Inspiring education

Simran Luthra

“Do you believe in karma?” – was the question posed to the group gathered on the morning of August 28, 2010 at the American School of Bombay. A majority of the audience raised its hands in affirmation – in India most people do believe in karma. What followed in Craig Johnson’s humorous speech was a personal story of his father being the principal of a school in Panchgani – where Craig spent more than 12 years of his life, after which he went back to America, built a house, got married and then moved to Brazil for 15 years and returned to the American School of Bombay as Superintendent. Karma anyone?

This personal anecdote not only lightened the mood, but also filled each person in the audience with inspiration – there was a purpose to why we were all sitting in that room. The collection of individuals there were people who had made time from within Mumbai or outside the city to be part of a conference, aptly called ‘InspirED’ – a conference which promises to kick-start a movement in education in India.

On Friday, August 27, the Xavier Institute of Mass Communication auditorium hosted a two-hour showcase of the conference. With Ashish Kumar, Additional Municipal Commissioner, MCGM, as the keynote speaker for the evening, the event was an informal collaboration of the government, educationists from the private and public sectors and the media.


The event (slated to be an annual one) was hosted by Akanksha, Teach for India and Asia Society. The main themes for the two- day conference were: ‘Teaching as Leadership’ and ‘Innovation in Action’. Multiple sessions were held around these major themes and participants could sign up for at least 2-3 sessions a day. Both the days ended with panel discussions on current topics like the RtE and youth movements.

The major take-away for the participants who comprised teachers, principals from both private and government schools, educationists from NGOs and For Profits, Teach for India Fellows, students and others interested in education was simple:

  1. Build a toolkit full of new ideas for students.
  2. Network with other educators – take time to listen, share, connect with other educators. There were many, many years of experience and wisdom in the room.
  3. Give yourself permission to become inspired. When a teacher in a classroom is inspired, the opportunities to learn are endless.1

The hard part was choosing which of the four simultaneous sessions to attend! And it is no exaggeration to say one was spoilt for choice. For instance…

  • Checks for Understanding: Using Assessments Wisely – Vishnuteerth Agnihotri from Educational Initiatives
  • Conceptual Change and Learning for Understanding – Maya Menon from The Teacher Foundation
  • Classroom Management and Culture: Creating a Culture of Learning – Nandini Parekh and Deepa Avashia from Riverside School

… and several others.

Craig Johnson’s keynote address was followed by Ramya Venkataraman’s speech, both of which were grouped under the theme – “Innovations in Education: An Indian Perspective”. Ramya is the head of McKinsey’s Education Practice in India and her informative presentation focused on the shifting trends in the educational landscape in India. On the basis of those she put forth certain recommendations relevant to the government, For Profits as well as Not for Profits.

Post the keynote speakers’ address, the individual sessions began. Shaheen Mistri, founder of the Akanksha Foundation conducted a film-screening and discussion based on the theme ‘“Teaching as Leadership” in Action: Stand and Deliver’. Stand and Deliver is a film based on the true story of a high school mathematics teacher, Jaime Escalante who died early this year. It is the story of his relentless dedication and love for teaching as well as his determination to challenge the system and students to a higher level of achievement.2

The discussion that followed the film was animated and had the audience brimming with responses. Along with that, Mistri provided a 6-step model to Teaching as Leadership:

  1. Set a big goal
  2. Excite students
  3. Plan
  4. Execute
  5. Work relentlessly
  6. Reflect

Maya Menon’s session was another example of how teaching is all about the basics. Her theme was ‘Conceptual Change and Learning for Understanding’ where she explored how children learn with the emphasis on ‘understanding’ as opposed to rote learning and more importantly what factors impede understanding – why misconceptions happen and how they can be rectified and avoided.

The session was made far more interesting and interactive by her use of videos from actual classrooms where we saw teachers teaching and also students talking about their teachers in some. Participants were invited to come up with reasons for what factors may lead to children not understanding the concept being taught in the videos shown – math and English.

