Sunil who is a class 4 student of a government school in a village in Ujjain was always described by the teachers of the school as a slow learner who could not keep pace with what is taught in the class. However, teachers were surprised when he passed the class 4 annual exams with a satisfactory performance, all thanks to the local youth teacher.
More than 85 per cent of the children who attended community centers reported a two-level improvement in basic literacy and numeracy skills. These levels are similar to the levels described by ASER in their assessment framework. Now around 50 per cent of the children can read words in English which was earlier just 4 per cent. Ten per cent of the total children can also read and understand a complete sentence in English.
Apart from this substantial shift that came up, in a period of six months of intervention, what makes it special is the teachers who made this happen. These were no highly trained teachers, well-versed in methods and pedagogical skills. These were local youth, most of them fresh out of college, with minimal job experience and little or no training in specific pre-teaching courses.
How did this happen?
The community centres led by local youth were initiated by Mera Gaon Meri Dunia (MGMD), an organization inspired by a vision to create better quality education spaces accessible to the grassroots population. The youth who were inducted are part of a residential training journey to align them to the organizational vision.
The initial training also attempted to train them on basic outreaching skills to set-up the class group, non-violent techniques to manage the classroom and generic teaching strategies that can help them plan their lessons in a way that enhances children’s participation and engagement.
The context of intervention
The idea was to start within the system itself, to be able to understand it better and eventually find the elements to bring in sustainable improvement. The intervention started in the selected villages of Ujjain district of Madhya Pradesh where a survey had been conducted (by MGMD) to gauge the basic literacy and numeracy skills children had during the school lockdown and the results were stark. More than 90 per cent of the children from primary classes couldn’t read a word in English and around half of the children couldn’t solve a simple subtraction problem (without borrowing). This largely demarcates the typical situation of villages in India.
Changes in the schedule
As most of the centres were run in government school premises or panchayat offices, with a period of three-hour teaching time every day in hand, a schedule was tried such that morning rituals were smooth followed by a balance of curricular and co-curricular activities planned and concluded by a practice aimed to consolidate.
We observed that in the centres that the schedule was followed sincerely, the children were regular, participated with enthusiasm, and their willingness to engage with academics improved. However, over time it became difficult to stick to the planned schedule. For instance, something like organizing a collective physical labor activity with a large group would become cumbersome. Some teachers then started allocating different days in each week to explore different elements.
Changes in the classroom
A typical classroom space during the primary years is crowded with display resources which are rarely used. Generally, a pictorial chart of the alphabet, Varnamala, body parts, fruits/vegetables, and neatly copied pictures by children find some place on the walls.
The centres began by de-cluttering the space and identifying the items that were not regularly used keeping it off the displaying space. Next, planning was done to bring in elements that could help create a feeling of a distinct community. The teachers co-created vision statements with children with the values they held high in every classroom and displayed it near the blackboard. A set of class norms was also created to ensure that everyone respected each other’s space and learning was maximized. Apart from the timetable and the prayer, the following elements were added to each learning space – feeling charts (displaying a list of simple words for feelings children can choose from while sharing), a feeling wall (an empty space where children can write their feelings if they find it difficult to share verbally), a children’s corner (where works of children were displayed for a week ensuring each child’s work gets there).
The youth teachers were finding it difficult to manage noise, complaints, and norm breaking. Depending on the issues that cropped up in the classrooms, a ‘behaviour management tracker’ was added for individual children and for the class as a whole. It was done to make sure expected good behaviours are acknowledged regularly. Further, when there was more work done on general practices of encouraging curiosity, a question wall was introduced called Sawaalon ka Samman (to put up good questions cropping from children’s curiosity and questions that went unanswered) and a word bank called Shabdon ki Tijori (to add new words the class is getting introduced to). The teachers and students together also labelled all the objects present in the classroom in three different languages (Malawi, Hindi, and English). The overarching idea was converting the room into a learning aid.
