Social change from within classrooms: STTI

Student Think Tank for India started in the year 2014, and was originally envisioned as a network of college students across the world, with the objective of promoting a culture of involved inquiry. The rationale for STTI was that an effective education should include spaces that promote civic engagement and critical thinking – and that if it doesn’t exist, we should create one. The benefits of are wide ranging – be it for personal, professional or civic reasons.
Throughout 2014, as we continued our discussions and research papers, we changed our question to ask: how can we create similar spaces in schools?

Over the last year, we have partnered with schools to set up clubs for students from class 9 to 12.  It’s an open space where we’re learning to raise and answer important questions abour social, economic, political and environmental problems.These clubs are led and organised by Moderators, usually college students or young adults. Our model is built on student initiative: participation is voluntary, and we choose topics that students want to talk about (See our sessions on topics ranging from gender to food systems to engineering education). As Moderators, all of us passed out from school not too long ago, and we’ve made a conscious effort to not turn this into a lecture series.


Our discussions and activities are very interactive – using Project Based Learning, Service Learning and Thinking routines – so that students really think about the issues and form their own interesting questions and opinions. Basically, it’s a lot of fun. 🙂 Apart from regular sessions, we often invite eminent guests who conduct workshops, and take part in field trips to observe and understand the world up close.

(See our annual update of 2015:

What Do We Have Going For Us?

  • Global network: One of the most prominent STTI chapters is based in Purdue University. Besides this we have active members from UPenn and Cornell University. STTI is supported by professors and students from some of the best universities within the country and internationally.
  • Fast Paced Growth: We started with 2 school clubs in Hyderabad in 2015. Within a year, the enthusiastic response has led us to start 5 clubs in Hyderabad, and new chapters in Delhi, Bangalore and Coimbatore.
  • Recognition from Ashoka India’s first Youth Venture programme, which makes us part of a network of some of the world’s most pathbreaking social innovators.

How Can You Get Involved?

Currently, we’re looking for Moderators in all 4 cities. As a Moderator, you are required to dedicate 2 hours a week for a minimum period of 3 months. You can be from any stream of study, but the only real requirement is that you bring curiosity, and fulfil your responsibility as an educators: the last thing we want to do is pass on wrong/ incomplete information, or conduct boring and ineffective activiites. There will be a short period of training before entering schools, so that Moderators are able to better understand STTI’s vision, and the process of facilitating a school club.

What Is In It For You?


You will get to work with people across the country in the process of bringing about a change in a system that is so critical to the growth of our society. Along with the chance to impact the learning experience of many students and their schools, working with STTI is a frame to explore various professionally valued qualities: research, mentorship, networking, and entrepreneurship.
This opportunity is guaranteed to be a growth experience, and is structured as an unpaid internship with a letter of recommendation at completion. 

What’s the end goal?

No matter which career students choose to enter, they do it as engaged and critical thinkers. As citizens with a basic working knowledge of all the issues that the country faces, so they can channel their energy – in big or small ways – to solving them. All of us at STTI are involved in it because we are convinced that the value of real education lies in fueling this inherent passion of students .If you share this vision, we would love to hear from you!


Write to us at, and explore our past work at If you’re interested in applying to be a moderator, visit this page:

(Note: Credits to Isha Malik for putting together this great post!)


What was I up to in 2015?

Apart from college and general Delhi-dallying, I spent a good part of 2015 working with an amazing team of people – spread across the country, but connected by the belief in Why we need something like Student Think Tank for India.

Our Annual Update for 2015 (click on the image to read it) is a snapshot of where the organisation is right now, and where we want to go in 2016. There has been a good amount of growth since I wrote this report in January – the team is growing, schools are opening up to us, and we’re gaining more clarity on what we want this educational experience to achieve.

Happy reading, and I always look forward to critical feedback and questions!

Annual Update poster.jpg


Student Voice at #changethescript

I enjoy going to conferences. Listening to the big names, getting to know about the hundreds of new things being carried out in pockets across our huge population. But education conferences — and education in general — has continued with the practice of not listening to its most important stakeholders: the children themselves.

