An ambitious youth icon, a radical leader and a successful entrepreneur, Mr. Divanshu Kumar, single-handedly changed the convention of traditional classroom learning methods. A graduate from IIT Madras, this young highbrow is the founder and CEO of Involve Learning Solutions, an international award-winning organisation which develops experience-based leadership skills in school students through Peer Teaching. To appreciate this tremendous work, he was selected among the top 16 Young Social Entrepreneurs by Singapore International Foundation and also represented India at Global Engagement Summit 2017. He is an inspiration to many young entrepreneurs in India striving to leave a mark on the world of social entrepreneurship.
We, at News and Publication Society, were honoured to interact with Mr. Divanshu Kumar during his visit to BIT Mesra in the E-Summit 2020. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Q1. Education is an important sector but sadly its problems are often neglected. So, what are your suggestions to build a brighter and better future for the Indian youth?
A1. Initially when we started, we were not aware of the problems and the challenges of the Indian education system. But over time we realized that the entire dependency of learning is on the teachers’ side. The students are passive receivers of education rather than being active participants. The only problem about that is if the infrastructure doesn’t work out, the entire learning collapses. In terms of the number of teachers, as you said, we are short by about a million. What we thought about was shifting the ownership of learning on to the students. Even if the schools have a shortage of teachers or the teachers are not doing well, the seniors who have learnt something well can teach their juniors because that is a common culture in college. We want students to be self-dependent in their learning. Essentially what we are trying to do is to create a community of students in every school where they can learn from each other. So, there is a concept of shared learning which currently every school lacks and if everyone starts accepting that the students need to be active participants in the learning process, then this will definitely change.
We want to build an agency for the students in every school to discuss what is good for them and really learn together. Currently, in terms of direct implementation, we have formulated the idea in about 20 schools or so. Another effort we are trying to make is working with the policymakers with educationists being at the center to influence their thought process about how things will change. Otherwise, the idea will not affect the overall functioning of schools all over the country.
Q2. The idea that you have implemented, don’t you think it should reach out to a greater number of students? Centrally, the education sector is neglected but don’t you think the educationists and the policymakers should think over it?
A2. Currently the idea is implemented in just 20 schools. The significant effort we are putting in right now is to build the ecosystem for its scaling. Since in a market as big as India, where 280-300 million students of diverse geography, demography, race and ethnicity are studying, a single organization cannot provide solutions for all of these. Our effort is building an open-source platform which would create end to end resources, explaining how one would create a student-driven ecosystem in schools.
So be it project management tools, a resource book for the principals, teachers or a data analysis tool for them to understand what are the current challenges in their school. The target we have set for ourselves is that by 2021 or 2022 we will try and partner with an entire state. Most probably, the states which are trying to welcome new pedagogy. Because if one state picks it up and begins to show the result, it won’t take a lot of time for other states to pick it up as well.
Q3. You have been focusing on school students until now. Do you plan to extend this idea to colleges too?
A3. Right now, as an organization, we are not thinking about getting into colleges. We want to give all our focus to schools right now since the challenge or the set of problems that you have to solve in the school system or the college system is very different, given the difference of the age group that comes in. The students below 10th standard are very easy to mould, but as you move upwards to 11th or 12th grades, students want more independence, more freedom about what they want to do. So, you cannot necessarily create a compulsive solution on what can be done. This is why we want to create a solution for schools and then aim for colleges. But as an idea about what teaching stands for, what shared learning is something that I want to promote everywhere not just in colleges but even in corporations. The idea is to let people reinvent the wheel and build on existing knowledge resources so that you can reach out to the masses.
Q4. In our institute too whenever we need any help, we approach our seniors. We feel more comfortable in approaching our seniors rather than our teachers. Is that the idea you were talking about?
A4. Exactly. The idea is can we create some sort of formal structure around it. We all know intuitionally that if there is a senior student trying to teach you, you are more open to learning and they also revise the syllabus. But how do you institutionalize it in some sense to get the maximum output? For example, if it can be said that a student of third or fourth year can teach their junior for ten hours and doing so would bring some extra credits in academics too. But it would be wrong to be in denial of the fact that students are not comfortable in learning from professors in classrooms.
Q5. How did the concept of Involve Learning Solutions strike your mind? What were the problems that you had to face?
A5. The concept popped up in my head when I was in the second year of my college and was working in an organization called Avanti Fellows started by IIT Bombay and Harvard graduates. They get the students of the first and second year in IITs to mentor students of class 11th & 12th for their JEE preparations. The video conference coaching is given by a coaching center partner, while their day to day mentoring is done by us. During my duration as the manager of a center, for two months, the internet connectivity was not available and if you are preparing for engineering, you would know that this is a critical time. I was not willing for that to happen so I asked other teammates not to just mentor but take sessions also, making up for the loss of video conference coaching.
