Adhyayan is an education movement of Indian and international educationists, dedicated to improving the quality of leadership and learning in schools. They work alongside school leaders embedding internationally accepted approaches and practices contextualised for India. Kavita is Founder Director of both, Adhyayan Quality Education Services and Adhyayan Foundation.
In this candid chat, Kavita talks about how she discovered her place in education and a philosophy of education. She discusses how she dealt with resistance to her bold vision and emphasises the significance of inspiring others if you want to effect meaningful change
Finding her place in education
Kavita discusses her reasons for moving from wanting to be a psychoanalyst to working in education, her observations as a teacher, and what inspired her to work towards a newfound goal.
“Initially, there was a point when I wanted to be a psychoanalyst. I actually left home in Delhi, and much against my mother’s wishes, left and went to Mumbai to study. And also, two other things that happened at that time, one is the 1984 riots. When I went back to my college, to my complete horror and shock, considering it was a psychology department, and we were a small department for about 25 girls, one lecturer picked up on this and said, “Well, given that this is what the newspapers are saying, how many of you believe that the Sikhs deserved it?” And pretty much 70-80% of the girls
raised their hands. And I was like, this is not the class that I belong to because I don’t know if they even knew that I was a Sardarni and that I had people from my family who’d been through a pretty tough time and I had lived through so much fear for my father and my brothers. So I think at that point I kind of lost a lot of my innocence to that. So that’s when I kind of thought that okay, Delhi is not the place for me.
I had two options, I could have gone to Bangalore to study masters, or I could have gone to Mumbai University. And I chose to go to Mumbai, because I was familiar with that city to some extent…I have lived there as a child. I just had a sense that it’s a kinder place for women. And I was proved right. So that’s how I moved.”
“I like to fail. It’s fine. I did seven years of analysis, because they ask you to do that. I applied and I was rejected, obviously I’d be rejected because that isn’t what I really want to do. So luckily, I got rejected, and I could change my course, by which time I had been teaching at Elphinstone college. I was not too happy with the way the students were, in terms of this whole idea that psychology is a marks oriented subject, the kind of thing you hear about mathematics or science. So you hear that this will give you good marks. So when I heard them saying that psychology is going to give you good marks, I was like, really? I mean, that’s just not the way I saw it. And it set me thinking that why should someone studying the human being be interested in marks? I mean, what a waste of three years of education, if you only are interested in the grade. So that’s when it set me off on researching what was happening in schools.”
“I started doing research with a psychoanalyst on what happens in classrooms. And that was four years of just being in classrooms to see what was going on in mainstream schools.
So that research led me to doing further research with the Aga Khan Education Services India, where I worked with four teachers of pre-primary schools on how do you as a teacher observe a child? What do you see happening? How do you know learning is taking place? That was a good project which led to some work with school leaders to introduce this kind of pre-primary teacher education into their schools and then working with the Ratan Tata trust on their education and arts and culture portfolios, building that for seven years, and then Shishuvan happened.
So by that time, because of the research that I had done in schools, I decided that here’s an opportunity. At 35, you don’t get such an opportunity to set up a school, right? So I said, let me pour in everything that I’ve learned. And let me try and look at whatever the criticism is about schools, let me try and say, well, what other thing can happen?”
Kavita made many unconventional choices as a leader at Shishuvan – for example, unisex uniforms that were comfortable for girls and boys alike. She talks about dealing with disapproval and apprehension from parents, administrators and others. She discusses how she overcame all the opposition she encountered by sticking to her ground and believing in her vision for the school, and education in general.
“I think the management was constantly petrified in the beginning, saying that you’re experimenting, and what are you doing? And are you sure you know what you’re doing? And I said, Yes, I know what I’m doing!
Well, the uniform will be unisex. It isn’t going to change just because I’ve had a gherao of women mothers coming to me and standing there and saying you can’t do this to our children because it looks like a night suit. And I said to them that its Khadi, a pajama-ish pant, a loose pant and a kurta which is really suited to Indian conditions, it’s made of cotton, it is saving your children from malaria, the girls feel completely comfortable.
