An ex-serviceman and an educator who changed the definition of schooling, Ashok Thakur, Founder, Muni International School has given hundreds of underprivileged children a shot at a better life over 30 years.
In an exclusive conversation with DKODING Media, Ashok Thakur, Founder, Muni International School reflects on the Corona pandemic, the change education faces today, and how he foresees the future of schooling in the post-pandemic era.
Q: What was your motivation behind becoming an educator after serving in the army?
While serving in the army for eight years I was part of several defence operations that were both physically and mentally challenging. The army experience made me disciplined and dutiful. I also learned to become loyal to my resolutions. I learned how to achieve my highest potential by facing extreme challenges in places like Sri Lanka, Punjab, and other tough terrains across India. I became capable of achieving my targets despite adversities.
I went through considerable personal pain, not being prepared by the existing education system to achieve my highest potential during my schooling. In my observation, this was common to most people around me.
I decided to go for my BCom (Bachelor of Commerce) just because my friend did so. In my 12 years of education, I did not see education being able to create the trust that I wanted to see among each other; in fact, it probably did the opposite. I saw that education mostly created blind followers.
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Since I did not learn English during my schooling, I decided to educate my children in a very good English school. Despite enrolling them in a very reputed school and paying hefty fees through borrowed money, my dream of my children gaining fluency in English did not materialize. Neither did they pick up any values during their schooling days. Nor did they become prepared adequately for their future.
I was thus passionately driven to take ownership of changing the existing education methodology, which would help in inculcating values and skills in people and prepare them definitively to achieve their highest potential. I also realized very early on that a focus on Research and Development was essential for our school to dream of the future as we worked diligently in the present. I knew that education helps us plant seeds of innovation.
I was passionately driven to take ownership of changing the existing education methodology.
I am a self-made man of considerable grit. Having worked in the field of education for the last 18 years to spread quality education in society, I have always felt the foremost need to begin quality education at the lower strata of society.
Q: How did it all start at Muni International School?
In 1992, I left the Army, worked for a few years elsewhere and finally, after facing the usual obstacles in a developing country, I started the Muni International School in 2002 on a 250-yard family-owned piece of land in Uttam Nagar, West Delhi, a slum area in those days. I made a humble beginning with just 28 students at a fee of 30 Indian Rupees (41 US cents by today’s rate!) per month, providing very basic infrastructure. It began with two employees from our family business. Even with such low fees, half of the students could not pay the fees.
We started with 28 students at a fee of 30 Indian Rupees per month. But even with such low fees, half of the students could not afford to pay.
It took me around 8 years of sustained effort along with exemplary support from inspired teachers from within the community before our perseverance finally paid off, as the Muni model finally took off the ground and started running successfully.
Q: What was your vision behind the Muni International School?
A school for a brave new world, where every child is a changemaker, who is universally versatile and can afford to participate, develop, experience and express his or her true purpose of life in creative ways for harmonious co-existential living.
To this day, the child is at the core of this model and will continue to be so. I would not allow any child to face the hardships that I faced by letting them understand their own potential as leaders in their own right in taking charge of their own destiny.
Q: How do you see the lockdown’s impact – a curse or an opportunity?
I personally value the quality of human life above everything else. The Coronavirus is highly infectious and spreads through human contact. It was observed to be fatal as well and the world does not have a vaccine for it yet. Considering this, the natural and logical step to stop the initial spreading of the infections would be to keep enough distance between human beings.
Throughout the years I have been stressing to parents, teachers, educators, and policymakers that we should work on self-learning, self-discovery, self-evaluation, and self-realization. I have been pointing out to them that the material world, plant world, and the animal world already co-exist in harmony with each other.
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However, human beings worked a lot all these years on their basic aspirations of food, housing, and clothing as well as on their ambitions in television, telecommunication as well as travel and transport. However, human beings did not make comparable efforts to work on understanding their own self and fellow human beings. So, I used to tell everyone that we need to take some time out to work on ourselves for the last 18 years. Finally, it appears to me that destiny and God worked out that it is time that human beings focused on self-learning (self-exploration), self-discovery, and working on themself.
Therefore, both Destiny and God seem to have given us a wakeup call in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic by asking us to work on self-learning, self-discovery, self-evaluation, and self-realization since these are quite essential to every human being. Therefore, apart from using technology for augmenting certain physical and mental limitations but our first priority needs to be self-learning, self-discovery, self-evaluation, and self-realization.
Every child has his or her own pace of learning, their own attitudes, aptitudes, and inclinations and all these are a matter of the self. It is time now to go beyond the narrow aspirations of competition and excessive wants. Within oneself, we are our own heaven, we are our own progress and we are our own evidence.
It is for the very first time in the history of humanity that all human beings have come together to do re-imagine self-learning, meditation, better hygiene, health care, digital communications, remote learning and using various educational technologies.
Q: Why are traditional education techniques failing to support the global demand for Indian students?
India has a population of 1.3 billion, with more than 600,000 villages, about 1.4 million schools, 900+ universities and 50,000 colleges. Lack of infrastructure, lack of availability of qualified teachers, inadequate finance etc. are some of the stumbling blocks for the education system in India.
