Let me begin this post by asking a question: What is it that a school can do to ensure that:
- Students achieve marked cognitive and intellectual development, reflected, among other things, in vastly improved academic performance?
- Content-based learning is replaced with active and useful learning that goes beyond the scope of any given curriculum or syllabus?
- Teachers constantly employ innovation and creativity in their teaching work?
- Teachers and students are intrinsically motivated and enjoy the work they are engaged in?
- Students are well disciplined and refrain from disruptive behaviour in the classroom?
- Students and teachers maintain excellent relationships based on mutual respect, and a shared commitment towards learning?
- Students develop and demonstrate pro-social behaviour, and cooperation?
- Teacher maintain positive relationships based on trust and a common understanding of children’s needs with parents?
For an answer, read on!
I recently traveled to Wai (Maharashtra) and had the opportunity of interacting with representatives of Gram Mangal (GM) (http://grammangal.org/index.asp), a local NGO established in 1982 that has since been carrying out pioneering work in the field of early childhood education. The most notable aspect of their work is training teachers to structure and carry out student-centered learning based on the principles of Constructivism within their classrooms. I spent two days with them there and visited nearby Vikas Ghars (VG) and Zilla Parishad (ZP) schools where teachers have adopted the new and exciting constructivism based approaches to classroom teaching and learning.
For the record, constructivism based student-centered learning has been advocated by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in its National Curriculum Framework (NCF) of 2005. It took some time coming, but the sparks of constructivism appear to be fast developing into bushfires in different locations of the country’s educational landscape.
My impression from what I saw and learned during this trip is that the humble government Zilla Parishad school has been able to undergo monumental transformation in the manner students receive education and learn. I cannot but wonder, seeing this transformation and a host of its attending benefits and advantages, how much more private schools can achieve, given their access to more resources and greater freedom to act!
For now, there is so for many big, private schools to learn from the humble Zilla Parishad school.
A description of my Wai trip is presented below.
Vikas Ghar is an initiative of GM consisting of daily classes for children in the morning (8-10) before they attend regular school. The physical facilities for VGs are provided by the ZP. There are 11 such VGs in the area. The two that I visited were set up around 6 months back for children of Stds. 1 and 2. They intend to continue with these children as they move to higher grades (up to Std. 4).
Vikas Ghar teachers are local people trained by GM for designing and conducting student-centered learning approaches. GM supervisors work closely with these teachers, supervising and supporting them in their work with children.
Zilla Parishad Schools
These are schools run and administered by Zilla Parishads, the local government bodies. There is a ZP school situated at a distance of roughly 2 kms from every village. They run from 10 am to 5 pm, and children attend them after their VG sessions in the morning. The two schools that I visited were well maintained, clean and generally presented child-friendly environs. Children are served midday meals in all ZP schools and take active part in their cleaning and general upkeep.
Implementation of Constructivism:
Seeing marked improvement in students attending Vikas Ghar sessions within only 2-3 months, many ZP school teachers approached GM for training. Gram Mangal subsequently organized a training session for 60 teachers. Only 15 of them completed the programme and started implementing constructivism based teaching-learning in their classrooms. Soon, the benefits of this new approach were there for all to see. The 45 teachers who had dropped out of the training soon realized that they should have completed the training. They again approached GM which organized another training programme for another group of 60 teachers. As a result of these trainings and GM’s follow up assistance, over 90 ZP schools have implemented the constructivist approach to teaching and learning.
There were no regular grade-wise classrooms in the Eksar ZP school that I visited. They had organized the school into subject-wise sections. Students of Std. 5 were busy in the Science and Math section carrying out activities in math; students of Std. 6 were carrying out activities in English in the Social Science section while students of grade 7 were busy with Marathi activities in the Language section.
School Assessment and Ranking:
ZP schools have their own assessment and grading system. The schools that I visited were graded ‘B’ (displayed prominently on a large banner outside the school). I found out that for a school to get upgraded to ‘A’ category, it needs to have, a playground with play facilities (swing, see-saw, slide), e-learning facilities (although most schools in the area have computers, they do not have Internet-based e-learning), laboratories, and a bigger office, among other things. I asked a school Headmaster how these facilities will get added to his school. He said that apart from government aid, it was now necessary to engage with parents and the local community and seek their support.
The VG and ZP school classrooms that I saw were well lit, airy and well ventilated. The rooms were beautifully decorated with rangoli, coloured paper and other simple items. Writing boards were put up on the walls, suitably adjusted to children’s heights for them to write on. The rooms generally bore no furniture except for the teacher’s table and chair which were place on the side. Wherever there were benches and desks, they were put aside offering children more space as they worked and carried out assigned activities on the floor.
A host of charts, posters, maps and displays on every conceivable subject (flowers, trees, fruits, crops, animals, birds, modes of transport, human body, shapes, colours, tools, etc.) in English and Marathi, as well as the works produced by the children adorned the walls. Teaching-learning aids and materials for use by the children were neatly arranged on the floor all along the walls of the room.
Children worked either individually or in groups of 3 and 4. Groups were formed based on mixed gender and ability levels.
Activities Assigned to Children:
Activities were assigned to children to carry out individually or in groups based on their individual needs identified through periodic testing and assessment.
Engagement and Motivation:
A striking feature of the students that I observed was that they were fully engrossed in their work and were not distracted in the least by anything happening around them. Children know what they have to do and engage in them on their own. They pick up the learning aids and resources, use them to carry out prescribed activities and then put them right back in their place. I could clearly discern every indication of active engagement, interest and inner motivation among students towards their learning. A ZP school teacher shared an interesting anecdote. A few senior officers of the education department once visited their school. They expected to be wished and greeted enthusiastically by the students which did not happen as they were fully engrossed in their activities. These officers took offence and reprimanded the teachers and the Headmaster for ‘not doing their job well’ and ‘not teaching children proper manners’. This kind of thing appears to have happened in 2-3 other schools as well!
