Storytelling – An underappreciated art

If someone asks me whether I am a storyteller, I’d say no.

Truth is, stories pervade the cracks of all our everyday lives. We narrate incidents, needs, and hopes, amusing and informing anyone who would listen. Almost unconsciously, our brains stitch together disconnected events, transforming them into personalised tales of interest. Aren’t we all, then, storytellers?

For NGOs like ours, stories are the translators we rely upon to communicate to you the inspiration and impact that drive our work. Every poster, every proposal, and every conversation, needs to perform this storytelling function for us to be able to expand our reach and build support for our vision. This of course means that storytelling is an essential skill to hone, especially for those of us working with communications, fundraising, and partnerships.

Here are some storytelling challenges and opportunities I’ve encountered through my experimentation with writing and design.

Having a clear intent
Every day, through each poster and document, I am aware of our vision and conscious of aligning every collateral to it. In fact, rarely do we encounter doubts in our minds of the vision behind our content, having passionately committed to work towards the purpose of our organisations. A broad rationale alone, however, is insufficient to successfully tell stories.

It is perhaps useful for us to approach storytelling as a tactic and be purposeful in incorporating its elements into the different strands of our work. This clear intent can lift our communications strategy from its shadows and accord it the attention it deserves.

Making connections
Bring in the human element. Evoke emotions. Build empathy.

Oft heard suggestions as these are, I have always struggled to imagine them beyond the inclusion of emotive photographs while creating communications collateral. I suspect though, that in attempting to communicate the problem, the solution and the impact of our work in disjointed parts, we tend to miss out on an opportunity to elevate the interest of our audience. Instead, building an impactful story arc, and using a central character, emotive language and sensory details, are some tricks that could transform mere words into the beginning of a relationship.

Having just completed my nth reading of the Harry Potter series, I am inclined to take inspiration from JK Rowling, and explore how these gripping elements that built personal connections between millions of readers could be brought into the relatively drab world of PPTs and funding proposals.

Choosing characters
Of course, perhaps the most successful elements of Rowling’s magical masterpiece are the characters. The readers empathise with and root for them, willing the story to an ending we all anticipated, and yet waited for with bated breath.

Could storytelling for nonprofits be that much different? Can we not also be more purposeful in building the characters that carry the story forward, and uncover the layers of emotions they may convey to different demographics of audiences? What a name, a context or an identity can do for a data point is, to stick to the theme, almost magical. The Girl Effect video, is a lauded example of this use of a single character to tell the story of millions.

Marking trends
A lot of the work within the development sector is highly nuanced, and spread across months and years of experimentation. Condensing all that we want to communicate into single posters or paragraphs is not just difficult, but also impossible to do as we touch base with our audience mid-way through a project. How then can we persuade the audience to remember the bits of information they received across a span of months, and understand the trends of growth or improvement conveyed through them?

Carrying forward the tone and characters of a story across multiple collateral could aid in this, even through the subtler aspects of storytelling like the use of brand colours, consistent tone of design and recurring themes. Charity Water, through their social media accounts, does this extremely well through simple yet memorable visuals, and impactful captions.

Every blank page is overflowing with the expectation to be memorable. We want our audience to remember what we said, understand it and be personally impacted by it. In writing and reading for this blog post, I have been re-energised to pinpoint my attention towards telling stories through my work in the development sector. Through the humdrum of a busy work week, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae and spend hours analysing the exact positioning of a line or a dot on a Google Slide deck. Perhaps you can join me in taking a step back every once in a while, reading the stories we tell, and wondering if it is indeed a page turner.

Posted by Urmila Reghunath

Surviving the Pandemic: On Leading, Planning, and Communicating

When murmurs around lockdowns and slowdowns started doing the rounds in India around early March, I must admit I was in denial. Or perhaps it was the eternal optimist in me that believed that it could not get as bad as was being predicted. I still believed a complete lockdown was untenable for a country like India, and the COVID-19 pandemic was going to gradually disappear sooner rather than later. And yet, we had to be prepared.

