Author: Dr. Krishnamurthy J
Sustainable Development Goals: Current status of education and development
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all’ by 2030. In 2018, globally more than half of children and adolescents are not meeting minimum proficiency requirements in basic education. The situation is not very different in India. The government schools are plagued with poor student enrolment, inadequate infrastructure and teacher absenteeism that continue to affect access and quality of education. Cognitive deficits i.e. poor levels of observation, attention and memory have proven to affect educational outcomes, especially in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the efforts in most educational initiatives target only infrastructure and teacher training and are not equipped with skills and tools to address cognitive deficits. Recent Neuroscience advances related to brain functions, neuroplasticity and learning are yet to be integrated into educational platforms at the moment, especially in India and other developing regions of the world.
In contrast to the above situation, we observe a different phenomenon in the upper socio economic strata in the big cities and metros of today. As a result of uncontrolled urbanization and globalization, changes in the living conditions and lifestyles, overload of information, stress and anxiety levels have gone up without sparing anyone including the children and adolescents. Ambitious drive and expectations from parents and teachers, efforts excessively aligned with only academics, unregulated exposure to gadgets are impacting child’s cognitive abilities. This is manifesting as decline in observation capacities, comprehension, self-confidence. The addictions, depression and suicides are also on a rise compared to previous decades. There is a heightened need to address emotional intelligence (E.Q) alongside traditional I.Q to which educational systems and societies are waking up, but are not sure as to how to do so effectively.
Another pressing issue of today that stands as a major road-block to sustainable development is the growing gender disparity with respect to education, health and other services. Gender discrimination, status of women in society, early marriage and pregnancy, maternal stress due to various factors lead to complications in women and the new-born; this further hampers growth and development of children. Globally and nationally, there is high interest and focus on adolescent girls, to empower and educate them, develop them as leaders through appropriate family based and societal interventions. SDG-5 aims to achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, which is foundational to all other SDGs There is a need to equip adolescent girls and families with practical and effective interventions & tools that can enhance self-esteem, empowerment and decision making capacities to steer their lives.
The SDGs 4 and 5 have invited much attention by policy leaders and investors in the recent past, driving civil society, government, CSR and other actors to sponsor innovations, pilot test and scale them up so as to achieve population level outcomes. Yet the progress is slow as most innovations are resource intensive, directed toward human resources and infrastructure strengthening, without necessarily exploring recent advances in neurosciences and technology that can provide disruptive solutions in these spaces. In this context, ‘Brighter Minds’ – a cognitive or brain training program offered by Cognitive Skills Pvt Ltd, India emerges as a disruptor in many ways in response to key gaps in the current day education and development. Started as a small pilot four years ago, with an aim to provide simple tools and methods to sharpen observation skills in children, it quickly moved into school settings to facilitate a holistic educational experience with a balanced focus of IQ and EQ. Guided by the recent advances in ‘Neuroplasticity’, ‘Science of Learning’ and ‘Epigenetics’, the program aims to equip the care givers, parents and educators with tools, technology and skills to stimulate optimal cognitive potential in children. The program lasts for 30 hours over eight weekends, is simple, designed to integrate into parenting and educational settings. As of today, the program is present in over 15 countries, offers services through close to 300 learning centres, has touched more than 10000 children so far, across developing-developed regions, urban-rural, and across sections of socio-economic strata.
Brighter Minds and Evidence
The program has incorporated science and research from its inception. The initial exploration using qualitative research methods led to understanding that several cognitive traits are impacted as reported by parents, trainers and children i.e. focus, observation, retention, comprehension, empathy, self-confidence and emotional stability. We also learnt that effective facilitator-child engagement and parental motivation were strong triggers.
During the year 2017, the Mahbubnagar district administration (Telangana state, India) trained about 2500 children across its 12 residential schools in the district. External researchers were engaged to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in Mahbubnagar. A multidisciplinary team with backgrounds in public health and evaluation, psychiatry and psychology came together, developed standard and objective tools and metrics, administered cross-sectional surveys before and after the children underwent training. The attention ability improved significantly by 48% (61% to 90%) in 8 weeks; the time taken to achieve the results improved by 21% (121 sec Vs 157 sec). The observation ability improvement by 43%, which also improved qualitatively as the children reported deeper aspects of the test object such as emotions, feelings, and in relation to one’s own personal experiences. The memory tests revealed positive changes in terms of both immediate and delayed recall, by 13% and 27%, respectively.
In addition to the above changes, the teachers reported during focus group discussions that the children were more calm, expressive and participatory in classes; showed improved concentration and reduced distraction; showed less hesitancy in talking to teachers in class, reflecting improved self-confidence; showed improved memory and self-discipline. The teachers also expressed that the program should start in the beginning of the academic year so that the students benefit more in academics. The independent evaluation not only showed positive impact on cognition and performance of children, but also showed high levels of acceptability by the teachers. In a relatively short time of less than a year, close to 2500 children were reached out through institutionalized and sustainable ways of training.
An online survey was undertaken in mid-2017 to understand perspectives of parents with respect to changes in their children after BM training. About 100 parents were interviewed to know how much they agreed on the changes. In addition, we asked questions related to frequency and regularity of practice, challenges parents faced and if they were satisfied. 71 parents responded and a total of 87% were in agreement that they observed one or other change in their children. The study also shed light on interesting insights. The program was equally effective in both tier 1 and tier 2 cities. The changes were equally observed in all age groups and both genders with exception of two parameters. The elder children (>10 years) show greater changes in ‘focus’, ‘planning’, ‘emotional stability’, ‘calmness’ and ‘self-confidence’ than the younger ones; the girls showed higher changes in ‘preparation and planning’, ‘emotional stability’ and ‘self-confidence’ as compared to boys. The ‘expression of feelings’ was reported more among those that were practicing for long time and regularly.
Brighter Minds and Implications for Education and Child development
The research findings so far, positions BM at 3 levels:
- A tool to the child to relax, enhance focus, observation, self-confidence, comprehension, empathy, emotional stability
- A tool to the parent to provide right environment and stimulation to the growing children
- A tool to the teacher to provide the right learning environment that optimizes cognitive skills related to I.Q and E.Q
This has resulted in growing confidence and empowerment of children, improved parent/ teacher-child relationships and communication, improved academic abilities as well. Integrating neurosciences evidence and technology within its training program, Brighter Minds offers promise as a disruptive tool in the space of education and cognitive development. The tools and training program is simple, scalable and replicable in different settings.