We The People – Project Citizen India

Meera Balachandran

“As a team we came across creative ideas and cooperative skills. We learnt to communicate.”
Nidhi Thakur, Red Roses Public School, New Delhi.

“In group work various individuals think differently and still work together.”
Anil Kumar Prajapati, JNV Allahabad.

“Is project dwara hame logo ki samasyae janne ki tatha un par vichar karneki prerna milli.”
Monika Sudhakar Rao and Abhay Mohite, J.N.V Wardha, Maharashtra.

It all began with a surprise invitation in 2004, to attend a conference on civic education in Hungary. As Principal of Ramjas School, RK Puram, New Delhi which I had founded in 1974, I was overjoyed to be asked to participate in this conference by The Center for Civic Education, California. I had no idea what it was about, except that it was called “We The People: Project Citizen”. The conference had a large group of participants from more than 60 countries, and India was participating for the first time! I did get a lot of attention!

Interesting projects were showcased by students from schools in Budapest – projects on drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and other issues relevant to the societal setup in Budapest. I was disappointed as these were not issues that were discussed in Indian schools at that time. I felt it was not relevant to India and when I was asked if I would take up the idea of Project Citizen, I expressed my misgivings. I was told that I would be invited to Malaysia to see the programme there. That visit was the turning point, it convinced me to bring the project to India. The projects presented were so close to the problems we faced here – bullying in school, street food, respect for girls and so on.

Teacher training by experts from the Center for Civic Education was the first step. Teachers from 11 schools of Delhi underwent training and then the students followed. There was no looking back. Training after training followed and the inclusion of the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas was a very decisive step. It meant including children from the government sector. The schools were permitted to select students from classes 8 or 9. The teachers who were trained undertook the projects with the students. The schools worked out their own time schedules. There were trips to meet government officials, talk to the public, invite speakers over, etc. One school took up more than one project and each project had a total of 16 students. A few additional students were involved in making portfolios or collecting information. After an in-house showcasing of the project, the best project from each school was brought to the national showcasing.

Teacher training by the Center for Civic Education
The first showcasing was a tremendous success as students from all over India came to Delhi and showcased the most important steps in participative democracy – toilets were constructed, monuments were revived and each teacher and student could talk eloquently on The Right to Information. Democracy moved from textbooks into action. Democracy became participative.

India, today, is standing at a very important juncture in world development – according to a study undertaken by McKenzie. By 2020, India will have a surplus population of 47 million entering the work force providing support to the world. It is imperative then that the system of education that exists in our country prepares our young minds to face the challenges the work place will present.

Over the past few years, globalization, rapid technological developments and information explosion have brought significant changes in the purpose and nature of education. The old pedagogical framework of de-contextualized instructional practices and fixed curriculum is clearly inappropriate today. With information having an increasingly short shelf-life, education must empower learners to learn for themselves and to continue to do so incessantly. Our students must be learning-enabled and life-long-capable, capable of problem solving, rational decision-making, communicating and leadership. In addition, education must also equip our children to be able to develop a deeper understanding of the world we live in – natural as well as social.

It is with this broad vision that ideas and policies are being implemented today. Be it the NCF of 2005, SSA and now RMSA (Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan), each initiative is trying to meet the challenge of India 2020 and beyond. Yet, while the environment today is changing and bringing in innovation, student development is still largely dependent on memorized facts. Collaboration, creativity and critical thinking that are so much a part of the 21st century skills have still to find a place in the education scenario.

Project Citizen, besides creating active citizens, is an attempt to take a fresh look at learning. It is in keeping with this vision that the teachers are looking at developing the area of active citizenship. Students must grow with the thought and knowledge that each one of us is responsible for our country and if each of us takes up this responsibility with the seriousness it deserves we will be citizens in the real sense.

We the People: Project Citizen is a portfolio-based civic education program that promotes competent and responsible participation in civic issues. It actively engages students in learning how to monitor and influence public policy and encourages civic participation among students, their parents, and members of the community.

As a class project, students work together to identify and study a public policy issue, eventually developing an action plan for implementing their policy. The final product is a portfolio displaying each group’s work. In a culminating activity the class presents its portfolio in a simulated legislative hearing, demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of how public policy is formulated. “An infant may be born a citizen in the eyes of the law, but transforming a human being into a citizen who can participate effectively and responsibly in a democratic society is a lengthy and demanding task.”

Project Citizen is bifurcated into five steps. It begins with the students.

Identifying a problem in the community
• Class discussion
• Through interviews
• Through printed sources
• Through media

Types of problems
• Common problems in communities
• Problems in schools
• Problems of young people
• Problems involving basic liberties
• Problems concerning the environment

Gathering information about the problem, identifying sources of information
• Libraries
• Newspaper offices
• Professors and scholars
• Lawyers and judges
• Government officials
• Local MLAs
• Community organizations
• Interest groups
• NGOs
• Legislative offi cers
• Administrative agencies
• Internet

Developing a class portfolio

  • The class portfolio should include the best documentation that the class and group have gathered while investigating the problem.
  • It should also include students’ original written material and art work

The portfolio should have four parts:
• explaining the problem
• evaluating existing policies vis a vis the problem
• developing a class policy
• developing an action plan

Showcasing the project

  • Evaluation of the portfolio.
  • Evaluation of the oral presentation.
  • Each class is divided into four groups of four students. Each student in the group completes their presentation in just one minute.
  • Six minutes are given to the judges to evaluate each group.
  • Feedback after evaluation of all four groups for six minutes.