It helped that the nonprofit community sprang into action and started nudging organisations and teams to start ‘scenario planning’, something we’ve all done in some measure in the past but not with so many unknowns and with absolutely no historical reference to go by. But ‘scenario plan’ we did. We had no choice but to rely on the many theories and predictions flying around on how bad it was going to get or how long this was going to last. But we knew we were bracing ourselves for a long winter.

Slowly, panic gave way to a sense of purpose and the team got down to pulling itself together and embracing the challenge and the reality that lay in front of us. Expectedly, as the CEO, the team looked to me – some for direction and others for messages of optimism. At no point during this testing phase did I ever feel that I was fighting for survival alone, and for this and more, I would always be grateful to this team. I have laid down here some actions and thought processes that helped us survive and thrive as a team, and hope that it helps others tide over this crisis.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

“When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”. You may have to work with several unknown variables and anticipate many different likely and unlikely scenarios. But being prepared for the worst even when it sounds apocalyptic allows you and the team to brace for impact and prepare a contingency plan in the interim. Don’t be in denial about how bad it could potentially get even while you hang on to all the optimism you can muster. Balancing communication with the team around the worst and best-case scenario may be a hard task, but one that must be done. It helps to draw inspiration from other leaders in your industry on effectively displaying to the team your resolve, and on letting them know that as the leader, you have a plan.

Be unabashedly honest

The only thing worse than being in an anxious situation is being lied to by the leadership. Even while you want to put up a show of strength and confidence, strive to remain honest and transparent throughout. A team that appreciates this honestly and sticks it out, is the team you want on your side when the going gets tough. Whether it be a messy funding situation or the fact that you may not have all the answers just yet, lay out as much information as you think is healthy for your team to consume. Being conscious about not giving false hopes, even when you’re absolutely certain of things turning out a certain way, is a critical aspect of this transparent approach to scenario planning. Provide your team the entire spectrum of information on what might go well and how bad it can potentially get. The team has to see you upholding the organisation’s values even at a difficult time and the leadership’s approach has the potential to transform and model organisational culture around planning and communication.

Team before self

Remind yourself every so often that a time like this is not just about survival of the organisation but also of its core team. When all this is over, you will get a chance to start afresh and you will need your team to roll up their sleeves and stand with you as you fight back. As a leader, you must spend as much energy and emotion as is required to build an empathetic approach to sustainability and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the team.

Mental health and personal challenges can overwhelm us at some point, and it’s best to anticipate them and formulate organisational policies that balance accountability with empathy. We at Madhi thought about the team’s well being even before we started looking at programme pivots. From being one of the earliest organisations to mandate work from home in the early COVID days to allowing people to take time off during working days to run errands or attend to personal responsibilities at home, there was a paradigm shift in what we considered ‘professional’ and it yielded tremendous results. We were more productive than we had ever been and we scored a 90% satisfaction rate on an employee survey that asked the team if they were happy with the COVID response measures the organisation had taken.

Don’t fight it alone

It is perfectly all right for you not to have all the answers as long as you are willing to make an effort to learn from others, including your peers, mentors, advisors, and team. After all, this is the first time any of us is handling a pandemic! Don’t feel compelled to fight it alone and to put up a steely resolve to a point where a personal breakdown is imminent. Consult with your team often, quickly put together a core team that will act as your sounding board, and thought partner as you navigate something as chaotic as this year has been. Delegation is a valuable leadership skill, and you must use it to leverage the experience and capabilities of your core team. Take the time for an occasional mental health day off or plan to be unavailable after a certain time of the day to attend to personal chores. Just as you need to be empathetic to your team’s emotional well being needs, be gentle on yourself, surround yourself with people you trust and conserve as much mental energy as you can for the long haul.

Communicate often

There is nothing more unnerving than radio silence from the organisation’s leadership during times of uncertainty and stress. So even while you decide how much information is too much information, make sure the team hears from you often and feels cared for. It could be in the form of cheery emails or team calls where you do nothing but a round of virtual pictionary with some casual updates thrown in about when things may be getting back to normal. Make those interactions happen and provide a safe space for the team to share their anxieties and questions around what is next. The greater the touch points with your team the less you are going to be bombarded with anxious questions, which in turn can overwhelm you and your capacity to plan effectively.