Maya then shared what she had delineated as primary reasons for impediments to understanding:
– Language and tone of the teacher
– Students’ own misconceptions
– Teacher’s understanding of the concept

This was followed by a number of useful suggestions to avoid to whatever extent possible, misconceptions in learning. Some of these are:

  • Asking children to make index card summaries – to write what they have understood as well as their doubts.
  • Using hand-signals in the classroom to indicate to the teacher how comfortable they are with the concept covered.
  • Visual representations made by students in the form of webs or concept maps.
  • Analogy prompts
  • Oral questioning
  • Follow-up probes – organic exchanges to clarify and check for understanding

The session was enriched by the presence of four middle-school students from Riverside School whose inputs and reactions exemplifying the perspective of students lent greater validity to Maya Menon’s points. All in all a simple but extremely fruitful exercise was indulged in as Maya facilitated the audience through the elusive subject of ‘understanding’.

All in all, InspirED promises to be more than just an ‘event’. Such an informal and energetic gathering of stakeholders of Indian education is rare. The conference spanned interests and needs ranging from those of the teacher in the classroom, to the principal at the level of providing a vision and a mission, to giving the policymaker a more comprehensive picture of the ground reality, albeit in a limited capacity… A lot more needs to be done, but if this was a start, it was a promising one. Perhaps as much, if not more in any field, it is in education that the process of dialogue, exchange of ideas and energies, sharing of stories, challenges and successes is most needed. The business of education is so much about the human spirit that ‘inspiration’ is one of the key elements in sustaining it and ensuring it prospers in the right direction; given this, the organizers couldn’t have come up with a better name than ‘InspirED’!!

Here’s hoping EDucation in India gains momentum and mileage from InspirED…


  1. From the handbook provided to the participants in the conference.

The author is a student of education (elementary) at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be reached at

On an equal platform

Gaurav Singh

If you were to do an opinion poll on why the standard of teaching in our schools is so low, the most common answers will revolve around inspiration. “Teachers are not motivated”, “Teachers don’t care”, etc., etc. But, what I saw this weekend at the InspirED conference in Mumbai told me this is not true, at least not universally. I saw a group of about 300 educators from across India who were passionate about their work, eager to learn, willing to listen and most importantly, really truly cared.

What struck me though were two things: the diversity of the participants and their openness to new ideas. The standard image of a teacher, set in her ways; not bothered with stretching herself or learning something new, was totally shattered. Here were educators who were excitedly choosing which workshops they would attend during the day, sharing everything they had learnt during the day in their reflection groups, exchanging notes and promising to pass on the knowledge of their sessions to others who couldn’t attend it.

So, at the end of the day when I sat down with my group of 15 to debrief on the entire conference, I asked them to say in one word how they were feeling. The response in consensus was – InspirED. Thrilled, I asked them – Why? I expected the answer to be: because the workshops were great or because they learnt so much or that they met many good educators. But their answer surprised me.

They said they were InspirED because they felt special. In this conference they were made to feel like they mattered. Whenever they had a question someone was there to answer it, whenever they had a concern someone was there to address it – efficiently and respectfully. When they gave feedback, people listened not defensively but humbly. They said they had never experienced this before, a place where their opinions were valued, they were given a platform to share, a chance to contribute and all of this with a smile.

Maybe then inspiration is not about giving speeches and lectures but simply about making people feel special, strong and cared for. Making them realize they matter. That is what will give them the self-belief and the confidence. Couple that with hardcore skills and you have a troop of people ready to go back and bring change in their schools, classes and kids, all because they are now – InspirED.

Gaurav Singh is a Teach For India Fellow(2009). He is interested in education equity and is passionate about empowering his fourth grade students in a municipal School in Mumbai. He can be reached at

“I” moments

Madhumita Subramanian

I walked into the InspirED conference hoping to be intellectually stimulated and emotionally moved by the plethora of ideas zooming past me. I would like to refer to these as my “I” moments, instances when “I” got inspired to act.

My first “I” moment presented itself when Craig Johnson, Superintendent, American School, Mumbai, delved into the concept of leadership. Leadership entailed two aspects, which, if viewed as mutually exclusive, could be dangerous; Inspiration and Empowerment. One must be inspired and feel empowered to ACT, otherwise the thought remains an idea, a figment of the imagination. Feeling empowered but lacking in vision would result in energy being spent in vacillating. Applied in the context of the classroom, this would mean empowering my children with a vision that they relate to, that they can achieve and also instilling the belief in them that they are equipped to turn their vision into reality.

My second “I” moment too, sprung during Craig’s session. A great teacher, he mentioned, has one striking quality- the ability to MOTIVATE. Quoting Daniel Pink, he said in order to motivate one needs to show purpose, give autonomy and enable mastery. Simple. “If I were to teach my 8 year-old student gravity, I would relate it to him by stating that if it weren’t for gravity he wouldn’t be able to play cricket, for the ball would never come down and the batsman would never get out! I would give him a sense of ownership by having him experiment with various objects to test gravity. I would enable mastery by having him explain it to a friend! I have motivated my student to learn about gravity”.

