Skipping Rote Memorization in Indian Schools
Published: February 17, 2011
PANTNAGAR, India — The Nagla elementary school in this north Indian
town looks like many other rundown government schools. Sweater-clad
children sit on burlap sheets laid in rows on cold concrete floors.
Lunch is prepared out back on a fire of burning twigs and branches.
But the classrooms of Nagla are a laboratory for an educational approach
unusual for an Indian public school. Rather than being drilled and
tested on reproducing passages from textbooks, students write their own
stories. And they pursue independent projects — as when fifth-grade
students recently interviewed organizers of religious festivals and then
made written and oral presentations.
That might seem commonplace in American or European schools. But such activities are revolutionary in India,
where public school students have long been drilled on memorizing
facts and regurgitating them in stressful year-end exams that many
Nagla and 1,500 other schools in this Indian state, Uttarakhand, are
part of a five-year-old project to improve Indian primary education that
is being paid for by one of the country’s richest men, Azim H. Premji,
chairman of the information technology giant Wipro. Education experts at his Azim Premji Foundation are helping to train
new teachers and guide current teachers in overhauling the way students
are taught and tested at government schools.
For Mr. Premji, 65, there can be no higher priority if India is to
fulfill its potential as an emerging economic giant. Because the Indian
population is so youthful — nearly 500 million people, or 45 percent of
the country’s total, are 19 or younger — improving the education system
is one of the country’s most pressing challenges.
“The bright students rise to the top, which they do anywhere in any
system,” Mr. Premji said over lunch at Wipro’s headquarters in
Bangalore, 1,300 miles south of Uttarakhand. “The people who are
underprivileged are not articulate, less self-confident, they slip
further. They slip much further. You compound a problem of people who
are handicapped socially.”
Outside of India, many may consider the country a wellspring of highly
educated professionals, thanks to the many doctors and engineers who
have moved to the West. And the legions of bright, English-speaking
call-center employees may seem to represent, to many Western consumers,
the cheerful voice of modern India.
But within India, there is widespread recognition that the country has
not invested enough in education, especially at the primary and
In the last five years, government spending on education has risen
sharply — to $83 billion last year, up from less than half that level
before. Schools now offer free lunches, which has helped raise
enrollments to more than 90 percent of children.
But most Indian schools still perform poorly. Barely half of fifth-grade
students can read simple texts in their language of study, according to
a survey of 13,000 rural schools by Pratham, a nonprofit education
group. And only about one-third of fifth graders can perform simple
division problems in arithmetic. Most students drop out before they
reach the 10th grade.
Those statistics stand in stark contrast to China, where a government
focus on education has achieved a literacy rate of 94 percent of the
population, compared with 64 percent in India.
Mr. Premji said he hoped his foundation would eventually make a
difference for tens of millions of children by focusing on critical
educational areas like exams, curriculum and teacher training. He said
he wanted to reach many more children than he could by opening private
schools — the approach taken by many other wealthy Indians.
Mr. Premji, whose total wealth Forbes magazine has put at $18 billion,
recently gave the foundation $2 billion worth of shares in his company.
And he said that he expected to give more in the future.
Those newly donated shares are being used to start an education-focused
university in Bangalore and to expand and spread programs like the one
here in Uttarakhand and a handful of other places to reach 50 of India’s
626 school districts.
The effort’s size and scope is unprecedented for a private initiative in
India, philanthropy experts say. Even though India’s recent rapid
growth has helped dozens of tycoons acquire billions of dollars in
wealth, few have pledged such a large sum to a social cause.
“This has never been attempted before, either by a foundation or a
for-profit group,” said Jayant Sinha, who heads the Indian office of
Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm set up by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Although the results in Uttarakhand are promising, they also suggest
that progress will be slow. Average test scores in one of the two
districts where the foundation operates climbed to 54 percent in 2008,
up from 37.4 percent two years earlier. (A passing mark is 33 percent or
higher.) Still, only 20 of the 1,500 schools that the foundation works
with in Uttarakhand have managed to reach a basic standard of learning
as determined by competence tests, enrollment and attendance. Nagla is
not one of the 20.
“We are working with the kids who were neglected before,” said D. N.
Bhatt, a district education coordinator for the Uttarakhand state
government. “You won’t see the impact right away.”
The Premji Foundation helps schools in states where the government has
invited its participation — a choice that some educational experts
criticize because it seems to ignore fast-growing private schools that
teach about a quarter of the country’s students, including many of
Narayana Murthy, a friend of Mr. Premji and chairman of Infosys, a company that competes with Wipro, said he admired the Premji
Foundation’s work but worried it would be undermined by the way India
administers its schools.
“While I salute Azim for what he is doing,” Mr. Murthy said, “in order
to reap the dividends of that munificence and good work, we have to
improve our governance.”
Mr. Premji says his foundation would be willing to work with private
schools. But he argues that government schools need help more because
they are often the last or only resort for India’s poorest and least
Mr. Premji, whose bright white hair distinguishes him in a crowd, comes
from a relatively privileged background. He studied at a Jesuit school,
St. Mary’s, in Mumbai and earned an electrical engineering degree at
At 21, when his father died, Mr. Premji took over his family’s cooking
oil business, then known as Western Indian Vegetable Product. He steered
the company into information technology and Wipro — whose services
include writing software and managing computer systems — now employs
more than 100,000 people. He remains Wipro’s largest shareholder.
While the foundation has been welcomed by government officials in many
places, the schools in Uttarakhand provide a glimpse of the challenges
After visitors left a classroom at Nagla school, an instructor began
leading more than 50 fifth-grade students in a purely rote English
lesson, instructing the students to repeat simple phrases: Good morning.
Good afternoon. Good evening. Good night. The children loudly chanted
them back in unison.
Another teacher later explained that the instructor was one of two
“community teachers” — local women hired by a shopkeeper to help the
understaffed school. Although under government rules Nagla should have
nine trained teachers for its 340 students, it has only four.
Underfunding is pervasive in the district. But so are glimmers of the
educational benefits that might come through efforts like the Premji
Surjeet Chakrovarty, now a 15-year-old secondary school student, is a
graduate of Nagla and still visits his old school regularly. The son of a
widower who is a sweeper at a local university, Surjeet aspires to
become a poet and songwriter — something he attributes to the
encouragement of his former teachers at Nagla.
“My teachers here gave me so much motivation to write,” he said.
One of those Nagla teachers, Pradeep Pandey, shared credit with the
Premji Foundation, and its assistance in developing new written and oral
“Before, we had a clear idea of the answers and the child had to repeat
exactly what we had in mind,” Mr. Pandey said. “We can’t keep doing what
we did in the past, and pass them without letting them learn anything.”