Uncertainties can unravel the best of us. But with a little bit of bravado and lots of planning, even the worst can be overcome!

Posted by Merlia Shaukath

Public Education: Using the Eisenhower Matrix to Examine the Who, What and Why (Part 1/3)

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has catapulted our understanding of welfare economics through his seminal work on capabilities. He argues, first, that poverty is multidimensional and second, that freedom from poverty can be obtained only when people’s capabilities are enhanced; thereby increasing one’s freedom of choice. If one were to make the primary argument that education is a basic means of augmenting long term human capability, it would stand to reason that resource allocation within the public education system is a key lever towards poverty alleviation within a country or state. This series of thought pieces will use the Eisenhower Matrix to suggest how resources could be allocated from the perspective of state provision of education.

This first piece will serve as an introduction to the concept. Part 2 will delve into the nuances of the lifetime human need for education, from the perspectives of equitable delivery and uniformity. The final part will conclude by proposing a rationale for the strategic stance discussed through the series.

Let us make the following broad assumptions:

First, that the state wants to do everything it can for its citizens, so that they grow economically and become poverty free as quickly as possible.
Second, that education is a key lever by which a nation can grow and become poverty free.
Third, that resources are constrained and there is a significant opportunity cost to all allocation decisions. It therefore becomes necessary to have a system by which one prioritises and allocates resources (eg- the Eisenhower Matrix).

We could further take the stance that the objective of state-provided education should be to ensure that citizens are provided with an intellectual base through which they can gain lifelong agency of choices. It then becomes the education departments’ primary responsibility to ensure (by means of policy and provision) that citizens are able to build and maintain an adequate livelihood, which provides for their basic necessities (or today’s version of roti, kapda, makan) through the education they have obtained. Practically, this means that the 15 odd years of education which a child obtains today should meaningfully support the subsequent 45 years of their working life.

Additionally, assuming we seek to fabricate an equitable society, the opportunity to build such a livelihood should be equally provided and equally accessible to all citizens. It should be noted that while equity is not essential to the conceptualisation of resource allocation, it becomes essential in deciding the executional strategy for the education provision within a society.

Therefore, keeping the aforementioned goal of a poverty free, equitable society in mind, we can agree that state resources should be allocated towards provision of public education within a given society. Then, the questions before us are:

How does one decide to what end funds should primarily be allocated?
How does one decide what needs to be done first versus what can wait?

The Eisenhower Matrix aka the urgent/important matrix can be used as a prioritisation tool for potential policy items that will determine the trajectory of public resource allocation, a blank matrix may look something like this.

In our context, deciding where funds should be allocated to is the importance component; prioritising the chronology of expenditure is the urgency component. Thinking through each potential policy decision/ resource allocation, as per the guiding notes given in the image above can allow us to place it along the matrix and aim to minimise the opportunity cost of resource allocation.

Before we move onto the next part of this thought piece, consider the aforementioned questions yourself. What do you think? How would you allocate resources? Where do you think the different components of the public education delivery should sit on this matrix?

Posted by Aparna Shankar

Multigrade Classrooms: A Forbidden Reality

Multigrade classrooms, for many of us, is like an exception to the standard monograde classes. My belief in this, however, was challenged when I started observing classrooms as a part of my work and realised that 8 out of 10 schools visited were all multigrade. This observation made me question the constructed reality in my head and challenge the kind of training given in all teacher training courses where multigrade isn’t given due importance.

It is crucial to understand the multigrade classroom setup in great depth because most of the classrooms in the country are multigrade. Unified District Information System for School Education (U-DISE) data from the year 2016-2017 shows that around 10.2% of primary schools in India are single teacher schools. Madhi Foundation’s extensive engagement with Chennai and Thiruvannamalai government schools indicates 80% of schools are multigrade. A mismanaged multigrade classroom could be one of the significant reasons behind reports suggesting that every year 40% of the children drop out of school (GOI, 2012). Around 70% of students of 8th Grade can only read a Standard 2 level book (ASER, 2018). It could also be one of the unaddressed reasons that prevents India from providing good quality education to all even ten years after the implementation of the Right to free and compulsory education, and from not being able to achieve the millennium development goals of universal primary education.

