rediff.com

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  

Rediff News  All News 
Rediff.com  » Business » Don't miss! The amazing story of Levelfield

Don't miss! The amazing story of Levelfield

Last updated on: September 30, 2011 18:08 IST

Don't miss! The amazing story of Levelfield

     Next

Next
Arghya Banerjee


It was almost a crazy thing to do. In 2008, I was running the Indian operations of Irevna, a large equity research outsourcing firm, part of the CRISIL/Standard & Poor's group.

I would consider myself fortunate to have got such a huge responsibility within just seven years of leaving B-school. But then I decided to leave it all to start my own venture, in the seemingly unrelated area of K12 education, and relocate to a small town.

Several people asked me why.

There were, in fact, quite a few drivers behind my decision. Irevna was a large recruiter of knowledge talent. We used to recruit around 200 CA/MBAs in a year.

With our tough client deadlines, it was important for our new recruits to hit the ground running. But many of the new recruits were not fully workplace-ready in several dimensions.

They found it difficult to apply what they had learnt at college to solve real-life problems.

Illustration: Courtesy, Smart Manager

Click NEXT to read on . . .



     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

Around the same time, my daughter was ready to start school and I started looking for a school for her. After looking at several brand-name schools, I did not feel quite encouraged.

The USP for most schools seemed to be their large, lush green campuses, air-conditioned classrooms, and audio-visual equipment.

Not many schools seemed to be thinking deeply about what to teach, and how to teach that well.

This is not surprising, because (with all due respect) K12 schools are run by people who are not really connected to the demands of the modern world.

How many principals of K12 schools have themselves come from the best educational institutes of India and have a stellar academic record? How many of them worked in places other than a school to know the demands of the real world?

So I decided to set up my own K12 school -- The Levelfield School. I set it up in a tier-III town in West Bengal, 200 km from Kolkata.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

Being from such a town myself, I always felt that students from such areas have as much potential as city kids, but they fall behind in their life and career due to lack of good quality school education.

Other than being a highest quality K-12 school, like an IIT of school education, the vision of The Levelfield School is also to address that gap.

Out of memory

When we look back at our own school days, sometimes we feel we wasted a lot of time memorising useless facts. Did we really need to memorise in which year the third battle of Panipat happened?

Did we need to memorize Charles Law, Ampere's Law and the likes? History for us was a blur of dates and names.

Chemistry and physics were a concoction of symbols. We studied without understanding why we are studying, and how it can be useful.

Rote learning is a widely condemned evil. Everybody now agrees that memorizing without understanding does not achieve much purpose.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

But rote learning goes deeper than what most people understand. Right at the kindergarten level, when you are teaching your child to spell the numbers, or copy them neatly in good handwriting -- it is rote learning.

We see a lot of children of age 4-5 can spell 'fifty nine', but they cannot tell if 71 is bigger than 59. In most schools, numbers are not taught as quantity -- but as pictures or words.

Rote learning comes in all shapes and forms. When your 5-year-old kid can spell 'alligator' because it comes in the word-list under 'A', but cannot read a simpler, but unfamiliar phonetic word like 'help' -- you know rote learning has reared its ugly head.

When your kid can read his textbook, but cannot comprehend unseen passages of similar difficulty -- you know that no real learning has taken place.

When they say 'Egypt is the gift of Nile', but cannot answer how a river is useful to people, you know that their ability to think is getting rusted by constant reliance on memory-driven learning.

Application-friendly learning

At Levelfield, we designed our teaching methodologies to ensure learning with understanding. We would not like our children to say, "This was not taught at school (or at home), so I can't do it."

Click NEXT to read on . . .


Photographs: Courtesy, Bharti Foundation
Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

We spent the last three years to create a huge library of problems that test application orientation and higher-order thinking.

Thinking orientation is a constant theme in our school. Beyond thinking-oriented problems in mathematics and science, we also get children to solve a lot of analytical puzzles like Nonogram, Shikaku, Sudoku and Tangram.

There is also an emphasis on strategy games; in addition to chess, our favorites are the Japanese strategy games Go and Gomoku.

The idea is to get children to think every day, so that exercising the mind becomes a habit for them.

In English too, our approach is similar. We do not believe that children can truly learn to read by reading a 50-page textbook many times during the year.

She will possibly memorize the textbook but will not develop the ability to read anything else. Rather, children should be exposed to a large amount of reading material so that they can read something new every day.

Click NEXT to read on . . .


Photographs: Courtesy, Bharti Foundation
Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

However, the challenge is to create so much of reading material that is appropriate for a primary level child, who has just begun reading. The vocabulary has to be simple, the sentence construction uncomplicated.

Most storybooks available in the market do not fit the bill -- they seem to think that just by employing large font and nice pictures they can make the book appealing for kids.

At Levelfield, we have created a huge amount of reading material appropriate for children. Some of the stories are conceptualised and written by us, some of them are rewritten version of folktales and fables from the world, and some others rewritten versions of out-of-copyright children's classics like The Prince and the Pauper or Gulliver's Travels.

You will not find a version of Prince and the Pauper in the market which is appropriate for an 8-year-old. Our 'independent reading' module is finely graded, starting from simple material which uses only the top-200 most frequently occurring English words, and goes on to become more difficult step by step.

The module has been so effective that children from vernacular-medium backgrounds, who just a year back could not read a sentence in English, can now read 50-100 page books independently.

