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Interview

Levelfield School: Preparing for life, not just for exams

Arghya Banerjee

Arghya Banerjee, Founder, The Levelfield School is an IIT-IIM alumnus. He is the former Co-Head of Irevna.  He was one of the early founding members of Irevna, and helped to ramp up the firm to 500 people. A strong believer in the transformative power of high-quality school education, he traded in his corporate career for a more significant, long-lasting impact.

Arghya Banerjee, in an email interaction with Ekta Srivastava, Education Technology on how an application based approach is more suitable and conducive to success than what is normally the followed method in India.

 Please tell us something about The Levelfield School, its concept, and journey so far.  

The idea of Levelfield germinated when I was searching for a school for my daughter. I saw that the so-called brand-name schools, while big on infrastructure, do not really think about how to prepare students for the skills needed in the 21st century.

At Levelfield, we designed our teaching methodologies to ensure prepare the students for life, not just for exams. We emphasize learning with understanding. We would not like our children to say – “This was not taught at school (or at home) – so I can’t do it.” We spent many years to create a huge library of problems that test application-orientation and higher-order-thinking.

Thinking-orientation is a constant theme in our school. Beyond thinking-oriented problems in math and science, we also get the children to solve a lot of analytical puzzles like Nonogram, Shikaku, Sudoku and Tangram. The idea is to get children to think every day, so that exercising the mind is a habit for them.

In English too, our approach is similar. We do not believe that children can learn to read by reading a 50-page textbook many times during the year. She will possibly memorize the textbook, but will not develop the ability to read anything else. Rather, children should be exposed to a large amount of reading material so that they can read something new every day.

At Levelfield, we have created a huge amount of reading material appropriate for children. Some of the stories are conceptualized and written by us, some of them rewritten version of folktales and fables from the world, some of them rewritten version of out-of-copyright children’s classics like ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ or ‘The Gulliver’s Travels.’ You will not find a version of ‘Prince and the Pauper’ in the market which is appropriate for an 8 year old child. Our ‘independent-reading-module’ is finely graded, starting from simple material which uses only the top-200 most frequently occurring English words, and goes on to become more difficult step-by-step.

The ‘independent-reading-module’ has been so effective that our children (of primary level) from this small town, who do not have exposure to English beyond the school hours, can read 50-100 page books independently.

What are the new situations and corresponding problems Indian education societies face nowadays.

Indian education system has so many problems that it would take me a fat book to describe them all! But to summarize – there is a lot of focus on rote learning. The curriculum is not revised frequently enough. There is too much of government regulation of the wrong kind which stifles innovation.

Taking the first issue, rote learning – it is a a widely condemned evil, but the nature of the evil is poorly understood. Rote-learning goes deeper than what most people understand. Right at the KG level, when you are teaching your child to spell the numbers, or copy them neatly in good handwriting – it is rote-learning. We see a lot of children of age 4-5 can spell ‘Fifty nine’, but they cannot tell if 71 is bigger than 59. In most schools, numbers are not taught as quantity – but as pictures or words.

Rote learning comes in all shapes and forms. When your 5 year old kid can spell ‘Alligator’ because it comes in the word-list under ‘A’, but cannot read a simpler, but unfamiliar phonetic word like ‘Help’- you would know rote-learning has reared its ugly head. When your kid can read his textbook, but cannot comprehend unseen passages of similar difficulty – you should know that no real learning has taken place. When they say ‘Egypt is the gift of Nile’ – but cannot answer how a river is useful to men, you would know that their ability to think is getting rusted by constant reliance on memory-driven learning.

Do you think India has adequate technology usage and adoption in the education sector? What more can be done in your opinion?

Absolutely not. Indian boards do not give computer science or computer applications enough importance to make it a compulsory subject. In my opinion, for most students, it is going to be more important than physics or chemistry – but we neglect it at our own peril.

For most schools, teaching computers means teaching the students to paint. Parents are happy that their children can handle gadgets, when all they can do is to play games on smartphones. We need to teach them how to cleverly search, how to make presentations, how to use spreadsheets, how to be aware of the dangers lurking in the corners of the internet.

We need to teach our children to code. In future, coding is going to even more important than reading. Our boards are not prepared for that future at all. Science lab is compulsory according to the regulations of Indian boards, but computer lab is optional.

 Under new situations and challenges, what relationships should schools pay more attention to in the process of innovative development, especially in remote areas?

There are many educational apps available in the market. But most schools do not know how to judge them. Technology is just a medium to deliver content. Yes, it can deliver content in a personalized way, it lets students progress at their own pace. But still, the content itself needs to be thinking oriented, skill oriented. If you are just delivering useless rote-learning oriented content through an app – it remains useless.

The transformation from classroom learning and tuitions to non-traditional online learning aids is not easy. What challenges did you face?

Levelfield School has converted many of its proprietary learning methods into learning applications. Teachbasix Technologies, founded by me, has launched Android and iOS math apps, and Web browser based reading software which are extensively used in our school. Through downloads from Google Play Store and App Store, these apps are now increasingly being used by parents in various corners of the world.

Our browser-based reading program, Delta, uses our proprietary content (Independent, graded reading module that I earlier talked about) to give children endless hours of reading practice based on materials developed by the school (rewritten classics etc.). It is personalized – children can move at their own pace. Stories are organized sequentially based on difficulty levels. As they read, they have to actively solve some questions that come every once in a while so that the reading process remains active and parents can monitor their progress through the scores.

Our Android and iOS apps, convert some of our thinking oriented puzzles and sums into apps. For example, our app Pair Pattern is an early introduction to algebraic thinking – these sums ask children to derive the relationship between pairs of numbers. Our app Multiplication Kakuro is based on a Sudoku type of logic – but it makes learning multiplication-division great fun. Our spatial reasoning apps Nonogram and Shikaku generate an unlimited number of puzzles algorithmically – they help children exercise their mind and improve their logical reasoning skills.  These are available App Store or Google Play Store.

Given that we were already using these methods offline, we did not have any trouble transitioning to a technology driven method. Actually, it helped us, because it frees up the time of the teachers. They do not have to spend the time manually checking the student’s work, rather they can provide personalized help to the ones who need it. Children do not have to waste time waiting for everyone to finish – they can move at their own pace. We have seen radical improvement in their standardized test scores since the time we introduced these methods in a large scale.

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