Mumbai: At the Gundecha Education Academy in suburban Mumbai, students hunch over tables and set coloured plastic blocks on a board. They look like they’re having fun—even though the game is really a lesson in fractions, courtesy of Educational?Initiatives?Pvt. Ltd.

Another classroom nearby enacts a scene at a restaurant: setting tables, taking orders, serving guests. A teacher from Helen O’Grady Children’s Drama Academy India, a franchise that uses drama to teach English, coordinates the whole affair.

Students in the lower grades, meanwhile, sit before computers, sing along to familiar melodies, trace letters on the computer screen and read colourful books—curricula designed by the non-profit Waterford Research Institute India, an

Counting blocks: Students at the Gundecha Education Academy during a practical mathematics class learn fractions using educational toys.

As India addresses the shortcomings of a rigid, drill-oriented education system, a revolution has been brewing across the country to shift from rote learning to more creative—even fun—methods. And a fleet of enterprises from non-profits to consultants to education start-ups is rolling out new products and services to assist in the transformation. Often, these businesses brand their educational tools and philosophies, while schools, in turn, market the inclusion and adoption of such innovative techniques to parents.

When she was hired to set up Gundecha Education Academy, Seema Buch said she envisioned it as a place where children could be happy as they learn. Four years later, she says that aspiration has been fulfilled with the help of external organizations that share the same goals.

Generally, the schools pay fees for curriculum, tests and advice; for example, Educational Initiatives (EI), founded by graduates of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, conducts a test to gauge each student’s understanding of what is taught in the classroom. It charges schools about Rs250 per student for tests in three subjects—mathematics, science and English.

“From a business perspective, the potential in today’s environment is huge," says Sunita Joshi, director of JIL Information Technologies Ltd, the IT arm of the Rs3,500 crore Jaypee Group. “Earlier, schools were reluctant to invest in IT, but now technology has percolated into schools across the country. And the schools are keen to have these kinds of products."

JIL develops computer-aided teaching modules, such as three-minute videos that break down difficult to understand concepts as the clotting of blood or the continental drift theory. More than 1,000 schools have licenced JIL products.

“Our products are aimed at the teachers who are constrained for time," says Joshi.

While JIL operates in areas in which schools are increasingly compelled to invest, even Helen O’Grady reports heightened demand for its drama classes from traditional schools grappling with just how to teach students to be more creative.

“We are going in for major expansion as we have requests coming in from across the country," says Arpita Mittal, executive principal of Helen O’Grady in India, a franchisee of the Australian firm. “Students who participate in the programme become more confident and are able to express themselves lucidly."

The focus, so far, has been urban schools, but in the next phase, it plans to target smaller cities and towns, even the interior regions of the country.

A recent study by Pratham, an NGO tracking rural education, shows a shift toward private education across the country. While 16.3% of rural children were in private schools in 2005, the number increased to 18.8% in 2006.

“It is more critical to go to these schools and give the children there a voice," says Mittal. Helen O’Grady’s programme offered at schools runs the course of the academic year and schools pay on a per student basis.

The programme was brought to India by Harshkumar Seksaria, a director of Govind Properties Pvt. Ltd. He had seen a programme in session in New Zealand and was so enthralled with the way the children were participating that he decided to launch the programme here. “Now a lot of entrepreneurs want to be part of the initiative. It is quite rewarding, not just as an experience, but even monetarily," says Mittal.

Outside the box

While these organizations focus on one aspect of education, others—such as EI and iDiscoveri Centre for Education and Enterprise—cast a wider net. “When we started out, we discovered that children did not find school an engaging experience," says Anustup Nayak, partner at iDiscoveri. “By the time they left school, they had a lot of information, but very fragile understanding."

Nayak should know. His own moment of truth on his schooling came when he was studying at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

An instructor gave him lots of coloured paper clips and said, “Imagine that these are people going for a movie. Show me the different ways that these people can be seated." Nayak was stumped.

“I knew the formula for permutations and combinations because I had learnt it in school but I could not demonstrate my knowledge with these clips," he says.

Today, Nayak and his team, which includes alumni from Harvard and the Indian Institutes of Technology, are working with several schools across the country, including Satya Bharti Schools in Punjab, the Heritage School at Gurgaon and the Yenepoya School at Mangalore.

“Initially, we started working with teachers, focusing on getting them excited and working on their teaching skills," he says. “In the last one year, we are investing into finding alternatives to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of learning as we are altering the transaction between the teacher and the student," says Nayak.

