Many educational systems still rely on rote-learning, which imparts information without helping young people build the comprehensive skills they’ll need to be good students, adults, and citizens. Passion-based learning encourages students to pursue their interests while learning critical thinking and life skills. Monica Pesswani, the founder of The Apprentice Project, is committed to creating more holistic educational opportunities for children in India to help them explore their interests on the way to a more complete and useful education.
We had the opportunity to speak with Monica about her venture and are happy to share it with you!
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture?
Monica Pesswani: My parents are differently-abled and belonged to a refugee community in Pune, India. Besides their physical hurdles, they were denied basic opportunities like education and healthcare due to a lack of knowledge and resources. They realised that there was only one way to create a different fate for their children, a better quality of life, a broader mindset and access to opportunities that would help them break out of poverty: education.
I received basic education in school but was a victim of the “rote-learning” system. Even though I did well in school, I was out of my depth in college because I lacked the skills to communicate, collaborate, or even voice my opinion. It was at the age of 26 that I received a holistic education for the first time; I learnt literature through theatre, and leadership through music. This completely transformed me and helped me find my voice.
I soon realised that there are millions of Monicas in communities like mine, across India, that needed quality education and access to opportunities. This led me to co-found The Apprentice Project, a nonprofit that aims to bring holistic education to every Indian classroom and put an end to education inequities in India.
HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop The Apprentice Project?
MP: The kids! The best part of working with children is their honesty and enthusiasm. Witnessing the children enjoy and benefit from the program keeps me going. School visit days make the program come alive and help us understand the impact of the program.
HIL: What is your relationship with Mentor Me India and how does this relationship help you with your work?
MP: The Mentor Me Foundation is a one-of-its-kind organization that connects professionals – or mentors – from different walks of life with children from low-income communities – their mentees. The Mentor Me Foundation has two initiatives – The Mentorship Project and The Apprentice Project (TAP). While the former focuses on one-on-one mentorship for children from low income families in India, the latter equips these children with socio-emotional skills through an exploration of each child’s passion.
Currently, Mentor Me Foundation has impacted 10,000+ children from disadvantaged backgrounds with its relief efforts during school closures caused by Covid-19.
“Students in low-income schools in India spend the first 15 years of their lives without ever being asked, ‘what would you like to learn?’”
Co-Founder of The Apprentice Project
HIL: Why is choice-based learning so effective?
MP: Students in low-income schools in India spend the first 15 years of their lives without ever being asked, “what would you like to learn?”
TAP believes that the most effective approach for sustainable change is to enable children to understand themselves and achieve their goals through the medium of their innate passion. TAP uses choice-based learning, so children choose an area to study, whether it’s arts, coding, dance, etc. Their passion serves as a tool to build socio-emotional skills – such as problem solving, confidence, creativity, and more – and help them realize their true potential. And TAP’s approach is well supported: our solution is based on the Theory of Multiple Intelligence by Dr. Howard Gardner, Harvard University, Finnish school of education and heavily aligned to the National Education Policy (NEP) of our country.
To make delivery sustainable, we have created a mobile-based assisted self-learning platform where high-quality content in the form of videos and pdfs is delivered to children through a cell phone. We assist the children in self-learning the content by building practices in them, and engaging and motivating them with our volunteer mentor support groups on Whatsapp.
We also support the low-income school ecosystem in our country with open-source high quality content and training aligned with the National Education Policy.
HIL: What are the major challenges and opportunities facing the field of education today?
MP: The current education system in India allows for little exploration, with predetermined careers fixed partly by the education system, and majorly by the society which tells the children what they should become even before they explore what they should be learning. The curriculum is also decades old, with irrelevant methodologies and little experiential learning.
Poor infrastructure and low accountability within the public school ecosystem also hamper good education. Most low-income schools in India lack the most basic infrastructure, such as classrooms, benches, boards, and functional bathrooms. Discomfort due to lack of these resources not only affects learning outcomes but also leads to dropout.
Ultimately, Indian society doesn’t benefit from opportunities for communication, collaboration, and innovation that would be possible through a shared education that values critical thinking.
“The app will ensure that all children are able to express how they feel and learn what they love from home, which will enhance their self-worth and create positivity in their family.”
Co-Founder of The Apprentice Project
HIL: How has your venture been managing, adjusting, and/or innovating due to the challenges presented by Covid-19?
MP: Hundreds of millions of learners in India have been affected by school closures due to COVID-19. While children from higher socio-economic backgrounds receive better guidance and financial support from their parents, most children in the lower income families lack this.
The Apprentice Project works primarily with children of daily wage earners who make less than $200 a month per family, and who are the worst affected financially by Covid-19. An extensive survey that we did with students from low-income backgrounds indicated that about 90% of them feel bored, anxious, frustrated and sad in this quarantine period. Research shows that these students suffer from lack of access to online courses and tools, learning support, and a way to express their feelings. They’re often frustrated by their families’ struggles for basic necessities, their parents’ unemployment, and anxiety about school reopenings.
For most of these students, school is the only place that supports their aspirations, curiosity, and expression. Because of this, in addition to the learning lost, school closures negatively affect their mental health, cognitive skills, and behaviours due to the stressful and traumatic circumstances they’re living through. These issues will only further widen the achievement gap between children from high income and low income families, which nullifies the progress these children have made with our intervention.
To alleviate this learning crisis, we are creating a remote-learning application accessible across India that will engage these children in a productive manner. The app will ensure that all children are able to express how they feel and learn what they love from home, which will enhance their self-worth and create positivity in their family. This app will be supplemented by a network of mentors who explain the weeks’ activities, engage the students, track their progress, clear their doubts and motivate them to innovate through a chat based system.
This profile is part of our series on i-lab ventures changing the way we think about and approach education around the world. From teaching negotiation skills to improving students’ mental health, these startups are making sure students succeed in school and after.