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EI Dialogues with Dhir Jhingran, Language and Learning Foundation (S1E7)

EI Dialogues with Dhir Jhingran, Language and Learning Foundation (S1E7)


What comes first
is a clear attitude that children’s languages should be in the classroom, and they need
to be valued. Hello my name Pranav Kothari. I work at Educational Initaitives, and I’m
always thinking about how to take assessments and personalized learning solutions in multiple
languages and to scale within the government system in different states. I’m so excited to come to Dhir’s home today. I want to ask him about what is it around
early learning that is important, that is crucial to focus on, so that a child has developed
comprehension skills in multiple languages. I’m going to ask him as to what are the elements
that I should focus on when thinking about contextualizing and translating up English
versions to multiple regional languages. Given that Dhir is an IAS officer, was a Principal
Secretary, as well as, worked in the Ministry of Education, I’m going to ask him as to what
are the critical factors that one needs to accomplish before one thinks about scaling. Dhir also started an organization, is an entrepreneur,
that now has 26 employees. I’m going to ask him how was it to start from
the ground floor after achieving almost a top floor position in the administrative services. Thank you so much Dhir, for giving your time. I’m very excited about the conversation today. Dhir, you’ve been at the highest levels of the government, as an IAS officer, a Principal Secretary, at the
MHRD. Was it difficult to start an organization
from ground zero with nobody that you can give an order to? [laughter] Yes and no. I basically left the government not because
I was frustrated with the government. I think I had a great time working with the
District Primary Education Program, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and a lot of policies in
elementary education. But, I was too attached to the education sector. In fact, quite passionate about it. So as you grow senior in the government, you’ve
got to go to different sectors like coal and mining and agriculture. So, I just said I’ve got to devote all my
time to education. I think that was the pull factor. And since that was very strong whatever was
required to be doing something outside the government, I was quite ready for it. So, initially yes, it was you starting small. We started off with just one employee in 2015. I was there without a salary, used to work
out of our home here. We now have about 26. So we’ve grown. But I think what’s very important is the culture
of the organization which we try to preserve while still trying to scale up. So we do think that a rights orientation,
a focus on equity is very important. Ensuring that whoever comes in has a learning
nature, the organization itself learns from its experiences and others. So we are growing but we we’re trying to be
very cautious and see that we preserve what we stand for and we have high quality interventions. I’ve got over the initial part of not being
with the government anymore. And I think in a way it offers a lot of opportunities
across different states. You get to meet so many people in very different
situations, and think of how the work can be contextualized in very different situations
and I think the biggest reward is when people say they really liked our courses; a nine
month intensive course. And when someone comes back and said that
I really liked it I’m gonna ask four more people to do it. That is really satisfying. A lot of our work takes us to a remote parts of Rajasthan. When I visit some of the homes I find that
the child is expected to speak in the tribal language of the home. But when a child goes out to the market, has
to transact in a Marwadi language with the shopkeepers. The same child is going to the school and
learning in a Hindi medium school. And the parents are telling me “I wish my
child could speak in English.” If you were the Principal Secretary of that
state in education, how would you think about solving this issue? I’ve looked at this
issue in depth. And I think it’s a very big challenge. At one point I estimated that about 25 to
30 percent of children in India actually face a moderate to severe disadvantage because
of their language; the home language being very different from the school language. The additional complicated factor here is
this that the home language of children usually is considered inferior or substandard and
not adequate enough to be used in a formal domain like the school. So that’s a big challenge about beliefs and
attitudes about these languages. What I think is a good starting point for
addressing this, and I think this is a mantra for me, is to include children’s languages
in the classroom in different ways. One great way is to start a lot of oral language
work in children’s languages, help them understand the equivalence between those languages and
let’s say, Hindi; that’s a medium of instruction. This is very crucial because we know very
well that a strong foundation in one language, helps a great deal in learning other additional
languages. Okay. And secondly, if we believe that in education, higher order comprehension, thinking and reasoning is very crucial, then there’s no way but to use a familiar language. Because no child can actually do all this
in a language she barely understands. So for me the starting point is a clear position
that children’s languages should find place in the classroom. And this then can translate itself into flexible
policies and strategies depending on situations. Because as you said, linguistic situations
in India are very complex. So a flexible policy that enables the use
of children’s languages and good strategies to help children then learn Hindi and English,
is something that we should definitely do very quickly. Easier said than done. In a city like Delhi, you have immigrants
