers required to attend group discussion sessions, and workshops on the Rishi Valley campus and schools hosting ‘metric melas’, the satellite schools and their teachers were drawn into networks. Support systems for the satellite school teachers was anchored at one end in the community, with the help of mothers’ committees set up for monitoring schools, and the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources on campus at the other end. Metric melas are daylong community festivals, whose aim is to convey concepts of mass, length and time and their units. These are celebrated by host schools with all the fanfare and bustle that accompanies traditional melas; specially prepared foods are bought and sold, fathers and mothers are weighed and statistical averages calculated later in the classrooms, as part of the arithmetic work materials.

The Environmental Studies curriculum includes extensive village surveys of local flora and fauna, types of housing, festivals and farming patterns, and so on. The data is then organised into categories and attractively displayed on the classroom wall, giving children a sense of their own community, its water resources, its domesticated animals and natural flora and fauna. In these and other ways, local culture is drawn into the language of the classroom and students made to feel at ease in school. Simultaneously, respect and tolerance for other cultures and concern for the natural environment are values woven into the work materials.

The idea that schools can be resource centres for their immediate neighbourhood, central to Rishi Valley Education Centre’s philosophy, found new expression in this programme. With each satellite school providing support systems to government schools in their vicinity, the principle was extended to cover all the peripheries.



The Box met its first field test outside Rishi Valley in Mehbubnagar district, when the team was invited by Unicef and the Education Department of the state government to conduct an intensive 75-day summer school programme in the district. The aim was to prepare girls who had joined class I, but subsequently dropped out of school, to enter class two. The programme was extremely successful, with 96.4% of the total children mainstreamed into the second standard.

Rishi Valley’s influence spread over a larger area when a group of concerned government teachers from H.D. Kote district in Karnataka who faced problems endemic to schools in our neighbourhood, began an association with our educational team. Eventually, the Karnataka team created their own graded materials in Kannada, which they called Nalli Kalli. They independently extended their programme, having reached an agreement with the machinery of the state, to other districts of Karnataka.

It was the collaboration with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) in 1997 and 1998 that greatly enlarged the scope of Rishi Valley’s involvement on the broader canvas of education. A two-year memorandum of understanding required us to create a complete set of graded materials for class I and II in the areas of arithmetic and environmental science, and to create a language version in the local dialect of Telugu. We were expected to set up 2000 schools, some of them in completely inaccessible areas of the forest, and to train local school teachers and schools run by volunteers (mabadi) with meagre qualifications in the multi-grade multi-level classroom pedagogy.

In addition, we were to monitor the progress of the educational complex we had helped establish. Whereas the Rishi Valley satellite schools and, to a large extent, the schools in H.D. Kote district had evolved organically, at their own pace, the ITDA undertaking was to be completed in a single two-year sweep. Resource persons and teachers had to be trained, training manuals written, and a set of monitoring tools devised. When it became apparent that the existing Telugu language version of the Box differed considerably from the dialect in use in tribal areas, it had to be recast, incorporating regional lore. Sixty bright local teachers helped create a new version of the Box to be used in Paderu and Rampachudavaram. The new set of cards was called ‘Anandalahari Education Materials’.



The training of 2000 teachers in the multi-grade methodology was a formidable task. The training had to be accomplished in relays; each batch of between 130 or so trainees was divided into five groups, with 30 trainees or less in each group. One previously trained Mandal Resource Persons (MRP) was put in charge of training each group; two resource persons from Rishi Valley (RRP) assisted him. Each group had its own Box to work with in hands-on sessions. MRPs and RRPs changed with every incoming batch to ensure that the training remained a relay and did not become a marathon.



A month prior to the commencement of the teacher training programme, a model school was set up in the vicinity at Kothavalasa village. The model school had two classes: one for mathematics and the other for language. Two local persons and two RRPs were in charge of these facilities. Each trainee group of about 25 teachers spent two hours observing the transactions in the two classrooms. The observer teachers were given a format to help focus on salient features of the methodology.

One truly original aspect of this venture lay in the unique system of monitoring support that was evolved in order to sustain, on a much larger scale, such new approaches, processes and materials in schools across a geographically wider area. The workings of the monitoring system are best described in the words of the IAS officer who presided over the educational programme:1

‘The school complex resource person is expected to visit every single teacher school compulsorily on a fixed day of the month. He spends the whole day in the school and observes how the kit is being implemented, what the problem areas are and then offers on the spot solutions. A well thoughtout proforma has been worked out on the basis of which he interacts with the teacher. He verifies attendance patterns, takes note of long term absentees, and conducts a simple test with the children to ascertain their progress since the previous visit. He is expected to interact with the villagers, initiate and organise school beautification, mid-day meals, etc. This kind of monthly interaction at the level of the single teacher school, in the presence of the children and the villagers has given a lot of weight to the programme and is contributing to instil further confidence in the teacher as well as the resource person in using the kit in a proficient manner.’

Our ITDA experience in scaling up the multi-grade methodology remains vital to this day, for it helped us devise essential apparatus for scaling up other initiative. The experience in teaching students and training teachers that first began in the 16 satellite school complex and was refined in all our subsequent interactions within the country – in Karnataka, UP, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala – has converged in the publication of a nine-volume Multigrade Teachers’ Resource Pack. The pack is aimed at teachers; its salient volumes include a training guide for planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating multi-grade programmes; a hand-book for introducing theatre and craft into the classroom; scripts and audio cassettes for staging stories from the Panchatantra in Hindi and Telugu; a planning and achievement tracking diary for teachers. Prepared by this long experience in India we are exploring collaboration with educators in southern Ethiopia in a project aimed at starting multi-grade schools modelled along the Rishi Valley pattern.



