Category Archives: Education

Interview with… Ashish Rajpal

Every year Ashish Rajpal teaches science for fourth or fifth standard students at a school in Delhi. Not exactly business as usual for an MBA and the managing director of a company. But then teaching is Rajpal’s business at iDiscoveri and it was a similar stint of teaching fourth graders that laid the foundations of his popular XSEED programme a few years ago.

“I came back after doing my M.Ed at Harvard University eight years ago, with this crazy mission to change education in India,” says Rajpal, an MBA from XLRI. “Given that we have six million poorly trained teachers in India, I dove right into teacher training, but found that in itself did not change classroom practice or help the children ultimately.”

That’s when Rajpal himself started teaching science at a Delhi school. “And I found it’s incredibly tough to teach 45 children in a crowded classroom!” he says. “I realised that all this theoretical nonsense we’d been feeding the teachers meant nothing in a real-world situation. We needed something that worked in the classroom.”

The result was that iDiscoveri began to create minute-by-minute plans for the teacher to follow in class, including group work, experiments and other forms of experiential learning. And so XSEED was born. “Today we’ve created over 8000 lesson plans across all subjects for nursery to seventh standard, and XSEED reaches 450 schools across the country,” says Rajpal. “We’re hoping that number will reach 1000 by next summer.”

About a hundred of those schools are right here in Tamil Nadu, which is one of XSEED’s flagship states. “Although we stared in 2002 in Delhi, we found that the South was far more receptive to our ideas,” he says. “So we decided to focus on Southern states, and picked Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.”

Rajpal describes the programme as going inside the schools like ‘Intel Inside’ and doing not just lesson plans, but also teacher training, creating work books and doing quarterly assessments of students (“sort of like a stock market report”). Somewhat strange MBA-esque metaphors to use for an educational enterprise, but then that’s Rajpal for you – a mixture of starry-eyed idealism and businesslike pragmatism.

“I am an idealist at heart – I’d have to have been, to give up my well-paying corporate job in Paris, uproot my family and go do my M.Ed at the age of 31,” he says. “But my corporate experience for 10 years has also shaped me. Ideas aren’t enough – you have to make it work.”

He recalls how he applied in secret to Harvard, inspired by the birth of his children. And once there, he was “like a greedy hog”, making the most of the opportunities before him. “Intellectually, those were the best years of my life – I was getting to hang out with legends such as Howard Gardner and David Perkins,’ he says.

To ensure these ideals aren’t lost, iDiscoveri launched The School of Tomorrow conference here in Chennai last year, with the second, bigger edition around the corner (see box). Then there’s the leadership programme for young adults he’s working on, along with supplementary programmes to meet different needs of students and a national network of XSEED centres. Oh, and he’s considering diversifying to teaching English as well. It’s all in a day’s work for this educational entrepreneur.

BOX: The School of Tomorrow conference
The second annual edition of iDiscoveri’s The School of Tomorrow conference will be held on December 7, 2010 simultaneously in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, using Internet and videoconferencing technology.

It will feature several high-profile speakers, including writer and columnist Gurucharan Das, who will give the India Education Address, and leading American educationists Peter Senge of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and David Perkins of Harvard University, who will present the International Keynote Address.

In addition, there will be a micro-panel of educationists discussing issues of classroom and school practices and a macro-panel of leaders from the corporate sector discussing society’s expectations from education.

For details call 044-42658585 or log on to


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Interview with… D.J.K. Cornelius

D.J.K. Cornelius has designed so many machines and workstations for people with special needs in the last forty years that he’s lost count.

None of them have anything to do with his regular job as an industrial engineer. And he’s never patented any of his designs. But they’ve made a life-changing difference to hundreds of mentally challenged young people across the nation. And they’ve certainly given Cornelius himself more satisfaction than any designing he’s done on the job.

“It’s far more rewarding than what I was trained for professionally,” says Cornelius, founder of the Navajyothi Trust, which completed 40 years in 2009. “Others may say creating an industrial conveyor belt is more complex engineering, but changing people’s lives this way is much more satisfying.”

His specially crafted workstations are based on a simple principle – that modifying the working environment to suit the needs of the mentally challenged allows them to maximise their potential. “Rather than focussing on what they can’t do, you look at what they can, and find innovative ways to make the most of their abilities,” he says.

This means that youngsters at his institute (with IQs measured at 50 and below) today perform highly precise and complex tasks for companies such as Delphi TVS and Brakes India Ltd., creating diesel pumps for cars, perhaps, or bicycle or motorcycle chains, and earn a respectable salary.

“They aren’t given these jobs out of charity,” he stresses. “This is a business agreement, and the companies’ requirements are rigid.  At Navajyothi, every person is a social contributor, and they can hold their heads high.”

His journey began back in 1968, when he helped diagnose two children of close friends as being mentally challenged (he was a consultant for the Industrial Therapy Centre at the Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk at the time). An engineer with a love for medicine, he’d spent long hours reading his doctor father’s books on mental disability, and later in Presidency College, had worked with the psychology department, helping design equipment for experimental psychology.

“They came to me for assistance because they’d been running from pillar to post and hadn’t gotten a diagnosis,” he recalls with emotion. “When I broke it to them gently, they were shattered.”

Moved by the impact it had on the children and their families, he dedicated himself thereafter to the cause of mental disability.

“What I found sorely lacking was post school-age programmes, so that 16 year olds emerging from special schools were just left high and dry,” he says. “Employment facilities were more occupational than vocational – their income was a pittance and their products were just not marketable.”

And so he established the Navajyothi Trust in 1969, with a grand total of Rs. 3000 as the corpus of the trust (“A couple of friends pooled in Rs. 1000 each”) and designed his first workstation shortly after (“the more sophisticated the task it assisted them in, the more they’d earn” was his mantra).

Unfortunately, this project found no support in Chennai, and he began work instead in Bangalore under the aegis of NIMHANS, in a small rented residence with just three students, training them and introducing them to his workstations. Soon people began to hear about his work – a National Award came the trust’s way in 1981, and visiting dignitaries urged him to take his work across the country.

“They’d never seen anything like it before, and said it should reach more people,” he says.

That’s how he came to develop the Diploma in Vocational Training & Employment (DVTE ) to teach instructors to train the mentally challenged in his techniques. It became the first such course in India to be licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), and is today taught (in a modified form) at several institutes across the country, from Chandigarh to Thiruvananthapuram. In time, the little centre he started morphed into a full-fledged institute – training, creating research modules and publishing works, and of course, designing and developing his workstations. And in 2000, it finally shifted to Chennai entirely, after the trust was gifted land in Ambattur by the Tamil Nadu state government.

In these four decades, Cornelius has seen a lot change. “There’s greater awareness about disability today, and plenty of work has been done on the legal side, with a lot of rights being legislated,” says the 79-year-old, who is also one of the founding members of The Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, was associated with the National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped, and has served on several expert committees for government ministries. “But there’s still a need to infuse more science and technology into the fight.”

He adds with a smile: “I would like to spread my work into other areas of disability as well; I only hope I have enough time.”

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