Change the Script, Dream a Dream’s annual conference was refreshingly different. The event was hosted by children who are participants or graduates of their Life Skills programmes, and their confidence spoke volumes about Dream a Dream. Across the halls, you could see young children among the usual audience of teachers, principals, policy-makers. Vishal Talreja’s opening address highlighted the importance in education of listening to children – the rest of the conference proved it.


Our hosts Mamtha and Rajesh


My favourite part of the conference was the Youth Keynote Panel, where students from innovative learning spaces responded to the question: What changes do you think our education system needs?

Now, I know we’ve thought about and responded to these questions way too many times – in arguments with uncles, in Sunday op-eds, in every education/employment conference and in the legends and myths of entrepreneurs. But I’ll encourage you to listen to a few snippets of this discussion, where students share their experiences and extremely valid criticisms.

We had Pallavi Gopal, Dream Graduate of Dream a Dream Program; Akshaya Aravindh, student of TVS Academy, Hosur; Arpit, a student at Muni International School and Soumithro Sarkar, Participant, Dream a Dream Program. I couldn’t capture Soumithro speaking. A big loss, because he was witty and pretty damn articulate.

The discussion was followed by a round of questions from the audience. Akanksha asked about how personalised, student-driven learning would drive excellence. Akshaya responded that following one’s interest brings out the best in a person, and that excellence can be defined in a thousand ways outside the frame of a 3-hour examination. I don’t entirely agree.

As self-directed learners, I think that we can easily use the practice of following our own pace & standards as an excuse to shy away from pegging our progress or abilities against any kind of standards. It can make us complacent and delusional, taking us down the vague hole of relativism, where nothing should be measured and everything is acceptable. A friend and I were in that obstinate place for a few months, at a time when we were out of school, and trying to chart our own learning paths, but we were lucky to have people keep us accountable, and in touch with reality. This is a common problem but not an inevitable one, and folks across the education spectrum respond to it differently. 

A gentleman asked Arpit why teachers dumb down the standards a question, and answered it himself. They do it to cater the bottom-average section of different “intelligence levels”.

Even though that’s a valid explanation, it got me very, very annoyed. To which another educator responded, “Sir, students are not talking about what is, they are talking about what can be.” I saw where that annoyance was coming from. It was an irritation I feel when explanations of how current systems work are used as speedbreakers to re-imagining those very systems.

Dream a Dream as an organisation sounds like it is built on an engaging base of student-centred learning, and they aren’t alone. More and more learning spaces and the people who build them are realizing that children need to be an active part of that process, not just as passive, end-of-chain consumers. (Favourite: Creativity Adda)

By the end of the session I was reminded of Nikhil Goyal’s writing, and StuVoice’s work across the US. In particular, this: On a field trip across America, they are collecting students’ stories of school, and ideas for education reform. 

Arivu 2014. Theme: Rice

The learning methodology at Vidya Vanam is shaped each term around a theme: this time, it was rice. Throughout the term, all subject areas explore this decided theme, culminating in Project Day, a showcase of the community’s learning.

Theme-based learning

Click on this to view the album:

As you browse through the album there is a progression of the theme from one subject area to another. For example, in Math there is lots of measurement and statistics around rice; Science explores Biology and Agriculture; English, Hindi and Tamil has stories and poems, and the languages are used as vehicles of documentation and expression.

As you also go through pictures also of recipes, art work, intricate models meticulous crafts, you see that academic subjects are but one part of the learning.

Working with just the head, to the exclusion of the hands and the heart, could never lead to such cohesion in these students’ doing, and being. What is holistic understanding? The learners, they hear about the history of rice, and its related economics, and its price today, how they grow it in their farms and families, what their school garden looks like and how Gopi is the jester and Manav the resource-box, the dance that Archana and Kalpana choreographed, the different parts of rice that work well in craft — hay, husk, puffed rice — oh, hay rhymes with lay!, we could make a poem out of this… turns out there have been songs on rice for years immemorial! What are their memories, and those of their grandparents’? Bt cotton has reduced a community to a commodity, surely we need to understand and debate this… and so on. It all simply grows on them. Organically. Everything is part of a whole and they are wholly a part of it.

No wonder then, when P Sainath, the Chief Guest of the event, with great generosity and without haste, took time to say these words at the close of Project Day (accompanied by Tamil translation by the Director, Prema Rangachary):

P Sainath speaks to the Vidya Vanam community

First of all, thank you for inviting me here. It has been a fantastic experience. Well, on the way here from the airport, I requested that before I speak, I should see your project and exhibition. And I’m very glad I insisted on that because otherwise I would really have made a fool of myself.

