Friday, August 31, 2012

Building experimentation capacity in rural schools in India: The Agastya way

“School in a lab” and “lab in a box” may seem paradoxical metaphors. However, Kuppam campus of Agastya Foundation has combined these two beautifully to create a rich learning experience for school children in rural India. In the process, Agastya has created a model which might create for the rural education what Grameen Bank has done to the micro-finance. What exactly has Agastya done? We got a glimpse of it during our memorable Kuppam visit earlier this month thanks to Dr. Shibu Shankaran and Ramji Raghavan. Here are three characteristics of Agastya-model that stood out.

Experience-first, explanation-next: Agastya has turned the learning process upside-down. How many of you remember anything about conservation of angular momentum? I don’t. However, when you sit on the swivel chair, hold the revolving cycle wheel in your hand and then turn it, you experience yourself revolving (see picture). This experience makes you much more receptive to understand the principle behind it. The whole of Kuppam campus is like a large laboratory where there are hundreds of instruments you can “play with” first.  However, what makes Agastya unique is that it has created a pedagogy (way of teaching) around it. When students come in the morning from nearby villages to the campus, they first perform experiments. Of course, you need to explain them enough for them to perform the experiment. 
Set-up without the kids 
Set-up with the kids
However, the major part of theory is taught after the experiment. On an average, a student within 30km radius of Kuppam visits the campus four times a year. And during each visit, he attends two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Isn’t four days a year too short a time? And what about the other students outside the 30km radius? Well, Agastya has thought about that too.

Agastya Hubli centre
Hub-and-spoke modelAgastya currently has 21 satellite centres spread across 10 states in India. In fact, when I visited Agastya’s Hubli centre last February I got to see the Bhishma’s chair and much more. Students in and around Hubli area visit the Hubli centre. Apart from this Agastya has created a “lab in a box” concept where instruments necessary to perform specific experiments are put in a box. And these boxes reach schools through 60+ mobile vans. Agastya is currently experimenting with a “lab in an auto” and a “lab on a bike” concepts. Making lab accessible to kids is just one part of the story. What about the teachers? Well, Agastya trains the teachers as well. However, what is perhaps even more impactful is the “young instructor leader” program. This program identifies bright students and trains them to become champions. What better way to learn than peers explaining it to you? You say, “Fine. But how is Agastya able to make scientific equipment available at low cost?” That leads to the third leg of Agastya’s model.

Build capacity to make low-cost instruments: When you are trying to reach millions of kids in several thousands of schools, cost of instruments matter. We visited the workshop in Kuppam campus where Agastya makes many of the student-friendly instruments. There were some which were made in Bangalore. Our 14 year old son said he wouldn’t mind doing an internship in the workshop.

Agastya is not claiming to be the “complete” institution. Currently, it is heavily biased towards hard sciences. Arts curriculum is just taking off. Theatre and music is nowhere to be seen. But, most importantly, Agastya is learning and innovating every day. Unlike most educational institutions in India its “idea box” is alive and breathing and language of experimentation is very much part of the culture. I wish Agastya a great future.

Lab in a box

Idea box at Agastya
Workshop for lab equipment
 Related article:
“Agastya is empowering rural India”, Ramji Raghavan’s interview at Education World, Mar 7, 2012. Ramji, the brain behind Agastya, explains the model and its impact.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why does Galileo smile in spite of the telescope fiasco?

Last month I got an opportunity to watch Bertolt Brecht’s play “The life of Galileo” at Ranga Shankara, Bangalore. The play was directed by Prakash Belawadi. In one of the scenes, the curator (Director as we would call him today) of the University of Padua storms into Galileo’s house. It is night and Galileo and his friend Sagredo are watching the sky through a telescope. The curator is upset because Galileo had falsely claimed authorship of the invention of telescope and got his salary raised by 500 scudi. Now, the curator has discovered that telescopes made in Holland are available on any street corner of Italy for a few scudi. Galileo is not upset with this news at all. In fact, he seemed happy to hear it and smiles. Why did Galileo smile in spite of the fiasco?

