Discussing educational reform…

Do you think schools sometimes take themselves too seriously?  Are you perturbed to see children in some societies being pressured to succeed at an early age? How would you like to see the school system change? What are your views on play based learning?

These were the sorts of questions that came up in my discussion with Sachin, one of the interesting people I met in Pune. Sachin is the taxi driver who met me at Mumbai airport and drove me to and from Pune. It’s a three and a half hour drive each way so we had plenty of time to chat. We talked about India and Australia, about music, films, cooking and families… and, surprisingly, about education.

Sachin has a 6 year old daughter and the educational system worries him. He’s pleased that his child attends a good English medium school, but worries about the development of her mother tongue, Marathi. Without any prompting from me, he shared his concerns about the pressure to get high marks in Indian schools and talked about the importance of play in childhood. He hates seeing his daughter lugging a heavy bag of books and doing homework at an age when he feels she should be playing. He’s convinced that learning takes place through play. He shared that he’d seen a CD of learning through songs and poems and wondered why school learning (in his context) couldn’t be more fun and engaging. I asked him if he knew that teachers around the world think about many of the same issues that he does. He responded that it’s just common sense...

It was late at night when we drove through Bombay and we took a few wrong turns on the frantic roads. Noisy trucks, cars and auto rickshaws were everywhere, weaving in and out, horns honking continuously. Sachin stopped several times to confirm that we were heading the right way. Sometimes getting back on track involved reversing on one-way roads and unnerving u-turns, but there is a system to the way the drivers maneuver in the chaos and miraculously there were no collisions. Once in a while he would ask with a grin if I was worried yet.

Dropping me at the airport, he invited me to visit his home next time I come. I look forward to it.


(5th in a series of reflections on my recent visit to Pune)


Play House…

A group of kids is using a set of hanging scales to weigh various objects, while another group estimate each others’ weight and then stand on a scale to check. Sounds like it could be a standard lesson on measurement in any classroom, doesn’t it?

The difference is I am at Khelghar, an after-school centre for slum kids in Pune, and these particular children would never be learning this way at the local school. They’d typically be sitting in rows facing the teacher and perhaps filling in answers to questions about measurement such as how many grams in a kilogram.

Khelghar  provides a place for children to play, read, learn and create. There is little time, space or opportunity for such things in their normal daily lives. It caters for kids of all ages, providing academic support for the older students as well as an informal self-development program.  I’m introduced to the serene Shubhada who runs the place and she tells me her story…

She is an architect who worked as an interior designer till deciding that she didn’t want to work for rich people for the rest of her life, preferring to do something more meaningful. She’d been involved for some years in publishing a magazine about social parenting and decided to pursue this further by putting the ideas into practice in a way that could make some small difference.

The initial project involved a program for local slum kids to experience learning through play. The only available place was Shubhada’s own home, so that’s where they went. As the numbers of children and volunteers increased, they spilled from the crowded living room onto the veranda, till it was time to seek funding and search for a more permanent venue. The current home of Khelghar is up 3 flights of stairs, in a building near to the slum in which the children live.

The ratio of adults to kids is deliberately high, and there seem to be almost as many volunteer workers as children. Shubhada tells  there are other visitors today, observing the way children learn through play, so that they can develop similar programs in other places. It’s encouraging to hear that the model is being used in other settings and there are apparently other Khelgars (it means Play House) springing up gradually across the state of Maharashtra.

One of the best parts of this story is that of the group of young adults who attended Khelghar themselves who, in turn, provide similar opportunities for even less advantaged children, from an even poorer slum than theirs. They regularly organize games and discussions for the kids, using the principles they learned from their own experiences at Khelghar.

I’m inspired by Shubhada and others like her whom I met in Pune. There is no sitting back and saying ‘I can’t change the world so I’ll do nothing’. They simply decide not to be deterred by the overwhelming inequities and problems around them. They know they want to do something and they do.

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead.

(4th in a series of reflections on my recent visit to Pune)


A surprise meeting with Sugata Mitra…

Almost as soon we meet, Suneeta tells me she has a surprise for me.  I imagine a specially prepared dish or a small gift, perhaps a souvenir of India.

It’s Sugata Mitra. He’s an old friend of hers, family almost, and she has worked closely with him for many years too. He’s in Pune for the day and visiting at her home.

Sugata immediately puts me at ease with his friendliness and banter.  His sense of humor is dry and he cheerfully pokes fun at all and sundry. He and Suneeta have been friends since childhood and during my stay, she shares anecdotes from their past. I don’t generally think about the private lives of people whose work inspires me, so this is fun!

Ever since first encountering the the hole-in-the-wall, I have been fascinated and excited by the project, the further developments and related research into self organised learning environments. In a series of real-life experiments from Delhi to South Africa to Italy, he gave kids access to computers and the internet, producing results that should revolutionize how we think about teaching. It helped me see that if teachers let go of control and allow students to direct their learning, the learning is much more engaging and meaningful. 

