A tiny piece of education…

Once upon a time long ago, when I was 12, I sat in a classroom and copied from the board. I remember comparing different countries in terms of flags, capital cities and places of interest.  I learned history from a textbook which presented one perspective as if it were the truth.

Fast forward to 2011. Year 6 students at my school have just started a unit on social inequities. They will explore the kinds of action that can possibly make a difference. They will hear from primary sources at our coming social justice conference about issues such as poverty, gender inequality, refugees and access to education. They will choose their areas of interest for further independent inquiry.

As a PYP school, our approach encourages learners to engage with big ideas, to develop global awareness and to be caring, responsible citizens of the world. It’s a long way from copying off the board, studying superficial differences between countries or receiving a distorted view of history… to powerful learning like this.

A different piece…

The above was written on the plane on my way to India, where I am on a short visit to Pune. It’s my first face to face meeting with my friend Suneeta Kulkarni, who works (among other things!) with the SOLES and SOMES.  I have visited a local school, attended by very poor children from slums and I’ve been to the village of Yeoli to meet the rural kids with whom I will interact via Skype when I am back home. I’m constantly faced with reminders that my privileged school represents only a tiny piece of what comprises education in our world.

My blog series on learning in different contexts is a small attempt at creating awareness of other realities. If you’re involved in or have thoughts about education (or lack thereof) in a different context, would you like to share your piece via a guest post at this blog?

Let’s try to increase awareness among educators around the globe that ‘our reality’ is just a very tiny piece of the whole.


A big idea…

We had a great learning session yesterday for our unit about coming of age in different cultures. We watched this beautiful video, created by Raj in India and his little pal Vignesh, about Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony in Hinduism. We Skyped with Raj simultaneously so that he could ‘watch us watch’ and answer our questions.

In the follow-up lesson today, we explored the big ideas. The students discussed in pairs and then shared their ideas with the class and justified why they had chosen the concepts they did. The lively discussion centred around the following big ideas: culture, religion, coming-of-age, responsibility, traditions, family, values, beliefs, ritual, change, maturity, celebration, symbolism, spirituality and learning. We’ll be looking at which of these are common across all coming-of-age commemorations!

Then one student said ‘social media’. Puzzled, I asked him to explain how he saw that as part of the Upanayanam ceremony. His response:

‘You asked what the big ideas were in yesterday’s session. We used Skype. Skype is an example of social media. Social media is a pretty big idea, don’t you think?’…!


Not so different…

I finally wrote this almost a year ago, months after my visit to India. Writing it helped, but I decided not to publish it at the time. Today I read a post by Suneeta, an Indian herself, which reminded me of my own experience. With her permission, I post the two pieces here together…

A Moment in Time… by Edna 

I’m walking down a pretty street in the spring sunshine listening to ‘White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga. The accent, the sounds and smells, the vivid images  send me hurtling onto the bustling platform at the train station in Paharganj, Delhi. I recall our train trip from there to Agra to see the magnificent Taj Mahal. But more powerfully than that, the image pushing itself into my mind yet again, is the platform at Agra Station. I can feel the disabled beggar children, tugging at my sleeve. It’s a scene that haunts me.

It comes to me often, unbidden, when I think of India… when I don’t think of India.

I stand on the platform, no escaping the maimed children, hands outstretched. I give a coin to the boy with no legs tugging at my legs and am suddenly surrounded by a whole group of beggar children. I know that if I produce another coin, more beggars will appear and I’ll become their target. I’ve seen it happen. I try and move away but they follow me relentlessly. The recommended protocol is to look away and ignore them. But you can only look away with your eyes…

A confusion of thoughts, feeling and pictures tumble into my head…  pity, sadness, doubt, the deliberate maiming of child beggars in Slumdog Millionaire, shock, sympathy, a disabled family member, remorse, guilt, the cost of our flights to India, whole families living at the side of the road, panic, confusion… The people with whom I am travelling deal with this in their own ways. I feel utterly alone on the crowded platform. Alone.. except for the beggar children, pulling at my sleeve, my legs, my heart.

I position myself near an Indian businessman, who glances my way and sees my anguish, my inner turmoil, my tears. My saviour gestures angrily at the beggars and shouts at them to leave me alone. We exchange glances and he nods imperceptibly.

You can learn so much from a moment in time… about people and cultures and history… about luck and life and fate… and about yourself.

A Difficult Question… by Suneeta

Anand asked this question over 20 years ago… and I still don’t have an answer… at least not a convincing one.