Both iDiscoveri and EI have arrived at similar conclusions on the level of comprehension among schoolchildren. Following a survey across schools in five metros, EI reported that most students seem to be learning mechanically, and are able to answer questions based on recall or standard procedures. But they are not able to apply what they have learnt to new, unfamiliar problems—indicating that lessons have been memorized, and not understood.

Students have the maximum problems with mathematics and science such as fractions, factors, area versus perimeter, light moving through media, among other concepts.

iDiscoveri attempted to tackle the issue by training 2,000 teachers and 250 principals and leaders across the country. It now plans to create new curricula for classes from kindergarten to class VIII.

For every class, the team maps what students should learn and then translates some of the abstract concepts into a toolkit that brings these concepts to life through enriched teaching techniques, models and a teacher’s toolkit and professional development programme.

Students say they see a difference. Shashank Srivastav, a ninth standard student at Gundecha Academy, finds the new learning tools “very interesting". “I can now understand what is taught much faster and more easily," he says.

The growth of companies catering to education comes, of course, against the backdrop of more schools opening to serve the hunger for education and training. A report by the National Council of Applied Economic Research estimates that nearly a third of the Indian population is in the school-going age, while the middle-income group is growing at 15%. Based on this report, iDiscoveri estimates that urban India alone needs more than 6,500 new schools every year.

iDiscoveri just started three pilot projects where a new curriculum is being tested—the Yenepoya School in Mangalore, the Cambridge School in New Delhi and the iDiscoveri pre-school in Gurgaon.

“Once we have the results of this pilot, we will be able to scale up the programme and offer the new curriculum as well as the toolkits to many more schools. That way we can bring about more concrete changes in the education system," says Nayak.

Testing times

Despite trying to teach students to train for more than tests, different types of assessment also are growing, as schools try to understand what their pupils really know and, importantly, how they stack up against their peers.

EI’s ASSET (which stands for assessment of scholastic skills through educational testing) has been the key factor in driving the company’s profitability, says its managing director Sridhar Rajagopalan.

ASSET is a diagnostic tool to determine the students’ level of comprehension and application of concepts that are covered within the school curriculum. This year, at least 250,000 students from more than 1,000 schools across the country will take a skill-based diagnostic test.

“In the schools’ efforts to shift from rote to learning by understanding, this makes a good starting point," says director Sudhir Ghodke.

The test, conducted for classes III-IX, assesses students’ comprehension in mathematics, science and English; Hindi and social science are optional tests. EI then evaluates the performance of each student, each class and the school, and provides consultancy on where the school stands on various parameters compared to other schools across the country. Based on this, EI conducts programmes for the faculty on how they can improve the learning experience in their schools.

Already, it says it is seeing results.

“We are clearly seeing an improvement in performance among schools that we have been working with for some time," says EI’s Ghodke, adding that demand for the test and services has grown. The company is expected to earn about Rs7.5 crore in revenues this year and is growing at roughly 65-70% annually.

“The company is profitable, without diluting its focus on developing innovative high-quality products," says director Venkat Krishnan.

The company also plans to launch a digital adaptive self-learning tool—a programme that teaches the child concepts and then tests understanding starting with very simple questions and leading to more difficult ones, while constantly adapting to the child’s level of comprehension—about to enter school trials shortly.

“We expect this to have a huge demand and see it driving revenues manifold in the next three years’ time. ASSET itself is showing very strong growth, nearly doubling in reach every year. We see revenues being at least 8-10 times the current levels in three-four years," says Rajagopalan.

Social enterprise

Much of the work in transforming education is also being done by NGOs or foundations of business houses. The non-profit Waterford Research Institute has started working with a few schools in India through local franchises and is expanding its services, says Shuchi Mathur, senior manager, operations.

Wipro Technologies Ltd has a fairly active programme dubbed “Wipro Applying Thought In Schools".

“We have worked with over 1,000 schools starting with teacher training and subsequently expanding to complete transformation of schools," says Vijay Gupta, vice-president of corporate communication at Wipro.

The Azim Premji Foundation has partnered with a few states and is making efforts to change the teaching in government schools. The focus on government schools is an attempt to reach 75% of students in rural India who are studying at government schools, said S. Giridhar, the head of advocacy and research at the foundation.

Like many businesses sponsoring education initiatives, Wipro’s goals are not purely altruistic. Managers across India have said the country’s education system and focus on testing and memorization has ill-prepared graduates to work in a global economy that requires innovation, creativity, even the challenging of authority.

“We want to drive reforms in assessment of learning outcomes of children, by moving from traditional rote learning tests to assessing understanding, analysis and application of knowledge," says Giridhar.