Everything that I have seen today was of such high quality. I want say that — in the order of which I saw it — the singing, which was beautiful, the dance which was so good, the debate I heard here today on GM crops — it was so good. Both for and against, the speakers were of extremely high quality, the arguments were of extremely high quality. I can tell you that the level of the debate that I saw here was more sophisticated than what I find in the media, the TV channels and newspapers. There were real questions asked, and real questions were addressed. You could disagree with one side or the other, but it was a high quality debate far more sophisticated than what I see on television.

I had many things to say which I will not say now, because you have said it all in your exhibition.

Today as your are celebrating the theme of rice, all over the country, similar festivals are going on. In Bengal, Nobano, the new rice festival is being celebrated. In Tripura, Mayunamma, the goddess of rice is being worshipped this week. It is happening all over the country — it is so central to our existence as a society, as a nation. And for more than half the population of the world, as your exhibition shows us, this is the staple crop. So it is the number one crop in the world in that sense.

In the discussion that you had on whether GM is good, or Bt is good, what methods of production we must use, you know, on the one hand, the product we call rice is such an important, such a beautiful thing. On the other hand, the condition of the rice growers is not good at all, because of the prices they get. The actual producer makes very little income; people above him or her, they take much of the income — the big companies, the merchants, the money-lenders, they make the money from the rice.

That is also the story worldwide. Mostly rice is grown in Asian countries; the profits in rice are made outside of these countries. In fact, almost a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore, the first winner of the Nobel Prize outside of European, he said in one line: “Food is a source of great prosperity. But the production of food is a source of great misery.” — because the producer makes very little.

Some of the most ancient sources of cultivation of rice are in Eastern India. In fact, we know that there is evidence of grain in the Indus Valley civilisation, which was almost 2,000 years ago. However, there are even older sites of cultivation of rice in India. In Orissa, there are two districts called Koraput and Malkangiri. There is evidence that rice was domesticated in these places 8,000 years ago, second only to China. Even now, who grows it is very interesting. It is grown by very poor tribals and adivasis, by the Garabas, the Parajas, and the Khons. They have been growing rice for thousands of years, and they are the holders of some of the greatest knowledge of rice. So though many adivasi groups and tribes are not rice eaters, even then, those tribes that are, from the Koraput region, they are the custodians of the historical legacy of rice in this country.

There is a reason why some of the ancient tribes are also so good at rice, and it has something to do with the character of rice itself. Just like you have done so many projects here, there has been a very big project in the world recently, comparing the social structures of rice and wheat. And the difference is this: that rice-growing is much more a community activity, a collective effort. It brings people together and they work in greater synchronisation and harmony. Wheat-growing, according to the studies that have been coming out in the last 2-3 years, is much more an individual product. You set your crop and you wait for the rain. But in rice-growing, it’s very complex. Lots of people have to work together — for the transplantations, for seeding, for irrigation, for the watering of the plants. It requires a large scale collective effort of coordination and synchronisation. Rice-growing communities are more closely knit than wheat-growing communities.

Also, the role of women’s labour is greater in rice, in paddy, than in most other crops.

The food security of a nation and the security of a nation is very largely dependent, and going to be more dependent, on the production of food grain, especially rice. In your exhibition, you had mentioned MSSRF, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, and the founder of MSSRF, Dr.M.S.Swaminathan himself said about 2-3 years ago, “Today the world is ruled by those nations that control the guns. In ten years’ time, the world will be dominated by those who control the grains, and not the guns.”

Rice is already the biggest crop in India, bigger than wheat. But as Tagore said, those who produce and those who exploit the product called rice, have different benefits. Indeed, half a dozen companies control the rice price of the world in the markets and commodity exchanges. It is not the farmers who control it, it is not the women who do the paddy transplantation — she has no say in the price of rice, in the profits — but just half a dozen companies which control the product made by the labour of millions of others.