In our opinion, the ability to read and the ability to think and solve problems are the two most important ingredients of learning.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

In addition, kids also need to learn about the world around them. Most schools tackle this by a subject like general knowledge, where they teach a lot of trivia, which in our belief is again a useless, rote-learning approach.

The power of moving images

To teach about the world, we need to simulate the world within the four walls of the classroom and have discussions/debates on it.

And nothing does it better than stories and cinemas. At Levelfield, storytelling and movie screenings are done not just for entertainment but to expose children to new concepts.

For example, when we show them a reputed children's movie like A Little Princess, in which the little girl's father goes away to battle, we talk about why battles happen between countries.

When we tell them the story of Around the World in Eighty Days, we expose them to the concept of the International Date Line and time differences between countries.

Stories and cinemas continue to be an important tool for teaching in higher classes as well. In 9th standard history, a key topic is World War II and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

Why not show them Roman Polanski's The Pianist to get them interested in that period? While teaching different systems of governance (which is part of the secondary syllabus), how about using George Orwell's Animal Farm to illustrate communism?

Winning trust

For small-town parents, our methods mark a radical departure from what they are used to seeing in schools.

We expected some initial skepticism in the initial few months. Some parents asked why we do not have many books like other schools have -- textbooks on general knowledge, moral science, history, geography, etc.

Some others were concerned about how their children will learn without any private tuition. Several others did not understand our continuous evaluation system and were concerned about our lack of exam and marks system.

We had to hold numerous meetings with the parents to address these. We needed to explain our methodology to them in detail. We showed them video recordings of our classes and allowed some of them to sit during classes as observers.

But in the end, the transformation of the students spoke for itself. Now, when they come to the school to pick up their kids, they see them speaking in English fluently with their friends.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

They see their kids pick up new English storybooks and independently read them at home. In rare occasions, when we give homework, the parents see their children solving problems which sometimes they have difficulty grasping themselves!

The visible improvement in their children has converted the initial skeptics into strong proponents of the school.

Creating new benchmarks and a new approach to competition

At Levelfield, we challenged the established mindset. Not just in the way we teach, but also in the overall way we operate. While hiring teachers, we do not look for experience but for ability.

We look at intrinsic capabilities like intelligence, creativity and application-orientation. After hiring, they undergo a rigorous training into our methodology.

We use a case-study method of interview to select our teachers which tests their ability to explain the world around. They could be asked to explain anything that we see around us.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

A typical question could be -- let's say we buy a car and a house [at the same time], why do we see the car price moving down the following year and the house price going up?

For students, the assessment system we employ is quite different as well. With our small classes, the teachers know the capabilities of each child very well.

In our assessment reports, we do not give marks or grades, rather judge them on whether they have reached the desired milestones for the class.

We do not encourage competition within the class, though from grade III onwards, we get our students to sit for national-level diagnostic tests like the ASSET or the Macmillan IAIS so that we can benchmark them with students across India.

We believe that till a certain point, students should learn at their own pace. But after the foundations are covered, 'learning to compete' is also a useful skill in the real world.

Such competitions must be in a bigger arena, not within the small confines of the school. That explains our reasons for not giving ranks or marks in our internal evaluation, but encourage the students to sit for a national-level benchmarking test.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     Next
Prev

Next

We also firmly believe that the learning experience in the classroom is what matters, so our infrastructure is quite spartan. We chose not to have swimming pools, air-conditioned classrooms and a large office for the principal.

This keeps our cost structure reasonable. Affordability is also enhanced by comprehensive education at school and lack of need for any private tuition.

After just a year of running the school, the results have been astounding. At a recent nationwide ASSET test (conducted by the reputed assessment agency Educational Initiatives), Levelfield came among the top 10 schools in India in several subject-class combinations.

More than half of our students were in the top 15 per cent, with one being a top-ten ranker among students from all over India. This speaks of a magical transformation, given that just a year back most of these students could not speak or read English and were steeped into rote learning.

More importantly, through this transformation of students, Levelfield has given hope to the local community that their children can transcend the limitations of the small town, and dream of making a place for themselves in the outside world.

Sustaining through iconic quality

When one talks about 'affordable schools' focused on tier-III towns, most players talk about a bare-bones, moderate-quality setup.

Click NEXT to read on . . .



Prev     Next

The amazing story of Levelfield

Prev     More
Prev

More

I don't believe such a model would succeed. Small-town children have a lot of initial disadvantages. To make a real impact, the school has to be better than the best metro-city schools -- a school of 'iconic' quality.

And unless the school can show real improvement in students, it will not succeed. Which is why we believe that the correct operating model is one that pursues high quality.

A high-quality model is more financially sustainable too, as such a proposition opens up many more avenues to monetize.

For a high-quality school like Levelfield, it is possible to add on a residential infrastructure which can charge much higher fees from outstation students, enhancing affordability further for local students. It can monetize its huge intellectual property base through publishing books or magazines.

It can run specialised modules on reading skills or mental arithmetic, further leveraging its intellectual property.

It can move into a much more capital-light school management business model -- where other entities (real-estate developers, corporate houses) build the infrastructure, and Levelfield runs the schools for them. We can partner with government and build model schools for them.

All these and more are part of the future vision of Levelfield.


The author is the founder of The Levelfield School, an organisation that aims to democratise high-quality, English-medium school education. The Levelfield school won the 2011 Sankalp Award in the education segment. The Sankalp Awards are given to innovative social enterprises with business excellence and strong social impact.



Prev     More