coming from all over India and settling here. The children are going to the school and they’re
probably at any given point, ten different languages at play. Do you really expect the teacher to be able
to cater to this diversity, cater to each of the language, when he or she may only know
a couple of them? It is a very challenging
situation, not just in urban areas but any area where there are migrants and children
from different language backgrounds. As I said earlier, I think the most important
point is to develop what’s been called a ‘multilingual habitus’. An attitude of tolerance towards diversity
in language and culture. And especially towards non dominant languages
and cultures. So this is a big issue as far as attitudes
are concerned. Strategies about how to do it actually can
follow if we can instill this kind of understanding that children’s languages are important, they
should be valued in the classroom, children use their languages for whatever purpose they
need to, and when they have to use the school language, then obviously the teacher must
understand that if they make errors, own that’s a part of the learning process. And they would gradually pick up more of that
language. So a lot of space is given to use of their
own languages and of course many methods where can be used with a teacher or other children
translate what other children are seeing. A conversation can be held. We’ve seen in Chhattisgarh where in a classroom,
there are children who speak Sambalpuri, Chhattisgarhi, Hindi, Gondi… A teacher, a good sensitive teacher, is able
to hold a conversation with them through a lot of gestures, pictures, and supportive
actions. And children actually participate. And when the teacher actually speaks Hindi,
he actually makes it accessible for children by these scaffolds that they use and slowly
children pick up what is the equivalence in different languages, especially the target
language, which is Hindi. So I can say that it’s not easy. Definitely. But what comes first is a clear attitude that
children’s languages should be in the classroom, and they need to be valued. A good, sensitive,
dedicated, effective teacher, having that attitude is an incredibly short supply. What are you doing towards increasing the
capacity in the system? Dhir Jhingran [00:09:26] I think that’s the
impression that most of us carry. My experience in the past three and a half
years has been really a pleasant surprise. We’ve been running courses of long durations. These are blended courses which have a distance
learning component, as well as, phone calls, mentorship, etc. And we’ve had about 800 teachers sign up for
these courses. Fairly rigorous courses. And there’s been a huge demand for it. So we’ve discovered that there is a large
number of teachers who actually want to learn and want to change things. Our estimate from the five states we work
in is, could be about 25 to 30 percent. What is needed is an ecosystem that is supportive
of their desire to learn and change, and an encouragement for that kind of transformation. And I firmly believe that at some point this
number would increase. From a large number of efforts, not just ours. And be like a tipping point where the norm
then becomes where a teacher is supporting active learning in a classroom with a lot
of children’s participation. So, I’m quite optimistic. Let’s say I’m a teacher and I have faced with this class which has a multitude of languages. I have the right attitude, that I want to
engage in conversations with these children. What are some easy things I can do to quickly
embark on this journey? So I think, yes, while, I said that attitude is the most important but I think it’s important also to understand
what strategies can work in different situations and situations can be quite diverse. So with young children when they come in with
very little understanding of the school language, you’ve got to work with strategies that help
to scaffold that understanding of the school language. Because you’re not going to use many many
languages. While you encourage children to be using their
languages, the teacher probably is constrained to be using one or two or three. One strategy, for example, is called Total
Physical Response, where through a lot of gestures and rhymes, the teacher tries to
build in among children a basic vocabulary for about 200 words, quite soon, through a
lot of interesting activities: singing and action songs, which children love, and then
those 200 words which could be nouns and verbs, actually form the basis for children to then
be trying to understand if there’s a read aloud session that the teacher does, in Hindi
let’s say; the children are from a different language background, so given the support
of the picture in the book, several nouns and verbs the child has already picked up;
the teacher then supporting with very simple questions to check for understanding is a
good way to start off. Teachers can also use strategies like translating
or using children’s help to translate, especially elder children. Also, allowing what is called translanguaging,
which is allowing children to use and and themselves using a language which uses their
best linguistic resources. Whatever children know at that time which
could be a mix of different languages. So, encouraging children to express fluently,
in whatever language or mixture of languages they can, because what is most important is
children’s expression. That gives them confidence. Language learning is all about getting an
environment to listen to language, and to be able to produce language. So how do you provide the environment for
children to produce language without saying it can be only in language X; and encouraging
children who may be using a mix of language and see that this is a part of the learning