Everywhere in this country where rice is consumed, there is a goddess, a deity of rice: Annapoorna, Dhanyaalakshmi, Mayunamma. Even as you travel to homes in the east, there is a sacred space in every house where rice of the previous year is stored. And then, when the new rice is harvested, it is replaced, and continued to be worshipped. In spite of all this, though our total production is growing, little by little each year, the situation of how much rice we need to grow and how much we are growing is not good. And, the varieties of rice that we have are reducing very fast. So we need to be giving a lot more attention to rice cultivation, to rice cultivators, and to the women farmers who are the basis of rice production in this country.

Lastly, I want to answer the question that was put to me from the stage. Again, the debate on the GM crops was of extremely high quality, the points were very clear, the arguments of both the sides were excellent. As a journalist, as a reporter, as a writer, I cover agriculture. One last word that was said by a young man here. He said, “Okay, you’re saying that we have no evidence now. Maybe 35 years from now there will be evidence.” That has happened in many products. For hundred years, we refused to accept the existence of evidence that tobacco causes cancer. Today we know, after millions of deaths.

My answer to the question is this: We must do the research You can do genetic engineering research, or any other type of research. But it has to be subject to three or four conditions. One, you don’t have science for the sake of science. You have it to address an issue — how does it address the livelihoods of people. That is one condition.

Second is — Also, I heard in the debate, it was Bt versus Hybrid. In India, Bt is also a Hybrid. It is not a straight variety. The Bt cotton introduced in India is a genetically modified crop, of a hybrid variety. What’s used in the US is a straight variety. So in India, even Bt cotton is a hybrid cotton.

Also, we need to worry about the loss of varieties. Where Bt cotton has come, ancient Indian traditional cotton has been wiped off. But apart from Bt, and apart from hybrid, there were also cottons that were neither Bt nor hybrid but from the Indian soil. Those were the cheapest to grow, they did not need pesticides because they are native. They require very little water, they grow in Rajasthan. We destroyed all those varieties of cotton. And cotton, today, is the sector that takes the most amount of pesticides where earlier, cottons from India, China and Egypt were famous. Today, even the manufacturers of Bt have admitted that other pests are affecting even their cotton. That’s why they are changing from Bolgart 1 to Bogart 2. Officially they have admitted that the first Bt cotton they bought, the pests are immune to them.

So think about livelihoods, usefulness, cost… It is about 200-300% more costly to grow these present varieties of cotton, than it was 15 years ago.

And lastly I wanted to say, all the projects that I saw, I was deeply impressed by your method of learning. I congratulate both the students and the teachers who have done such a good job. Even a simple project like the Butterfly project, the Frog project, it was a different kind of learning which I’m sure will take you in a better direction than the kind of education and schooling that I had.

I think I know quite a bit about rice, but I did not know that
Nakasone means “middle root”, and Toyota means “bountiful paddy field”. I had no idea of this till I came here. I congratulate all of you, I think this a great effort, a brilliant, brilliant exhibition. The debate was terrific, your songs were great. And I think this method of learning will educate you better than the method of learning which we understood, where everything that came from outside the country was better.

Thank you very much.

A voice recording of the speech (with Tamil translation by Prema Paati) is available here

– – – – – – – –

With the first performances of the day taking place in the field, I slipped under the proverbial red ribbon, yet uncut, into the exhibition hall. The camera, detailed projects and an early visitor can make for an exquisite, intimate experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking at the exhibits, and documenting them in silence. In the album there are also interspersed pictures with children manning their exhibits, explaining their ware, and sharing each others’ projects; these were taken later. A deep gratitude for Aarooran, his camera, the photography he taught me and the photographer that he is.

National Conference on Education for a Caring Society


National Conference and Workshop

29TH AND 30TH, MAY 2014

Vidyavanam, Anaikatti

A caring society is the need of the hour. Violence stalks society and ‘care and share’ is a lost concept in the wild race of self-aggrandizement. Has education failed society in inculcating such values? Has this led to a spurt of violence?What should be an environment of true learning?

