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Interview with Rohan Parikh by Sustainability Zero

And hands that know how to come together. If only we could make learning well-rounded instead of being obsessed with creating an edge that only blunts emotions, human strengths and the ability to question

Turns out that there are entrepreneurs who are flipping that ‘if only’ to ‘what if’ and changing the grass into a green forest, one bud at a time

Education, as Einstein strongly believed, is what remains when everything learnt at the school fades away.

That should bring a new level of gravity and freedom to the places where future scientists, engineers, doctors, painters, chefs, astronauts and farmers are intended to blossom first. It all happens in that one random look, that one seemingly-odd question and that really-curious face. The wheels of mind turn not inside high-ceiling corporate corridors or crammed within spotless labs but somewhere on a see-saw in a nursery playground, and way early than we dare imagine.

Isn’t this both a power and a huge responsibility? To make sure that innately-human and quintessentially-brave traits are not stifled but encouraged in the formative stages of a child? How easy is it?

For Rohan Parikh, this question must have been more than a wistful thought on a Sunday afternoon. The idea of creating well-rounded, free-thinking and capable individuals inspired him strongly and he put all his weight and creative muscle towards the Green Acres Academy that he founded in 2013. He decided to bring together the best of Indian and International education to nurture minds rooted in humanistic values of caring for their fellow man.

And hands that know how to come together. If only we could make learning well-rounded instead of being obsessed with creating an edge that only blunts emotions, human strengths and the ability to question

Turns out that there are entrepreneurs who are flipping that ‘if only’ to ‘what if’ and changing the grass into a green forest, one bud at a time.

Education, as Einstein strongly believed, is what remains when everything learnt at the school fades away.

That should bring a new level of gravity and freedom to the places where future scientists, engineers, doctors, painters, chefs, astronauts and farmers are intended to blossom first. It all happens in that one random look, that one seemingly-odd question and that really-curious face. The wheels of mind turn not inside high-ceiling corporate corridors or crammed within spotless labs but somewhere on a see-saw in a nursery playground, and way early than we dare imagine.

Isn’t this both a power and a huge responsibility? To make sure that innately-human and quintessentially-brave traits are not stifled but encouraged in the formative stages of a child? How easy is it?

For Rohan Parikh, this question must have been more than a wistful thought on a Sunday afternoon. The idea of creating well-rounded, free-thinking and capable individuals inspired him strongly and he put all his weight and creative muscle towards the Green Acres Academy that he founded in 2013. He decided to bring together the best of Indian and International education to nurture minds rooted in humanistic values of caring for their fellow man.

His plot was simple as he set forth expanding these ambitious acres. Fill the gaps in educational systems in a very pragmatic way – by keeping the parts that work, and adding a diverse range of extra-curricular slopes for holistic education, new teaching techniques like Zearn Maths and Social Contracts. The purpose was simple but not easy – to leverage proven ideas on how children learn, as well as new ideas on how to structure schools so they function like high-performing organisations.

Inspired by his Geography teacher, Parikh today finds himself looking at an expanse of grass that is not sprayed with green colour but is actually fresh, sweet-smelling and in no need of a lawn-mower. Let’s see what it is like to walk on these acres of future. Specially in a world where robots, speed-pressure and competition are only going to proliferate.

 

What spawned the idea for this venture? What has the journey been like so far -challenges, lessons and examples worth noting?

As a young entrepreneur who has worked across several industries, I always wanted my work to be something that had a significant social impact and helped the country. Education was the natural choice as it has always been the instrument for change and upward mobility in India. I wanted to create something that reflected the desire and drive that we see every day in India. The Green Acres Academy will hopefully be at the forefront of innovation in teaching and learning in India and an example to other schools out there.

Who is more difficult to persuade for something as disruptive as this – the parent, the child, the teacher, the principal, the neighbourhood uncle, the corporate boss or the regulator?

Frankly, I don’t see ourselves as the traditional disruptors. We have only awakened the passion for learning and teaching which had been sedated by a lack of attention to the sector. Yes we did need to persuade pretty much everybody but once they saw the intention and results they quickly adopt and in fact want more. The students are the easiest as our methods make learning more relevant and fun. Most of our teachers are happy to see the level of support and interest given to them though it means working extra hours to meet our professional development and training objectives.

And parents and regulators?

Parents are confused and unsure initially and that’s why we invest a lot in engaging them and making them partners in the process. The neighbourhood uncle is unfortunately only concerned about the 20 minutes of traffic schools create during dispersal which keeps our administration team busy.

