Building teacher capacity

Roshni Mirani

Gaurav Singh is the founder of 321 Education Foundation, which works with 3000 teachers across 150 schools in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Low income private schools face the problem of teacher capacity and motivation. 321’s work is focused on helping teachers teach better by empowering them with tools, techniques and training for improved student outcomes. 321 continues to work with teachers post training, observing their classroom performance, providing them feedback – essentially partnering with them in a patient, non-threatening way.

After spending a few years in the technology consulting sector, Gaurav became a Teach for India Fellow in 2008, and then a Fisher Fellow with KIPP Schools, USA. He was awarded the Ashoka Fellowship and Echoing Green fellowship in 2013.

As an engineer who became an educationist, what did you bring from your formal education into your current role?
As an engineer, there is a logic to the way I think and construct arguments and ensure they align together after checking for mistakes – that definitely helped with many aspects of teaching. Teaching is fairly technical – everything from planning to getting a lesson across to students – starting with an objective and creating an experience of parts. You have to put across the knowledge and skills in a way that they are linked and come together as a coherent whole. This has to be done carefully, without too many leaps of logic, otherwise children may not be able to grasp clearly. So having a certain way of thinking with clarity and coherence definitely helped. Second, my comfort with data and research, because I believe teaching and education should be more data informed. At 321, we use data continuously to gauge where children are, where teachers are and to see what we can do better. The ability to just understand data intuitively and quickly, which reveals important facets of education, is valuable.

As a student I have always believed that my learning primarily depends on my effort, focus and motivation. At 321, the responsibility of the child’s learning is placed quite squarely on the teacher. That is an important shift. At the same time you have great empathy for teachers – for their roles, their challenges, their struggles. How did this clarity develop?
That’s an interesting question. Unfortunately, when something goes wrong in education, the first question asked is – who is to blame – the student, the teacher, or the parent? But this is counter-productive. The responsibility actually lies with a whole range of entities – the student, the teacher, the school leadership, the parents and, zooming out, even society at large. However, it is important to make teachers realize that they have incredible power and ability to influence what a child is feeling and learning. At the same time, teachers are not magicians who can take care of every single problem. Both extremes – that teachers can’t do anything because the student’s background is hard, lacks motivation or is not gifted or that teachers can do anything – are unrealistic. The truth lies somewhere in the middle – teachers can do incredible stuff but they can’t do everything.

So if we start with “teachers can do incredible stuff”, then how do we help more and more teachers do that? What are the best practices, what are the support structures, what tools can we build for them to unleash their superpower? Going back to “teachers can’t do everything” – there are often real challenges that teachers and children are dealing with. Our demands from the teacher keep increasing, we keep raising the stakes, without increasing the support. Look at the kind of tools and rigorous training built for doctors in the last 100 years. While for teachers, we have essentially shifted from blackboards to whiteboards.

321 partners with low-fee schools and NGO schools. What are the challenges in partnering with government schools?
We are agnostic whether it is private schools or government schools. Each has their own set of challenges. Government schools have greater bureaucracy; the mandate of the officers plays a larger role. While in a low-fee private school, the parents have more of a voice, the likes and dislikes of the school leader carries more weight. Some of the operational, logistical and financial details are also fairly different between the two types of schools. But if you keep all that aside, ultimately the problems are the same. Within the classrooms there is a lot in common – in both types of schools, teachers feel under-supported and under-appreciated. Teachers who have been in the system for long, have been through so many batches of children where neither the children nor they have succeeded, that they have lost hope. They have never been rewarded or recognized for good work so they don’t believe they are doing anything of value.

321 strongly believes in assessing teacher performance in classrooms and providing them feedback. How do you go about doing this?
During coaching, we walk into classrooms to observe teachers and provide feedback. We help them think through what went well in the classroom, get them to reflect, share our point of view, discuss and plan with them. The early days are very difficult because teachers are so concerned that we are there to find fault and report them. So a lot of our early work is just trust-building. We start by telling the teachers all the things that they are doing well. Often, by the time we tell them the fourth or fifth thing they are doing well, their eyes begin to well up, and as we continue down the list, tears start falling. When you ask them why, they say things like, “I have been doing this for 15 years, and nobody has once said anything nice about what I do.”

