Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sustainability For Education In Rural India


This paper focuses on the application of discipline based learning to teaching science and math at secondary and higher secondary school levels to students in rural India, where people are engaged in traditional occupations such as farming. 70% of Indians live in over 550,000 villages. [5]
The paper demonstrates how some of the suggestions for sustainable development made by UNESCO (Appendix A) can or are being implemented.

The Indian Education System
There are three stages- Primary (Years 1-4), Secondary (Years 5-10) and Junior College or Higher Secondary (Years 11-12) prior to entering graduation. The key examinations (Years 10 & 12) are conducted by state or central boards. In the recent years, private schools that follow the western system have also started in India. In most schools, the learning outcome is determined by marks acquired in examinations. Some schools have moved to a grade based system.

The Indian education system allows for reservations on the basis of caste and also on the basis of language in institutions run by linguistic minorities in various states. Such reservations are neither permanent solutions and nor are they adequate as economic support is required as well. Hence, monetary incentives in the form of scholarships and fee waivers are also offered.

Girls' enrollment continues to lag behind that of boys. The Gender Parity Index for elementary education was 0.89 in 2005.
Before I go into the details for application of discipline based learning, I would like to address the issues with sustainability as this is the over-riding factor in structuring the curriculum.
Two essential aspects of sustainability are "environmental integrity" and "social justice".[4] While the proposed design and curriculum address both, the emphasis is on the “Social justice”.

Issues with sustainability
Children from the socio-economically backward classes & rural areas face problems:

1. Physical access (not living within a reasonable distance from a school or excluded on the basis of caste/ religion/ gender)

2. Financial access (unable to either afford schooling or afford to spend time going to school as sometimes they are expected to lend a helping hand in economic activities, for example - working at the farms)

3. Poor resources
· Physical - According to DISE (District Information System For Education) 2005-6 data [7],

i. 4.12% (46,364) of the schools don’t have a building. Of these 92.35% are located in rural areas. (All existing buildings are not permanent structures).
ii. 9.54% of the schools remain single classroom schools and 10.45% schools lack classrooms.
iii. Only 10.73% schools have a computer.

· Human - The DISE data [7] also states that
i. Average pupil-teacher ratio for the country is 1:36, with significant variations to the upper end
ii. 30.73% schools lack female teachers.

Public spending on higher education is at USD 400 per student, the lowest among the emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China).[6] The spend estimates may not be accurate as schools may inflate the number of students enrolled or marks awarded so that the students continue to receive the scholarships/ waivers and the school continues to receive funding. This leads to overall decline in a system where learning outcomes are measured by examination marks. It is be advisable to de-link the two and emphasize on real, practical learning.

The results of the Government Schooling system are discouraging:

· 70% dropout by Class 8 and only 5% enter higher education (Shah & Veetil, Pg 5 citing Raina 2006)
· Some Indian states have a coefficient of efficiency around 50%
Coefficient of efficiency (%) = (No. of years necessary to graduate to a particular stage/ No. of years actually taken by the pupil) (Shah & Veetil, Pg 6)
· Competency levels are below expectations with over 88% of the 3rd – 5th standard students in Andhra Pradesh state unable to do single digit subtraction. (Shah & Veetil, Pg 6)

Discipline Based Learning Approach
The approach should take into account the industries or occupations in the immediate neighborhood of the student. The rationale for this is that for students from economically backward classes, survival is a bigger concern rather than education. The solution therefore is in providing education that empowers them, making them independent rather than going through 7 years of secondary and higher secondary schooling towards graduation. Looking at the statistics of the dropout rates and entry into higher education, this might be a better approach.
Once they start working either for themselves or for others, their quality of life will improve, as their basic needs will be met. This will encourage them to study further through avenues available for continuing education.

The Setting

The setting could be a village or a small town in India where students from economically backward classes are constrained by access to quality science and math education.

The Solution
The curriculum must factor in the needs of students and communities – farming/ fishing/ small-scale industry. The focus of curriculum must be on life skills, empowerment and employability or entrepreneurship.

The solution has to serve two purposes:
Firstly, the curriculum must focus on practical science that finds application in their daily lives. The approach should be from practice to theory rather than from theory to practice.
Secondly, it should run parallel to mainstream education so that interested students (currently a minority) can find avenues for higher education at a later stage.

The objective is to provide working knowledge in order to ensure that students are able to quickly sustain themselves financially. Rather than pure disciplinary knowledge, the emphasis must be on the sector and inter-disciplinary knowledge. (Learning about Life-cycle of whales, Structures of Organic compounds, Half-life of radioactive elements does not meet immediate needs).

