In a 7th grade classroom, Rutuja and her classmates are studying fairy tales. They have just read Cinderella and are writing down the stereotypes stories such as these promote. Rutuja writes, “The prince always saves the princess” and “Girls always care about what they look like”. She debates that last point with her thought partner, who questions why it is a stereotype. Their teacher, Surabhi, calls the class to attention and asks volunteers to share their thoughts.
After school at 4:30pm, Zuveiriya and 29 of her 4th and 5th grade peers are in a small library, selecting books to read. Zuveiriya flips through books and finds a thin, paperback volume by Dr. Seuss that she likes, and settles down in the hallway to read. She escapes to a different world and is quiet, absorbed in the story. Her teachers, Arti and Arpitha, carry binders to nearby students and discuss their reading with them. One student is working on understanding tough words using context clues. Zuveiriya knows she is good at this and that her goal is different, and that they all have different goals to become stronger readers.
In a 1st grade classroom, Shreya and her classmates sit on mats at the front of the room, learning two-digit carry-over addition. Shreya loves math. Her teacher, Karishma, makes arithmetic sound like a story where students contribute to the characters. This lasts for 10 minutes, about as long as Shreya and her 6-year-old classmates are developmentally ready to listen. They then go back to their tables and spend the rest of the half hour working on problems of their own, with the teacher accompanying small groups of students who need additional support.
What is common about these three classrooms from three different Akanksha Foundation schools is that each child has an opportunity to explore independently and connect to the material. They are not just having fun and or just working on the task at hand. They are active participants in their learning and have the space to try out or talk about what is taught. To make this happen, the teachers in all three classrooms have to make pedagogical choices – moving away from whole-class, teacher-centric instruction toward a child-centric approach.
This approach can be messy, hard to control and assess, and very different from the typical schooling experiences of most of our teachers, where individual question-answer, lecturing and chorus answers were the norm. But at Akanksha, shifting the centre of the classroom to students is what we are striving towards.
It is not an easy road. We launched a revised curriculum in 2013-14 that concentrates on teaching skills and content in a meaningful and relevant context. It pushes our teachers to think about the why behind the material they teach. They have to plan units of study and assessments that involve authentic tasks alongside tests and quizzes that bring the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (or CCE, which helps to identify and remedy a student’s learning difficulties, thereby improving his/her performance at school) to life.
Our focus now is on pedagogy. A few months ago, Shalini Sachdev, school leader of KC Thackeray Vidya Niketan, wrote about the journey of her first batch of 10th graders that graduated last year. Along with her team, Shalini deliberately moved toward a more progressive learning model because that’s what her students need.
Those last words are important. The millions of children who grow up in poverty need a more progressive, more holistic and more humane education. When Zuveiriya goes back to her home in Pune’s Kasarwadi community, she shares a small space with her parents, three siblings and her grandmother. Her parents often return home from odd jobs, too tired to ask her what she did in school that day. She sleeps with exhaust fumes filling her lungs. And though Zuveiriya is bubbly by nature, on many days she arrives at school with red, teary eyes.
Zuveiriya needs to be in a classroom where learning is rigorous, joyous and active, where teachers use multiple teaching methodologies – whole class, small group, activity-based, skill and drill – purposefully. Zuveiriya needs school to be a place of hope, a place that ignites her interests and gives her regular, constructive feedback to help her grow.
To do this, our teachers, school leaders and support team are looking closely at what students do in class and how meaningful that experience is. Do students know why they are doing what they are doing? Do they have opportunities to ask questions? Do they have opportunities to figure things out on their own? What is the role of the teacher? What kind of planning is required? These questions are essential to the work we do.
Just as essential are the hard truths. Often, students are not fully engaged, too much time is spent on teacher talk, and some students are left out of the learning process. Instead of pointing fingers, we follow a feedback process that is direct, non-threatening and focused on improvement.
What matters for us is that Rutuja, Zuveiriya and Shreya have choices and the skills they need to make those choices that perhaps their parents didn’t have. For Akanksha teachers, this makes the job monumental. If it were just about a board exam or a test result, the task would not demand us to rethink the way we teach. But it is not. It is about empowering children to become thoughtful adults who pass tests, succeed in excellent colleges, strive for interesting careers, take care of happy and healthy families and are socially responsible citizens.
Reena Shah is the Chief Learning officer at the Akanksha Foundation. The Akanksha Foundation runs 15 municipal schools in Mumbai and Pune in partnership with the BMC and the PMC. Follow them on twitter at @Akanksha_India.