Friday, August 31, 2007

How Children Learn

Much of early learning is motivated by a sense of wonder. Wonder about sounds, smells, people and their attires and languages, and everything else. A lesson in geography that speaks of the desert, and has a description of a camel cannot be as effective as, say, a video clip of a camel crossing the desert, with the roar of strong winds in the background.

The reason is simple: the more we see and hear, the more we learn.

Imaginative movies, and fictional narratives about visiting the past, or parts of the world are therefore popular among children, and come in handy as teaching aids. They serve as the perfect excuse for taking the audience of children on an audio visual tour of the past or of a place, where things can be shown and heard, and not just told.

While it is true that children have a highly active imagination, it cannot be denied that the more one sees, the more is one capable of imagining. As Prof. George E. Hein asserts:

…we must provide learners with the opportunity to: a) interact with sensory data, and b) construct their own world.

There are many theories of learning, and the most widely accepted today asserts that children learn from experience, by engaging with the world. Education is therefore not seen as a matter of passing on information (in whatever format), but as an effort to increase the child’s exposure to the world as well as the child’s engagement with the world.

Since children are not taught so much as allowed to learn, they learn not just specific things or “lessons”, but also how to learn. More than anything else, it is this skill that gives children the competence and the opportunity to chart their own course, and seek better lives.

Much more than any other teaching methodology, this is the most critical fact. Children learn continuously every day of their lives, and education is really only a matter of guiding the focus of their learning and helping them pick up some of the essential skills that are needed in the course of a normal adult life.

There have been only very minor changes in the system of education over the centuries. If for instance, someone from the 19th century walks into a typical classroom of today, he will find the same things: chalk and talk, text and desk. But even though the needs of the students have changed drastically, as Andre Lestage’s assertion regarding the importance of audio-visual aids in 1959, shows, things have not changed much in terms of how we teach .

There has in fact been some effort to increase the use of audio-visual aids in education. What has not changed, or not changed sufficiently, is our current understanding of audio-visual aids. Schools who do use audio-visual aids essentially continue to rely on conventional technologies such as Television and Radio. While these work fairly well, they have a significant disadvantage: they do not allow a two way interaction. Introduction of computers has not changed things substantially either. Typically schools use computers to teach computers, and not other subjects, thus underutilizing a valuable resource.

Since the majority of children’s learning takes place based on experiences in the real world, it is clear that in order for children to be sufficiently interested in their school education (which is often a problem, esp. in rural areas) we need to make school education as interesting as possible. To that end, audio-visual aids that are interactive, and allow person to person interaction are the best possible solution, and something we seek to do through our Education For Free.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Teaching is fun

As I work for EFF, I get to interact with people from different fields: teachers, policy makers, social workers, educators and many others. Recently we had a meeting with Sheel Parekh of Spark-India. She writes, among other things, story books for children with the intention of making them interesting. Now, EFF is also working with the same intention, to make education interesting. We want children to get up each morning eager to go to school. But I had never yet understood how one actually does that.
I asked Sheel, “how do you know what you write will be interesting for children? Do child psychology books help?” In her soft, yet assertive voice, she said “you have to touch to feel the pulse”. That morning I decided to become a teacher.
It’s been a week now since I started teaching English to the 7th graders of the Red Cross Girls High School. It is an English medium school, with classes from I to X
Teaching children is indeed a challenging task. I’m burdened with a sense of responsibility. Every night just before I go to bed, I prepare my teaching plan. I visualize the girls, just so eager to learn. To make things a little different and interesting for them, I have divided the girls into three different groups. (They had to name their group on their own). So in my class, they sit group wise. For every lesson I teach, we have a quiz just to make sure, they remember what they have learnt.
I keep a “teacher’s journal” and I make a note of my observations and feelings in it. Here are a few things I have noted in my journal so far:
  • Most girls can hardly read their textbooks.

  • They do not understand most of the English words.

  • Most of them do not have their English textbook. I found out that the government has not sanctioned textbooks yet. The rest uses old textbooks handed down from their seniors.

  • Students who do not understand English and like to refrain participating in the classroom interaction sit on the last benches.

