Redefining ‘new normal’, one phone call at a time

Richa Pandey

“Madam ji parnaam!” sang Preeti and Parvati in chorus every time I called them to discuss the stories in their ‘magic book’. Preeti (13 years old) and Parvati (11 years old) are siblings who live in Kundiya, a small village in a tiny hamlet named Gular in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. The girls live with their parents, grandparents, and two more siblings (an elder sister and a younger brother). They were enrolled in the nearby government school prior to the nationwide lockdown followed by indefinite school closure. The persistent digital divide combined with lack of immediate support from school authorities would mean an increased probability of either dropout or aggravated learning crisis for these girls.

Similar were the stories of 70 other children connected with 35 volunteers including me for a period of three months through the Gyan Vahak Program launched by Simple Education Foundation, a Delhi-based not-for-profit organization. The children were provided with weekly learning packets (a set of two workbooks) along with individualized mentorship (buddy/volunteer) through voice calls. This meant that I, as a volunteer (or buddy), would call the children assigned to me at a mutually decided time and discuss the workbooks with them. The workbooks contained stories and follow-up activities (mind maps, reflection questions, word problems) that children could do on their own with minimum assistance. The role of the volunteers was to provide the necessary scaffold as expected and demanded by the children. This support could range from explaining a concept by providing additional videos/examples/personal anecdotes to being a consistent listener as the children shared their daily struggles and triumphs. It was simply limited to keeping one’s inner child alive and being a ‘buddy’ to these children.

Like anyone trying to navigate through this unchartered territory of online learning, I had my doubts and concerns about the possibilities of ‘learning’ in a virtual space. Having spent close to 60 hours talking to the girls and 26 hours with my fellow volunteers, I have learned a few valuable lessons that might be helpful to others in the development sector.

  1. Establishing a connection: Digital learning has been criticized on multiple grounds including equity. It is a legitimate concern for places like Kundiya where sometimes the mobile network is also poor. The use of appropriate technology (voice calls instead of Whatsapp) was, therefore, necessary. More effective, however, was the emphasis on establishing and maintaining human connections. Induction programs for children, parents and volunteers helped in breaking the ice. Conversations with the parents on a weekly basis to check the general progress of their children helped in developing collective ownership. This also provided space for the volunteers to know the parents, and their aspirations and concerns for their children.
  2. Well begun is half done: My interactions with the girls were unsupervised because the calls were not recorded at any point. This meant no fear of external supervision or judgment. It was during the induction, daily reflection notes and weekly reflection circles that I could address my doubts, concerns and challenges with the process. This kind of structural support went a long way in helping me become a better buddy to the children. I realized that being aware of the purpose of my activities helped me connect with the children in an effective way. Knowing that I’m not alone was reassuring, particularly when the discussions on voice calls became challenging.
  3. Safe space as a pre-requisite to learning: During my interaction with the two girls, we learned about varied concepts including MSP (Minimum Selling Price) and AQI (Air Quality Index) despite knowing that these concepts will not be in their syllabus at least for the next five years. Still, we learned because we wanted to learn and had the opportunity to learn. We could explore the diverse resources around us (the stories in the workbooks, their parents’ lived experience, and my access to the Internet), ask questions and admit that we didn’t know all the answers. I realized how empowering a free and safe space could be and how easy it is to help children learn. You just have to be ready to learn simultaneously. You just have to be a child yourself.
  4. We before me: I was fortunate to work with siblings as I could call them at the same time. This allowed for peer interaction and I learned the power of human connection. Preeti was chirpy and Parvati was shy. A combined call would then lead to Preeti’s learning at Parvati’s expense. My interactions with co-volunteers and program leaders helped me realize that the same was possible in the case of adults too. We learned the value of stepping back and stepping up during the reflection circles, which I practiced with Preeti and Parvati as well so that they both learnt. Elimination of unnecessary competition (no rewards for solving a problem quickly) eliminated any incentive to cheat or belittle one’s colleagues. The constant emphasis on our shared humanity and common goals played a crucial role in developing a sense of collective. Once the volunteers learned the value of “we before me”, modelling it for children became an organic process.
  5. Local before global: There have been interventions designed at a scale that might differ in terms of their reach, scope, purpose and approach. This experience, in my opinion, was that of scaling deep. From the content (stories and problems) children engaged with to the pedagogy (inquiry) volunteers adopted, the emphasis was on staying connected to the ground. The children learned about issues that affect their own community (e.g., migration) and change-makers from their own state before moving towards global challenges. They identified resources in their own community and realized the power of community-driven change through stories and experiences.

There surely were challenges in terms of poor network leading to occasional call failure and delayed dissemination of workbooks due to the identification of COVID cases in their village. Access to sophisticated technology and high-speed Internet would have made lives easier but it would still not be a guarantee for quality learning. Likewise, having children back in physical classrooms with an age-old understanding of ‘schooling’ wouldn’t guarantee a better situation either. As a species, we are at a crossroads where it has become imperative for us to redefine ‘normal’. Consequently, for people invested in the field of education and development, these times call for an honest re-evaluation of where we were, how far we have come, and where we want to go. Given that the schools are now reopening across the country and NEP is in its implementation phase, it would be worthwhile to draw valuable lessons from the grassroots. Teachers and youth volunteers are resources and so are textbooks and the Internet. All of them have their own space and role in the education system. What’s required is relooking the aims of education, a commitment towards effective and optimum utilization of these resources in light of those aims, increased autonomy at the local level, and the children’s well-being at the center of it all.

The author is a former social science teacher with a Masters in Arts in Education from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. She has been working as a curriculum developer and facilitator with children and young adults for the last six years. Her interests include systems thinking, social-emotional learning and citizenship education. She can be reached [email protected].

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