Originally, Agastya was to be a kind of academic hothouse, a place to nurture the best and brightest of India’s rising generation. One of Agastya’s founding fathers, Dr. P.K. Iyengar, objected strenuously to this idea, on the grounds that India already had world-class educational institutions to serve its academic elite – the Indian Institute of Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, and a host of outstanding feeder schools. Dr. Iyengar certainly was in a position to know; as the former head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, he knew many of India’s greatest minds and was deeply familiar with the institutions that produced them.
Dr. Iyengar argued, “What is missing in India is the creative spark,” especially in government schools that taught solely from textbooks, drumming a prescribed set of lessons into their students – an approach typical of India’s rural schools, where resources are lacking, but children still need to pass their exams. Instead of learning by rote, said Dr. Iyengar, these children should be taught to solve problems, think for themselves and tap their innate creativity – and instead of an elite academy, Agastya should focus on the mass of rural students who most need to escape from the rote-learning box.
Ramji Raghavan agreed wholeheartedly. Moreover, Ramji and his team realized early on that it was no good to spark creativity among India’s rural youth if you didn’t simultaneously do the same for their teachers. The two transformations depended on each other. Thus, teacher training became a top priority for the Agastya International Foundation.
Even before Agastya opened its flagship campus, its teacher-training program was well underway, with help from Hari Parameshwaran and Professor V.G. Gambhir of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai. The first of these teacher-training sessions was held in Bangalore, and lasted about a day and a half, but feedback from the participating teachers said it should have gone on at least twice that long. Agastya was onto something: teachers were eager for this kind of training, and clearly relished the chance to improve their skills. In later training sessions held in Kuppam, Hari Parameshwaran was struck by the unabashed excitement teachers showed when they finally came to understand the science behind concepts they previously had known – and taught – only by rote.
Today, Agastya not only provides teacher training, it serves as a laboratory for testing and refining the most effective teaching methods and teacher-training strategies. The values behind this experimentation remain constant: teachers are taught the importance of humility – because, like their students, they are always learning, too. Humility enables teachers to welcome questions as a sign of interest from their students, rather than as a challenge to their authority. It sets a good example for students, and makes it easier for them to learn from each other – as well as their teacher.
Agastya helps teachers to unlock their creativity, using unconventional thinking to bring a sense of discovery, surprise, and delight into the classroom. Through group exercises, role-playing, and intensive discussions, teachers learn to incorporate experiential learning into their lessons: to engage children’s curiosity in ways that appeal to both their senses and their intellect. Teachers learn the value of using models and demonstrations, and are given practical training to successfully integrate these into their lessons. In turn, the teachers become change agents, indispensible partners in Agastya’s campaign to transform Indian education.