Melania Loves It. Will the World Now Embrace Delhi’s ‘Happiness Curriculum’?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
One of the world’s most competitive education systems might just be becoming a little more "fun."
- The Indian capital’s 1 million schoolchildren take part in daily 45-minute classes starting with meditation sessions, after which they read and listen to one another’s stories.
- Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Colombia are among the countries eager to borrow the curriculum, aimed at reducing stress and building life skills.
- With the pandemic spawning a mental health crisis, experts expect the curriculum to have even greater relevance.
In late February, as U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed multimillion-dollar helicopter deals and China in a colonial-era New Delhi mansion, Melania Trump went to school.
The first lady was attending a “happiness class” at a government-run school in the South Delhi neighborhood of Moti Bagh. Introduced in 2018 by the Delhi state government of the regional Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — which trounced Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in recent local elections — the so-called happiness curriculum aims to equip students with skills so that they can better deal with anxiety and stress while thinking critically. The 45-minute class starts with a meditation session, after which students read and listen to one another’s stories. In addition to textbooks, street plays and yoga serve as teaching tools. “I cannot think of a better way for all of us to start our day,” Melania Trump said of the class she attended.
The approach has parallels with the mindfulness philosophy that several schools in the West have adopted. But Delhi’s curriculum — which has won the state government several awards — is more than an Indian adaption. It’s a test unlike any the world has seen before of whether this education strategy can work on a large scale. The curriculum has been implemented in at least 1,024 Delhi government-run schools, affecting more than 1 million students — the size of the entire New York City public school system.
Delhi’s curriculum is becoming a model that other governments are promising to replicate in their countries’ classrooms. Bangladesh’s primary and mass education minister, Zakir Hossain, has invited Delhi’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, to visit Bangladesh and share the happiness curriculum. Afghanistan has already vowed to adopt the curriculum. Nepal, the United Arab Emirates and Colombia have also reached out to the Delhi government and its partner nonprofits about the curriculum.
Experts say its relevance has only increased amid the coronavirus pandemic and the associated anxieties that children are likely witnessing at home, as parents struggle with economic uncertainty. The Delhi government has made these sessions part of the online lectures its public school system is offering to the city’s students during the shutdown of in-person classes.
We have children coming forward and saying, ‘I look forward to coming to school.’
Vishal Talreja, co-founder, Dream a Dream
The Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution is assessing the efficacy of the approach in Delhi’s schools, by tracking changes in student and teacher behavior. Vishal Talreja, co-founder of Dream a Dream, a nonprofit working with the Delhi government on the curriculum, says there are already signs of success.
“In a year and a half, we have already started observing minor but beautiful, positive changes in the relationship of the child and the teacher,” Talreja says. “We have children coming forward and saying, ‘I look forward to coming to school.’”
That positivity in education doesn’t come easily in South Asia, the world’s most densely populated region, where the race for limited opportunities means that, for most, school is a competition, not a chance to learn. “Learning has to be joyful,” says Ashok Ganguly, former chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education, India’s largest school regulatory body. “In a classroom that is full of competition and pressure, the joy is lost. Children are stressed.”
Experts hope the curriculum will also do something more fundamental — keep kids in school. According to UNICEF, more than 11 million South Asian students at the primary level have left school.
To be sure, the idea behind the approach isn’t completely new. India’s 1986 education policy mentions “joyful learning.”
Some experts are critical of what they see as an attempt at a sophisticated political advertising strategy for the AAP. Kiran Bhatty, a senior fellow at New Delhi–based think tank Centre for Policy Research, also questions the curriculum’s emphasis on obedience — including respecting elders and bowing to touch their feet — rather than encouraging students to challenge authority. “Is it really about the kids and education?” Bhatty asks.
A senior teacher involved in developing the curriculum, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says it’s unclear just how much one class can help children “when you know you have acute competition in the rest of the classes.”
But even if the curriculum makes only a small dent, it’s worth it for several countries, especially those torn by conflict like Afghanistan, Nepal and Colombia. It’s a crisis that Mohammad Mirwais Balkhi, the then-acting education minister of Afghanistan, referred to while visiting New Delhi in 2018. “We believe that the happiness curriculum is indeed a positive step toward making the school a happier experience for learners,” says Suchetha Bhat, CEO of Dream a Dream.
Other Indian state governments — Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Telangana — have approached Dream a Dream to implement the curriculum.
That’s not surprising. India might be the world’s largest democracy, but it’s also one of the unhappiest. In the 2019 World Happiness Report, India ranked 140 out of 156 countries, behind neighbors Pakistan (67), China (93), Bhutan (95), Nepal (100), Bangladesh (125) and Sri Lanka (130).
There’s no better place than school to start changing that.