  • But, they all want to learn. They even wanted me to sing a song and tell them a story about my country. I had to remind them that I belong to this country and was one of them.
I want them to learn to read, write and understand, and speak English, in that order. I was talking to my colleague Sridhar, the other day on how I could encourage and motivate them to read. He suggested that I do something unconventional, like buying them a copy of tinkle each or any other comic that might interest them. My take was, even if they read, they won’t understand. He said, “There are illustrations along with words, which would make it easier for them to understand. And since the illustrations look interesting they will make an effort to read and understand.
I decided that this was worth a try. After all, as a child it was my favorite comic too. So in my next class, I asked if anyone read tinkle comics. One of the girls had 4 copies right there!
When I asked the rest of the class if anyone else was interested in reading the comics, all 40 of them raised their hands, including the owner.
Over the weekend, I plan to buy them some comics and the English reader textbook for the students.
I've started liking Monday mornings :)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kondakal High School: Seeing is believing!

The pictures below were taken during our visit to Kondakal High school which is about 35 kms away from Hyderabad. What we saw was a pleasant surprise. The scene was very different from all the government schools we visited. For a change, this school had excellent infrastructure: sufficient classrooms, a laboratory, a computer room with some 15 computers, a playground, clean toilets, just to list a few. The teachers owe their thanks to the villagers who donated land and exhibit tremendous support and interest in the functioning of the school.

Scroll down and see it for yourself to believe it.

The students were busy preparing for the Independence Day celebration program

they even have a green and clean compound

You will notice that all the students are wearing uniform

The laboratory cum Art class

she proudly showed me her drawing :)

that's a real skeleton!

most students use bicycles to commute

Kondakal Primary School

This school has 126 tiny tots and 5 teachers. Out of which, 2 are on long (read 3-6 months) leave. A school with classes from I-V, and only 3 teachers to teach, they have no choice but to conduct combined classes. No wonder most children there are unprepared for higher studies--class VI, that is.

He prefers to do some extra studying instead of playing with friends

captured them just as they were rushing out for a break

break time...tamarind time :)

simply love this photo!

Photo courtesy: N.J

Million dollar smiles :)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Janwada High Scool: a visual tour

The morning assembly was still going on when we reached the school. I saw the children going up to the stage and speaking on the mic. On being asked, I was told that each of them was asked to speak about themselves briefly and students took turns everyday. This was a daily exercise, to make them bold and expressive. I thought that was pretty neat!

The school has just received some books from the government.

This book caught my attention. supposedly new, but torn.

caught them listening to the teacher

a group study. I think.

posing for the camera :)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Our Educational System: a Report Card

I am posting an email sent to one of the NGOs by a colleague of mine. We had visited some schools the other day and just as I was about to write on them I saw this email, and it speaks much more than I could have said. So here’s an account through the voice and eyes of Sridhar.
Thanks for taking the time to read about our Education For Free (EFF) project, and I really appreciate your comments.
Lack of adequate teaching staff in government schools is one of our biggest concerns. In every high school we have visited so far, 40% of the teachers were either on long leave or casual leave, the few teachers left were either sent on some training program or assorted government duties. The classrooms are filled with students but there is no one, to teach them.
Primary schools are in an even bigger mess than the high schools. Out of the 3 allotted teachers and 2 Vidya volunteers, usually only one teacher, comes to the school, usually bringing in the other two teachers’ leave applications (I’m guessing they take turns doing this!).
Most high school teachers lament that students graduating from primary schools are not ready for high school. But due to the “no detention policy” of the government, they have no choice but to accept them into the 6th grade.
Most teachers I have met so far complain that infrastructure is one of their biggest problems. I think is only partly true. I visited Kondakal High School last Friday in Ranga Reddy dist. This school told a different story all together. It had a well-maintained computer lab (courtesy Microsoft’s 1000 village program) with audio-visual aids (Wipro) and Internet, science labs with all the equipments. They even had a TV and a bunch of video’s, 24 hour power supply, children wearing very clean school uniform (donated by some NGO), well maintained garden and play grounds, the works.
This was by far the best maintained government high school I have seen. Ironically, their 10th pass percentage is still less than 25% same as Janwada High School just 15 km away but a world apart. JHS is like any other government school in AP, not enough classrooms, roof leaking with rain water, no toilets (school ground used as a defecation center), no power, not enough teachers, too many students… the list could go on but this tells us that lack of adequate infrastructure is only, one of the problems. Proper infrastructure would help but it doesn’t solve the problems of our education system.
Here are some of our observations after talking to different stakeholders:
  1. Too many students and not enough teachers (In 2001 there were around 1.3 million teachers in AP, right now there are only 750 thousand teachers, rest of the posts need to be filled)
  • Teachers are used for all the government programs from election duty to pulse polio campaigns. And all this happens at the expense of the children who come to the schools to learn.
  • Teachers are sent on way too many training programs which are almost always based on theories that do not take the real situation into account, and are therefore impractical to implement with the number of students they have deal to with, the limited time available, the examination oriented focus of education, and the lack of facilities.
  • Very high percentage of teachers are absent from schools (infrastructure, corruption and motivational issues)
  • Government Policy says that there need to be a teacher for every 40 students. Most administrators seem to be following this to book, if a school only has 120 students than they only get 3 teachers even though there are 5 classes or grades to cover.
  1. Serious infrastructure issues like power, lack of classrooms, lack of study material (Even textbooks--the minimal study material available to children--are usually delayed by 2-3 months after the school year starts)
  • Lack of toilets is given as a major reason for female students’ absence from the school.
  1. Students don’t put in any effort at home (Most rural children have to work after school)
  1. Students are very irregular to school due to lack of parental encouragement and lack of understanding on what education can offer (It is really hard to follow high school math if certain classes are missed and math is major reason for students failing 10th)
  1. Primary education is non-existent: Very small percentage of the students coming out of our primary schools have basic reading and writing skills.
  • Assuming all the 3 teachers are present and teaching, that still leaves 2 grades without teachers and the government policy mandates that 1st, 2nd and 3rd should be taken by regular teachers, that leaves our 4th and 5th to be taught by under qualified Vidya volunteers.
  • Due to 'no detention policy' student performance can’t be measured.
Private school education is no better; the actual number of students writing a board exam is never disclosed. Most rural private schools make 50-60% of their below standard students write exams outside the institute name just to increase their official pass percentage.
As you can see it all comes down to a serious lack of trained teachers and no motivation for the students from the parents. And that is where we can make a difference. There is a lot which needs to be done but we are taking this one step at a time. Our current focus is to get the service ready by November and deploy it in 4-5 schools with 8th grade English. In the 2008-09 academic year we would launch a pilot program with 50 schools and more subjects.
You could help us by putting us in touch with NGOs.We need as many of them as possible for field work (logistics). We are also in need of good teachers (retired or still working) to help us with content development and contribute to our curriculum strategy discussions. It would be great if you could help us in identifying the teachers as well.
Thanks again for your time and interest in our project.
*The Schools are in Andhra Pradesh, India

