India Today....shades of Prahaar...
June 26, 2008
SPIRIT OF INDIA — EDUCATION
With his sharply-creased police uniform, carefully-combed hair and flashy cell phone, he looks every bit an upwardly mobile IPS officer, and just as every bit out of place in a classroom full of clamouring children.
But there is no doubt that Abhyanand is perfectly at ease here, smiling while teaching Class V students the tenets of mental mathematics, which includes shortcuts to solve problems without the use of multiplication tables.
The Additional Director-General of Police, Bihar Military Police, pops a question and the children look momentarily flummoxed, but Abhyanand patiently nudges them into speaking up, simultaneously provoking them with multiple options.
The indulgent teacher finally smiles when a 10-year-old tells him the right answer and explains why it is so.
“To me, a teacher is someone who never gives the right answer, but keeps asking the right questions. My job is to encourage my students to come up with the right answers,” says the IPS officer with deep conviction in his voice.
“Asking questions is important for a teacher because transferring concepts is not like copying files from one computer and pasting it on another,” says Abhyanand.
“We need to activate the students’ brains and develop their lateral thinking abilities.” This is a doctrine that has seen his Super 30 programme click year after year.
The programme—a free IIT entrance coaching course for 30 select youngsters from underprivileged families in rural Bihar—saw 18 out of 30 in the first batch make it to the premier technology institutions in 2003.
The success rate has been soaring with every passing year as 20 students qualified in 2004 and 22 got through the next year. In 2006, the number of students who cleared the entrance was 26, rising to 28 in 2007.
This year, the results for the programme were even better, as everyone from the Super 30 group made the grade in what is widely believed to be one of the toughest and most competitive entrance examinations in the world.
For Abhyanand, who tutors the IIT aspirants in physics, the tryst with teaching began rather by chance in 1989 when his son, Shwetank, then a Class I student, scored zero out of 10 in a class test on single-digit multiplication.
“My wife held me responsible for this, and so I was forced to give teaching a try. I asked my son a question: what is the biggest number in the world? Shwetank was silent for a moment and then said, ‘There can’t be such a number, as I can always add one to it.’ The boy had accidentally come across the concept of infinity, and I discovered the teacher within me,” he reminisces.
“Since then, I started investing time in their studies. Years later, when both my children qualified for the IITs and left for their respective institutes, I felt that I should never lose my ‘inner teacher’— someone who had grown as strong as the part of me that was a cop.”
The B.Sc physics topper from Patna Science College, however, needed to find an outlet. After a few meetings with mathematician and teacher Anand Kumar, who was familiar with the struggles of deprived students, the concept of “Super 30” was born and the duo started the coaching programme in 2002.
The first batch of 30 deserving students—many of whom were children of marginal farmers studying in panchayat schools—was picked after extensively screening the shortlisted students.
They were brought to Patna and provided accommodation, food and gruelling coaching for seven months—all for free. Even today, the students of the programme don’t have to pay for anything.
His friend Kumar takes care of the expenses. The success of the programme was evident with 18 of the 30 students clearing the entrance exam in 2003.
The Super 30 programme was an eye-opener for everyone who thought that only students who could afford expensive IIT coaching could clear the tough entrance examination.
According to Abhyanand, it is the difference in the method of teaching that is responsible for the Super 30’s success. Says Ritesh Ranjan, a student of the programme, “The Super 30 teachers leave nothing to chance. They cover every topic and leave nothing untouched. They also help us develop confidence in our abilities.”
Last year, thanks to the school’s burgeoning reputation, around 10,000 students from all over the country turned up for the entrance test.
The coaching programme may have run out of a thatched hut with creaking benches under a hot tin roof, but a question from a teacher will often see all 30 hands shooting skywards.
The next batch of Super 30 classes is set to begin in September, but without Abhyanand. He has “moved on and will now expand the concept of Super 30 and pick underprivileged Muslim students and train them for competitive exams”.
The IPS officer has some time till then for the Class V students—and for the teacher in him to grow as well. And Abhyanand, once again turns to the young faces, transfixed in silence as he paces in front of a blackboard to explain how 10-digit multiplication problems can be solved without putting pen to paper.
Abhyanand and his students embody the age-old guru-shishya tradition, where the two are bound together by an unusual intellect and a common drive.
Helping dreams come true
With literacy rates lingering at 61 per cent, India still has a long way to go, but it is only when education is taken up as a cause by ordinary citizens, that the difference starts to show.
Like Abhyanand of Bihar, who is helping dreams come true for hundreds of underprivileged young students by coaching them for the prestigious IITs, or Pravin Mahajan, whose organisation is educating children of migrant workers across sugar factories in Maharashtra.
One passion binds them all—to spread education to India’s farflung corners in the most basic way.
As Amartya Sen asserts, “Widening the coverage and effectiveness of basic education can have a powerfully preventive role in reducing human insecurity of nearly every kind.”
The government may build the most grandiose schemes— whether it is the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, that was launched in 2001, or the National Literacy Mission, which began in 1988—but until every literate Indian adopts one who is not, education will remain a luxury.