In the early days, we know a show is being put on for us – the students are prepped and the session is like a performance. The teacher wants to impress us and we are fine with that. Over the months, as their trust in us builds up, they stop doing that. As the fear goes away, they open up and share a lot, tell us exactly where they are struggling. They even invite us into their classrooms for feedback when they are trying something new.

How do you get teachers who have long been entrenched in the system to see the value in what 321 is attempting to do? How can this be expanded across more schools?
While we strongly believe in observing and giving feedback, we try and make sure it is very low stake. I cannot emphasize this enough. If anybody replicates the observe/feedback model, without making it low stake, it will do more harm than good. The point is to empower the teacher for success; to support, not judge. This has to be the mandate of the trainer or coach. By low stake I mean that an individual teacher’s score will not go to the school leader and the teacher will not face negative consequences because of his or her performance. Our job is to help teachers improve – which means seeing what they do well, and what they don’t. Now if teachers felt that their mistakes in the classroom would get reported, they would be scared, turn distrustful of us, and not be vulnerable. We share only aggregate data with school leaders. Our data and scores on individual teacher levels are not shared.

When the teacher and coach are able to figure something out and the children learn better, not only does the teacher experience an unbelievable high, but the bond between teacher and coach becomes incredibly solid.

It is the same for students by the way. We do a lot of formative assessments, instead of summative assessments. Point is to achieve a big jump in performance in a non-threatening way. We become a trusted partner with them in their journey to improve. That then is the key to unlock so many incredible conversations, experiences, opportunities for growth. To sum up – feedback, assessment, understanding, observation are very critical for improvement but to do so in a low stake manner.

Teachers who have seen value from this experience with us are now advocates for the teacher-coach model, creating a spiral effect enveloping more and more teachers and schools.

321 focuses on classes 1 and 2 as you believe that sets the foundation for future learning. But don’t you think every single year is important? Do you plan to scale up to higher grades?
Next year we are going to grade 3 and kindergarten. Each grade brings its own requirements and challenges. The question we ask ourselves is – should we cover all of the grades with some children, or should we cover certain grades with more and more children to solidify their foundation. There is always an inherent trade-off. We feel that given our experience and expertise we will have greater impact if we focus on a total of 4-5 grades to influence the first five years of a child’s education. If you look at the data, almost 97 per cent of the children in India begin school but by the time they reach class 2 or 3, they have not picked up any of the foundations of reading, writing or numeracy skills. Class 3 is a fairly pivotal point as till then you are learning to read, but after that you are reading to learn. Children who cannot read find the content going forward very difficult and are unable to keep up. Therefore, our hope is to set a really solid foundation for children to learn on their own if needed, using books and the internet. The future is open, but we will always go in a direction where we feel we can add value.

You have studied best practices in other countries – what are some of the practices you have brought into Indian classrooms from abroad?
A principle we value a lot is ‘triangulation’ – how you locate something in space and time. We ‘triangulate’ a lot of what we do. To illustrate this – keeping the stakeholders (student, teacher, school leader, parent) in the center, we look at three triangle points: a) Academic research and data from India and around the world. b) The judgment of experts/practitioners who are masters of their crafts (teachers, principals). c) Our own learning and experience over the years.

We bring all this together to maximize benefit to the stakeholders. Our curriculum development incorporates good work from Africa, USA, Europe. We create our own unique Indian ‘khichdi’ from these resources.

In an online article I read, you quoted Bill Gates – “We overestimate the role of technology in the short term, and underestimate its role in the long term.” What is going to be the long-term impact of technology on education in your view? Will the numbers of teachers required in such a future only go down as students can learn at their own pace using online tools, or a single teacher can teach thousands using technology?
Everyone is obsessed with the internet currently. It would be foolish to try and predict the future. But going back to first principles and seeing what has remained true over a period of time, regardless of the changing world, we see that education is supposed to have completely revolutionized every time something new came along. When the first laptops came, and before that mainframe computers, television, and even the radio were believed to completely disrupt education, but they didn’t. Technology is transforming every aspect of our world but predicting accurately how this will impact education in the future is impossible. It will certainly augment good teachers and good teaching, creating better efficiencies. Simply moving content online may not work as it competes with many other distractions for the child’s attention.