Did Galileo really lie? Yes. He falsely claims that the telescope is the fruit of his seventeen years of research. He had heard about the basic idea of telescope invented in Holland. He improves upon it and claims authorship. After the curator leaves Galileo explains to Sagredo, “Virginia (his daughter) will soon need a dowry. She is not intelligent. And then, I like to buy books. And I like to eat decently. It’s when I am eating that I get most inspiration.” Galileo wanted to savour a good life and he chose to capitalize on the telescope idea. Did Galileo smile because he could fool the authorities and get his salary hiked? Nope. Then what was it?

By 1610 (this Galileo incident), Copernicus’ mathematical model of heliocentric system (Sun at the centre) was 60 years old. However, it had not gained support from Astronomers because it clashed with the Church view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe and there was no evidence to support it. In 1600 (10 years earlier), Giordano Bruno, another Italian astronomer was burned to death by the civil authorities because he had supported Copernican view. Opposing Church was a game with high stakes.

With the help of telescope, Galileo had been able to observe the sky in more detail. For example, he studied four smaller planets near Jupiter one of which vanished after a few days. That concluded that the planet was revolving around Jupiter and not around the Earth. There was no scaffolding that was holding the universe up as the Church claimed. What was even more significant was that with telescopes being sold at street corners in Italy, anybody could verify what Galileo was observing. In Galileo’s words in the play, “The temptation offered by such a proof is too great. Most succumb to it, and in the long run-all”.

In other words, telescope had taken the experimentation capacity of average people to a completely new height. Unlike Bruno, Galileo can make claims which anyone can observe and check it for himself. This idea perhaps tickled Galileo and he smiled.

You can also watch this scene in the 1975 movie “Galileo”. It begins with the song:

No one’s virtue is complete:

Great Galileo likes to eat.

You will not resent, we hope,

The truth about this telescope.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Your hand is wiser than your head ever gonna be

Is thinking overrated? The core message from this movie, "The legend of Bagger Vance" which is loosely based on the dialogue between Arjun (Junuh here) and Bhagvan Krishna (Bagger Vance) in Bhagavad Gita seems to say so!

Junuh was a rising golfing star from Savannah Georgia

After a defeat in the World War I, Captain Junuh is traumatized and loses his swing

Junuh is coaxed into playing an exhibition match. During the match when Junuh is losing badly, he gets advice from his caddie, Bagger Vance, "It's time for you to see the field."

"Alright, what is the field?" Junnuh asks Bagger Vance

"You seek it with your hands"

Why seek it with hands? Because, "Your hand is wiser than your head is ever gonna be"

You can watch the scene on YouTube.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Managing a big bet: Dr. Ashwin Naik of Vaatsalya shares his experience

In the innovation leadership workshop I facilitated last month, we had a panel discussion on “Managing big bets”. During this discussion we got an opportunity to listen to Dr. Ashwin Naik, CEO, Vaatsalya, Dr. Ishwar Parulkar, Chief Systems Architect, Cisco and Jayesh Badani, CEO, Ideaken. Here is a summary of our discussion with Ashwin. I will summarize the other two discussions over the next few weeks.

Dr. Ashwin Naik (second from the left in the photo) is the Co-Founder and CEO of Vaatsalya, India’s largest hospital network catering to tier-II and tier-III towns. Started in 2005, Vaatsalya hospitals today are in 17 towns in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. He shared his experience from starting of the itch to scaling the business and his guiding philosophy in working through the challenges.

You can find the interview here.

The questions that got discussed were:

1. Where did the itch begin?

2. Did you see it as a big bet right from the beginning?

3. Did you visualize that you will be in 50 towns?

4. What happened in the early phase – say in the first six months or a year?

5. Did the image of who your customer is undergo any change? If so, what change?

6. What kinds of attributes do you use today to define your customer?

7. Why do you need to segment market in healthcare? Like you said, why can’t anybody be your customer?

8. What would be a couple of turning points in this journey?

9. How did you get local practitioners to join you in a place like Hubli?

10. What are your fears?

11. Vaatsalya has innovated on the business model. But once the business model is established, does Vaatsalya have to innovate?