process and slowly they’ll move towards greater use of the so called target language. So strategies like this are very useful. Dhir, when I look at countries like Japan perhaps even China, the economics of being proficient in the language
Japanese and the disadvantage of not being proficient in English, the difference is very
little; because there are enough jobs out there, in Japan, where even if you knew only
Japanese and didn’t know a word of English, you’re not economically disadvantaged. But in a country like India, where if you
are not proficient in English or even Hindi, and only proficient in Vaghdi, there aren’t
enough economic opportunities available. So, from a market demand perspective, it’s
very difficult to make a case, to have more books in Vaghdi, to be able to have more material
in Vaghdi, to be able to teach that in early childhood because the economic pressure isn’t
there unlike in a country like Japan. So I never argue that children should continue to read and work only through Vaghdi. One of the ways of looking at this is that
a strong foundation in one language, helps you learn the other language much better. Again there’s so much research around it. So we’re completely clear that children have
to learn very good Hindi. In terms of oral expression, in terms of being
able to read with comprehension and even write. I think the case of English is overstated. As I go around these states, I find that the
language they need to know very well in terms of reading and writing is actually Hindi. We work in Hindi speaking states right now. Oral English, yes. But we’ve sort of gone overboard in starting
with literacy for English in grade one. So I don’t have a case to say that Vaghdi
should be the medium instruction for all of school education. To ensure that a child when she comes into
school, doesn’t face a complete incomprehension, and is able to work in a language that she
understands best and develop her comprehension skills, inferential skills; and we introduce
other languages appropriately. English for example, we should introduce from
the beginning, from grade 1. But oral English. Informal oral English. Communicative English. The problem there is that our teachers actually
don’t. Many teachers are not able to converse in
English so they resort to teaching ‘A’ for Apple. So I think languages can co-exist, and for
a child learning two or more languages at the same time is definitely possible. There’s no harm in it. We need not focus on multiple literacies from
the beginning. That’s the standard take. So we should focus a lot on developing oral
and speaking English skills, from the beginning. Dhir, we have talked about a particular geography, we talked about a narrow strand of how multilingual literacy…
what are some best practices. How do we take this to scale? Right. So let me take this question in a slightly
broader perspective of how do you take any kind of transformative change that you want
to do, to scale. I’ll draw upon my experience of working with
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and then in the Room to Read, and now in the Language and Learning
Foundation. I think the first most important ingredient
is a shared vision, that must be shared by all those in the system and not just people
at the top. It should be something which is very clearly
articulated. The understanding of that vision and what
needs to be done is the same, at let’s say, the level of secretary and the teacher. So a shared vision is very important. Ideally, the shared vision should be developed
through consultation and dialogue, rather than just someone deciding in what reaches
the teacher as a prescriptive package of how to do things. The second important ingredient of trying
to scale a good intervention, is to have champions of that transformative change. These can be people from within the system
or outside. And they should be not just convinced about
that change, but actually live that change to be able to convince others about that change. Related to this is having a number of demonstration
sites where this change can actually be implemented for people to go and see a live site where
you can see changes very convincing. Third important ingredient of taking a good
program to scale, is to have. A kind of informal agreement or compact between
all the stakeholders. I’ve seen this work where let’s say at a school
or Panchayat level, teachers, the head teacher, the Education Department, the Panchayat people,
a local religious leader, for example, all of them come together, and maybe even sign
an agreement to say that this is what we are going to do; this is our objective, and it’s
shared amongst all. So I call that like a compact between stakeholders. The fourth ingredient which is very crucial
is, to involve institutions because especially for people who are working in non-government
organizations, we go and do our thing and after that, after a few years, it’s not there. So it’s very important to be involving institutions
within the education system. Like the DIET or BRCs or CRCs. So I would place these four as the most important
ingredients to be taking anything to scale. How are you thinking about scale? What does scale mean for Language and Learning
Foundation, and when will you scale? So I believe in hastening slowly. I come from a background where scale is important. I’ve been in the government for close to 25
years. So scale is very crucial. But it has to be with quality, at least preserving
the most essential aspects of that change. So it’s very important to ensure that you
create that ecosystem where change can survive, sustain, and thrive. So what we do for example, what we do is not
still small. I mean we do about a thousand teachers who
undergo rigorous courses. It’s still some kind of scale. I mean for a state like UP with the 400 teachers,
is nothing. That’s true. So I would think that it’s important to begin
an intervention with a scale where you can preserve very high quality. Simultaneously, work through and with the
