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Q&A With Binay Pattanayak, UNICEF India Education Specialist, Jharkhand, India

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“The greatest present challenge in the Indian education system involves enabling teachers and parents to be mindful of how children learn.”

What’s home life like?  

My home is interesting. My wife Sagarika, a doctor, and I live with our two children Vivek, 12 and Vedika, 5. Vivek and Vedika run our home, we cooperate in executing their plans. They run a monthly home newspaper ‘Parakh’, develop various audio-visual materials, and conduct a wide range of hands on activities. Now, Vivek and Vedika are watching and documenting a spider nest. This project has gone on for nearly a month since the mother spider laid eggs. Yesterday they hatched and hundreds of wonderful spider babies have started moving around! We have moved around with our children to various places. Vivek and Vedika are very curious and keep us busy.

Most of our time at home and outside is spent discussing our plans and experiences. We eat together, chat together and end our days with happy thoughts!

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had in your office?

We have Mango eating competitions on summer days! I enjoy the expressions of everyone involved!

Why did you want to work with UNICEF?

My life has made me a good friend of children, teachers and parents. One day I discovered that here is a dedicated organization for children. My interests and abilities were appreciated and I was selected as a staff. Prior to this, I worked as Chief Consultant (Pedagogy) to The Ministry of Education, Government of India, for quality improvement in education. I nurtured teams in every state and guided them through curriculum renewal. Today I am applying that rich experience in the field to making a difference in the lives of millions of children. UNICEF provides a great platform.

What is the most memorable place you’ve traveled with UNICEF?

While working with the India Country Office of UNICEF New Delhi, I got a chance to take part in an International Workshop in Kerala on ‘Emerging Critical Perspectives of Curriculum and School Practices’ which was facilitated by Prof. Michael Apple. It was a wonderful learning experience.

How do you spend your free time?

The mysteries of nature, creativity, and scientists’ query for knowledge fascinate me. I always get back to these activities through field visits, exploratory activities with children, interaction with traditional artists and interaction with scientists. My family also is equally curious. We all move around and explore on the weekends.

What’s the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?

Jharkhand is a highly multi-lingual state. More than 30% of children drop out of school at class 1 stage. The medium of instruction remains Hindi. Textbooks are printed in Hindi. Teachers are trained for Hindi based teaching from class 1.

To understand this issue, we supported a socio-linguistic survey in all the districts. It was a hard project! Many in the system never thought that children’s mother languages had anything to do with their learning. The survey showed that 96% of children have different home languages. The study clearly depicted language disadvantages for non-native Hindi speaking children at class 1-2 stage. This turned out to be an eye-opener.

What do you miss most about being a kid?

Curiosity. Exploring nature. I was brought up in the hills. I had many tribal friends, each of whom was better than me in some skill or another. It gave me a great opportunity to learn new things. They were superb – active, creative, adventurous, skillful all-rounders! Today many of them are nowhere! Our education system did not appreciate their unique potential, nurture their talents and pushed them out through the narrow-minded examination system. I miss those champions who contributed enormously to my holistic development.

Today, I have taken up the agenda to make a difference in the system so that it relearns to respect every child, irrespective of her or his background!

What qualities are most needed to be successful in your job?  

UNICEF is a rights based organization using result based management. We believe in SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Hence a staff needs to possess some core competencies such as communication, working with people and a strong drive for results.

We need to possess functional competencies such as leading and supervising, formulating strategies, analyzing, relating, networking, initiating action and applying technical abilities.

If you had an extra day per week, how would you spend it?

Conduct nature camps for children. Nature camps are a great tool for peace, happiness and progress. Nature provides you many things through its mysteries and diversities.

What have been the biggest frustrations in your career and how have you dealt with them?

I am a very happy person.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?

I resigned from government service the year my father retired as a teacher. I joined the peoples’ science movement. Financially we had a difficult time. I was a bit emotional, then. However, this turned out to be the best learning phase in my life. I discovered India and her many challenges and possibilities! It was a risk, but a wise decision!

What is the biggest advantage to work for such an organization?

People recognize UNICEF. That helps in a big way.

What’s the most scared you’ve ever been?

There was a time, when I had 52 snakes, 26 poisonous, at home. On a couple of occasions I was bitten by snakes while catching them. We ran a center for science, education and development for children, who really enjoyed time with these animals.

If you could give one piece of advice to everyone reading this, what would it be?

Read Richard Bach’s ‘Jonathon Livingstone Seagull’.

What was the most challenging moment?

The greatest present challenge in the Indian education system involves enabling teachers and parents to be mindful of ‘how children learn’. Old colonial baggage weighs on many. Some in the system see children as empty slates … empty vessels … in need to disciplined … girls are weak in mathematics … tribal children are not good at their studies … children with disability cannot be managed … tribal languages are inferior. Similarly, some believe teachers are the centers of knowledge and can ‘impart’ knowledge. Rote learning is essential and without pass/fail in examinations children cannot learn.

These thoughts and practices can be dangerous! Generations of students have struggled with rote-learning-based pedagogical processes.

A new curriculum framework, launched in 2005, that is based on learning theories that promote child-friendly, child-centered learning processes through democratic, inclusive and cooperative principles as committed to by Preamble of Indian Constitution. It urges every teacher and parent in the country to look at the child, her/his unique potential, background, previous knowledge, interest, pace of learning, abilities and learning styles. It also clearly defines how the school and teacher need to develop appropriate learning environment to facilitate holistic development of every child irrespective of her background.

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