Multigrade teaching refers to a situation where typically a school has one or two teachers with classes that are heterogeneous in both age and ability. In multigrade education, teachers within a timetabled period are responsible for instruction across two or more curriculum grades, often seated in the same classroom. Multigrade teaching can operate in several conditions such as in schools serving in areas of low population density and are inaccessible (Benveniste & McEwan, 2000), when school enrollment percentage is very low, in schools where minimal number of teachers are employed, in schools where teacher absenteeism is prevalent and concept of supplementary teacher deployment is non-existent, or when many teachers go on leaves of different kinds and there is no mechanism to bridge the void (Little, 2001).

Multigrade classrooms play a vital role in helping developing nations achieve internationally mandated education for all and the Millennium Development Goals. Multigrade settings are the most cost-effective way of delivering educational access to children as resources are shared among more individuals and in areas that are geographically isolated. This model allows for a rational allocation of teachers per class when the schools do not have sufficient numbers of teachers.

The multigrade model encourages children to learn from their peers and breaks barriers of differences in the classroom. This kind of education promotes collaboration and a cooperative attitude among students, and develops healthy interpersonal behaviour. It also helps the teacher to plan their work with more efficiency and cater to children who need more time to grasp some concepts that are dealt with in lower classes (UNESCO, 2013). All these reasons make many countries like Europe, North America, and Australia consciously prefer to have multigrade classrooms as their first choice. Ireland and Peru have around 40% and 78% multigrade primary schools respectively, making it a successful reality for them. Multigrade classrooms help sustain a fluid environment, which aids in engaging the child as per their level. It gives immense scope to the child to learn at their own pace and rigour. The learning space becomes grade agnostic but learning level specific.

However, a program that caters to so many advantages and even economic benefits to the system can fail if the basic underlying needs are not catered to. Our ignorance of the majority of classrooms in India being multigrade and the systemic negligence of their specific needs are the core of the problems. No teacher education curriculum in our country focuses on multigrade teaching, and the in-service training hardly trains them to work well in this system.

Multigrade classroom needs strong administrative support to make planning and execution feasible for the teacher. A revised set of curricular expectations is necessary to lay a strong foundation for a multigrade system. Teacher handbooks to help teachers structure their teachings, workbooks to engage students in peer and individual activity, proper time management strategy to have equal engagement with all classes are all crucial aspects of the multigrade system. Moreover, acknowledging that multigrade classrooms are a reality is the need of the hour.



ASER (2018). ‘Enrollment and Learning Report Card’. Retrieved from h.pdf
Benveniste, L., & McEwan, P. (2000). Constraints to Implementing Educational Innovations: The Case of Multigrade Schools. International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift Für Erziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale De L’Education, 46(1/2), 31-48. Retrieved from
Government of India (2012). ‘Class-wise dropout rates from 2011-2012’. Retrieved from offset=0&limit=6&sort%5Bcreated%5D=desc
Little, A. W. (2001). ‘Multigrade teaching: towards an international research and policy agenda’. International Journal of Educational Development, 21(6), 481–497.doi:10.1016/s0738- 0593(01)00011-6
National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration. (2018). U-DISE flash statistics 2016-17,
UNESCO (2013). ‘Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for education in Asia and the Pacific’. Retrieved from

Posted by Jiss Mary Thomas

How Children Learn: Some Common Myths

There is no lack of opinions on what children should learn. This topic has been the center of discussions among policy makers, educators, administrators, students and the general public alike, with each section of society bringing in fresh perspectives. While the ‘what’ has received considerable interest, the how of children’s learning processes has stayed in the shadows, often taking shape as misconceptions and myths. Today, we’ll bust some of the most common ones. 

Myth #1: Children know how to learn 

In conversation with parents and teachers, it is often heard that ‘the child refuses to learn’. In truth, there is no such thing. A more plausible reason is that the child doesn’t know how. Imagine having to drive a car with the knowledge of what a steering wheel is. For example, on any given school day, it is highly likely that we hear something like this in classrooms:

‘Today we’ll be organising our thoughts in the form of mind maps. This is the structure for it. Let’s see you give it a try’. 

