To improve India’s school education, it is critical to improve India’s in-service teacher education, I wrote about this on 24 July. Good in-service education will deliberately work on the entire range of capacities that teachers need to play their complex roles. Some of these are developed through research.

It’s because of this that everyone in education is expected to do research. This does not necessarily involve complex projects, it needn’t be published, and it’s not essential that it generate new knowledge. Its importance is as a method of learning. It’s the mindset developed by doing research which is critical for the educator to play her role effectively.

This is important for the teacher, as well for the teacher educator and most others in school education. The reasons are quite simple. Education involves the ability to respond with depth and flexibility, to highly varying and dynamic situations, which arise from many sources e.g. differences across children, the same child behaving differently over time, varying and changing social contexts.

Such responses demand a capacity to observe, hypothesize, analyze, search for related things, synthesize, conclude, apply it to practice and to learn from all this. Much of this needs to happen naturally and informally in the daily life of the educator. In other words it requires a research mindset. Another phrase used for this way of working is “reflective practice". But somehow research is drawn out of the reach of the “ordinary person", which is the typical self-image of most in school education. It’s perceived to be the preserve of the (some self-professed, others genuine) intellectuals and scholars. Its methods and approaches create unfathomable mysteries. The rules-of-the-game of research seem such that it’s hard to even start playing. These perceptions intimidate most people in schools.

Over the past 18 months there has been an effort to demystify research, in a few districts of north east Karnataka (NEK). This region is among the more disadvantaged in the country. My friend and colleague Umashanker Periodi, who played a central role in this effort, initiated it with a master-stroke of repositioning. He started by using the phrase Barefoot Research, and not using the word Research on its own. The mere addition of the word barefoot brought research out of the citadel of the Academy. It seemed to the average school teacher, that anything that was barefoot was certainly within her reach. It was in her natural arena, so to say.

“Let’s try doing barefoot research", was the word that spread through all formal and informal channels. Examples and possibilities were discussed repeatedly in workshops, training sessions, monthly meetings etc. This started in June 2013. In January 2014, the announcement for the Barefoot Research Conference, called Saha-manthana, to be held in July 2014, was made across these districts. Saha-manthana means churning together. Supporting the formal invitation for research papers was the methodical background process of encouraging and helping teachers, principals and other education functionaries to get down to a specific research project and to develop it.

The conference was held in Shahpur, a town in Yadgir district. The conference was hosted jointly by the Department of School Education, the College of Agricultural Sciences (Shahpur) and the Azim Premji University. Many civil society organizations and higher education institutions were also active collaborators. Eighty papers were presented. The themes of the papers ranged from teacher professional development, community engagement in schools, classroom practices to policy issues related to the NEK region. Here is a sample of some of the research papers: “A journey of development of Gaddada Narayana Thanda (tribal community) School", “A study on Teachers Learning Center", “Starting up a Pre-Primary School in Government Primary School", “A study on ‘folk literature as a tool’ in language learning".

There were over 800 participants across the three days of the conference. There were teachers, principals, cluster and block resource people, college teachers, members of NGOs and so on. The sense of excitement was infectious and invigorating. There was a sense of having grappled with and overcome an important challenge. A government official from Bangalore observed that people in Bangalore would find it impossible to believe that a research conference like this could happen anywhere, let alone in NEK. Another said “it was a spiritual experience". People in school education in those districts are looking forward to next year’s Sah-manthana.

Some of the research papers presented have valuable ground level insights. But the real value of this effort has been in the way it has helped start the process of developing certain capacities of those involved. It has also created a buzz around research, helping in demystifying it.

Given the complexities of the role of any educator, simplistic capacity development (continuing professional development) methods are ineffective. It’s hard to design, execute and sustain complex interventions like Sah-manthana, but such challenges have to be taken up, if we want our education to improve.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

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