How should we do “Education for the poor”?

Photo by Frank Cone on

Note: This is an email and a sketch of a studio. I am keeping it here in my blog. But then I am also making this post into an aquarium, glass box, fishbowl for the world to look into my sent folder and my projects folder.

Soumitri, 3 DEC, 2021.

First, the email

James, This is a long winded thank you. For your words in the book and in the podcast.

I have been reading your book and listening to the podcast episode (2014 EconTalk). I am not an education theorist, so I am listening for a background understanding. But also, for a better appreciation of the challenge of education when it is for the extreme poor.

My interest is pedagogy. Plus, I have been associated with Barefoot College in Rajasthan. I am now committed to a ten-year project to support pedagogy in a rural school. This is a school for children of “migrant labour” and from their perspective I am helping with teacher training.

As part of the training – more mentoring – I have been doing one on one sessions (usually one on my side, and few on their side) with the teachers. There are only five subjects, so only five teachers: maths, english, hindi, science (sort of environmental science plus biology) and computers.

In this first phase I have been leaning towards an Australian approach to distance learning. Which relies on, expects as a given, student motivation and strength-based learning as its pedagogical scaffolding. Teaching in Australia I too rely on these two as the foundational condition upon which to build the pedagogy. Since I teach Industrial Design at a university level program I practice project-based learning for all the subjects I teach. 

Since I cut my teeth in teaching in India, I was exposed to the alternative school movement in India. I dodged being aligned to the spiritual philosophies that underlie the Aurobindo or Krishnamurthi schools. In the 80s I was hanging out with the group that was behind the rural schools movement in Madhya Pradesh. I was realising by this time that I was going to focus only upon design education, that too in a specific mode of privileging method, so as to activate the agency of the student.

The two pillars of privileging method – which involved considering content as an arbitrary artefact, and of privileging the agency of the individual student, which involved breaking up the ‘class of identical students” into “unique insurgent teams” – were to become a reliable instrument of enacting education. The work produced by the students were not relevant. What the students became was instead considered the significant outcome. Then since insurgencies are not all that acceptable to institutional administrations, I learnt to practice silence. Keeping motives silent, becoming a silent teacher.

When earlier this year Bunker at Barefoot asked me to get involved in their school it looked like I would be taking pedagogical practices from the university ecosystem into schools. In fact, it is all the stuff I have learnt from watching practices in alternative schools. So, I am taking it back. 

Then, what made a huge difference to my perspective was your book and your nuanced speculation in the podcast with Russ Roberts. There were a huge number of points that I kept privileging, so going back to listen to that podcast a few/ many times in the past few months. Two key points being:

  1. The private schools in slums are not bad. As an IIT Delhi graduate. As a product of elite institutions. Finally, as someone who works with the NGO sector, I may have been echoing the dismissiveness of the NGos in their characterisation of the yellow school buses and the private schools as factories of exploitation. In my next trip I will do my own research into these schools.
  2. The pathway of students after school is a mystery. It is not all bad. I have already begun asking about the career trajectories of past students of this rural school. Yes, there is a reluctance to give me information. So, I keep saying, I only want to know who they are now, I do not wish to judge. I am okay if these students did not go to university. I am speculating that the development of agency is critical to the outcomes.

Finally, I have constructed a project. 

  1. With a website in the vernacular: LINK 
  2. A research program: LINK 
  3. With podcasts for the teachers in Hindi: LINK
  4. Plus a series of training materials for the teachers.

In January I will be in Rajasthan. I will teach a week in the school. I will conduct a short workshop for the teachers. 

Anne Wolf, SOURCE

This is only year 1. I am hoping that by 2030 how students learn in this school will be quite different.

Have a good day.

Then, the Sketch

GWZ is a 5 year program in pedagogy for little auto didacts. Run in collaboration with Barefoot College, the program is part teacher training, part strength based learning and part reimagining the idea of learning. I have been a technical advisor and an international affiliate for the Barfoot College since the 1990s. In this latest initiative I am working with teachers in a rural school, the Singla School, to rethink how education is imagined for non-literate rural 8 year olds. YouTube LINK (hindi podcasts)

GWZ? Goats with Zips

In 2022 there is an opportunity for design students to enter into a project to imagine the tactile affordances of literacy education. Code named “Goats with Zips” the project is about making very intricate goats that can be taken apart and assembled. Using 3 D printing, laser cutting, and mixed textile media (using Anne Wolf as inspiration) the project is about nudging education into the contemporary.

The field of practice of this project is affective altruism or Design for Impact. Where the focus is upon imagining a Personal Learning Environment in resource poor settings, and reflecting upon you own PLE. Your time is to be directly used to transform the lives of 60 remote rural children. There is no reading, research or writing required in this project. The project provides an accelerated program of work, a team based working environment, an experience of designing within an international NGO and a digital toolkit experience of Notion and Airtable.

The project will be run as a glass box, an aquarium, where visitors and outsiders will be invited in to observe you working, discussing and going about your work of solving problems. All outcomes from this project will be handed over to the team at Barefoot College for use in the school. The works will be exhibited online with downloadable files for rural teachers the world over to use. In addition to the online repository the designers discussing their work in audio and video will also be available online and for download.


Today I have started listening to the 80,000 HRS Podcast.

About: “The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them.


By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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