Caring calls for an inclusive society. Inclusive not just in terms of the differently- abled but also in terms of caste, religion, gender, culture and socio-economic backgrounds. Inclusive enough to encompass the environment, the sentient and insentient beings – why, the entire universe.10336800_10152411783184513_83906621692955617_n

It calls for breaking barriers between teachers and students, teachers and school managements, parents and teachers, parents and children and establishing harmony in all these relationships. It demands that all these stakeholders look at the education of children as their collective responsibility. It invites us to revisit the thoughts of those great minds who had diverse approaches but finally agreed that education was the way to instill the value of ‘care and share’ in young minds. It prompts us to reflect upon the extent to which we are being caring in our day-to-day lives. For everything begins now – and here. Can a conference jolt us into collectively looking at how we can bring back such concerns centre-stage?

Through this conference we seek to bring together a variety of theoretical and empirical perceptives to arrive at a better understanding of ‘care and share’. We will revisit the thoughts of great minds on education and through interactive sessions, throw open various strategies that can be adapted for mainstream schools.

The sub-themes of the conference include:

  1. Inclu
    sion in the classroom and school
  2. Inclusion of nature
  3. Building relationships
  4. Developing empathy
  5. The role of art and sports
  6. Social science in building citizenship

Some of the important speakers who have committed to be a part of the conference include: Dr. Swami Atmapriyananda – Vice Chancellor, Vivekananda University, Dr. Shanta Sinha – Former Chairperson, NCPRC, Dr. Uma Das Gupta – Writer and Educationist, Ms. Gowri ishwaran Educationist, Dr. Pramod – SACON, Environmentalist, Dr. Rajan Gurukkal – Social Scientist, Dr. Rohit Dhankar,Vidvan T.M. Krishna – Musician,Researcher, Author, Dr. Alok Mathur Director Rishi Valley School, Mr.Ashok Sajjanhar, Professor Kunhi Krishnan and many more.

10322713_10152419252439513_2482852085624645995_nThe workshops for educators will focus on classroom practices that can be adapted in mainstream schools. We expect at least 100 educators from public and private schools to participate in the conference.


This is my first time participating at a conference! Prema Paati and the entire Vidya Vanam family have been working very hard through the summer break to put this together, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to pitch in where I can. She let me invite Chintan Girish Modi for a workshop, whose work I have been following on Facebook for a while now. Just finalising my script for the hosting, and hoping that the rain gods stop their flurry soon. 

The power of Open Schooling

Aditi at National Institute of Open Schooling's 25th Anniversary celebrations, Chennai
Aditi at National Institute of Open Schooling’s 25th Anniversary celebrations, Chennai

This is a transcript of my speech given at the National Institute of Open Schooling’s 25th Anniversary celebrations at Chennai, where I was recognised as the all-India topper for the Senior Secondary April 2013 exams.

Each time I open an NIOS textbook, I am greeted with the words – “Congratulations! You have accepted the challenge to be a self-learner. NIOS is with you at every step…”

I am happy because here in my hand is a powerful tool to follow my dreams.

My story is not an unusual one. I do not have any exceptional sporting talent — like Vandana here — and nor is mine a tale of academic rags-to-riches. But like any other person of my age, I have some interests that I wished to explore, not after ‘settling down in life’ (does this ‘settling down’ ever get completed?) but right now, as a child. NIOS helped me to pursue these interests in two ways: one, by studying the subjects of my choice – Economics, History, Accounts and Psychology. Secondly, by allowing me to study at my own pace, I was able to pursue interests that were non-academic but equally important to me.

Normal schooling would not have allowed me to pursue this self-directed experiment in education. And it is for this reason that NIOS plays a very important role in education and society. It gives us children leverage over our lives.

On one hand, NIOS has helped young prodigies to work towards their pursuits without missing out on formal academic education. On the other hand it has helped learners with difficulties in reaching their academic goals. But in between the ends of this spectrum there are so many children like you and me who do not wish to stay in the school system — not because we cannot cope with it, but because we do not want to. We believe and aspire for an education outside the four walls of authority and convention.

There are so many people like us who do not thrive in the conventional system, but do not know that they have another option. And it is for this reason that each of us must become personal ambassadors of NIOS. Whenever I explain the concept of NIOS to anybody, more often than not, they say, ”Wow, I didn’t even know that such a great framework exists!”

We have to spread the word about the power of open schooling!

As we all know, many innovative and informal learning models have been set up in the country. They are being built in the metro’s slums and in the minority communities. They are being set up by people who teach simply out of the love to teach. These models are not striving to be schools, and are educating people successfully just the same. If we could hand over the tool of open schooling to these people, I have no doubt that their effectiveness will increase manifold.

