Panel Discussion: New ECE innovations

Although the Union HRD ministry seems content to remain ignorant, India’s globally-tuned, upwardly mobile middle class has been quick to embrace early childhood education (ECE). Currently there are an estimated 50,000 privately-promoted preschools countrywide, whose aggregate revenue is growing at 35 percent per year. And far beyond discussing the merits and demerits of ECE, promoters and educators in private preschools are anxious to make the ECE experience more enjoyable and meaningful for their students.

At EducationWorld’s ECE Global Conference 2011, a panel discussion convened to discuss new innovations in ECE and their applicability in preschools in India, drew a full house. Chaired by Sally May Tan (SMT), chief executive (South-east Asia) of Knowledge Universe — the world’s largest proprietory preschools company — the panel convened to discuss ‘New innovations making preschool education more effective’ included Prajodh Rajan (PR), chief executive of EuroKids International Ltd, India’s largest preschool education company with 29 owned and 783 franchised ECE institutions in 280 urban habitations countrywide;Kavita Sabharwal (KS), an alumna of Harvard Business School and promoter-managing director of Neev Schools Pvt. Ltd, which owns and manages four Neev preschools in Bangalore with an aggregate 450 children mentored by 85 teachers; and Dr. Mithu Alur (MA), founder chairperson of ADAPT (formerly Spastics Society of India), member Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) and pioneer in the field of inclusive education. Excerpts from the 100 minute panel discussion.

SMT: I’d like to invite Prajodh to start today’s conversation with what’s on your mind when you talk about innovations in early childhood education.

PR: Until recently ECE in India was fragmented and unorganised, with teaching being subject oriented, teacher directed, monotonous, and rote-learning centric. K-12 schools viewed ECE as a downward extension of their primary programme, and transferred many of their primary goals to preschool. This led to some innovation. But most of the recent innovations in ECE have been driven by awareness within India’s fast-expanding middle class of the importance of quality ECE. Parents now appreciate that starting early makes a big difference to future learning.

Consequently with professionalisation of ECE in the private sector, there’s increased emphasis on child-friendly infrastructure, age-appropriate curriculums and child-centric content. We have moved from instructor-led to facilitator-led teaching. I’m no academician but over the past decade I’ve seen the advantages of free play and sequential development being integrated into the EuroKids curriculum. I believe the most significant innovation in ECE in India is the emergence of professionally managed preschools. This has helped increase access, and ensured standardisation in infrastructure, content and delivery mechanisms.

MA: As highlighted by Dr. Jeremy Williams in his enlightening presentation on latest brain development research, the early years — when 80 percent of intelligence and cognitive abilities develop — are equally critical for children with special needs. In the Convention of the Rights of the Child and Dakar Conference, the importance of inclusive education took centre-stage. In fact the Right to Education Act, 2009 mandates inclusion of children between six-14 years with disabilities in mainstream schools though it has excluded children in the age group 0-5.
In my doctoral thesis titled ‘Invisible Children: A Study of Policy Exclusion’ at the London School of Economics, I discovered that the biggest malaise in India was the absence of any inclusion policy for children with special needs. This despite the Kothari Commission way back in 1966 recommending that children with disabilities be included in the education system. Fortunately now after a long and hard battle, children with special needs are under the Union HRD ministry.

Our experience in the slums of Mumbai where we have started inclusive nurseries has been excellent. Both children with and without disabilities are progressing well; their developmental scores have gone up and all children develop the virtues of tolerance, compassion and acceptance. In the Indian context this is a great innovation in ECE.

KS: In his excellent keynote address Dr. Williams stole the first half of my prepared presentation. So I will skip the latest brain research findings except to say that in our Neev schools we choose and integrate many best practices stemming from brain research.

First we recognise that children are smart in many ways. You can call it multiple intelligences or the thousand languages of children, but we encourage children to express themselves in different ways. Second we encourage inquiry-based learning with the innovation that the inquiry approach is integrated across all learning areas.

Third, we carefully monitor the learning outcomes of all children. How can we change our instructional practices to help children learn better? How solid are children’s approaches to learning? We struggle constantly with these questions, always working on innovative solutions.

Last but not definitely least, we believe in continuous teacher development and training. Supporting, encour-aging and empowering teachers is critical because it’s they who deliver innovation in classrooms.

Most of all, young children need caring and nurturing environments to grow, learn and develop. Currently there are too many fads in ECE innovation, too many programmes. So choose carefully; differentiate between style and substance. Choose what is substantive and relevant for children.