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While the shortcomings in education are a national concern, school is still the experience that children throughout India share, and Lisa Heydlauff aims to help them all discover what it is like for each of them. She is leading a big multimedia campaign that sparkles with positive images—success stories of “going to school” from 25 different parts of the country. Going to School’s message is that school can be fun and that you as a child can change your school.

This profile below was prepared when Lisa Heydlauff was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


While the shortcomings in education are a national concern, school is still the experience that children throughout India share, and Lisa Heydlauff aims to help them all discover what it is like for each of them. She is leading a big multimedia campaign that sparkles with positive images—success stories of “going to school” from 25 different parts of the country. Going to School’s message is that school can be fun and that you as a child can change your school.


While the failures in India’s education system are many and well documented, there are a few sterling examples of school experiences that are inspiring, positive, creative, and joyous. In India we hear what does not work, not what does.To tackle the problem of uninspiring education, Lisa decided to adopt a strategy that is positive and celebratory. She traveled through the country to identify very special schools operating in diverse geographical and cultural regions and to faithfully capture the opinions of children who are part of them. From those experiences, Lisa is producing a series of books, television shows, and public events. Going to School is a celebration of what school can be, and it all began on January 31st 2004, in a giant tent, with over 1,000 children, painted elephants, waving flags, India’s first Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen, and her daughter Rene. As the press swelled the stage, not only New Delhi, but also India’s national media celebrated the beginning of what school can be.

The “Going to School in India” campaign and the images Lisa is adding to the education universe will bring children into contact with each other in the common element of school and alter their perception of themselves, other children, and what school can be. Her materials are stories of real children, real schools. Both the stories and Lisa’s presentation of them challenge the methods of traditional nonprofit organizations, which have long offered support to children and schools. Her tools are not incremental, they are different. Every story is a nondidactic, gem-like lesson in geography and social context. Each also tells how students have solved problems or created change related to their school and subtly introduces a local organization that works with children and schools (several feature Ashoka Fellows). The stories help children learn to see and appreciate the many differences that exist among students in other parts of the country. They ask students to think about what school is like for them, how they would describe it to another child from a different part of their country, and what they would like to change.

The will of the children alone is not enough to make such an effort a success. Lisa has pulled in other important constituents in society who can keep the flame of interest alive and can also help create the attitude that schools should be more accountable to children. Once the children are acquainted with their counterparts in school in other parts of the country, there will be a process for them to suggest changes that they would like to see in their own schools. Teachers, leaders in the government educational system, and nongovernment organizations that work with schools, corporate sponsors, journalists—all will have access to children’s feedback to Lisa’s materials, a process of transparency that will constitute a simple but direct reporting system. Together their efforts can improve the Indian classroom.


Quality education and child-centered education are concepts that many people are arguing for in India’s school system. Particularly in middle and upper-middle class schools, schooling is exam driven and extremely competitive. Schools follow a power structure model, perhaps in part a legacy of colonial times, by which a teacher transfers information and children receive the content. While there are isolated cases of innovative teaching-learning experiences, the larger population is neither aware of nor influenced by them. Meanwhile, the government has been trying to tackle the problem of education for decades, but corruption in the system is rampant. Government-school jobs are “sold” for a price; teacher absenteeism is high; syllabi dull. A recent approach has been to offer incentives like free meals to students to get them to come to school.

In recent years there is a new urgency from the top levels of the education establishment about India’s need for more humanistic, value-driven education for children. In the current political climate, textbooks are being changed to reflect a Hindu bias, but the country has a population of over a billion people who are multicultural, multiracial, and multilingual—Lisa discovered that there is a language change every 52 miles. The National Alliance for Fundamental Rights to Education has spoken of the need for children to grow up to appreciate differences and believe in an essential commonality that holds societies, countries, and, indeed, the world together. Yet whether it is in remote rural schools or in the cosmopolitan environment of an urban school, children live in insular worlds. In school they are bombarded by information, but their sources of information are limited to what their teachers or materials tell, and materials from the government—or even organizations like UNICEF, which gives a lot of support to schools—have parallel rigidities: subject matter on the one hand, and issues, not citizenship, on the other.