The sector can be defined through dialogue between educators, senior members of the local community and social workers. For instance, in villages that depend on agriculture for their livelihood; this sector will determine educational content. While this restricts flexibility, it can be tackled by offering opportunities for continuing education. On the other hand, if we do not help these individuals out of poverty, there is little hope. Through emphasis on relevant subjects or topics and broader forms of assessment, motivation can also be higher.

So instead of the prescribed subject specific approach that mainstream/ urban students are exposed to, these students should be offered a different curriculum.

Devising the curriculum

As in a discipline based approach, the content is not arrived at through dialogue between all participants. It addresses the needs of learners as a group rather than as individuals. The emphasis is on the product or the final outcome. The process aspect becomes important only during the course of performing laboratory experiments or making observations in the field.

Example: Course content for teaching science and math in agricultural economies

Physics could include
Working of machines- Focus on modern farm equipment and machinery
Theory and application of Solar energy, Hydro energy, Wind energy

Structured around plants and animals found in the vicinity, farm animals, pests and micro-organisms that may damage crops or threaten farm animals
Protecting biodiversity
Personal health & hygiene-Understanding of communicable diseases, Prevention of HIV/ AIDS

Chemistry could include
Understanding of organic and inorganic compounds, focus on pesticides, weedicides
Plant extracts

Geography-Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Science
Climate, seasonality, weather forecast
Crop selection based on seasonality
Determining soil quality

Environmental science
Availability of natural resources
Planning and implementing efficient usage of resources
Waste management, recycling and biodegradability
Pollution- Industrial pollution, acid rains, usage of pesticides
Disaster management-Dealing with floods, drought, locusts, forest fires

Farm management
Legal aspects of owning and renting agricultural lands
Efficient utilization of land, crop rotation, enhancing crop productivity
Storage and transfer of produce
Organic farming, Hydroponics
Understanding of international best practices in agriculture

Application of plants/ crops in the field of medicine, as sources of energy
Usage of internet

Scope for Math should be widened to cover Finance/ Economics
Money management, savings
Utilization of credit facilities, microfinance to fund farm activities
Commodity markets
Demand and supply, Basic trade skills, Pricing

While such content would definitely be taught to undergraduate students (Bachelor of Science, Agriculture), all basic and essential aspects could be simplified and incorporated at secondary and higher secondary school levels. We can thus ensure that students who drop out of school or do not pursue higher studies have acquired knowledge that can make them employable.
Superstitions, pseudo-science (astrology) and blind faith abound in India and especially in smaller towns and villages. To tackle this, students of science must be taught to be objective and unbiased. It is important that students develop

  • Sense of curiosity, asking questions to learn

  • Patience to go through experimentation

  • Reflect on observations to make interpretations

  • Understand the relevance of the learning

  • Attitude to take on problems, issues and resolve them

  • Activities can be done in a group to facilitate collaborative learning.

Documentaries/ educational films made in an entertaining format would also appeal to these students.

Learning theory
Discipline based learning relies on the cognitive model and adopts a constructivist approach.
Keeping in mind the importance attached to caste and religion and to gender biases that exist, course material should be devised in such a way that it promotes tolerance towards others (economically backward classes, lower castes and the disabled) and respect for women and their role in society.

  • Generic skills that are relevant and should be incorporated

  • Communication (written and spoken) and social skills through collaborative learning

  • Concept maps as these help students have a overview of the various topics and the relationships between them

  • Critical reflection (teaching them the process of learning to learn)

  • Teaching and knowledge sharing capabilities (making the process self sustaining)

Learning outcomes

  • Understanding of concepts in science

  • Familiarity with scientific terminology and equipment

  • Positive attitude towards nature and environment

  • Participate/ collaborate in projects- which may take form art or drama as these forms of expression traditionally exist

  • Successfully clear half yearly and annual examinations, projects assigned

  • Economic outcome- Employability and/or entrepreneurial capabilities

Advantages/disadvantages of applying Discipline Based Learning


  • The interdisciplinary approach is structured around the most common occupations in the community. This ensures that the students find immediate application and relate to what they study.

  • The economic benefits can also be realized earlier, alleviating poverty which is vital for their progress.

  • Easier to convince parents that the education is of value to their children and themselves


  • As the focus is on meeting immediate needs, there is a risk that students with an interest in broader academic studies and higher education – someone who aspires to study calculus, nuclear physics or economics may be at a disadvantage.

  • Resistance is likely be encountered as it disturbs the existing status quo and would involve restructuring of syllabus. People employing children or adults from lower socio-economic strata as laborers would be reluctant in empowering these individuals.