While this is a great instruction for what is to be done, it doesn’t necessarily explain how. 

Let us look at another instruction for the same purpose.

‘Today, we’ll be organising our thoughts in the form of a mind map. First, write the central theme in the center of a page of paper. Then, think of what the different categories are under this topic. For instance, if my theme is transport, then my categories would be roadways, railways, waterways and airways. I will draw them in my mind map as branches from the central theme. I will repeat this if each category has more sub-categories’.

If you, as a learner were trying to draw a mind map, which one would suit your need? 

Myth #2: Children learn best in their mother tongue 

The role of a child’s mother tongue in their learning has been much debated, with educators and education theorists wholeheartedly endorsing its benefits. While this is not completely untrue, this statement does not present the complete picture. A child learns best in the language to which they are most exposed through interactions with adults and peers. Children whose families have relocated to areas where the local language is not their mother tongue become more fluent in the local language than their mother tongue within a year or two, to a point that parents have to be especially conscious of speaking only in the mother tongue at home with the child so the child does not lose her connection with her roots. Ask any NRI parent.

Myth #3: Memorisation and rote learning are always ineffective 

First, we must make a distinction between memorisation and rote learning. Memorisation is being able to recall 2 by 2 equals 4 without the need to calculate it each time, but knowing how one gets 4 when 2 is multiplied by 2. Rote learning is being able to recall the product as 4 but not being able to explain the process by which the product was arrived at. Much attention has been paid to the use of rote learning in schools and its inefficiency in cultivating a wholesome learning atmosphere. Many of us may even consider memorisation as an ineffective way of learning. While it is true that meaningful and logical learning is deeper, these higher levels of cognition require a learner to have some foundational knowledge, which is developed effectively through retaining some facts in memory and using them appropriately. 

Myth #4: Writing equals language acquisition 

In the Indian context, a disproportionate amount of time and effort has been devoted to developing the mechanics of writing in young learners. If you were to recall the type of homework you were given in a language class or the nature of the practice that was associated with it, more often than not, you would recall putting pen to paper. The assumption behind these tasks is that, if a learner can produce a written piece in a language, they have acquired the language in its entirety. Educators’ decisions and actions stemming from this assumption have resulted in a large section of the student population being proficient in the mechanism of writing without understanding the fundamentals of the language. In order for learners to be able to generate ideas and original thought in a given language, they should be able to speak it well, which means they must possess a rich vocabulary in that language first. However, unless learners are provided an immersive environment where they listen to the language frequently, their listening skills, and in turn their speaking skills will remain stunted, leading an extremely poor level of language acquisition

The ‘what’ of a child’s learning process is contextual and subjective. As parents, teachers and policymakers it is necessary to further discussions and equip ourselves with knowledge on how a child is learning. Although this may require some unlearning on our part, understanding this paradigm of education is fundamental to improving the quality and standards of primary grade instruction. 

Posted by Mathangi PN

Media for Development: Some knots to disentangle

From the videos we create to attract potential donors, to the posters we design for awareness raising campaigns, and the words we choose to fill our impact reports, we are constantly in the business of media creation as workers in not for profit organisations. Media, in its myriad forms, is our tool to communicate to the rest of the world why our field of work is important and how we are contributing to social change. But an oft ignored story that our collaterals tell, is that of who we are as an organisation within the complex weave of the development sector. 

The evolutionary cycle of media for development work has seen the use of ‘shock effect’, of positive imagery, of decontextualised stories and of innovative campaigns that attempt to bring the reality of distant suffering uncomfortably close. As producers of this content, we must be aware of our responsibilities to the stakeholders we work with and the consequences of the way we choose to represent them and our work. Through this short post, I hope to explore a few of these messy knots and share some questions I find useful to consider while creating media content.

 Am I relying on a ‘shock effect’ to draw in my audience?

We have all seen, and been shocked, by the heartbreaking and now infamous photograph of a vulture eyeing a starving child in famine stricken Sudan, taken by Kevin Carter. The photograph and the photographer have both been the centre of much attention and criticism, and offer a classic example of the use of shock effect in humanitarian campaigns. In ridding the people in the photograph of their individualising features, their dignity, and their consent to being represented that way, ‘shock effect’ campaigns that use photographs such as Kevin Carter’s not only violate ethical codes, but also present the subjects of the campaign as the disenfranchised ‘other’. 