We talk about hole-in-the-wall and I learn that it is a company  now, with computers in holes in many places. We talk about SOLES and Sugata tells me more about his work in schools around the world with self-organized learning environments. I tell him about my school and we share anecdotes about teachers who have trouble letting go of control and allowing the students to own their learning. I’m interested to hear that he has seen new open-plan learning spaces being used in old ways and I realise that the reality at my school’s junior campus is far from unique. He confirms that changing practice takes time and is dependent on what people believe about learning, something we often talk about within my PLN. He tells me about his coming extended research, through MIT University in Boston, into how children teach themselves to read. Here’s a link to one of his recent talks on student directed learning.

Over lunch of dahl and rice, spicy fish and chappati, the conversation is relaxed and easy. Although today is the first time we have met, I’m with people who not only share my interests, but have helped shaped my beliefs about learning. I’m in my element.

While I am there, Sugata goes down the street to get his hair cut, something he only does when back in India, and tells me the worst haircut he ever had was just before his meeting with Prince Phillip. I joke that I will search for a photo of the occasion to compare haircuts…

(3rd in a series of reflections on my visit to Pune)

A school in Pune…

Getting children into schools is an important first step. This is where learning starts. But it isn’t very useful if they learn little or nothing once they are there. Somewhat bizarrely the issue of learning is not very prominently positioned in international declarations. The Millenium Development goals do not specify that children should learn anything in schools, just that they should complete a basic cycle of education.

Reading the chapter on education in ‘Poor Economics’ by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, I note that in developing countries, school attendance frequently does not equate with learning, due to factors such as lack of resources, low expectations, class size, inadequate teacher-training and high teacher absenteeism. It seems that millions of kids attend school but don’t necessarily learn even basic literacy skills. I’m glad I read this chapter, since it affects my perspective on what I see on my visit to India.

My first educational encounter in Pune is at a regional government-run school. We wander in off the street and my friend Raj speaks to the guard at the gate in Hindi. After some discussion, we are given permission to go in and see the principal. As we introduce ourselves, we are joined by a couple of teachers who wonder, in Marathi, the local language, if we are part of a contingent of visiting educators, so Raj explains that I  am a teacher from Australia and he’s a friend from Chennai. While I don’t understand their conversation, I pick up a bit from the odd English word thrown in and the general tone and gestures.

I am stared at by passing teachers and students alike. They have probably rarely seen anyone who looks like me face-to-face and certainly not in the context of their school. I doubt they ever interact with people from outside their own world.

The principal switches to limited English and explains that the student body comprises children from slums, whose parents are extremely poor and mostly illiterate. He tells us they wouldn’t know what grade their children are in, let alone what they do at school. Due to numbers, schools such as this usually run two shifts and children attend either in the morning or the afternoon.

I am grateful for the opportunity to peek into a few of the classes. The children are exceptionally clean and tidy, immaculately dressed in their school uniforms, the girls with their hair neatly pulled back and braided. In every single room, the teacher stands at the blackboard and talks, while 40-50 children sit in rows facing the front. I’m told the number can be as high as 60-70 in some schools.

We enter a 9th grade class and the students rise to formally greet the principal. He introduces me and they all stare. When I smile and gesture, they wave and grin back. Raj asks in Hindi whether they know anything about Australia and is greeted with silent, blank looks. I wonder if this is the first time they have heard of Australia at all.

Then he mentions the word cricket, and suddenly their hands are up and they are naming some Australian players! It’s interesting how sport helps narrow the huge cultural divide between us.

I’m a teacher and a learner. This kind of humbling learning experience helps me remember that my own reality is just a ‘tiny piece of education’ in the world.


Conversations about life…

I’m proud to say that I can now cross the road by myself. That’s no mean feat in Indian cities where crossing a road means negotiating your way through more cars, buses, auto rickshaws, dogs, bicycles, scooters, fruit-carts and people than you usually see in a week. (not to mention the occasional elephant.)

Every time I step out of the door in Pune, it’s a learning experience! I’ve been here four days and it feels like four weeks because of the variety and intensity of experiences. The highlight has been finally meeting Suneeta, who I first connected with online through the SOLE project.

She has shown me so many sides of Pune. She has introduced me to all sorts of interesting people, some of whose stories I will share in future posts. I’ve seen an experimental play at Pune University as well as music and dance performances at Symbiosis College.  At the other extreme, I have visited a SOLE at Yeoli village and met the group at Khelgar,  where kids from a local slum gather after school to learn through play.

I’ve ventured out into the city, both on foot and by auto-rickshaw, usually with Suneeta’s son Anand as my cheerful guide, sharing his colourful stories and helping me cross the roads.  He needs constant reminders to slow down so that I can absorb everything around me… unfamiliar and now-familiar sights, smells and sounds.

Best of all, Suneeta and I have had endless conversations about education, culture, language and religion, about disability, poverty, inequity and making a difference, about theatre, books, food and saris… conversations about life.

I can’t wait to come back.