Selection of judges

  • Three judges – one from the teaching community, one with a legal background, one from an active NGO involved in community service

The students are guided at every step and as an end product they present a portfolio to a select audience at a showcasing ceremony. The showcasings in the past have been eyeopeners in many ways, for the young have chosen topics ranging from e-waste to rights of prisoners, absence of toilets, neglected monuments, road rage, unauthorized parking and several more. Students have interviewed senior government officials and asked them questions that we adults would have never dared ask. They have featured in a film The World We Want where nine countries including India were represented. (Watch the film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V08cKOJQk5c&pbjreload=10.)

Values and attitudes inherent in Project Citizen include: individual rights and responsibilities, self-discipline/self-governance, civility, courage, respect for the rights of other individuals, respect for the rule of law, honesty, open-mindedness, critical-mindedness, negotiation and compromise, persistence, civic-mindedness, compassion, patriotism, tolerance, active community participation, fairness, decision-making, balancing individual interests and the common good. Project Citizen is designed to be used with students from ages 11 to 18 and therefore could be used at various grade levels, depending upon the decision of the school administrators.

To summarize, the objectives of Project Citizen India are:

  • To actively engage students in learning how to monitor and influence public policy.
  • To encourage civic participation amongst students, their parents and members of the community.
  • To work cooperatively to identify and study a public policy issue. Gathering information
  • To develop an action plan for implementing their policy.
  • To develop the skills necessary to display a portfolio.
  • To develop the skills necessary to present their portfolio in a simulated legislative hearing.
  • To demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of how public policy is formulated.

To develop values inherent in the project:

  1. Individual rights and responsibilities
  2. self-discipline/governance
  3. civility, courage, respect for the rights of others, respect for the rule of law
  4. honesty, open mindedness
  5. critical mindedness, negotiation and compromise
  6. The programme has been successfully implemented since 2005 in nearly 400 schools all over India. Over 1500 teachers and about 40000 students have been exposed to the principles of active citizenship. It has been specially appreciated in the Navodaya Schools.

    Project Citizen also exposes students to authentic intellectual achievement. Authentic intellectual achievement involves the application of knowledge to questions and issues, the construction of knowledge and disciplined enquiry.

    Students when collecting information about a problem and the policies of the government are actually discerning, sifting, and applying knowledge already available to solve problems that they believe need attention. They cannot duplicate the policies available without reacting to them. In this then lies the construction of knowledge. They use the existing knowledge available to construct what they list as alternative policies. This again involves inferential reasoning leading to making judgments. The construction of this knowledge has to be based on disciplined enquiry which implies an in-depth study of a problem and the ability to express that understanding in ways acceptable to experts. It is a true manifestation of the 21st century skills in education.

    Conventional study does not address these parameters of intellectual work and so it is important for us to reach out to more and more students all over India. The whole concept helps make meaningful connections between school work and situations outside school. This again assumes a larger meaning when education is seen not merely as a preparation for life but as life itself. We invite more schools to join the passion for learning and doing what Project Citizen offers.

    “The objective of civic education is not to make all students into adults exclusively or obsessively occupied with political matters or who participate intensively and continuously on every conceivable issue. In a democratic society each individual must retain the right to choose where, when and how he or she wishes to participate.”

    Note: Schools interested in participating in Project Citizen may contact the author at meera.balachandran@eqfi.org.

    Project Citizen in action

    A few years ago driving on Sahra Mathew Lane was a nightmare for the residents of Safdarjung Enclave as well as children and parents of St. Mary’s School, New Delhi. A stretch of about 2 km from the T junction of Africa Avenue to Krishna Nagar was dotted with some 82 potholes. The size of each was not less than 100 cm in diameter. The storm water drains on both sides of the road were blocked. The muck that collected, as a result, was never cleaned. Water logging in and around was causing a great hardship for the students as well as for the local residents. Since, the authority was indifferent about the predicaments of the residents, the children of St. Mary’s decided to take the matter to the concerned authorities. The students first surveyed the broken road and prepared a report highlighting its poor condition. With the report in hand, they met the MP, Dr. Kiran Walia, who promised to look into the matter. Patiently the children waited for things to improve, but the plight continued. The children then met the District Commissioner and convinced him about the urgency of re-carpeting the lane. Their persistent efforts paid off. To everybody’s surprise, the road was given a fresh layer of tar within a month.

    To read more such successful interventions by students of various schools visit www.teacherplus.org

    The author is former principal Ramjas school, R K Puram, New Delhi. She is currently the Director of Education Quality Foundation of India, Delhi. She can be reached at meera.balachandran@eqfi.org.

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