Friday, August 10, 2007

Rasoolpura School through the lens

the school compound



Morning Assembly...the seniors take the lead

some of the teachers

happy boys and happy girls :)

their only playground

The boys demonstrating the school bell for me. The iron rod is the school bell and they use stones to bang against the rod, it does make a tolling sound! ding ding rings.

my sunday sundae with Bhumi

Usually I spend my Sunday mornings lazing around at home, doing laundry and pampering myself with a pedi-mani-cure, feasting on sumptuous home cooked food, and of course Church and friends. The last Sunday, I instead visited a government school with two of my colleagues. While there were many surprises awaiting us, the first was discovering a slum right in the middle of the city in a so-called posh locality.

The road got narrower as we entered the locality, too small for our car, after some looking and asking around, we made it to the school vicinity. At first I found it difficult to accept that the “building” in front of me was actually a school. We went in.

There stood two small four roomed, tin roofed buildings facing each other. The classrooms were empty. There was only a whitish blackboard in each of the classrooms. The ceiling was leaking, the floor wet, and the walls damp. It’s beyond my comprehension how a child would learn in a wet, dark classroom sitting right on the floor, without even a desk to keep his books.

The educational psychology paper I opted in college taught me that “Education is an all round development of a child”. However, what I saw that day relates nowhere with this definition.

With a garbage dump, a defecation compound, animals of various kinds (including pigs), no benches or desks, not enough classrooms (half the classes are held outside, right on the floor), no fans and lights, no library and no laboratory, I wondered where the “all- round development” was going to come from.

But the students didn’t seem to be bothered with all this. All that mattered to them was the school, the classrooms, their teachers and their books.

How could the government be so negligent? I went through mixed emotions: there was anger against the government, sympathy for the students, and there was respect for the Bhumi angels.

Not waiting for the government, the Bhumi angels (a group of dedicated youth) have gone ahead and done things on their own. They adopted this school a year ago and have so far constructed a new building (half of the existing school structure was created by them), got in more teachers, and are on their way to building more classrooms. They are keen to get in more qualified teachers, clean up the surroundings and the school (a recurring task they don’t flinch from) and do much more.

They have their jobs, families, and their own lives. But every little moment they can, they spare for Bhumi. Even eating the last meal at home has become such a rarity that they in fact declined an offer to dine with the three of us after a meeting because their folks were waiting for them at home.