While working in a sector that is so deeply ingrained in attempting to alleviate suffering and injustice, it is not rare for us to encounter shocking visuals that bring to the fore the horrors of hunger, or war, or violence. We must, however, be careful to evaluate the nature of such imagery (both visual and written) that we use in our communications and to ensure that we respect the dignity and privacy of those in the stories that we share.

 Am I contributing to the narrative of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’?

Stakeholders, beneficiaries or partners? Donation, charity or contribution? The power structures veiled behind the meanings of these words reflect a post-colonial world order, patriarchal mindsets, the hierarchies of class and caste systems, and other such hegemonic structures. Using images of young black or brown children smiling at the receipt of international aid, is a typical instance where the rhetoric of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’ is repeated. Contributing to this narrative can undermine ongoing efforts to break free from the very same repressive structures and can be disrespectful of the complex socio-cultural history of a given community.

It is ours to shoulder, as members of social justice movements and as individuals enjoying certain privileges, the weight of understanding and evaluating the nuanced meanings of our communication and delivery.

 Am I stripping a story of its contextual complexity?

In an effort to evade the aforementioned pitfalls, the development industry has embraced its creative side and in the recent years we have seen very many impactful billboard campaigns, animated short films and humanitarian artwork. Catered to fit a minimalist aesthetic sense and the extremely scarce text-space available on social media, these campaigns are often designed to cut right to the crux of the message. While this is an extremely effective strategy in many respects, it is useful for us to introspect whether the story does justice to the complex contexts that it takes place in, and to ask ourselves who benefits from the blurred complexities. As in the example explored earlier, the use of the smiling faces of black and brown children to homogeneously represent the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ world, does not speak of the local contexts of the children or of the many identities they occupy, and conveniently brushes under the carpet colonial and racist histories.

Similar criticism could hold true for the stick figure cartoons we draw, or the 280-character stories that populate our social media handles. Instead of refraining from the use of such creative storytelling methods, we could add to them some flourishes that hint at the many untold stories that we have chosen to not elaborate upon.

 Am I violating any ethical codes of consent, privacy or security?

The importance of respecting the rights of consent, privacy and security of personal information needs no introduction. We each closely guard everything from online banking passwords to Facebook profile pictures and biometric data. In creating our media libraries too, we must carry forward this diligence and verify that no media or personal information is published without consent, or in a way that endangers the privacy or security of those represented. While this last question might be a staple and obvious one to consider, it is often tricky to adhere to these standards within the complex dynamics that are at play in our field work. Developing comprehensive guidelines and policies that dictate the creation and storage of such content can, however, help us navigate these ethical and legal considerations with relative ease.

It is the ethos of an organisation that is distilled into the way we tell every story or communicate every milestone. In the tone of our communication lies secrets of our place within the complex development sector riddled with competing power structures, of our political leanings, and of our commitment to each of our partners and stakeholders. Closely paying attention to this tone, and being aware of its implications, is therefore a critical step while creating media for development work.

Posted by Urmila Reghunath

Dealing with the juggernaut – 5 attitudes that will help you build a great relationship with the government system