We were headed to the Bus Stop at Flora Fountain, at Bombay (Hutatma Chowk, Mumbai) to get into the long queue for our regular 84 Ltd that would take us straight home from college. Anand used to attend the lab preschool at Nirmala Niketan where I taught Child Development in those days.

And the families of flower sellers that were in semi permanent residence near the stop were busy with their afternoon chores as usual. Some busy with the task of stringing together garlands that someone like me might buy to adorn their hair with, others grooming themselves or combing their children’s hair, yet others washing their few utensils post the mid day meal.

A few kids were off to one side, playing in the dirt with stones and broken bits of toys. Unkempt hair, snot running down from their noses, torn and dirty clothes. Quite different from the care and attention lavished on Anand. As we passed them, he commented (fortunately directing it at me])“Dirty!” Embarrassed, I tried explaining to him that they couldn’t help it… they didn’t have a nice home like us to live in, with running water 24 hours a day… the usual attempt to get away from feeling guilty about the socio-economic difference. He seemed satisfied and we proceeded to stand in line.

It was a long wait, not unlike other days. One of the slightly older kids from the flower seller’s family, who couldn’t have been more than 6, with a year old baby on her hip, started her begging round. Something I always wished I could escape… Feeling bad, yet not wanting to reinforce the begging habit. Feeling that contributing to organizations that would support them was a more meaningful way to help out. But that day I was out of luck… The little one came and stood right next to us, looking beseechingly at us as she held out her hand asking for 10 paise (It was still valid currency in those days.) I, with averted eyes, after saying “no”…

Till I was brought to another plane of realization… Anand accusing me – “Why aren’t you giving her any money? Didn’t you just say they didn’t have any?”

Over the years, I have continued to work on different projects that are aimed at making a difference in children’s lives. But I am still haunted by the look in that little girl’s eyes and by Anand’s question….


Thank you for teaching me…

I’ve written several posts about the interaction between a group of children at a rural school in India and a group of private school students in Australia. They shared their reflections in a post too.

It’s the end of the school year in Australia and I just received this thank you note from a girl who I didn’t actually teach… or so I thought.

Dear Morah (Teacher)

Thank you for introducing me to the Indian children. I know I didn’t actually have you as a teacher, but thank you for what you did for me. I appreciate it.



This kind of learning is really powerful, it seems…

Opening new vistas…

Guest post by Suneeta Kulkarni.

#8 in the series Learning in different contexts.

You may already be familiar with Sugata Mitra’s work. Some of you may have gathered from Edna’s earlier posts that the initiative SOMEs (Self Organized Mediation Environments) grew out of the SOLEs (Self Organized learning Environments). We began this particular initiative in May 2009 and faced many challenges along the way. Ask any of the eMediators and they could give you a long list. But what most of them would also share with you are the ‘highs’. The thrill we experience each time we make contact is beyond description… because we go just that bit forward toward reaching our objectives. And what I’d like to share with you is a bit about one of those objectives. The experience we had at today’s SOME at Khelgar, Pune that manifests the movement in that direction….

The SOMEs were initiated to facilitate contact between children in remote, disadvantaged settings in rural and urban areas. When we began, we were not sure where it would lead…. Every day brings new surprises! What began as a primarily story telling /story reading activity rapidly expanded to include puzzles, quizzes, sharing pictures, free flowing conversation, and even craft activities. The starting objective was that children would become confident and pick up English fluency and, in the process, be able to make more effective use of the internet for their academic development.

Though the media still refers to it as the ‘granny cloud’, that is a misnomer, catchy though the phrase might be. We have in our group not only grannies, but also grandpas, as well as uncles and aunts and elder ‘siblings’ too. What we are emphasizing in all these relationships is the ‘grandmother’ approach.It means that the children get to interact with a person who is encouraging, and appreciative of their efforts, irrespective of whether or not they are entirely familiar with what the child is trying out!

A lot has happened since Sugata came up with the idea. Through this period, we became more and more aware of the potential of the SOMEs to enable children to achieve objectives even more important than learning English. It has opened up new vistas for them,  helped children all over the world gain new perspectives, enabled them to become acquainted with and better understand different ways of living, recognize and appreciate the meaning of traditions and customs in different set ups.

Earlier this month we were able to get going, thanks to the children at the SOLE in Shirgaon, Maharashtra and Edna’s school in Melbourne, Australia, direct interaction between the children themselves. And yet other gains opened up….