We don’t have a corporate structure but a flat democratic organisation and the regulators are supportive as few schools actually attempt to meet the goals they have laid out.

Are there any existing processes or mindsets from erstwhile education system that this venture preserves? Indian or international? Which ones and why?

There is a lot in our traditional Indian education system that works, otherwise Indians would not be where they are today across the world. From Fortune 500 CEOs to stalwarts of the Silicon Valley and the Medical field worldwide, Indians have ruled the frontiers of mind. Maths and Science have always been our strengths and the rigorous and repetitive practice of the fundamentals has been the reason why. We do believe while we try to round our students out we must ensure they have the same strong fundamentals that make us high performers world-wide.

What radical techniques have you tried to usher in and how well have they worked? How pragmatic, sustainable and affordable these are?

I will expand on two of the innovations we have implemented in our schools but before I do let me explain that we work on set outcomes. Thus, before starting any of program we create measurable outcomes to work backward from. The destination is, hence, defined and this helps us design the program. The idea is to take these research based innovations and implement them in the Indian perspective. This means ensuring they work in terms of budget and are sustainable in the long term.

Can you give us a peek into the classroom?

Our homeroom class at the start and end of the day focuses on socio-emotional growth and gives children an opportunity to talk about issues they are facing be it in school, at home or within their peer group. Students make a social contract with each other to define what-behaviour expectations they have of themselves and also the consequences resulting from infractions.

A forum is held to discuss current events and topics like sex education and bullying. A recent example is – post the Balakot strike there was a lot of anxiety amongst students as they were worried we would go to war. Giving them an opportunity to talk and express their feelings means they don’t carry these anxieties into other classes. If a child’s brain is in a state of fear s/he will not be an efficient learner no matter how great the teacher is.

Any other subjects that emulate this fresh approach?

Our other innovation is our Zearn maths class where students hold maths class in the computer lab. Each student has one’s own computer and is taken through lessons and concepts followed by a problem to solve. If the student correctly solves the problem s/he moves on the next lesson and if s/he gets it wrong s/he is explained the concept again in different ways till s/he gets it right. This means that each student is learning at his or her own pace and the teacher has data to monitor which student needs attention and which student needs to be challenged with a higher level of coursework.

At the end of the week there is a class where students are broken into small groups basis their level and engaged by a teacher to help solve their problems.

What are the integration points of this idea with current education ecosystem? Is it easy to wean off young minds from the factories and assembly lines that lead to predictable, ‘safe’ and social-proof-oriented jobs?

I would say that we are trying to improve the system to reflect the challenges of tomorrow. Our students will most likely graduate into a world that we wouldn’t recognise today and everybody knows that. We have to make a strong effort to prepare them for this world or we will be left with an incredible number of unemployable youth in the future. We need to upgrade to a new version of the system which is relevant.

Schools structured as high-performing organisations – can you explain this interesting goal?

In today’s world where change is rapid and information is available at our fingertips, schools need to reflect the organisations that they are preparing students for. Traditional schools have often been the fiefdom of a single school head or a wealthy family’s passion project. This has led to inertia and a lack of innovation and risk-taking. Thus, our goal is to build schools which are driven by purpose, empowered by sharing and democratic functioning and lead by well-published knowledge and facts not opinions of a few.

Is the world ready for the kind of challenges and opportunities that the Fourth Industrial Revolution with AI, Robots etc. is about to bring? What skills, competencies, mindsets and classrooms would we need ahead?

One of the biggest skills we wish to teach our students is collaboration. Gone are the days where the workplace was driven by a superior and his drones. Today’s workplace is all about working in teams, sharing knowledge and finding innovative solutions. We also want our students to have strong fundamental skills but also a broad range of exposure so they have a basic understanding of a wide variety of subjects.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the vision of ‘Right to Education’?

The biggest challenge is to create a one size fits all rule. Each state, city and neighbourhood has one’s own unique demographic and environmental challenges to face and quite often a rule that helps one school cripples another. I strongly believe that the education rules must be left to the state to decide as they are closer to the ground.

Which is your own favourite subject or teacher?

Mrs. Dandekar – my Geography teacher – had a huge impact on my life and is testament to the fact that a good teacher can have a transformational impact on a child. Until I had her as a teacher, I was not a very interested student but she had the knack to make a subject interesting and was encouraging of all her students. I look back with great admiration and thank her for seeing my potential and encouraging me.

(This interview with Mr. Rohan Parikh, Managing Director of The Green Acres Academy first appeared in Sustainability Zero here.)

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