12. How about innovation from the customer experience dimension – from the time customer enters to when he leaves after treatment?

13. Do you ever feel like quitting? How do you handle it?

14. What are your insights on building champions in the organization?

15. Suppose an idea comes from a housekeeper. How do you ensure it is not getting killed?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mahatma Gandhi and Right to Experiment (RTE)

Mahatma Gandhi was a master experimenter. However, when we ask, “How good was he in building experimentation capacity?” the answer isn’t so obvious. To begin the exploration, it makes sense to start with the basic requirement of building experimentation capacity – Right to Experiment (RTE). It is about giving permission to others to perform experiments.

Why is right to experiment important? Experimentation is at the heart of innovation. If you want to foster a culture of innovation, you would need more people come up with ideas and the perform experiments to test various assumptions associated with the ideas. How did Gandhi view this in his Ashram? Let’s start with his first Ashram – Tolstoy Farm in South Africa.

Tolstoy Farm operated under strict rules. What to eat and what not to eat, what mode of transport to use to go outside the farm, what time to sleep etc. was already decided. The rule was that if are traveling outside the commune for an errand or shopping trip for the commune then you could travel by train, third class. However, if you are going out for personal reason, it had to be walking. Gandhi still had legal cases and used to walk 21 miles to visit Johannesburg.

In one incident a young man made fun of two girls at Tolstoy Farm. Gandhi ‘as a warning to every young man’ cut long hair of the two girls. Manilal, Gandhi’s son, was already a teenager. He hadn’t undergone any formal education. And he wasn’t permitted to either. In fact, in a letter written to Manilal from a prison in South Africa, Gandhi justifies his position. Gandhi writes, “I know too that you have sometimes felt that your education was being neglected. … I have been reading Emerson, Ruskin and Mazzini. I have also been reading the Upanishads. All confirm the view that education does not mean a knowledge of letters but it means character building”. Note that the person preaching this is himself educated in England. In the words of Gandhi’s biographer Louis Fischer, the letter effectively said, “Your life remains tied to mine; you cannot go your own way.” Manilal, in fact, wanted to become a lawyer or a doctor. In short, you had little scope of experimentation if you were at Tolstoy Farm. Gandhi was by then 40 years old.

Fast forward a decade and now Gandhi and his followers are living at Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi writes about his wife Kasturbai, “Ba takes tea in spite of the fact that she lives with me. She also takes coffee. I would even lovingly prepare it for her.” So looks like there is some change in the attitude. Maganlal Gandhi was running a laboratory performing khadi experiments at the Ashram and reporting his findings at Young India newsletter. In fact, an open challenge was announced in 1919 for “the spinning wheel capable of turning out yarn five times the quantity turned by the common wheel”. The winner was to get Mr Rewashanker Jhaveri’s prize of Rs. 5000. Six entries were received from places like Baroda, Sialkot, Beneras etc.

Fast forward a couple of more decades and now the khadi movement had evolved into All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA). On December 30, 1938, Gandhi went to Wardha to inaugurate Magan Museum. Apart from khadi-related models, the exhibits included miniature models of various types of oil presses and contraptions used in paper making and oil-pressing and leather tanning industries. Gandhi said, “I would like you to regard the Magan Museum and the Udyog Bhawan not as the old curiosity shop, but as a living book for self-education and study”.

Looks like Gandhi’s view on RTE evolved. It started with no RTE at Tolstoy Farm to a couple of selected disciples experimenting at Sabarmati to a group experimenting at AIVIA. However, it never became his forte. I haven’t come across his concern that not enough people at his Ashram or in India are experimenting. But I could be wrong. Perhaps it is difficult to excel as a solver and a capacity builder at the same time. What do you think?


Louis Fischer, The life of Mahatma Gandhi, HarperCollins, 2009.

D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of M K Gandhi, volume 5 1938-1940, Govt of India.

Gandhi with microscope photo from