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Traditionally, the teacher-centric model in India and elsewhere has the following shortcomings:
- One-sided instruction from teachers is generally not that effective. In the absence of interactivity, students become passive receivers of information. This can make them completely dependent on teachers for all their learning needs.
- It is easy to understand that in a class of 40 students thoughts of each student change every minute. For a teacher of any skill level, it can get incredibly difficult to interact with each student at his or her thought level. Also, it is not feasible for teachers to pay attention to all 40 students simultaneously.
- Students lose interest in the classroom since they do not find a connection between what is taught in class and real life.
- Subjects are taught in isolation and students are unable to establish relationships between subjects due to which holistic understanding of the world does not happen.
- Application of learning in school to solve real-world problems is not part of the traditional education system
- Promotes rote learning which can be detrimental to their academic pursuits.
- Rigid classroom structures can impede the academic development of students.
- Students who work towards getting good grades will, unfortunately, formulate answers in accordance with what they think the teachers’ questions might be. This can be very limiting.
- Some students do not participate in class due to the fear of answering the teacher incorrectly. This severely hinders the student’s expression in the classroom. Most students fear judgment.
- Variation in teacher competence, skills, training, capacity and individual dispositions has a large impact on student learning outcomes
- KG to PG no consistency in the format of delivery of education over a long period
In most schools worldwide, children are discouraged from speaking in classrooms in the name of discipline (remember all children have a rich source of natural energy) and teachers who have far less energy have to speak most of the time in the classroom. So essentially, we switched off all that precious energy!
Teachers have increasing administrative overheads and are under constant time pressure. This results in fatigue and stress, which adversely affects the education system.
Q: How do you see Coronavirus affecting the education sector in the long term?
A blended approach to education will need to be used in which students will attend physical schools and online classes. The duration of attendance in physical schools and online classes will depend on the local advisories given out by the health ministry and the education ministry.
If the COVID-19 pandemic continues then the following Remote learning options will continue to be used:
- Desktop with an internet connection
- Laptop with an internet connection
- Mobile smartphone with an internet connection
- Mobile phone with 2G connection
- IVR can be used for all recorded instructions
- TV with satellite connection
- TV with cable connection
- Printed material when none of the above options is available
- Online learning apps for students, teachers and parents
The content made available on the above-mentioned media will need to be optimized for engagement and for recall. Teachers will need to be trained in on-line and off-line education technology, which will become a necessity in the days to come.
It will be necessary for the education system to radically re-imagine the whole learning experience provided to students by making learning intimately connected with real life.
Muni International School feels that the following suggestions can make education more relevant in the current and post COVID-19 days:
- Providing universal human values education and the right environment for living and embodying human values are crucial. Those imparting this education must be encouraged by everyone in society and empower them to co-create an environment in which all of us can participate.
- Everyone in the ecosystem must be made aware that Health is an outcome of self-regulation which is a feeling of responsibility toward the body for Nurturing, Protection and Right Utilization of the Body.
- A critical skill for children is learning to learn. This will ensure that no matter what new skills show up, every student will be at ease while deciding which one of the new skills are relevant in his personal context and then move ahead to master them.
- Reduction in the academic timeline by 10 years, by eliminating everything that can be done with greater accuracy, precision and predictability by AI and ML, from the school and college education curriculum.
- Peer-to-Peer learning must become ubiquitous because of its potential to make exponential learning possible. It can also make education scalable by reducing the dependency on the teachers. The quality of education also improves when peer to peer learning is guided by other methods which are proven at Muni International School and we can look at proven methods from anywhere else in India and abroad which is a good fit for the local context.
- Learning must lead to the application of knowledge in solving real-life problems.
- Every child must become aware of his or her ability to self-explore.
- Every child must learn to self-explore and become aware of co-existence. From their understanding of co-existence, every child must learn to develop meaningful sustainable solutions instead of mindlessly developing complex solutions.
- Releasing the pressure on students from their peers, parents and teachers through a collective understanding of universal human values.
- Students must develop the ability to turn adversity into opportunity considering that the future is going to be very disruptive.
- Schools will need to learn how to do much more with fewer resources.
- Everyone in the education system will need to think and act with flexibility. Being rigid can break the system during disruptive periods.
- Discussions in parent-teacher meetings must focus on what we consider meaningful, instead of discussing marks. This becomes easier when there is a collective understanding of universal human values.
- Increased community participation in education can make a big difference.
Q: What message would you give to the education system on reopening the schools now since COVID-19 cases are peaking?
The physical and mental health of students should be given top priority. In the present scenario, I would say food must become medicine for students so that their immunity to infections becomes high at the same time it should meet their nutritional requirements. They must take all the precautions that are conveyed by the health ministry from time to time.
Next parents, teachers, and the community must release pressure on the students so that their minds are relaxed to make learning a joyful experience.
It is important to make schools an attractive place so that students feel like showing up. Schools must become a place for celebration where learning can happen naturally in a non-threatening environment.
Schools must ensure that children derive maximum inspiration to learn from the material world, plant world, animal world and other human beings. It is important that they learn to appreciate the interconnections, interdependencies and relationship between those worlds. Finally, everything that happens in the education world must be guided by universal human values.