What I am certain will always be needed is the role of a human being who can awaken possibilities in children; who can help them see far beyond what they can see on their own, both within and outside; who can see the spark in a child and endeavour to bring it out. Good teachers have always done this. If you zoom out and look at history, teachers have always been there and been revered, in any culture or scripture, even though the technology and tools they used may have changed.

To overcome the challenges of educating our massive young population, what would you like the government to do and what would you like private citizens to do?
The first thing is to be aware and to care about the issue. Even when something does not seem to affect us directly, whether climate change or education, it will affect us all eventually. If the education system doesn’t improve, we are going to have massive issues in our country. The aspirations of our youth are incredibly high but their reality is not matching up. They don’t have the education or skills to take advantage of the opportunities they seek and nobody is going to sit quiet when they feel that they did not get the chances to learn and improve their life outcomes. Those people will then not be blaming themselves, but direct it outwards.

On another note, so much progress and beauty has come from incredible depths of human creativity, grace and wisdom. So much of this lies dormant in children whose potential is never given a chance to grow. It’s almost a crime that only a few of us get those opportunities. This should be everyone’s problem. We all need to care.

In terms of what governments can do – everything that I have understood about how countries have built really good education systems – Finland, Canada, Singapore, Australia, to ones who have dramatically improved over the last 10-15 years – Peru, Brazil, Vietnam – there are certain things I have picked up: we need a clear understanding and articulation at the national and local level about what education means to us and what we want for our children. The government needs to discuss and define what ‘good’ education is in our context and how we get there. The private and non-profit sectors have to push the government to do this, so that it gets reflected in the training, curriculum, assessments.

Second, we need to make teaching prestigious and bring into the profession the same kind of rigor that the medical and engineering fields have. Unfortunately, in India, teaching is not viewed, supported or invested in, in the same way as these other fields. All of us have to take the teaching profession seriously and the profession has to take itself seriously too. Canada and Finland are great examples where teachers exhibit a high level of competence and professionalism, and are viewed in high regard by society.

Third, a lot more investment in research, evidence building and curriculum development is needed. In the last 20-30 years we have learnt a lot about how children learn, how the brain works. But very little of this gets incorporated into the practice. For real progress, change needs to be a lot more scientific without losing the humanity.

Individuals can contribute by remaining engaged with the issue: volunteer, intern, study, make it a career, support schools around you. Let’s think about what is good for all children not just my own child. If we can inculcate this thinking, then we have a better shot at improving our education system.

If a genie granted you three wishes, what would you wish for pertaining to the education sector?
I would wish for fairly practical things:

  1. Increased rigor in the profession – the use of evidence and data to go deeper, to figure out why children are learning and why they are not. To go beyond the persons involved to understand what is really happening.
  2. Greater equality in how we are investing in and supporting our children – there is a vast level of inequality from nutrition to resources and opportunities. Where children are born should not affect the kind of opportunities they get.
  3. Stop doing what we know does not work and takes up unnecessary time – for example, high stakes summative assessments which are of limited value and cause so much stress to students, parents and teachers, completely subverting the purpose of education. It should be about learning and growth, not amassing marks. We need to liberate education from the cages we’ve built.

321 has worked with 150 schools, 3000 teachers and impacted 120,000 students. What are your dreams today?
Keep strengthening our direct work by encompassing more schools, teachers and students; and foster systemic change in education far beyond our organization.

*Gaurav Singh can be reached at [email protected]

The author and interviewer is a 12th standard student studying at Haileybury College, UK after finishing her ICSE from the Cathedral & John Connon School, Mumbai. She is interested in pursuing further studies in education and psychology. She can be reached at [email protected].

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