Quality in education has many dimensions. The National Policy on Education (NPE), a document published by the Government of India in 1986, underlined one dimension of quality. It announced that apart from providing universal access to schools for every child up to the age of 14, there ought to be ‘a substantial improvement in the quality of learning.’ The document fixed upon a contrast with the traditional classroom, dominated by a cane-wielding teacher, where accurate memorisation is the measure of successful learning and teaching, to fill out its understanding of ‘substantial improvement in quality.’ Learning should take place, the policy advocated, in ‘child-centred activity-based classrooms,’ where ‘children should be allowed to work at their own pace,’ and where ‘corporal punishment will be firmly excluded.’

Rishi Valley Education Centre has incorporated the above norms in the 16 satellite schools it has established. It has also explored other aspects of a child’s learning experience, including the ideal location of schools; schools’ relationship to their ecological context; children’s interactions within the multi-grade classroom and with the larger community. As a consequence of this exploration we can project additional dimensions, which to some may appear more problematic, of the notion of educational quality.



Basic education or imparting reading and writing skills in a child-friendly environment, we believe, is a necessary but insufficient condition for adjudicating quality. The term is ambiguous; it can be interpreted differently in different contexts, especially in an overpopulated country like India, where education holds out the promise of growth to the organised urban sector, but which also has long established village settlements with their own knowledge systems and traditions that are largely neglected, and where livelihoods count more than jobs. We don’t believe that educational norms implied by the use of the word ‘quality’ in the title of this essay ought to be viewed exclusively through the framework of job creation, even if science and information technology are added on at higher stages as basic needs of education.



Without in any way casting doubt on the need for a child-friendly educational system, we believe that the 1986 NPE descriptions of quality to be too narrow. We believe that quality in education has to take account of the larger reality of the countryside, where 72.22% or 741.66 million of India’s people live. Let us take a look at employment opportunities available in rural India while acknowledging that the prospects of generating significant employment in the urban area for migrating labour are bleak.

A recent review of employment patterns in the rural economy by The Economic Times group draws attention to the sharp increase in rural unemployment rates between 1999 and 2000. The Planning Commission confesses to not understanding ‘the reasons for the observed increase in unemployment rates in rural areas…’ In the area of agriculture, the same review projects a very low employment elasticity figure (0.10) in relation to GDP for the future, so even with a difficult to achieve target of eight per cent growth, the employment generated would not in any significant way increase the number of jobs in rural India. Nonetheless, the authors, offer the following hope:2

‘Given that there is bound to be an increase in the rural labour force at least due to the natural rate of growth of rural population, there is enough reason to worry about where all these people will find jobs in the future. Elegant economic models of employment in developing countries have long back made clear that creation of employment opportunities in the urban sector is no solution to the rural unemployment problem and in fact, only ends up accentuating it. The only other alternative, then, is in the creation of non-farm work opportunities within the rural sector itself (that is, in the rural non-farm sector or RNFS) – a shift that comes with a bag load of advantages, as far as absorption of surplus labour from agriculture is concerned (emphasis ours).



The rural non-farm sector covers a whole spectrum of activities, from gathering forest products to handloom weaving. Unable to look upon these occupations in a creative spirit, traditional livelihoods hold little appeal for the educated young men and women from our villages. The present educational system bears some responsibility for alienating rural youth from their backgrounds, so that instead of imaginative engagement with their community’s needs they turn to gambling and liquor, and in more impoverished states, to violence.

Those of us who chase a fuller conception of quality in education have learnt a lot from a celebrated essay by Narpat Jodha, where he chronicles on the basis of data collected from 80 villages in 21 dry districts, how common property resources contribute to improving marginalized lives in the countryside. His evidence shows that:

‘The rural poor receive the bulk of their fuel supplies and fodder from CPRs [Common Property Resources]. CPR’s product collection is an important source of employment and income, especially in times of lean employment. Furthermore, CPR income accounts for a conservative estimate of 14 to 23 per cent of house-hold income. More importantly, CPR income helps to reduce the extent of rural income inequalities.’3

Inspired by Jodha’s work, we conceive of all our schools as ecological schools, designed to provide a green public spaces for the village. They are planted with fruit trees and medicinal plants; our hope is that the grounds of the schools, which are terraced to conserve water and planted with shrubs and trees, will meet part of the food and fodder needs of the village, and provide space for a variety of plant species.



Our search for quality at Rishi Valley can at best provide a first glimpse of where to begin if the culture of village life is to be revitalised. Unless those who set educational policy in India develop a more complete sense of what their country is, and design an educational system in response to the reality of their country, a large proportion of its citizens will be forced to lead increasingly marginalized lives. If one of the primary aims of a modern educational system is to equip students with skills required by the job market, we can equally take lifting communities out of the cycle of ‘poverty, environmental degradation and the inability of communities to live with one another’4 as an inspiration for educating students. In that way we will be nourishing the Indian earth and the communities it sustains. A comprehensive definition of quality in education will only then emerge.



1. Jayesh Ranjan, A Multigrade Trainers’ Resource Pack. Background Documents-IKFI Rishi Valley Education Centre, Rishi Valley, 2003, p. 55.

2. ‘In Search of Greener Pastures’, Economic Times. The Knowledge Series: Rural Economy, 2002-3, p. 127.

3. Life on the Edge: Sustaining Agriculture and Community Resources in Fragile Environments. Oxford, New Delhi, 2001, p. 130.

4. The phrase is Partha Dasgupta’s from his Foreword to Jodha’s Life on the Edge. Ibid.