Monday, 15 February 2016

Can a School be an Innovation Factory?
(Documenting a meeting with the ‘Zuckerberg of Beawar’)

Shadab Ahmed & Shubhendu Chakravorty
(Shadab and Shubhendu work in the Central Team of Learn, Out of the Box programme)

Is school a place to harbour innovation? Can the spirit of innovation and the mindset required for building a Factory co-exist? Should skill building start at school, or these are jobs best left to colleges and polytechnics? These were a few questions in mind during my visit to what looked like just another private school in the sleepy little town of Beawar in Rajasthan.

The year was 1836 when a certain Col. Charles Dixon established a major British army cantonment in this area. Legend has it that his men posted a sign saying ‘be aware’ on the gates of the cantonment as a warning to the British caravans and officers coming or leaving the premises since the area was fertile ground for guerrilla attacks by local Rajput units. Slowly with time local people came to think of it as the name of the cantonment and so the place began to be called Beawar. The Englishmen left but the name stuck! Before arriving, I thought the above anecdote to be the only curious take away from the visit.

This was until one meets Anil Kumar Sharma the manager (owner) of Captain Public School. LOTB was piloting after-school classes for students using the technology being provided by the programme. Anil's school was a natural choice since he was already operating a similar platform for a few years now.

Anil explaining a concept in class
His vision seems clear; enhance the profile of the school by creating long term goodwill in the community. ‘I believe in providing skills to students which are useful in daily lives and learning to confidently speak in English is one of them. It will help students when they go out of this town’, said an assertive Anil. Manoj, the RPA (Regional Programme Associate) supporting this school finds him a hard taskmaster not leaving the programme to the teachers and being totally involved to the extent of attending trainings. But this school is unique not because of what happens during school hours, but for the activities after it.

The after school classes operate on the first floor and are managed mostly by Anil alone. With around 50-70 participants daily, he has a host of activities ready to engage them. The floor is divided in three to four zones - each meant for a different activity. If visiting, you are expected to carefully navigate through the earmarked spaces not disturbing the students busy in their engagements.

About = अब आउट

The unique learning book
A large group of around 25 students could quietly be seen completing their homework. A closer look will reveal that they are actually studying meanings of English words and practicing them from a book written by Anil himself. It starts with simple three letter words, providing the meaning and the pronunciation written in Hindi. This seemed the perfect local way of studying phonetics. Academics call it Folk Pedagogy ; for Anil it is the obvious way of teaching. Excited to find us peeping into his book, Anil tells us that the students are fast picking up English words through this method and retention too is better. He has also been distributing this book to the neighbouring schools as well for a few years now. This trait of sharing knowledge is rare among low income private school owners due to the cut-throat competition.

Hindi to English

A makeshift lab in action
Moving on to the second zone, one can find a group of 10-12 students sitting in a classroom attentively listening to two girls talking. The first one speaks a sentence in Hindi and the second one translates it in English. After a while, it seems like a performance set up for the visitors. But the girl talking in English does not only speak the sentence, but can also explain it. Seeing our confused expressions, Anil intervenes and conducts a quick assessment by rattling off a few sentences in Hindi and seeking translations in English from students. All students respond in English and most answer correctly. Did these students better understand English words and their meanings in a sentence if the whole sentence was said in Hindi simultaneously? So it seemed.

Introducing Computers through PowerPoint?

Anil supervising a computer class
After a while, I was guided to a section where two students about 8-10 year olds were creating a presentation. One of them seemed proficient while the other was learning. Peer learning was at display. My question to Anil was:  Why should an 8 year old child be taught how to create presentations? What is the immediate relevance of this skill? Does this child know basic parts of the computer? Why a presentation and not anything else? Anil keenly explained his logic: A child is fascinated by technology and converting that fascination into desire for learning is essential. If the child is provided a technological platform which can produce output then it is likely that the medium will sustain a child's interest. That was the reason learning computers here started with creating PPTs - writing in colourful texts and placing fancy images. He also showed us many thematic presentations students had done on colours, animals, nature etc. You could also see another child playing a game on another very old looking box-monitor computer. This seemed some kind of an online quiz where a sentence comes up on the screen with blanks to be typed in to complete the sentence. Anil proudly displays the game as something he has developed with assistance from a local boy.

Typing Practice

The unique computer class
Close enough, one can see rows of desks and seats neatly arranged with keyboards on top without any monitors and a group of teenagers typing away on the keyboards. The question was, what are they typing and where is it being displayed? According to Anil, it is essential that the teenagers are familiar, comfortable and then confident in using computers. The number of teenagers is far more than computers available for them to practice. To solve this problem he has procured the keyboards and initially teaches students the skills of typing using two hands, keyboard handling and shortcuts etc. Then they graduate to using the complete computer and use the screen for hand-eye coordination. Anil concluded that this was a far easier, quicker and sustainable way for someone to learn using a computer. We could validate that the typing speed of this group on the keyboard was as good as any regular user. This was an extraordinarily intuitive way of learning uses of computers.

By the way, in addition to this Anil also uses the ‘usual’ interactive methods of teaching. His school has a mini-science lab, a library and a decent collection of educational CDs & DVDs. This is one of our best schools in the area with high teacher participation. He has been running the school since 1998 i.e. for eighteen years. He is a deeply religious man and used to donate large sums for local religious events but since the last few years he has been using that money for development of the school. Some in the community do not appreciate this shift of resources, but you can guess knowing the man till now, he cares little of what others think.

Visiting Anil for a few hours one can gauge that he is implementing incredibly radical ideas within an institution defined for its static characteristics and bringing standardization in society. It is hard to imagine a space oozing innovation in this factory style mass production. Will his ideas ever scale up? Will they and more such innovations change the whole perspective of Education or will they become a blip of brilliance in the otherwise straight jacketed world of education? We don't know.

But, ask the man where does he see himself in the future, he lists out his plans - most of them more radical than anything he is doing today, but that's a topic for some other day!

On our way back, we realized that we had just finished an unscheduled appointment with the ‘Zuckerberg of Beawar’!

*Folk Pedagogy can be described as teaching methodologies developed by teachers themselves in course of their experience in a classroom. These pedagogies may not follow the common standards proposed by mainstream pedagogies but offer efficient methods in an environment with scarce and limited resource.