There are so many things going for it. And the management had multiple meetings with me saying that, I don’t know if this is a good idea. The other thing that we sort of heard a lot was the colours of the uniform. I’ve written about it in fact, in certain places where I said that the green pants, made them nervous. Because it was associated to a particular community. So that’s when I actually explained that conceptually, the logo is the image of the child as a sunflower with its face continually to the sun, to learning. So the top is yellow, the bottom is green, because it can’t have anything other than a green stalk and the green grass. And I said, imagine how beautiful it is when in assembly, these students look like a field of sunflowers”. After 10 years of sticking to my guns, some other school said, Can we please copy the uniform because we just love it. We love the concept. We love the look, we love everything about it. And the management said “no, we are patenting it, colours and all”. That made me smile..
Initially there was also a lot of worry that the space in which the school was situated, had a very poor reputation of being very rough and not a good space in terms of income. And slowly we kind of built it from scratch by asking the people who were living in that area that what kind of school do you want, they all said that they would want an ICSE school because that was missing in that space. Once that was decided I was able to create an environment in the school in which the student, teacher and parent had a voice.”
“There was a lot of confusion initially about the way teaching and learning was constructed in the school and the management was afraid that these parents would leave and go away as they would find the school too different. And I was like, no, what is going to happen in the classroom is what’s going to determine whether the parents come in or not. We organised a day every 6 weeks for parents to come in and their children would tell them that this is what we’ve learned, this is how we learnt it, this is what we did. And over two, three years, the fear slowly disappeared.
There was a huge amount of discussion, and everything, there was a basis for everything that I was doing, I wasn’t doing anything that was just because I felt like doing it or because somebody else was doing it. I could explain everything we did in terms of why we were doing it. And that’s something that I ensured that everybody in the school: teachers, students, parents could explain the school’s working, could explain why we do what we do.”
Gender at work
Kavita reflects on gender in education – how very few women hold positions of power even though there are so many women teachers and principals. She talks about how pushback for being a woman is a given and how workplaces need to adapt more to the needs of women.
“All the way up to principals and heads of department they’re mostly women in the urban areas. Where you will find them less is in the office, as a bursar… handling finance. I was probably one of the few people who had a woman as a finance officer. And I don’t think I’ve seen too many of those. It’s largely men managing the money, men managing the ownership, women doing the execution.
I’ve seen a lot of other principals who are respected in the school, because they lead the school. So there is a certain power they have there. But frankly, they don’t count in the boards. I don’t see women wielding that kind of power. What I find actually has surprised me is that women don’t support women. I think that’s a bigger problem than men being the way they are because like I said, that’s part of the landscape. They’re going to be like that. You have to find your way around it. But what I find surprising is that women are actually more patriarchal, in lots of cases than men.
I mean, where should you go for support then if you don’t get it from your own gender? And I see men support each other tremendously. There’s a young man going to an office, the older man will be totally facilitative. Because he will see this person as a guy who needs to earn money, take care of his family. He’s “my kind of person”, you know. But if it’s a woman seeing another woman walk into her office, that doesn’t necessarily happen.
I take men and their approach and attitude for granted. I ignore it, I kind of treat it as something that’s a given, that it’s going to happen. I’m sitting in any kind of meeting, I’m on a board. And either I will get somebody saying “Oh, you think very differently”, which is actually demeaning. It’s almost as if you’re from Mars, or some other planet, like you’re not from the earth! Or if I say something, it’ll be dismissed. And the same thing will be said, two seconds later by a man sitting at the table. It’ll be treated as if like, “Wow, what an idea! This is incredible. This is fantastic”.
And I am sitting there thinking I just said that one second ago as it didn’t get heard! So I don’t know what it is. I think most women have had that experience. And it just is there… like it’s part of the landscape.
I think the whole world of work needs to change to accommodate women’s lives and their body. I must credit the fact that I worked with a very amazing man who asked me to work after I’d got pregnant. I had a difficult pregnancy so I had to leave work. And he said, I want somebody who can start vetting projects and I’m going to start sending you stuff home so that you can work from home. And this thing of saying, if you can’t come to office, I can get the office to you. I think that was very, very touching. And I really liked it. Here’s somebody who really cares about the fact that I have a brain which needs to continue to work. If I can’t physically move, it doesn’t matter. And that kind of inclusion, it kind of led to the way in which I then led my school as well. It didn’t really matter to me that if a teacher got pregnant and had to have extended maternity leave, we could work with doing other projects with her. We didn’t want to lose her because she is a good teacher. And these are the kinds of things that people need to start thinking about.”