Two things I did at that time was first, I asked my team to take three hours sessions in that school and teach the students properly by taking at least three hours for every concept during weekends. Second, during weekdays, we asked the 12th graders to teach the 11th graders because when you give JEE exams both the portions have to be covered. The idea was a very good one and after the internet connection was re-established, the students could start from the new topics. The idea really struck that if it could work in such a small ecosystem, then wherever there is a multi-grade system, the concept of Peer Teaching could work. We tried our model in the year 2016 in one of the schools and it worked very well.
Q6. What would you like to say about the course structure that the Indian education system has? Because the curriculum in school is very basic level and the JEE aspirants have to take coaching separately. Why can’t we implement the same curriculum in schools?
A6. The curriculum really comes from the objective of what the government sees as education. When you are designing any solution from a government’s point of view, it should be designed for the masses. The seats in engineering colleges are just 1-10% of the entire population who take up science. When you think about the masses you cannot keep the competition level very high because that is done keeping the average students or below-average students in mind. It should be the responsibility of individual schools to understand the interest of their students.
Q7. Today’s students have the necessary technical skills but most of them remain unemployed. What do you think is the demand of engineering sectors?
A7. We were not taught about the history of education. Why was education needed? What do you think is the importance of education? The main purpose of education was to get people to be in the army, to fight for their king. When the king asked the masses to fight for them, they began to question as to why they should fight for him? The king realized the importance of training right from childhood. So, when they grow up a certain fraction of them would come up, fit for the job. This is where the concept of mass training started. Fast forward to 19th or 20th century, industrialization happened, lots of machines came into the picture and you needed people to do repetitive tasks. Even the curriculum of today is repetitive. You have to learn a new concept and then repeat it. But with the advent of education system, the need of education system has changed again. Now, most of the repetitive tasks are done by automation.
The main question to ask is what are the things that humans are better at doing than robots. It is definitely not precision, definitely not repetition. So, it comes down to decision making and communication. You can train a robot about things based on some historical data, but what if something different happens? These are the two basic things for which education is required. But these things are not taught and the education system has not evolved. If a concept is taught about a process, the main question to ask is why that process came into the picture in the first place.
This is the first principle of thinking. Whenever you are taught a new thing, the most important part is not to mug up a formula and produce it in an exam, but being able to understand why the formula came in the first place because if something different is to be designed, I have to go back to that. A lot of engineers have a good degree, good percentages but that percentage has come out of learning repetitive things rather than designing solutions.
Q8. During Global Engage Summit 2018, you were selected as one of the 40 student changemakers from around the world. Can you please share some experience regarding that?
A8. The Global Engagement Summit is organized by the North-Western University and every year they select about 30-40 students who are doing something in their respective countries. We were selected and given full compensations for travelling as well. What I realized was that the community that was there was phenomenal.
I had another delegate who was a student and was a part of Forbes 30 under 30, Africa. He had interviewed Barack Obama in the US Summit and had built the internet system for Zimbabwe. This was the validation of the work that we were doing. Because in 2016 when we started the work, we did not know whether we wanted to start the organization or not. So, when we pitched our ideas there, we were selected as winners. The jury panel had two educators and understood the potential and this is how it worked out.
Q9. What do you think about the E Summit organized by the Entrepreneurship Development Cell of BIT, Mesra? How do you think this type of events in institutions help students?
A9. Talking about my personal journey here, my career would not have started if there were no such type of communities in my college. We had this event called Bootcamp where if you had an idea, about a startup, you go through a two months process where you get to pitch your ideas in E Summit and get mentorship. We got to know that there was support available and the second part is the exposure you get, refining of ideas is very important.
If we really want to promote entrepreneurship among students in colleges, this kind of societies play a very important role. Because, for the students who are not exposed to entrepreneurship, they are made aware of what it is about. And for the students who have realized that there is something they want to explore, the necessary platform is provided. The CEO of UTV movies was our speaker when I was a part of the EDC at my college. She listened to my ideas, gave her number and asked to contact if I had some problems. The primary objective is that people should know about it because unless a student knows that there is a culture present, they would not jump into it. Because entrepreneurship is risky and if the perks are delayed, how do you motivate people to really take that plunge? This can be solved by more participation in events like E-summit.
Q10. Sir, do you have any message for the students of BIT?
A10. If you want to do something new, college life is the best place to try anything out because at that time you don’t have any liability. Even if you fail, it would not affect you much. However, as soon as you get out of college, you have obligations for earning. My principle was to try out new things in college. Even if one thing fails you have new things to work upon.
Picture Credits: Photographic Society, BIT Mesra