entire system. Very often what we do is that we work just
with teachers. While people in the system like block and
district education officers, and others actually have a very different understanding. So while this work at a limited scale is happening,
ensuring that there is an understanding within the system of what that transformative change
can look like, a shared vision as I said, and then the next step one could be more ambitious
in what kind of scale we achieve. And I said, in that process creating champions
who can then take it forward. For example, in Chhattisgarh, we’ve got about
80 people who did our nine-month course, a rigorous course on language education. Twenty of them are now mentors for 200 cluster
academic coordinators. So they are in a way the champion they spoke
about because they have internalized it, they’re doing things in their school, and they feel
that they have to spread this. It’s something which is very important. So now we are ready, say in Chhattisgarh for
these 20 people to go to eight hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand. That’s our plan. So it’s very important to follow these steps
and ensure that the system understands what is to be changed; there are champions; and
then you scale it in a manner where quality is monitored and controlled. What is the best insurance product one can buy, that when scaling quality doesn’t suffer? The biggest insurance for ensuring that change sustains, is that those responsible for bringing about change
have to be involved at every stage. And what they say must be heard. You must reflect and redesign and then practice
again. So a praxis model is what is most useful. And then of course a lot of monitoring and
quality control. Do you think technology can help achieve some of these goals that you have outlined? I think today all of us are talking about technology and it’s very important to see how technology and good
teaching learning processes come together. Right now in many states, technology is being
looked at as an add on, and just to a smart class where all children come in at that point. But ensuring that the principles of how children
are actively engaged, which is what happens when you have a good video for example, permeates
into regular teaching learning process and how do you integrate these to provide a good
active learning environment to children. I firmly believe that in the early years of
school, the most important interaction is between a teacher and a child. I mean, Vygotsky has said this very clearly
that it’s the interaction, the cooperative learning, whether with the teacher the child,
or the child and child, that’s the most important part of language learning. So I think it’s very important to ensure that
there is a good language learning environment in the classroom that the teacher creates
through a lot of read alouds, print rich environment, conversations, interaction etc. But I think it’s very important especially
in the situations you describe where the teacher may not know some of the languages, and there
is good content available for children to look at or listen to in some of these languages. I’m assuming the teacher actually knows the
language which is the target language. So that could be very helpful, and also for
assessments for example, to be able to provide feedback, Mindspark does; provide feedback
on where children are and what should be the course of action for either individual children
or groups. So I think in these componenets it’s important. So Dhir, are there any interesting and important problems to solve in the education sector? Several. And I think we need a lot of new people trying
to look at these problems from a fresh point of view. To give you a few examples, I would say, how
do we introduce thinking, reasoning, creativity, communication, collaboration, what we commonly
call 21st century skills; not just in the curriculum, but how does it happen in the
classrooms with the teachers that we have. Another thing that I always think about is
about 30 percent of our enrolment is affordable private schools, and these schools typically
are not in a position to invest in improving the quality of education. Their concern is really about admissions and
getting revenues. So how do we ensure that they’re able to get
more resources, and they look at quality as an important area of work. If you look at people who are interested in
a systems approach and governance, the government sector is a great place to work in and try
and look at how at different levels that people may have different objectives, different ways
of working…how does all of that come together synergistically, when a big intervention is
planned, and how do outcomes actually come together. Of course, in terms of other areas I would
say foundation learning, which is the area that I work in, a multilingual education we’ve
discussed, is a huge area where new approaches and people who can do research and actually
start programs is very important. Also in terms of how do you work with early
mathematics for example. So these are all very important areas to build
a good foundational learning. Great Dhir. Thank you so much for sharing three decades
worth of insight on how to take something to scale, when is it prime for scale, for
elucidating so much about multilingual literacy, and also sort of showcasing about how singular
focus on education can drive someone to perhaps leave out the luxuries of a senior administrative
officer to pursue a singular vision. It was really great, and thanks for being
such a great host to do this at your home. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed it. Thank you. Thank you.

Comments (4)

  1. Another wonderful interview, thanks for this series EI 🙂

  2. Great education leader and really great team leader and human being. I am very fortunate as I worked with him.

  3. Dhir interview fine and wonderful

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