Changing the Future Today: Her Vision and Approach
Kavita’s leadership focuses on challenging some fundamentals of how education happens today. She discusses how to truly persuade people to share your vision because, without that, significant change is not achievable.
“I think it comes from listening honestly, to what it is that people are saying. So I am not really trying to imagine what the world is going to look like. I’m actually trying to figure out why the world is so divided. How do people see the future in terms of the students that are there right now in the kindergarten? And why is it that it seems to be so difficult for people to say that, how do we make sure that they have a future? So schools are supposed to become spaces, which teach children how to manage an impossible future. You hear this VUCA world…everything that is
extremely difficult, is seen today as being okay. Kids have to learn to deal with it, as if there is no other way of moving forward as no other kind of development is possible.
I think what I’m doing in working with schools is to try and say, how do we understand this? Is this coming from this sense that the model of schools is all about getting kids to fit into an existing structure. Rather than getting them to a place where they can, can they question that structure? Can children question that and say, No, we want to live differently? So can we begin to relook at what kind of developmental models that we are all following and start changing that from the time the kids are in school?
It begins with the schools that I’m working with. It begins with working with the school leaders and teachers to say, what is going on in that classroom? How connected are children with themselves, with others and with the world, the planet that we live on? It’s a bit like how my brother when he was small, my mother pointed out a cow to him once when we had gone out somewhere, and she said, that’s where you get milk from. And he said, no, you get it from a factory in a plastic bag. That’s what’s happening. All you have to do as a human being is consume, consume, consume, consume. And that’s where you don’t even think about it, like that packet of milk. Where does it come from? You know, and how are the cows kept? What happens to the earth if you have that much grazing land and what happens to the cow and so you don’t want to start investigating that and inquiring into it, it leads you to a very different space of understanding.”
“So if we begin to see that, then you have to work at scale, because, just doing a Shishuvan is not going to go to more than 1300 parents. So if we are all going to be impacted by what happens everywhere, then we have to be able to say that the change that I’m trying to create, can I demonstrate it at scale? Now, to do that, I need to address 15 lakh schools in India. I need at least one lakh leaders of schools who can think differently, because then we say, now, let’s go, impact; everybody just touches the next 15 leaders. If you have that many, then that’s all you have to do. Each person then says, can I change the thinking of the other 15. So that’s the ratio that you have to get to, if you want to make a difference. And I knew that working with independent private schools, with Adhyayan, because it started out as a private limited company, is not going to cut it, it’s not going to happen. Because these schools are difficult to change. They’re built on a business model of providing parents with what they think the best thing is, which is to fit kids into a machine of economic production. So where are the schools which have a system, which can be influenced? And that’s where you have your government schools. 50% of your population is still in government schools. So then setting up Adhyayan foundation, with this goal was what happened in 2015. By 2017, I had a CEO in place who could take it on, and who could run it, and now we are in five states of the country.
Having had so much experience, sometimes I look back on my life, and I think I’ve lived 15 lives in one life. So many people have just done one thing in their lives. And that’s it. And they’ve done it well. And they’ve done a good job of it and then they retire. And they’re happy. And I’ve never done something like that. I’ve always done three things at the same time. So I guess what I would like to do is to sit down and actually ruminate over what it is that I’ve learned over all of the things that have happened and finally do a practitioner PhD.
And to really investigate this question as to why some people, some leaders have agency and others just really don’t. In the same space, like in a government school, there’ll be school leaders who are incredible with what they’re doing. In the same space of government schools there are amazing teachers. The rest will just live up to that image of ‘yeh government school wale hai.’ And you think like, why is it that somebody can be like that, and, and I think that’s what I’m really interested in.
I may never succeed in where I want to get to because like I said to you that most people who are bought into the way the world currently is as the only option, think what I’m saying is just so impossible to happen, that it will be impossible. Because unless at scale you think it is possible, it’s going to remain impossible. We need enough people to believe that we do have options and different development models are welcome.”