A major learning was that it is always a better idea to display materials that have a larger role in regular teaching practices. Merely using the space to ‘display’ was limited in scope.
Changes in lesson planning
Entering a class without a lesson plan is a big no-no in all the classrooms! The teachers worked on individual lesson plans for a month initially without much external input. In the beginning, the plans involved mainstream methods of rote learning, reading aloud from the book and repeating but all this made one strong difference in the attitude of teachers. They began to observe their class, compare what happened with the plan, felt dissatisfied with their teaching performance and realized a strong need to engage more with the children through better planning. To establish a real world connection, the teacher had to see the connection of the concept in the child’s immediate environment and create it in the classroom. By the end of the lesson, the teacher was expected to guide the interaction of the child with her environment with the lens of the concept. For a topic like vegetable names, it was easy for the teacher to plan a vegetable exhibition that the children could organize by bringing in different vegetables from their home.
One thing that the teachers took up was sharing the objective of the class and creating the purpose of learning the topic with the children. It was found that a more relevant purpose for learning phonic sounds for children was reading signboards on the road or reading newspapers to their grandparents than being able to pass the exam and get a good job.
Apart from this, using a lot of energizers, setting up an action-response sequence to get immediate attention of the children (teacher says ‘Kaun Padhega’ to which all students respond in unison ‘Hum padhengey’) and behaviour management cycles (a teacher’s narration in which the teacher brings out an expected behaviour action in limited time using positive narration) helped the teachers to create joyful and well-managed spaces in the classroom.
Make sure parents know!
Parents are prime facilitators of a child’s education. Especially in a rural context, the role of the community is immense. Hence, keeping them in the loop of the intervention from the beginning is a matter of significance and especially when we aim to make their roles more alive as partners to the school. Mostly, organizing the PTMs in the classroom itself has been a helpful process in which parents have often commented upon the class decor – especially the goal of the class and the values. Also, concluding every meeting with an easy task for the parents that they accomplish at home which is also congruent to what is happening in the class is also a more organic way of developing a purpose and flow to sync the two spaces. For instance, when the word banks and child corners were introduced in the classroom, in the subsequent PTM, the parents were also given charts and labels to demarcate a study corner for children at home and display a blank chart there as a word bank.
With the New Education Policy coming in, some discourse has started around the quality of learning experiences schools are able to create for children going beyond the mainstream rote learning methods and broadening the means to assess the real learning. This has also driven a sense of urgency to ensure each child attains basic literacy and numeracy skills by grade 3 which is also challenging because of a gap in regular classroom routines (maybe for good!).
To start off with a chaotic, foundational space in the beginning, these minimal changes that we have talked about might be useful and nothing about them is revolutionary unless a few things are kept in mind.
First, intent is always superior to the resource. A well-intentioned and driven teacher who is willing to run that extra mile to ensure the child experiences something a little more fully and truly is the most powerful space to start with, the rest follows.
Further, a good classroom might not be about more good elements but more good in a few elements. There might be numerous amazing ideas to move a class to excellence but picking a few and following them consistently is going to bring in a long lasting change. There might be a hundred opinions of the observers of your classroom about what you can do better but knowing your limits with awareness is a powerful thing.
Third, every intervention in education must be planned keeping enough room for the teacher’s and student’s agency. A flexibility to design our learning experiences ourselves helps us own it better. However, this can look different in different phases of the intervention. We can start with exercising a limiting choice and grow the capacity to make effective decisions over time, learning from our experiences. Lastly, however cliched it may sound, working towards creating a perfect learning space is a highly dynamic, evolving process. For this, the intervention has to focus on building the muscle of teachers to reflect and practice simultaneously so that continuous spaces of emergence are created.
The author is the co-founder of an organization which works in the rural areas of Madhya Pradesh to improve systemic foundations of the government school system through empowering youth leadership. She is a Wipro Seeding fellow and a former Edumentum and Changelooms fellow. She is a gold medallist in the Post-Graduate program in Human Development and Childhood Studies from the University of Delhi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.