Showing up is not enough

21st February 2014 at 00:00
Despite efforts to get India's children into school, figures reveal that they learn shockingly little once enrolled. Adi Bloom meets the teachers determined to turn this situation around

Ruchika Hanswani's mother does not understand why her daughter needs to spend so much time planning lessons.

Hanswani's mother is also a teacher. She has worked in Delhi schools for decades. But unlike 21-year-old Ruchika, she has never prepared a lesson in advance. She simply walks into the classroom in the morning, opens a textbook and asks a student to read from it. Then she writes a few related questions on the blackboard. And there is her lesson; no planning necessary.

"She thought education was a simple question of going to school every day, teaching and coming back," Hanswani says. "But if you don't plan, you can't relate the topic to real life.

"When I was a student, I probably didn't learn as much as I could. If I'd had a teacher who'd planned everything, I'd definitely have learned better."

Hanswani teaches children aged 8 to 10 at Janta Modern Public School, in an impoverished area of north-east Delhi. Outside the school, open drains run deep with rainwater. A criss-cross of electrical cables forms a mesh overhead. In front of the school, a man stacks large coils of black wire on to a handcart. Several of Hanswani's students cannot afford even minimal school fees. Many witness domestic violence on a regular basis. But thanks to its well-trained, well-prepared teachers, Janta Modern is one of the most advanced, innovative schools in the area.

The Indian government has said that all children should have a primary school within 1km of where they live. In the past few years, much political and charitable attention has therefore been focused on building new schools and improving existing facilities. Classrooms have been re-roofed; toilets have been built; midday meals have been provided. As a result, 93 per cent of India's primary-aged children are now enrolled in school.

Much less attention, however, is paid to what goes on once they are there. A report on rural schools published in January reveals that one in four seven-year-olds is unable to recognise the letters of the alphabet. Fewer than half can read basic sentences in textbooks intended for their age group.

"The parents are illiterate," says Neha Drolia, an Indian educationalist. "And most of the teachers in these schools don't have any professional training. The teachers don't know what a quality education looks like and nor do the parents. So the children are not learning."

A few miles and half a world away from Janta Modern, Drolia is sitting in an air-conditioned cafe with her colleague, Jagriti Rawal. Posters on the wall recommend that customers order a brownie with their latte; the cafe offers free wi-fi.

Drolia and Rawal both work for Stir Education, a charity that aims to tackle the underachievement endemic in Delhi's poorest schools. Rather than focusing on school buildings, Stir Education has been targeting the teachers. School leaders and teachers are offered whole-day training sessions, during which they are taught the importance of planning and preparing lessons, and how to make sure their students are taking in what they teach.

"My definition of teaching has changed," Hanswani says. She received Stir Education professional training from her school leader at Janta Modern, a committed advocate for the charity's programmes. "Like my mum, I used to think that it was a simple question of going into school every day, teaching and coming back home. Now I understand that teaching means a lot of planning and implementation."

Creating a stir

A few alleys away from Janta Modern, Bab-ul-Uloom School sits in the shadow of construction works for the enormous, state-of-the-art Delhi metro system. Inside, the school is dark and brutally simple: its concrete floors and cracking walls offer all the comfort of an underground car park. The classrooms are up a narrow staircase. It is lighter here, because a third of the outside wall is missing.

But along the corridor, brightly coloured posters have been tacked to the concrete walls. One shows animals, another insects, and next to them is a colourful poster of the English alphabet. Children in one of the older year groups are holding elections for class monitors and various campaign posters set out candidates' promises.

Sajid Hasan, Bab-ul-Uloom's leader, set up the school last year after discovering an unused building opposite a mosque. Many of his students previously attended theology classes there, but were receiving no other formal education. And so Hasan began working with Stir Education.

"Minorities, especially Muslims, are lagging behind in every developmental indicator," Hasan says. "But if a Muslim girl or boy does complete secondary education, at college they will perform on a par with any other girl or boy. It's very clear that the problem lies with the education system, rather than with the girls or boys."

But occasionally there is a gap between school leaders' enthusiasm for change and their staff's willingness to undertake this change. At Bab-ul-Uloom, many teachers felt that their leader was simply interfering in something that was none of his business.

In response, Hasan decided to video his teachers in their classrooms and then ask them to watch themselves in action. He encouraged them to analyse exactly what was happening when they taught.

"They can see what the children are doing while they're teaching," says Stir Education's Drolia. "They can identify problems and areas for improvement. (Hasan) gets teachers to come up with improvement plans."

This fly-on-the-wall approach worked. Today, on the wall of the Standard One classroom, along with the posters of animals and letters, there is a poster for the teacher. This is used to monitor the steps he is taking towards his own learning goal of being able to deliver all his instruction in English by the end of the academic year. The tracker displays his progress, week by week: in the first week, 15 per cent of the timetable was delivered in English; in the second week, this rose to 20 per cent.

"Show me your left hand," the teacher says in English to his six- and seven-year-old students. There is a pause as the children work out which hand he wants to see. "Now show me your head," he says. "Now show me your shoulders. Can you touch your knees? Your toes?"

Motivation rewarded

"It was the teachers who came up with the idea of learning English," Drolia says. "They can see the benefits, so they wanted to create a programme for themselves.

"We try to target the motivated teachers who have some kind of inner sense that they want to do something, to learn something. Teachers who are already implementing smaller ideas in their classrooms."

"We believe in picking up the bright spots," Rawal agrees. "Visiting these schools, you find people who are damn motivated but are waiting for opportunities. These people are 50, 55 years old and still waiting for opportunities. No one ever comes to them and asks them, 'Are you doing something great?' That's where Stir Education comes in.

"We say, 'You're doing things already that can really help kids' education. You're already doing a great job. We really respect you for all this. But other things are happening all around that you can take and implement in your schools.'"

To help with this process, Stir Education runs one-day conferences across Delhi, during which teachers exchange ideas and methods. At the end of each conference, participants leave with a list of 50 classroom ideas that they plan to implement over the following months. The charity's staff then group teachers into clusters, each with 50 members. These groups meet every three weeks to offer feedback on what did and did not work.

Stir Education also runs joint sessions with high-achieving schools from wealthier areas, which enable teachers to meet and talk as peers. "Our teachers don't know what high-quality education looks like," Rawal says. "Once they see it, they can see how far back they are lagging. Then they start asking: 'Where are we? How can we improve?'"

And once teachers understand the value of learning from one another, cooperation becomes a normal part of their professional practice. At Janta Modern, for example, Hanswani regularly approaches senior colleagues to ask for advice. And once a week, the principal also offers guidance to his younger teachers.

"Sometimes it gets tough," Hanswani says. "With a huge class, the problem is generally four or five children who are restless and not paying attention. They're generally the weakest kids. And if a bunch of kids are not paying attention, it's tough to get the attention of the whole class.

"But if I can't deliver a lesson effectively, I can ask senior teachers questions. I discuss it with them."

And her mother, too, is beginning to see the advantage of learning from the experience of others. "I'm now being a teacher to my mum at home," Hanswani says. "I sit with her and help her plan. At the beginning, she thought it was just extra work for her. But now she sees that she's doing something impactful. She understands that it's all about the kids."

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