Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

What education needs

Good things can happen in education, if we accept its complexity, rather than looking for shortcuts and silver bullets

He finished by saying “thank you for listening to me, for so long and so patiently". His name is Lal Saheb. For my sake he was speaking in Hindi, but would mix in Kannada words with ease, where he didn’t know the Hindi one. The top of his shorts were tied in a knot to hold them, like only a 12-year-old can, who doesn’t have many shorts.

He was standing behind his exhibit on the table, with an audience of 10-12 people in front. Knowing that I had come all the way from Bengaluru, I was the focus of his attention. He started by informing me that his exhibit was about types of soils, and then he started quizzing me. His smile grew as my very limited understanding of soils became apparent. Before it became embarrassing, he stopped the questions and started talking.

He explained how soils are formed, their characteristics and implications, agricultural usage and so on. He engaged me in a conversation, making sure I was getting it. Later my colleague Rudresh, who understands soils, told me that the boy knew all this better than him. The bravura performance lasted 10 minutes, and the sun was on my face all through, from the gap in the shamiana. The November sun can be as harsh as March in that area; we were in Halagera, a village about 25km from Yadgir.

There were about 250 children manning about 110 exhibits, all made by them. There were another 650 children participating, along with 125 teachers. This was a Baal Mela. Thirty five government primary and upper primary schools from 35 villages were involved. The exhibits were across a wide range of curricular topics, from trigonometry to photosynthesis. There were working models, charts, puzzles and games. None would have required more than 20 to make, most were made from everyday knick-knacks.

Preparation for the Mela had begun two months ago. A core group of teachers and some other people coordinated the effort across the schools. In the schools, the teachers and students worked on the selection of topics, researching them, conceptualizing the exhibits and then making them. This process went through iterations of various kinds in each school. The schools were learning, as the excitement was building up.

The event itself was a big fair i.e. a Mela. It was hosted by the village community, whose members were running around making the arrangements. The lunch was prepared by the community people in massive utensils on huge chulhas, built for the event. Five villages from around were supporting them. It was bigger than the biggest wedding celebration in those villages. People from all around had come to see the Mela.

Inside the shamianas the children were engrossed in explaining their exhibits, to other children, to teachers and to the hundreds that had showed up from the 35 villages.

There was a range in the depth of understanding that the children demonstrated, but none were spewing merely memorized stuff. And all were deeply engaged and confident. As I went around, some children would falter at some level in explaining the concepts of the exhibits. Three times when this happened, the boy with the knotted shorts showed up, and went ahead explaining the concept with ease. His name could well have been Lal Baadshah.

While the Baadshah was possessed of exceptional energy and startling range of deep understanding, I observed at least 30 other children with remarkable thoughtfulness and confidence. And all children and teachers present were fully involved.

The previous day, I had visited another Baal Mela. It was in Kurekanal. This involved over 250 children from 11 schools. Unlike the Mela at Halagere, this one had a focus area. All exhibits were about geography. The arrangements, the preparation, the involvement of the community were the same as in Halagera. This process is common across all such Melas that are held; this year in Yadgir district there have been 34 Baal Melas in different villages, involving more than 400 schools.

Things like this can just remain exciting social events; it’s the process that ensures that it has real educational meaning.

The Mela and the exhibit is the just the final step, it’s the ownership of the teachers and students together in the preparation, that makes it an effective pedagogical approach. It also requires a deliberate effort to connect the preparation to other things that happen in the school, in the classroom and outside i.e. an overall integration within the curriculum in the school. It is also a powerful mechanism of teacher professional development, when integrated with other relevant mechanisms such as workshops, peer learning networks etc. Needless to say, it energizes the local community around education.

So that we don’t miss most of the iceberg: to get to this point in Yadgir district, it has taken 10 years of painstaking, sustained work by scores of people, to build and nurture the process. Good things can happen in education, if we accept its complexity, rather than looking for shortcuts and silver bullets.

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.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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