Students at the Rajkiya Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya school pay rapt attention during a happiness class. Photo for The Washington Post by Mansi Midha

New Delhi - After the summer break, Delhi's children returned to school this month and found a new class added to their schedules: happiness.

It wasn't a welcome-back joke. In a country where top universities demand average test scores above 98 percent and where cheating on final high school exams is organised by a "mafia" that includes teachers and school officials, the Delhi government's initiative marks a shift of emphasis from student performance to well-being.

"We have given best-of-the-best talent to the world," said Manish Sisodia, Delhi's education minister, to a stadium full of Delhi teachers attending the launch of the happiness curriculum. "We have given best-of-the-best professionals to industry. We have been successful so far. But have we been able to deliver best-of-the-best human beings to society, to the nation?"

Sisodia's happiness classes represent a radical experiment in a country known for its rigid, bookish education system, which has helped cement a new middle class over the past three decades but is also criticized for encouraging rote learning and triggering high stress levels. Many blame it for a rash of student suicides.

The changes have paid off - Delhi's public schools have outperformed private schools on standardized exams in recent years, although one expert said that the overall numbers are skewed because private school students tend to choose more-difficult math and science subjects while public school children pick humanities.

The happiness classes, Sisodia said, are part of that larger effort. Under the programme, 100 000 Delhi students spend the first half-hour of each school day without opening a textbook, learning instead through inspirational stories and activities, as well as meditation exercises.

Children appeared enthusiastic when schools reopened this month. "We should work happily," said 11-year-old Aayush Jha, a seventh-grader fresh out of his first happiness class at the Government Co-Ed Senior Secondary School in Chilla Village, in east Delhi. "When you work sadly, your work will not be good."

Math teacher Sonu Gupta told his class of eighth-graders about what physicist Stephen Hawking had achieved despite his neurodegenerative disease. Upstairs, Santosh Bhatnagar, who teaches Sanskrit, told a class of seventh-graders to close their eyes and imagine doing something that made them happy.

The students asked questions and nodded along. "I learned that you should learn to have faith in yourself and that those who try never fail," said Dipanshu Kumar, a 12-year-old in Gupta's class.

Some teachers, though, remain unconvinced. For one thing, they say, the public schools are too crowded for a curriculum based so heavily on classroom interaction.

"If we have 80 students in our class, how can we keep track of every kid in just 35 minutes?" said Bharti Dabas, who teaches English in a government school.

Others doubt that the happiness classes can change the culturally entrenched emphasis on exams and memorization. Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, chair of education, economics and international development at University College London, who also teaches at a private school in Lucknow, India, said that there haven't been any studies to assess their workability.

"Anecdotally, I know in some schools they are just another box-ticking exercise," she said. "Teachers have not really bought into it."

Now many, including Sisodia, are asking whether the focus on employability has stifled creativity and stymied social progress.

"If a person is going through our education system for 18 years of his life and is becoming an engineer or a civil servant, but is still throwing litter on the ground or engaging in corruption, then can we really say that the education system is working?" he asked one recent morning at his home.

Sisodia's enthusiasm for happiness classes is inspired by India's tiny, cheerier next-door neighbor, Bhutan, which in the early 1970s pioneered a new index - "gross national happiness" - to measure its development, as an alternative to the widely used gross domestic product indicator.

The Washington Post