  • Extra effort would be required to ensure that these students can integrate (if they wish to) with the mainstream students for higher education

Ensuring Sustainability

Providing microfinance and microcredit

The poor farmers and agricultural laborers must be provided access to credit facilities such as microcredit- small loans provided without any collateral. This finance can be used to fund education of children, tide over short illnesses, provide for important events such as marriage, purchase of raw materials for farm activities and/ or self-start a small business. However, business opportunities still need to be created and this needs a plan for broader social and economic development. As interest rates can still be quite high, teaching proper utilization of the credit is important.

Keeping costs low
The cost of education must be kept low but without any compromise in the quality of education.

Costs can be also kept low by

  • Providing students and teachers internet access at lower costs.

  • Use key connecting points such as post offices, railway stations to deliver educational material and sessions.

  • Making use of educational material and software that are freely available on the internet.

  • Recycling of used books for needy students

  • Providing e-learning. The same content can reproduced in various languages across India

  • Sharing of resources- Laboratories, playgrounds, sports equipment, library materials such as DVDs, books, internet access can be shared across schools.

Providing support

  • Scholarships, loans and education vouchers (which can be redeemed even in private schools) must be made available to needy students.

  • When a student fails to meet expectations, provide him with more social support or tutors as the need may be. Set-up a help-line/ tele-mentoring service to advise students.

  • Get parents to be involved in their children’s education in order to make it successful.

  • Building awareness of educational opportunities among parents and students is a critical factor in the success of such programs.

  • Educational research teams should be provided platforms such as mass media (Radio and Television) for sharing best practices with schools.


  • Wastage of funds and any kind of pilferage must be prevented

  • Monitoring the performance of students (and schools) receiving financial aid is crucial so that they respect it and take their education seriously.

  • Stipends for female students are structured by linking it to remaining unmarried till turning 18 years old or completion of schooling, apart from academic expectations. This promotes gender parity and lowers incidence of female infanticide. (Shah & Veetil, Pg.14)

  • Teachers also need to be provided incentives so that absenteeism in reduced or eliminated. UNESCO has proposed an “Innovative Science/ Technology teaching Award” [10]

  • The Government should focus on facilitation and supervision. It should set up mechanisms to supervise and evaluate the educational programs.

Creating more opportunities to access education

Building more schools and making them sustainable- “Edupreneurs” can be given lands at subsidized rates to build schools in exchange of reserving a proportion of seats, about 10-25%. (Shah & Veetil, Pg14) for students from economically backward classes. Alternatives could be financial loans at minimal or zero interest rates. This should also be linked to activities such as training and mentoring. By training locally, it eliminates the need to “import” teachers from cities at higher costs, making such operations financially sustainable.

Appendix A

UNESCO presented a plan to focus on sustainable development under three key headings ‘society, environment and economy with culture as an underlying dimension.’ With regard to educational programs for sustainable development, UNESCO expressed a desire for high quality initiatives demonstrating characteristics such as [8]:

  • Interdisciplinary and holistic: learning for sustainable development embedded in the whole curriculum, not as a separate subject;

  • Values-driven: sharing the values and principles underpinning sustainable development;

  • Critical thinking and problem solving: leading to confidence in addressing the dilemmas and challenges of sustainable development;

  • Multi-method: word, art, drama, debate, experience,…different pedagogies which model the processes;

  • Participatory decision-making: learners participate in decisions on how they are to learn;

  • Locally relevant: addressing local as well as global issues, and using the language(s) which learners most commonly use.

With regard to the involvement of students in programs towards sustainable development, UNESCO has referred to specific strategies such as: [9]

  • Institutionalizing youth participation in the formulation and implementation of sustainable development awareness programs.

  • Peer-to-peer education for sustainable development is the most likely to result in behavioral change. As such, we should encourage peer education within the formal education system.

  • Introducing education on sustainable development at an early age with a focus on educating young women and girls as well as out of school youth and other marginalized youth.


1. Shah, P. J. and V. P. Veetil. (2006, December 2006). "Private Education For The Poor In India." from

2. Prahlad, C. K. (2005). The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid - Eradicating poverty through profits, Wharton School Publishing.

3. Thompson, M. (2001). Philosophy of Science, Contemporary Books.

4. Kermath, B. "What Is Sustainability & How Do We Get There?" Retrieved 2007-10-19, from

5. (2007). "Background note: India." Retrieved 2007-10-19, from

6. Chatterjee, S. (2007, 2007-02-09). "India spending least on higher education among BRIC nations." International Business Times, from

7. Mehta, A. C. (2007). "Elementary Education In India - Analytical Report 2005-06." Retrieved 2007-10-22, from

8. UNESCO. (2004). "Decade of Education For Sustainable Development - Implementation." Retrieved 2007-10-22, from

9. UNESCO. "Education for sustainable development (2005-2014)." Retrieved 2007-10-22, from

10. UNESCO. "Innovative Science/ Technology Teaching Award." Retrieved 2007-10-24, from