The curious case of Outliers & the Pursuit of Excellence – II

“School ke liye fees thodi lagti hain, uniform lagta hain… uniform… !”

– Aamir Khan, in the movie ‘3 Idiots’ (2009)

If you happened to be in India in the year 2oo9 and like to watch movies that do not require you to switch your brains off, chances are that you might have watched the movie ‘3 Idiots’. One of the best things that I liked about the movie was the idea about how education ought to be – all learning that is in sync with your passion, the rest being details.

As mentioned earlier, when reading a book like Outliers, one starts to wonder whether the same principles that are applicable for individuals to reach Point B from Point A, are also applicable to organizations including businesses, schools and colleges at large.

Just recently, one of my former teachers from school, Ms. Diana Charles (fellow Columbans would fondly remember her as the person who inducted us into the Spelling Bee) shared a link on her FaceBook wall: What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success, which speaks about how the Finnish schools are achieving excellence in schools. Though the article focuses on 2-3 few key points, the one idea that really caught my imagination was  the point that the Finnish schools were achieving great results by focusing on ‘equality’ more than excellence.

It was with a similar idea in mind that I had met up the co-founders of a social organization in early 2010. The team was working on the education of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, and were doing this on the weekends from within St. Columba’s School (SCS), the classrooms being provided for free by the school towards this. The idea discussed was a simple one – to make efficient use of the ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act‘, bearing in mind that just making the ‘right’ compulsory was not going to solve the problems. If you think about it, there is more to making the ‘right’ work than putting a child in a great school and hoping that we have solved the education problem. The usual hindrances being how the transition works out for the kid, and as to how he/ she adjusts to the new setup.

Factors that need to be taken into account

Factors include – the books, school bag, lunch (‘Stanley ka Dabba’ anyone?) , stationary, and last but not the least – the uniform*. Easier said than done though, because the list adds up to minimum INR 1,000, for a family whose monthly income would be in the range of INR 2200 – 3000 (or less).

(The uniform, in my opinion, is amongst the greatest levellers out there. It brings everyone under one roof, fosters a sense of brotherhood, takes out most diversity issues and gives all kids a level playing field – for all you know: kids, teachers and even your school canteen guy thin slices students on a daily basis, but most are not aware of it at a conscious level).

Whilst I toyed with a few ideas as to how the school could leverage and lend support to this initiative by spending least money and effort, I also got teaching the kids at the social org on weekends  (standards 2 to 5) during my free time to get an idea about their potential. My observations, in brief, were as follows:

1. The kids were extremely smart. 

Not only were the kids fast to grasp things if we made learning interesting but they were extremely smart and consistently on the lookout to negotiate and barter freebies (extra time to play games, toffees, chance to write on the blackboard, you-get-the-idea!) in lieu of study/ work done.

2. Rote learning levels were alarmingly high. 

What really ticked me off: The kids could recite all alphabets from A-Z, they could also write most alphabets in order… But should one randomly ask which alphabet was which, they had no clue!

Their math was comparatively better.

3. Some of the kids, especially the outstanding ones, could really thrive in an environment that a good school could offer.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait till I read about KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) in Outliers to figure out that quite a portion of the gap could be bridged by making education accessible to the kids more frequently. Some avenues were already in place at SCS, wherein the junior Columbans would interact with the kids with an eye on focused learning (more ideas given towards the end).

In Outliers, apart from learning about KIPP, it was interesting to read as to how the learning system of the Chinese were helping them perform better in school, hence laying the groundwork for success in their later years; plus of course the Chinese’ belief in hard work: “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich”; learning which can and should definitely be adopted/ adapted.

The benefits of a great environment for learning cannot be negated, and must be made full use of. I have always believed that simply inculcating the kids with knowledge won’t help them. Knowledge + Communication (not mutually exclusive!) will be the 2 things that will help kids do well going forward, more so with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. When kids interact and learn from each other (learning to communicate in a global language such as English would be a great enabler), and as they learn to interact and work with authority (skills they won’t usually pick up somewhere else); what can be realized is fast paced change which will help more and more people break the cycle of poverty based on their own merits and strengths, not to mention the talent and brainpower that comes to the market and which India can offer to the rest of the world.

p.s.: After a 3 month long pursuit in 2010, I managed to get an audience with Brother Lobo, Principal, St. Columba’s who was gracious enough to give me a 30 minute window to discuss the possibilities. The discussion ended on a positive note with us discussing that we could also speak with the Old Columban’s Association (OCA) and get them on board for some of the ideas discussed going forward. However, since I had decided to move on from the social organization by December 2010, I was not able to take this forward.

Having recently discussed this with a few teachers and having taken their inputs, I now intend to get back in touch with the concerned individuals at SCS/ OCA.

Where do we go from here?

I believe that the potential for change is huge when we start thinking of the possibilities. By ensuring that we put in place a system of merit by which the best of the students (from disadvantaged backgrounds) can be integrated into the private schools, we can make sure that there is a sense of urgency when it comes to encouraging the parents of these kids to make best use of the right. It will take a few success stories for the parents of these kids to start taking things seriously, so that the thrust on the importance of education is there even when the kids get back home from remedial centres. For it’s only when people start dreaming and believe in the hope of a better future that change begins to take place.

For schools, one of the ways to facilitate meaningful interaction is to tap into the stds VI-VIII and get each division to interact with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds just TWICE a month! (Basis: 5 divisions per standard * 3 standards = 15 standards = 15 individual days of interaction. 15 days * 2 = 30 days or One month. ) This interaction could be in the form of 40 min stay-backs (as calculated, just twice a month per student) where the current students interact with the kids on a planned basis, the structure of interaction based on what the kids are already learning/ not learning in their municipality schools.

The assumption here is that class VI onwards, the kids are capable of acting responsibly and helping the other kids on a conscious level (meaningful interaction with a focus on learning), plus we do not disturb the schedules of classes IX and X who would be getting into the exam mode for Class X Boards, or higher studies coaching.

We can also encourage kids graduating to the higher sections to donate their text books (the ones in proper condition), so that we can build a library of books which can be made accessible/loaned out to the kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

[** Do note that these are very basic ideas which can be implemented easily without incurring too much cost or effort. A better understanding via inputs from the concerned authorities would lead to more effective solutions, esp possibilities where the Alumni network joins in, leveraging on its own networks and resources to aid the efforts of the Alma Mater].

All said and done, if you can read this, be grateful to your parents, the One above and the Alma Mater… It’s time you paid it forward.


Apart from his professional commitments, Monce works with multiple genuine social organizations on their management problems on a ‘pro bono’ basis, and also serves as a panelist on Whiteboard, a fabulous initiative by Governance Counts and iVolunteer to connect everyone with genuine social entrepreneurs. 

A word of appreciation for Governance Counts and iVolunteer: Both organizations are working on fabulous initiatives to bring about fast paced social change. Their work has also been profiled by Forbes in Forbes India, Jan 2011 issue amongst the 5 unique Social Start-ups in India.