It is no small achievement to be the largest open schooling system in the world. But we still have a long way to go; fortunately for us, the road ahead is well-defined. We need to strengthen our contact and information centres. As we heard today about NIOS being taken to minority groups, unskilled workers, rural learners, we understand that it can be integrated it into people’s larger needs of learning, career and life in so many different ways. We need to spread the word, NOW, never knowing who is going to benefit from it!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr.Ravi, Chennai Regional Director, NIOS, all our chief guests, and NIOS at the Centre. Most of all, I’d like to thank my wonderful family for letting me fly.


Also published on Swashikshan: The Indian Homeschoolers’ Association’s website:

Self-directed learning from the NIOS experience has been an inspiration for my working on Student Think Tank for India, where we’ve put student curiosity and initiative at the centre of the school clubs. Check it out at

What we want to inherit from you

We wrote this for a talk to trigger tonight’s panel discussion on Individual Responsibility towards Coimbatore, organized by CATS (Coimbatore Arts and Theatrical Society). Do you agree with this, youth of Coimbatore?

Rajendra Chozha was one of the greatest conquerors of India. Under him, the Chola influence reached up to the Ganges, in Bengal and right across the ocean to Singapore and Indonesia. Although his achievements were many, they were still built on the empire that his father Raja Raja Chozha had built from scratch. Motilal Nehru’s idea of modern education shaped Jawaharlal Nehru, and I daresay we attribute our freedom to that man. Shekhar’s idea of introducing technology to the music industry came to us through Dileep Kumar, better known as A R Rahman.

What’s beautiful is that all through history, one generation had the determination to rise, and the following generations only went forward. As I stand here representing all of us eager youth, I hope you’ll be the generation — and I quote Al Gore here — “the generation about which, a thousand years from now, philharmonic orchestras and poets and singers will celebrate by saying, they were the ones that found it within themselves to solve this crisis…”

Now the crisis Al Gore is talking of is not just the ice caps that are melting — the crisis is the power shortage and water shortage in Coimbatore. We don’t expect a sparkling green city when we grow up – but we want you to begin the process of undoing the harm. We’re eager to be a part of this action, now! – take us with you to the clean the lake and let’s take a nice walk instead of driving to some place. Talk to us about our rights, and together let’s proactively fulfil our duties. Inform us, involve us, inspire us. You need to be models for us dear adults, because we’re so good at imitating! The values that parents want to teach pass down so effortlessly when they practice what they preach. We want your values – to build our dreams. Our own dreams.

And the dreams might not be engineering and medicine. 70% of the people who take these courses don’t become engineers because they find their calling somewhere else. Why then, do they take so many years to start working on their dreams? Because there are not enough choices in school, and not enough freedom to make their own choices. I say, bring into school the opportunity to pursue all the things that we pursue in the real world. Academics, entrepreneurship, arts, community service… You say “Why…it’s all going fine only…” and I say WHY NOT? Two things are very clear: First, that each child comes with unique interests and energies. And second, that the world has opened up immensely. There are professions and activities and movements that you wouldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

Let’s bring schools out of isolation and create a an environment where students engage with this exciting world. They’ll pick up things before you can figure how to use a touch screen phone. They’ll astound you with the way they sell things, build things, find solutions, improve lives and build a better world. And to guide them and facilitate their journey, let’s create  empowered teachers. Teachers who are eager to share their knowledge. Teachers who will  begin to take pride in their jobs and themselves. In the current system, there is a certain lack of self-respect – in teachers as well as students. And this is simply because not everybody can score centums! Just imagine the low self esteem of children who are just NOT built for the system – the teachers who spend all their energy trying to make it happen. Epic fail, from the start.

If we could draw on the immense power of schools, and turn even a small part of the collective energy into making Coimbatore a better place – we’d see nothing short of a miracle. Come on, make *us* a part of building *our* future. The process of inheritance begins now. I urge one school to use their power to start such a social drive – with kids and teachers and parents – and I guarantee that we’ll meet our targets with ease.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. There are tens of thousands of dreamers in this city, raring to go and eager to do. They are this optimistic city’s children. Catch them while they’re young and hot!

Thank you.