07/12/2012 03:07 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

Is Education Only About English and Math?

In India, we talk a lot about educating the poor, underprivileged, etc. Thousands of initiatives and projects have evolved since long to work on it According to a report by PRIA and John Hopkins University in 2002, a staggering 1.2 million NGOs operate in the country. Over the last 10 years the number must have doubled in the last 10 years.

There are many prominent educational NGOs which have gained a lot of traction and growth in terms of children impacted and reached. All these NGOs run various programs/fellowships for people interested to devote their time to work for educating the underprivileged. One of the common things that form a part of all these programs is the vision which talks about putting the underprivileged kids at par with the kids from top end schools of the country. But one of the major issues that concerns me is that most of the programs are focused a lot towards English and maths and there seems to be neglect towards other subjects such as Hindi, General Awareness, etc. The spotlight is too much on English whereas other languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, etc. (the regional languages) are not being paid much attention to.

Being a teacher for a year in grade 3 in a low-income school in New Delhi, there are few perspectives in which I have learned and developed through various interactions and experiences. Whenever I enter my class, there are some questions that run around my mind. Would making my students proficient in math and English really put them at par with kids from top end schools and societies? Is education only about teaching them for exams and getting the highest marks? I personally think, we are aiming too much for them. In the process of bridging the academic gap, we are pressuring them and losing out on exploring their creativity and potential. To explain my point of view, I would take an example from my school.

A girl, age 12, in my class belongs to a family of seven, having five siblings and parents. She stays in small rented room with all the siblings sleeping on the floor. She is academically 2.5 years behind in all subjects. Now even if I teach her English and math and she excels in them, do you really think she would get into a premier college and pursue her undergraduate degree? I may sound like a pessimist, but I feel the answer is "no" because she doesn't have the requisite money given the fact that her family hardly gets three square meals a day. In these communities, most families get their daughters married by the age of 18-20 and this girl is in grade 3. So she wouldn't be able to finish even grade 10, an important milestone in school life in India. Thus, I feel that the current approach of focusing too much on academics isn't the only thing we should put our brains on. In India, we always perceive education as a gateway to degree and jobs. Why can't it be a tool to empower girls and women to fight for themselves? It should not be just about making them proficient in math and English, but it should also be about imbibing skills that would help them in the future. For example, teaching them Hindi (which they can just speak, not read and write) would help them to fill up forms like citizenship form, telephone registration forms, unemployment forms, etc.

Thus, I think we need to have holistic approach to educate the kids coming from low-income backgrounds. It wouldn't be so easy for kids who have never been taught properly to grasp things in a jiffy. The time to get acquainted with the idea of being taught and going to a proper class can be different for various kids. So, the right thing is to let them grow at their own speed and focus on making them realize their own potential and empower themselves to survive in this world.