Lack of context is letting down India’s 200 million early learners

In early 2017, when Kutuki was just a fledgling idea, our founders met a veteran teacher who was employed at a preschool in Bengaluru. She had worked with thousands of children. She was soft spoken, patient, very involved and aware of how to make a child feel comfortable and excited to learn something new. She was a treasure trove of examples and stories.

Of the many interesting and valuable insights, there was one example that really struck us. Almost every year, 25% – 33% of children in the preschool were being screened for a learning disability. There were concerns that these children were not able to comprehend English.

However, given the perceptive educator that she was, she realized that this had nothing to do with the children’s abilities but more to do with difficulty in understanding the accents, language and references mentioned in the learning resources being used at the school. The same concept when explained in familiar accents, their mother tongue while using everyday Indian contexts and objects prompted a flurry of questions and participation among the very same children.

When your very first book of fruits and vegetables has grapefruit and artichoke and names like aubergine for our humble, local brinjal; when breakfast consists of ham and jam; pancakes and cereal and when a picture of a home or family looks nothing like what you see around you, with characters that have blond hair, blue eyes and speak only in English that too in an accent that is completely unfamiliar to you, you are bound to feel confused and disconnected from your everyday life. Can you imagine what that could be like for a young child growing up in a multicultural and multilingual country like India?

As illustrated above, this has a big impact on learning, but more so, on the sense of identity and self-esteem of a young child who has just stepped out to discover the immediate world. The example above was an issue in a preschool in a Tier 1 city. Can you imagine how much more of a problem this could be in Tier 2 , Tier 3 cities and rural India?

India is home to approximately 200 million children under the age of 7 with only 40000 preschools that cater to their needs. The lack of access to good quality preschools coupled with learning resources that are force fit from the West without any contextualization, grossly impacts a child’s foundational learning.

At Kutuki, we approached this problem from the ground up. We looked at best practices from different early learning philosophies, created our own proprietary creative curriculum and contextualized every piece of our learning content to suit the Indian context. Here’s what we have found :

  • 75% of our core users come back after the first 30 days and what they like most about Kutuki is that their children immediately connect with our stories and songs and enjoy seeing their names in our stories, learning about shapes through bindis, counting with Pooris and singing songs about their Dada and Dadi and Thatha and PaatiLearning through storytelling and music is far more appealing to children than mere instruction.
  • Mothers have observed that children apply what they’ve learnt through our stories and songs in their everyday life and engage in elaborate discussions and imaginative play. Kutuki’s stories and songs allow them to understand and internalize things in context.
  • Preschool educators have become our biggest cheerleaders. They chance upon our app as parents and start using Kutuki to get ideas for their lesson plans and activities since it is aligned to a preschool curriculum. From educators working with first generation learners in remote villages in Assam to those in premium preschools in Tier 1 cities, they see value in Kutuki’s contextualized content to create engaged classrooms and also recommend Kutuki to parents to supplement learning at home.
  • Engagement with our vernacular content is 2x that in English
  • In Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, where there is limited or no exposure to English, young children and mothers find it easy to understand and connect with the English stories after they have first watched them in Hindi. Children were able to connect खिलौना with Toy , नीला with Blue and more complex vocabulary like slender with पतला more easily.
  • In Tier 1 cities, our stories and songs have helped young children learn their first words in their mother tongue, especially Hindi. To illustrate, a Bengali speaking mother who moved to Noida was struggling to help her 4 year old learn Hindi which she believed was a necessity. She tried to converse with him and read dozens of books but nothing worked until she found Kutuki. He enjoyed the Hindi stories and kept narrating them to her during bed time. She picked up a 1 year subscription specifically for our Hindi content.
  • Another common pattern that we observe across demographics is that there is a strong sentiment of trust among mothers towards Kutuki over You Tube. We’ve had mothers refer to Kutuki as घर का खाना and liken content on YouTube to junk food. Mothers feel that they can participate in their child’s learning journey through Kutuki because of how relatable and ‘Indian’ it is.

The real world, culture, and contexts that children actually experience are the seed from which all learning stems. Knowing this simple sequence in which the mind works – from the familiar to the unfamiliar – when children feel comfortable with what they know, they will feel confident to use this as a platform to explore and understand something new.

Appreciating other cultures and understanding how people live across different parts of the world is certainly important. But when that becomes a norm and gets force fit as the aspiration across cultures, it becomes a serious problem.

When young children listen to stories and songs with characters that look like them, their parents and grandparents, eating the food that they eat, speaking the languages that they speak and celebrating festivals that they celebrate as a family, there is an almost automatic emotional connect. The feeling that somewhere out there is a person who might feel like me and look like me, makes them know that they are not alone and that they are understood and this quietly boosts their self-esteem and confidence and leads them on the path to be curious information seekers and lifelong learners.