Interest in the SOMEs and its possibilities for helping children learn English, specially conversational English has begun to spread and even places that do not have regular SOLEs set up are trying to figure out how they can still have the SOMEs, while figuring out how to get the whole SOLE facility.  One such organization is Palakneeti Khelghar in Pune. They provide meaningful ‘out of school’ recreational and academic experiences to children living in a nearby slum area.

So today, again with an interaction set up between children in Australia and those from Pune, we explored what would happen if children from Melbourne attempted to find out about the experiences of the Khelghar children related to ‘water’. The children had all kinds of questions! And they drew many responses, quite a few even after the session was over! Do remember that the children at Khelghar have never used a computer before. (They have seen one in the centre’s office, but that’s about it).

The thought of seeing children from so far away in their own room was exciting, and intimidating all at once. But they caught on to the idea that they could find out about each other using this medium:  text on skype, translations from and into English, from and into Marathi and Hindi. And I was inundated with queries to send to them even after the session was over.

But what really struck me, yet again, was the vast potential for understanding different perspectives and situations. Here are just a few of the questions from Melbourne and the kind of responses: (edited to show the connection between the question and answer)

Q: Where do you get your water from, is it fresh and clean? Do you ever get sick from the water? Do you get water 24 hours in a day?

A: No (in response to availability of water)

Q: When do you get your water?

A: 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening

Q:  Do you store water? How? Where do you wash your clothes, Do you use the tap water?

A: yes… in barrels, cans, and tanks in the house and big kitchen utensils

(wash clothes) at home from the stored water

and a little later in the conversation—

Q: Does the government help you in any way?

A: at election time, (some parties) make sure we get water for 2 days at a stretch (Other children added) The Govt puts liquid chlorine in the barrels to purify the water, also potassium permagnate

Q: Do you a have a family?  Is the water enough for your family?

A: Yes it is enough…

I wonder what children with resources would make of this ‘satisfaction’ and ‘contentment’ with what little they have and what other questions might arise in their minds. I do know what questions came up at Khelghar following this conversation… They wanted to know SO much about these children… what they saw through their webcam certainly looked different from what they are used to, but their questions were not about what these ‘other’ children have… the questions were about the system! (Edna, does that answer, to some extent, your concern that these children might feel bad because they see other children having many material resources?)

These are just a few of the queries from Pune:

  • Do you have tuition other than school?
  • What do you study in history?
  • Do your parents send a lunch box with you to school?
  • How many days of the year do you have school?
  • Do you have a teacher’s day and a children’s day?
  • Do you get punished if you don’t study?
  • Do you bunk school?
  • If someone finds out that you have bunked, what happens?
  • Do you have a school uniform? Do you have to tie braids?
  • Do you have a centre that you can go to outside of school, like we come to Khelghar?
  • Are you forced to study?
  • Do you like to study? How do you feel about coming to school?

And then there were questions about families, and food, and God, and festivals, housing facilities and much more. But more about that another time….

As I listened to the questions from the children at Khelghar, I realized that through the questions they were sharing a lot of their own experiences and hope they have a chance to talk about these in more depth. It would show them a world that has many possibilities….. and perhaps they will be enabled to do something about it!

Understanding our geographical neighbours #1

Year 6 students are learning about our geographical neighbours. They have considered carefully what kinds of things they need to know in order to best gain an understanding of the countries around us, so as to help them develop a global perspective.

Yesterday they interacted on Skype with our friends in India. They asked about social inequities like gender discrimination and were fascinated by the responses of Raj, Kuppu and their students at Zoho University. Here’s a sample…

Watch this space… Tomorrow small groups will Skype with Thailand, Singapore and Sri Lanka. We have a Voicethread with students’ questions too, so if you are somewhere in the Asia Pacific and would like to join the inquiry, let us know. We have collaborators in Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, New Zealand and the Philippines, so far!

Remember when we could only learn from textbooks?


Connecting through music…

The kids in Australia and the kids in India have a shared appreciation of music. They have played and sung to each other a few times and discussed their liking for Shakira

Further reflections:

Eli in Australia:

I am really enjoying talking to the students at Shiragon high school over skype. I think its really fun that we get to talk to kids in a whole different country. I was amazed at how well they spoke English. I like to ask and answer questions and love sharing our cultures and beliefs. I love sharing common interests  and sharing music as well. My favourite thing is that I am doing something new and exciting to me.