“I do not think very highly of NGOs and am always suspicious of their intentions. They all come with their own agenda – to show the government in poor light and to tell us they know better” something an official told us in our first meeting with them way back in early 2017, when Madhi was taking baby steps in engaging with the government. “We trust that you will recommend only the most relevant approach” – this was the same official talking to us about the way forward, just a few weeks ago.
So what changed from 2017 to 2020?
A key ingredient in all successful partnerships – both in the personal and professional realm – is trust. The relationship between an NGO and its government partner is no different. In fact, it may take many years and relentless efforts towards establishing transparency, accountability and empathy, to build professional trust.
Over the past few years of deep engagement with multiple stakeholders, our team has identified 5 critical attitudes that contributed to building a truly synergistic partnership with the government. The learning curve has been steep and the journey rather daunting, but we are truly grateful for all the lessons learnt along the way.
1. Be relentlessly optimistic
We have an inside joke – we joke about the fact that we will not wonder if the glass is half full or half empty but celebrate the fact that ‘we at least have a glass’!
It is extremely challenging to sustain a long-term engagement with the government without firmly believing that change is possible. Will is a necessary catalyst for completing any marathon, and allowing cynicism to get the better of us undermines our motivation and upsets the balance of the partnership. Being hopelessly optimistic even in the most testing times, and spreading that infectious enthusiasm within your team is your best bet to surviving the ebbs and flows of working with the government machinery.
2. Be patient but persistent
There have been multiple instances where we have had to wait for hours together for a brief 15-minute discussion with a government representative. And even as we found creative ways to make the waiting time purposeful, we were conscious to constantly recall that each meeting, despite the frustrating delays, was an important and vital step towards achieving the goal we were all working towards. In fact, your tenacity and commitment may be secretly scrutinised and there is no better way to demonstrate your zeal than by being painfully patient and tactfully persistent.
3. Be empathetic but get heard
Despite all the clichés around government offices and officers, you may be surprised to notice your perceptions changing once you start working with your government partners closely. Many of the government officials work extremely hard, often in a politically charged, socially volatile, and grossly understaffed environment. You may not hear this very often, but government officers deserve our empathy too. However, be careful not to drop the ball. While being empathetic is acknowledging the constraints faced by the other party, your empathy must not distract your focus away from the outcomes from the partnership. It is all too common to be thrown some curveballs by the government officials – some genuine, and some just to get rid of the pesky NGO that you are. Being unable to issue permissions, sign an MoU on time, or release funds as planned, are some of the many roadblocks you are likely to encounter along the way. In such cases, we have always strived to let empathy and not frustration guide our responses. Working together to resolve the situation, to offer multiple solutions, and being open to tweaking your programme as long as it does not adversely affect the outcomes, can allow you to offer an empathetic yet purposeful response when an officer is unable to honour their original commitment.
4. Detach
‘Thiruvinai venRu vAzh’ translated to ‘do not expect (favourable) results for your actions’ is a profound quote by the Tamil poet Bharati. While dealing with the government, uncertainty is the only constant. You want to survive the long haul? Detach. Detachment is two-fold in our case. Firstly, there is a need to detach oneself from ‘your’ hold over ‘your’ idea. The ‘mine’ or ‘me’ in your proposition needs to disappear. Let the focus be on the outcome and not so much on where the idea came from or whose it was to begin with. Secondly, understand that many variables and interdependencies affect the outcome and in the end, the fruits of your labour may fall short of your hopes. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that despite our best plans, things can go awfully wrong. Working with the government has shown us not only how to pour our heart and soul into crafting a perfect programme, but also to cultivate an almost zen like detachment from the consequences of the chaos outside our control. It has helped us to grow immensely, both professionally and for many of us, personally.
5. Be humble and let the learning never stop
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ concept is a magnificent illustration of our next point. The government is a gargantuan machinery. A juggernaut that continues to function despite the myriad constraints and limitations. As if on some kind of ‘auto-pilot’, come rain or shine, the show goes on. Nobody and nothing is indispensable to it and this humbling realisation reflects in our every single interaction with the government. Know that you know little. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be collectively generated through meaningful collaborations with the government and that begins with our acknowledging that we are but a dot in an expansive sky. Be open to treating every interaction with an official as a learning opportunity. No public policy course from any Ivy League institution may teach you what a 15 minute middle-of-the-corridor conversation with a mid-level officer might. You can only understand the nuances of the government’s working ‘style’ by listening intently even during the most mundane interactions.
All said and done, we do not claim to know all the answers. There still are many days when we secretly wish we had a perfectly functioning system or a slightly less difficult officer to deal with. But we quickly realise that without these challenges we may not have evolved into the kind of resilient, optimistic and determined team that we are today. If you truly believe that the problem you have resolved to tackle is worth solving, let that guide you and let your will to see it through permeate every conversation – so much, that it is difficult for government officers to ignore your energy or wish you away!