This school is only a representation of many such schools. Thousands of government schools I’m told are run this way. The Government should stop deceiving our motherland, give us what is ours, and stand by its promises. Some of them, at least.

In the mean time, I salute the Bhumi angels.

To know more about Bhumi, click here

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chalk Talk

Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'
Hard Times, Charles Dickens
There it is! A right tick to my lengthy list of things to do. Met the principal of the school just opposite my office this morning.
It was different from all my earlier visits to schools because this visit was to a “real” school, where a principal with a long string of colorful bangles on both arms, a big round maroon bindi on her forehead and a broad smile stuck to her face was seated on the principal’s chair as Bear and I stepped in.
Principals are used to getting respect from people, and therefore I made sure I was at my politest best. A pleasant lady she was; answered all our queries with no controversial remarks. Plain, simple, politically correct answers. There was one, however, that provided us some insight into the functioning of that school, and of schools in general.
When I asked if the students were exposed to any audio-visuals aids as a supplement to the daily teaching, she answered “Yes, we let them watch educational movies and documentaries. However, we restrict them from watching too many of these, because we fear that they might lose interest in the classroom teaching and end up not listening to the teacher”.
I nodded in agreement politely. But I was reminded of our little girl no. twenty of Charles dickens’ Hard Times, who had to fearfully recite what a horse is to her class and to Mr Gradgrind, her teacher. Our students must surely be starved for innovation and imagination. Lacking the freedom to learn from what they see and not just what they are "taught", the freedom to experiment. Because we know what we provide in our schools is boring, we make sure students do not get used to entertaining learning, and to sources of learning other than the regular teachers.
As we walked out, I saw my friend giving me that knowing smile. I told him, “What a perfect answer” and with that I started my day.

Girls Bridge Course School. Aloor, India

I would do anything to see those smiles again, feel those little fingers, and meet those eyes with dreams.

It was drizzling, soon after a dazzling summer which only made the experience even more enduring. Far far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, away from the glaring eyes, abusive tongues and hands. Away from tears, fears, scars, and hunger, here was a place inside a caged gate, where they found their freedom.

700 beautiful girls live in this world, the Bridge Course camp. As we stopped by the gate, I saw two girls pulling open the iron gate for us. They smiled a happy smile and had big dreams written all over their face. We were taken on an entourage by one of the teachers, exploring their classrooms, their bedrooms, dinning hall, their hearts and their world.
A little girl of 3 years old who I was told is an orphan, held my hand and my heart. Like every typical child on this earth, she wanted that extra attention and affection. Another girl who was dumb spoke to me a million words through her eyes and smiles. I also met a future lawyer, so full of hope. I know she will. Someday soon. There was another; a year and a half old girl, oblivious to the world around her, gazing at me endlessly. She probably must’ve wondered why she had such a big family when others she knew usually had three to four. Or was she wondering why her mom and dad never returned home that fateful night. I held her tight and wished her well.
These girls before they were given this new life were bonded laborers, child laborers. Some of them were rescued from child marriages. Their savior? M.V Foundation, a committed NGO, a dedicated conglomerate up in arms against child labor and on a mission to educate ALL children. They proclaimed it as nonnegotiable. Started in 1992 with 16 children, they have grown to educating thousands.
“The Bridge Course is a bridges the gap for children who have already reached an age too old to join school from class 1. And therefore, we train the children for a period of 12 months. Once they learn the basics, they are enrolled in regular schools--older children are placed in higher classes” Manjula the camp in charge explained. Apparently they have a program designed specifically to cater to the needs of different age group.
More than the books and pencils, the roof, food and clothes, it's love they found here.
Being around these children made me a happier me. From that girl touching my eyebrows and probably learning a sense of style, showing them where Nagaland was on the India map, spelling out my name, posing for pictures and simply meeting them. I went back even more inspired, to make EFF come true, true for me, us and them.
This was a visit to the Girls' Bridge Course school run by The M.V Foundation at Aloor. A.P India.

About this blog

This blog is a journal of our visits to schools; an account of our interaction with teachers and students, our observations, thoughts, inspiration and frustration, as we go about visiting schools to make Education For Free a reality. It will also serve as a newsletter where we will post updates on our progress, technology deployment report, students, teachers and volunteer report.

For now, our deployment focus is on Andhra Pradesh, India. But in the next 12 months, we intend to reach out to the rest of India and other developing countries.
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