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The perfect classroom… does exist

For the first 15 years of my life I experienced an Indian classroom in the most traditional sense.

I sat in a classroom of 42 other students, in rows of desks and chairs, facing a blackboard where teacher after teacher would drone on and on about Math and Science and English and Hindi. Occasionally we would be asked a question or two but most of the time we listened to our teachers lecture us and took notes in our brown paper-covered notebooks. When I got bored in class, which was pretty often, I would go for long meandering walks to the girl’s bathroom or sometimes take a nap on my desk; or better yet, when I was feeling particularly disruptive, I would make a snarky comment and get thrown out of class. Most of us would be counting the minutes before the bell would ring signaling the end of the class. And we would live for a lunch break. Before exams we would frantically memorize our textbooks, have extra sessions with our tuition teachers, and general panic, praying that we would all somehow pass. 

This is not to say that I had horrible teachers. In fact, I think I had some of the best in India, but it was really the style of learning of lectures, of drab textbooks, of assignments that asked you to recall rather than think, that really bored me. I don’t remember anything that I learned in school: something that I have realized during all the trivia that we have been playing during the lockdown. I cannot remember the noble gases, and I cannot remember which Mogul empire fell down the stairs and died. 

So if you had asked me then, I would have unequivocally told you that the perfect classroom does not exist. But I had no idea there was even another way of learning, a way where you actually looked forward to going to class and had learnings that you remembered years later.

In 2011, I moved from Mumbai, a city of 21 million people, to a sleepy little town of 2000 people in rural New Hampshire to go to a boarding school named Phillips Exeter Academy.  I moved from classrooms in India with 50 kids competing to get top marks, to classrooms of 12 students where we taught each other through the Socratic method. Exeter had its own unique way of learning – Harkness – where every single classroom had a large wooden table that could seat just 12 students and a teacher. There were no textbooks, no lectures – instead no matter what the subject, our teachers would pose a question, and then through discussion, debate, inference, and confusion, we would collectively discover the knowledge. I distinctly remember learning to derive the formula in Math, rather than just memorize it from the textbook; of working through Shakespeare and interpreting the soliloquies ourselves, rather than noting down the ‘translation’ and interpretation.

In this classroom, I learnt to fiercely disagree with ideas, not individuals, going to dinner with that same person that I had vehemently challenged in class; I learnt how to get comfortable with my own voice and value the uniqueness of others; I learnt how to act as men and women for others, that our talent was wasted, if not in the service of others; I learnt that in the right environment even the shyest, quietest child can blossom. It was a uniquely special environment, and I was acutely aware of how lucky I was to be going through this transformational experience.

This was the perfect classroom, but it was for a select few: my boarding school had a graduating class of 350, a tiny tiny drop in an ocean. The experience I was having in the classroom was something I wanted to bring back home to India, with its 250 million students. This was the kind of school I wanted to bring to India; however, this was also a school that had a $1.5 billion endowment so it was slightly unrealistic. 

Instead of trying to build one Indian Exeter, I started thinking about how I could try to transform the Indian school system that focused on rote learning, memorization, competitiveness, standardization into one that celebrated creativity, independent thought, collaboration, value-based action. And I wanted this type of school to be accessible to every single Indian.

That has inspired my journey into Edtech and why in February 2019 I joined Lido’s founding team. At Lido, we are taking that vision of the perfect classroom, of engaged learners, supportive teachers, interactive formats, and discussion-based learning, and turning it into a reality at scale for millions of Indian students. 

Our classrooms at Lido are designed to teach not just subject matter to students (which we do through immersive storylines and real-world examples, embedded assessments through contests, games and live quizzes) but to also build the skills that are essential to success in the 21st century: critical thinking, English fluency, confidence, creativity, collaboration. By recreating the small group format online, of 1 teacher and 6 students, we create the space for students to speak their mind, ask questions, learn from each other, build meaningful relationships with their teachers, find their voice. And each day, we are pushing the boundaries of what relational and Socratic pedagogy, combined with tech-driven by AI and personalization, can do to build a learning environment that caters to every student’s unique needs and untapped potential. 

So now ask me again if the perfect classroom exists.

Nandini Mullaji

Author: Nandini Mullaji

Nandini has always wanted to disrupt education in India and joined Lido as the first Product Manager to pursue this, before becoming Head of Product and now Head of Strategy. Before Lido, Nandini was a consultant at McKinsey and Co, looked at edtech at LGT-Aspada, and taught at St. Xavier's University, Mumbai. A graduate of Georgetown University (BSFS) and Stanford University (MBA, MA.Ed), Nandini co-founded the India Innovation Lab in 2016, that was funded by The Gates Foundation and World Bank to work on public health and education in Maharashtra.

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