Posted by Vijayalakshmi Mohan

Foundational learning crisis in India: Evaluating a way forward

Reading, a basic skill, is aptly called the gateway skill to lifelong learning. Research indicates that if a child is unable to reach a certain degree of grade-level competency in literacy and numeracy by the end of class 3, the learning gap will only further deepen, perpetuating inequity and economic loss (Muralidharan and Zieleniak, 2013).

Children in India can expect to complete 10.2 years of pre-primary, primary and secondary school by age 18. However, when years of schooling are adjusted for quality of learning, this is only equivalent to 5.8 years: a learning gap of 4.4 years. This means that a student in class 8 has an average learning level of a class 4 student (World Bank, 2018).

“The rest of the Policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of our students if this most basic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is not first achieved. Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children must become an immediate national mission and an indispensable, non-negotiable part of the curriculum.” (Draft National Education Policy, 2019)

Renowned researcher Karthik Muralidharan succinctly talks about the criticality of foundational learning. A key challenge for the skilling sector in India today is that the students who enter skilling or job-training programs have very poor literacy and numeracy — and are thus often not equipped even to handle the curriculum of the skilling programs. This is because, by the time students are earmarked for vocational tracks in school and directed to such programs, they have already fallen far behind the curriculum and have weak foundational skills (Muralidharan, 2019).

Factors responsible for the foundational learning crisis and the way forward:

1. Adoption of non-contextual curriculum and pedagogic strategies across states.
Most states in the country are tasked with myriad problems ranging from teacher absenteeism to teacher surplus, but do not make concerted efforts towards making context-specific policy solutions. The need of each state is varied, its problems are localised and complex to solve. It is essential to identify these problems and tailor-make solutions that would apply to every state’s context.

2. Lack of accurate standardised skill-based assessment at primary level
The purpose of assessments is to send signals to parents, teachers, and policymakers. These are signals to secondary teachers, employers, and even parents, that children are equipped with certain skills. In recent times, much noise has been generated over the quality of learning in schools through large scale assessments like ASER and NAS. It is important to improve awareness around these assessments at the parental level in order to focus the needle on the demand-side of education.

3. Non-targeted training programmes for teachers (especially in-service) offering minimum scope for adoption into practical classroom strategies
Currently, training programmes offer very little scope for practicum-based learning for teachers. While pre-service teacher training in itself needs to be overhauled, much needs to be done in revamping in-service teacher-training. The training needs to become targeted for teachers, with a clear targeted learning pathway established for every teacher in each state across the country.

4. Absence of monitoring mechanisms to promote transparency in data-based governance
Currently, there is no nation-wide system that promotes transparency through data-backed governance. However, if every official who visits the classroom captures data and makes it available to make decisions, policies can be based on sound evidence. Clear-cut, goal-driven foundational learning mission will certainly yield desirable results. If this activity is coupled with incentives to promote accurate data collection, the system is bound to become a fool-proof means of capturing real-time classroom data.

5. Excessive focus on input-oriented parameters
Most states in the country have spent huge sums of money on publishing like new textbooks, new supplementary reading materials, new digital learning aids, etc., with little or no focus on aligning the focus of provisioning the same towards improving quality of foundational learning. It is important to attune every agency within the education department in each state to work towards aligning all their efforts to strengthening attainment of foundational learning outcomes in the states.
A collective failure of the Indian education system is that even after seven decades of independence almost three-fourth of 8-year-old children who leave class 3, cannot read or comprehend. This is a moral injustice and deserves urgent redressal. The lack of such skills potentially leads to such children losing out on employment on entering the job-market contributing to economic growth. The huge amount of money which currently goes into building schools and teacher and support staff salaries’ would be futile if there is little effort towards making children attain foundational literacy and numeracy. This must change.
1. Muralidharan, Karthik and Zieleniak, Yendrick (2013), ‘Measuring Learning Trajectories in Developing Countries with Longitudinal Data and Item Response Theory’
2. World Bank,
3. Muralidharan, Karthik (2019), ‘Reforming the Indian School Education System’ in What the Economy Needs Now, edited by Abhijit Banerjee, Gita Gopinath, Raghuram Rajan, and Mihir Sharma, Juggernaut

Posted by Vijayalakshmi Mohan