Mind the skills & inequality gap

In one of the three tiny rooms that make up ‘Jeevanshala’ school in village Madham, 7,000 feet up in the Indian Himalayas, a small group of fifth graders is racking their brains trying to figure out how can they make the balloon-powered car they have made with used plastic water bottles go faster. Once they figure out that the trick is not filling in more air in the balloon but attaching two balloons to the bottle instead of one, they will move to the next task – replace the balloon with a DC motor fitted with a propeller. Later still they will tinker and figure out the circuit required to make a toy car go forward, reverse and turn left and right. They will then learn about sensors and convert their toy car into a robot.

These tinkering workshops on 21st-century life skills are conducted by Timeless Lifeskills (TLS), a London-based charitable organisation. In earlier TLS workshops these young students have made electronic art using copper tape, coin cell, and LEDs; they have been on field trips as citizen journalists to produce a school newspaper; learnt to create stop-motion animation on various topics of study like the solar-system and the local environment; role-played standing for local village-level elections; run a mock village council meeting, and a lot more.

Like Jeevanshala, TLS has been working with 14 other rural schools and schools for the underprivileged in several villages in the Indian Himalayas, in Kutch region of the Western Indian state of Gujarat, and in villages in the vicinity of New Delhi, to impart skills that have become essential for success and wellbeing in the 21st century.

When advances in technology transform the economic landscape, and required skills are not imparted at the same pace, the result is inequality. The ongoing industrial revolution, which is being described as the 4th Industrial Revolution, is transforming the global landscape like never before. This poses a big risk that the already wide inequality gap will become even wider. The raison d’être of TLS is to impart life skills essential for thriving in the 21st century, to less privileged students, through a combination of hands-on workshops, online 

learning content, and the creation of learning communities using social media and messaging services like Whats App. Given the growing ubiquity of mobile phones and internet connectivity, even in rural India, the online component will help reach a large number of students.

At TLS, we believe that like the primary colours, Red, Green and Blue, that can be mixed to create millions of colours, there are three fundamental life skills that are essential for flourishing in the 21st century: ‘Yearning to Learn, Learning to Learn, and Learning to Be’. Yearning to Learn means firing up the intrinsic motivation of young learners by remaining ever curious and becoming self-inspired to learn all life long. Learning to Learn means becoming self-directed learners who can take ownership of their learning, think critically, know how to make the most of the online and other learning resources available, and understand how they learn (i.e. meta-cognition, or learning about own learning). Learning to Be is having the ability to live a joyful life, of meaning and purpose.

We imagine these three fundamental skills to be the bottom layer of the education cake and to this, we add another layer – the ‘Mode of Thinking’ layer. Too much emphasis on exams and on completing the syllabus has led to schools teaching only the ‘content’ of a discipline and not the mode of thinking of that discipline – how an expert in a discipline thinks. For example, a scientist will follow the scientific method of observation, hypothesis/prediction, experimentation and inference; while a historian will analyse a claim on the basis of the provenance of primary and secondary sources. Learning different modes of thinking enables students to look at a topic through several different lenses and enriches their perspective, an essential skill when so many businesses of influence – media, advertising, politics and even religion – are constantly trying to persuade youth to think in a particular way.

The third layer in the education cake is ‘familiarity with the emerging technologies’ that will shape the future of today’s youth – robots, drones, sensors, internet of things, virtual reality, 3D printing and more.

In the context of rural India, the dearth of employment opportunities in rural areas which is leading to emigration to over-crowded cities to get low-wage jobs, implies adding another layer to the education cake – a layer that prepares the rural youth for self-employment in emerging domains, like setting up their own micro-enterprises in graphic design, animation and other futuristic areas. The youth also needs to be empowered to make the most of the emerging ‘gig’ or freelance economy, where online marketplaces like Etsy, that aggregate the fragmented global demand for hand-made art & craft, or online platforms that aggregate demand for B&Bs and homestays offer micro- entrepreneurial opportunities like selling a rural home-stay experience to a global market. Tapping into this gig economy requires being IT savvy and cultivating the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Instead of following a didactic pedagogy, TLS imparts these skills through tinkering and project-based learning. In addition to the workshops, TLS is setting-up Tinkering Labs, or Laboratory 2.0, where children get hands-on with emerging technologies by doing projects. While working on projects students also learn other essential 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and decision making. Along with the Tinkering Labs, TLS is also setting-up Library 2.0 where with the help of tablets and smartphones children can access a multitude of online learning resources. Using tablets and the Internet for project work also helps students learn information literacy skills in a fun way. These Tinkering Labs and Digital Libraries are low cost and easy to set up thus offering potential scalability.

The burgeoning problem of lack of relevant skills resulting in widening of the inequality gap is not limited just to the developing world. Even in the developed countries, including the United Kingdom, this is becoming a major challenge. Thus, TLS in association with EP, is shortly going to start its ‘new skills for the new economy’ programmes for the less-privileged students in London.