Attar, computer teacher at Shiragon (he became the computer whiz at school thanks to Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall and the interest he showed in it that Sugata reinforced.):

Its a wonderful, incomparable world. At one click the new generation is doing away with the barriers between nations with the help of new technology. Older people have more limited attitudes, that youngsters don’t even have an idea of [the barriers]. Best wishes to Mitra Sir that the SOLEs are coming into play through his vision.


Connecting with kids in India…

Guest post by Year 6 students, Liat, Isabella, Rebekah and Talia. For more details, see my post ‘More similar than different…’

We spoke on Skype to kids in India!

At the beginning there were only three of them but near the end, the room gradually filled up and they were all very interested.

We found out that they love soccer, sweet food and fire-crackers. (for Diwali). We asked them what they eat and they said they eat Laddu which is made of rice powder and other things. They said they mainly eat dried food. We think this could be because they may not have fridges.

We showed them our currency and they showed us theirs, which has Mahatma Gandhi on it. They said the paper is special paper imported from Europe.

We mentioned that Liat likes singing they asked us to sing, so we sang them a song and they sang us one!  We asked them if they play musical instruments and they said they play harmonium and drums. Rebekah plays the guitar and they said they have the sitar and they want Rebekah to bring her guitar next time we speak.

Next session: Today we played two songs for them on Rebekah’s guitar and sang, which they said that they enjoyed. One even asked us how much a guitar costs. They taught us some words in Marathi, which is their home language.


I thought that this was an awe inspiring experience because when you think of Indian kids you think of starving children wearing rags, but once we got to know them we found that we were similar to each other in a lot of ways and I found myself connecting with them on a deeper level. I also found that once I had talked to them for a while I felt that my whole opinion on how they acted had changed from ‘they are sad’ to ‘they are happy’.


I thought it was a really interesting thing to do. I found that they had really good English when you wouldn’t think they would be able to speak to us at all. We had so many things in common like what music we like and what games we play. They all like to speak to us and they all want to tell us different things and they scream out to tell the boy who speaks the most English what to type and then he translates what we reply.


I enjoyed talking to the Indian kids, not particularly to learn our differences but mainly to discover all the similarities. Most of them can speak a lot more English than we thought and understand everything we say. What was very interesting was how they knew some of our songs and we didn’t know any of theirs. They were very positive about everything and never told us they disagreed. Talking to them was great because while knowing that we could understand each other, we still had enough differences to keep up our conversation.


I think it’s great that we (Australians) can talk to people in India. I find it even better that it’s led by children, because it can help us with our inquiry. It’s a good idea that we can interact with children of a different culture and find out about them in this way.

More similar than different…

Rajat, Gouri, Ashkay, Sameer, Amol, Ankar, Sanket, Vikrant and Laxman are students at a rural school in Shiragon 100kms from Goa in Maharashtra, India. They have gathered today at the SOLE near their school.

Isabella, Liat, Talia and Rebecca are Year 6 private school students in Melbourne, Australia.

Differences: language, environment, culture, economic background, religion…

Question: Who cares?

They chatted on Skype for half an hour and began to get to know each other. This was the first time (due to the time difference) that there has been an opportunity for a genuine connection between kids at my school and one of the SOLES. One previous interaction between kids was a once-off set up by Suneeta with a group who didn’t speak English, so the chat was through her translation. I thought it was wonderful at the time, but this is going to be even better!

They were bubbling with enthusiasm and kept saying how exciting, how much fun, how cool…They learned each others’ names and asked about school and sports. They sang their national anthems to each other. Best of all they arranged to meet again the next day. The second time was more relaxed and natural and I left them to it. I know that among other things, they talked about musical instruments and Rebecca is bringing her guitar to the next interaction! But the girls will write the next post themselves…

Some comments from the Australian kids:

  • They’re not that different from us! (R)
  • All kids have fun and learn stuff! (L)
  • Instead of learning about them, we talked to them. (I)
  • It was fun to talk to people who we thought were completely different and find how similar they are to us. (L)
  • We’ve done the introduction now, we’ll be able to talk about more things next time. (T)
  • I thought it might be difficult to talk to them because of cultural difference and background but it wasn’t. (R)
  • You get nervous meeting new people anyway, and they’re across the world, but it was easy and fun.(R)
  • My impression of Indian children was that they were all starving… I didn’t think about how similar they might be to us. (I)

I’d love to get some from the Indian kids too…