Lisa is using her campaign to constantly reinforce ideas of diversity, unity, and change among schoolchildren and to stimulate new behaviors among organizations that can become more effective allies for them and help turn those ideas into action. She has written a book for the mainstream market with chapters on each of the 25 innovative schools she visited, and a set of 10 small books, each of which is a chapter in the big book, for distribution to nonformal and government schools. Penguin, India’s elite mainstream publisher, will publish the big book. Lisa is in the final stages of an agreement with UNICEF in West Bengal, which works with the state government to provide a set of five mini books in Bengali to every government primary school (more than 50,000). This could translate into 500,000 books being made in West Bengal alone.

Going to School in fact has a set of 10 mini books to be made in regional languages. The hope is to replicate the above agreement with state governments. The Bharti Foundation, the original supporter of Going to School, is writing letters to MLAs to encourage them to take on the books. Now, as well as books, movies are being made: “Going to School in a Mud Desert” is completed and there is funding for four more.

Lisa has interested private schools in receiving the books and also has backing for them from the Minister of Education. For all of these partners, the type of material in Lisa’s little books is new, a departure from the issue-oriented, donor-driven subject matter that nongovernmental agencies usually produce and very different from textbooks. Beyond the material, the emphasis on motivating children to engage in their schools’ functioning, ask questions, and make recommendations is also a new activity for Lisa’s partners.

The books and the public media campaign that Lisa is launching will highlight the potential for children to speak up and say what they would like to change about their schools. Feedback is critical, and Lisa is creating processes for it from people who have the power to respond at least at the local level. They will include the nongovernmental organizations that work in nonformal schools—and the schools she highlights in the books—and the principals of urban schools. Simultaneously, the ongoing media campaign will bring in corporate sponsors and create visibility among the masses. In one year Lisa hopes to produce another small book looking like a series of postcards from children, addressed to the President, telling him how they want their schools to change. She is in the process of setting up a Web site where children can view “Going to School in India” movie shorts and also write in their ideas.

Lisa believes that one of the key elements in a child’s life is inspiration. “Going to School in India” is a movement that, in her words, “celebrates every child’s right to go to school and participate in an inspiring education that is relevant to their lives.” She will bring them stories of creative, innovative, and democratic school experiences that open up different worlds for them—worlds that exist right within their own country, all bound together through the sheer fact of going to school. Children in the stories talk about their schools in the sparse desert mountain of Leh, in the war-torn Kargil, in the meandering forest paths of Karnataka. They talk of their lives outside of schools, their likes and dislikes, and the changes they would like to bring about. The story of wheelchair-bound Hyder and his friends who take him to school everyday introduces the concept of empathy; a children’s parliament illustrates democracy meaningfully. There is a school for child workers and another where girls interview fishermen about the health of their fishery. Colorfully and joyfully, the stories capture instances of roles reversed and stereotypes broken where children have taken charge and made important life decisions.

Lisa is also producing a series of television films based on the stories from her books. They will be also be aired through the national channel that reaches most villages. For children who do not go to school or do not read, Lisa plans to partner with the Children’s Film Society to screen the films in more remote areas without television. Where film equipment is scarce, “Going to School in India” will reach children through puppet shows. Lisa is also concerned about addressing the middle- and upperclass children who often believe that their education defines the best that is available in India. These children are as removed from reality as their less-privileged counterparts and will gain equally from the communication initiative. Having a renowned publisher for the English version of the book and Nickelodeon on board to run the films helps to reach the more affluent audiences.

Lisa is further branding her campaign through products for sale and plans for continuing events. She has created “Going to School in India” backpacks in the form of a cow complete with cowbells and T-shirts featuring children’s drawings and appealing quotes. She plans to feature the children’s quotes and other reminders of the campaign organized around different holidays.


Lisa is a global person, part of a generation that understands the world as a truly interconnected system. She has been on a life-long journey to explore communication as a preparation for change, for solving problems. She moved from England to the United States as a young girl and found that her experiences were very different from her schoolmates and made connecting with other youth challenging. Later she returned to England and taught children in an alternative school. She realized that she could tell them about Mexico, because she had been there, but not India, for example, because she could not speak from experience.

She is determined to continue her quest in India, where she has lived and worked for the last six years. During that time she worked for UNICEF and came to see that their materials were more prescriptive than the stories she was beginning to conceptualize. She also edited a magazine with a miniscule budget and learned how to work with advertising sponsors—the ones who made production possible. As her idea crystallized, she found a photographer and set out on months of travel all over India, including Kashmir, seeking out schools and children whose words and experience she could present in stories. The result offers something new and fresh. Parents have told her that they are so happy to have something like her stories to read to their children and to tell them about other places in their vast country.