Heeru Bhojwani’s session on storytelling made me realize that today’s children are 21st century learners who want to be constantly engaged. What best way to achieve that than through the power of visual storytelling? I have now planned to incorporate visual storytelling into my SSC chapters. Another “I” moment!

Several other “I” moments did prop up but this space is unfortunately not enough to do justice to them. Inspiration is an experience, a very personal one that too. Once inspired, the capacity of an individual to propel change is multi-fold. I left Inspired and I’m sure there are plenty others who will ensure change happens.

Madhumita is a 2009 Teach For India Fellow and also one of the main editors of the TFI Publication “Firki”. She can be reached at

The five As of learning

Romana Shaikh

The five steps to real learning delivered by Ashish Rajpal was an eye-opening session. He spoke about the state of learning and the methods of teaching in schools across the country and brought to the fore the key steps involved in making the learning process truly enriching for the student. Some major points of discussion were around the current gap in pedagogical innovation and the reliance of teachers largely on rote. The effort should be to equip teachers, support them and guide them to use alternative strategies and methods of teaching.

He outlined the five steps to real learning as being a continuous cycle of –

  • Academic Plan – a comprehensive outline of all the objectives, content areas and skills that children need to acquire in an academic year. This Academic Plan should clearly lay out the path to the end of year goals. It is essential to start with the AIM in mind.
  • Creating a learning experience – Implementation of the academic plan in the classroom is the key to learning. Learning takes place most effectively when students do rather than hear or listen. ACTIVITIES should be structured to be engaging, interactive and experiential.
  • Analysis – A process to check for the effectiveness of the activity after its execution, it is at this stage that inquiry is the key process. Students engage in an objective dialogue which is reflective in nature. This pushes students to understand and learn by questioning and critical thinking, skills that otherwise don’t get honed in a traditional practice.
  • Application – While at the activity stage the emphasis is on learning by doing, it is fundamental to allow for opportunities to practice. At this stage the pace of the learner would be of utmost importance and teachers need to intervene and differentiate to create that transfer of learning to APPLICATION.
  • Assessment is the final stage of the process. It is the process that involves the testing of students’ abilities. Using methods that go beyond the paper-pencil format, a holistic approach to ASSESSMENT often yields the most useful data. Based on this data, teachers need to repeat steps if necessary or then move on to the next objective as laid out in the academic plan.

Each of these five steps is fundamental to creating a culture of learning in the school and really pushing students to academic achievement.

Romana Shaikh is a 2009 Teach for India Fellow and teaches the third grade. She is also an Advisor to the 2010 Fellows. She can be reached

Truly InspirED!

Dhanya Yadav

The first annual InspirED conference saw many educators come together to celebrate innovation in education. The concept of innovation was introduced using the image of a pencil.

There is a little pencil
Not quite new and not quite bold
A red, plain-looking pencil
That will do what it is told

Who lives inside my pencil box
With others of its kind
Who leaves an ordinary mark
On printed, notebook lines

And then there is the pencil
Who is sparkly and is bold
Who doesn’t always follow rules
And do what he is told

Who bends to make a pencil trunk
Who flutters as he flies
Who sometimes is a rocket
Pushing children to the sky

Ah look – this pencil is the sun
He dazzles with his rays
He knows that orange-yellow light
Can brighten wetter days

This pencil goes deep in the sea
And flaps its sharpened fins
And shows us if we try real hard
That all of us can win

And sometimes, as he’s deep in thought
He grows into a tree
Who watches all the world around
And questions quietly

And so, this day, together
As we start on this journey
A question from him to each of you
Which pencil do you see?

I was really inspired by the session with Craig Johnson. In addition, a host of organizations brought innovation to life – Ummeed, BNHS, Navnirmiti, idiscoveri and the Teacher Foundation. The Art Workshop was hugely successful with educators tracing themselves on brown paper and charting out digestion, drawing to the music of fireflies and bringing history to life through art. Each day ended with people breaking into small reflection groups, enabling educators to meet and interact on a deeper level.

Dhanya Yadav, is a 2010 Teach For India Fellow and teaches second grade students in Shindewadi Mumbai Public School. She can be reached at

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