Students’ Abilities and Performance:
I could see that most students were able to solve math problems that were beyond the scope of their immediate syllabus. Many students engaged in mental-math while solving problems. Students seemed confident and enthusiastic as their teachers gave them increasingly more challenging problems to solve. Most children also had superior language proficiency with rich vocabulary and vastly improved reading and writing skills.
Guided by the principle of Constructivism, children are helped to relate their learning to their day to day experiences. For example, children relate counting of numbers to home experiences in terms of how many ‘spoonfuls of sugar’? How many ‘lotas of water’? How many ‘fistfuls of detergent’? Etc.
I enquired from ZP school teachers whether they faced any discipline related difficulties while engaging students in group work. All teachers mentioned a drastic fall in occurrence of student related indiscipline which was initially very high before they switched over to constructivism. Teachers give out instructions very clearly which are understood well by students. Students are busy all the time with stimulating activities which they enjoy very much. These conditions offer effective prevention against disruptive behaviour.
I was told that students share excellent relationship with their ZP school teachers as there is a strong perception between them of a common and shared responsibility towards learning. Many students who I interacted with had a lot of good and positive things to say about their teachers.
Activities and Teaching-Learning Resources
I saw teachers using a wide variety of simple yet effective teaching-learning resources made out of scrap, discarded and readily available materials (left over wedding invitation cards, pieces of sun-mica, sticks, bottle-top caps, paper, cardboard, pebbles, etc.).
An arc calibrated with turning-degrees painted on the doorwayfloors of classrooms was a simple but creative way for teaching children measurement of angles.
I saw children using a dictionary in their English class, referring to meanings of words that they did not understand while carrying out related activities.
Novelty and diversity appear to be the principles involved in creating teaching-learning aids and resources as these keep students engaged and interested in their work for long durations.
Some ZP school teachers have created subject-wise banks of questions, mostly framed by the students themselves. They use these question-banks for revision work and group study.
Teachers in some ZP schools have placed a collection of books at the disposal of children who read them in their free time at school and sometimes take them home to read. The teachers told me that children take good care of these books and return them without fail.
Examples of activities that I observed students carry out included the following: using 3-4 cubic dice bearing words on their sides, forming combinations of words to make meaningful sentences; writing a story/essay with only a few key-words being provided; counting exercises using sticks, stones, pictures, cut-outs and other items; jumping on number–cards corresponding to numbers created by addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of different sets of numbers.
I was told that teachers also use Mind Maps to stimulate thinking among children and help them increase their vocabulary and broaden their understanding of concepts.
During their free time, students of Std. 3 and 4 of a ZP school practice working on the computer and try things on their own.
A few teachers also routinely take their students out on educational field-visits (to a windmill farm, pond, dam, etc.).
Cooperative learning is a vital component of Constructivism and I saw children in VGs and ZP schools working together in groups, and helping each other as they learned together through the activities assigned to them.
Children are not assigned any home work. Yet, children engage in self-study on their own at home without being asked. Children also often share with their parents and family members at home about what they are learning at school.
Dealing with Attention-Spans:
Activities are designed and carried out keeping in mind children’s attention spans: about 8-12 minutes for pre-primary children and up to 20 minutes for students of Stds. 1 and 2. I saw teachers involving children in action/group songs in between activities to keep them fresh.
Assessment of Students:
Teachers tested the children at the time of joining the VGs six months back to assess the areas in which they required more attention. Children were then assigned activities designed to help them overcome their areas of weakness. They were re-tested after six months (and will be tested every six months) to assess their progress and determine the areas that require further focus and attention.
VG teachers also constantly take feedback from parents and ZP school teachers, looking for indicators pointing to specialized needs. Such feedback is also factored in for prescribing specialized activities.
Teachers assign appropriate activities to children to carry out individually or in groups based on their particular needs. They supervise the children and offered help only when required.
Teachers maintain proper records of students’ abilities based on the six-monthly assessment of the students, details of activities assigned to them, and the progress that children achieve. Children mark their own attendance while teachers maintain attendance records. Teachers reported that absenteeism is very uncommon as children are very interested in attending VG/constructivism based school sessions.
I saw box-files neatly arranged in ZP school classrooms in which the students’ works–essays and other written work, projects, drawings, etc.–were systematically arranged by the teachers.
VG teachers (and sometimes ZP teachers as well) attend weekly meeting/training sessions where they share feedback about their ongoing work, provide insights related to their experiences throughout the week, refine their approaches and practice teaching-learning techniques.
Conviction and Motivation:
A ZP school teacher told me that he had been using traditional methods of teaching for the past 20 years but after attending GM’s training changed his method of teaching to constructivism. He was now very satisfied and happy using the new scientific methods of teaching and learning. He said that it took him a while to change his approach but has now got used to it.
Completing the Prescribed Govt. Syllabus:
While interacting with the ZP school teachers I asked them if they found it difficult to complete the prescribed government syllabus as engaging students in constructivist activities took a lot of time. Every single teacher said that they not only did not find it difficult to complete the syllabus but, in fact, were able to go beyond it. They said that the curriculum and syllabus provide a framework of what children should learn and know. While focusing on this framework they design and carry out activities with the students which more than cover the scope of the syllabus. They went on to say that they did not necessarily proceed in a linear manner, taking one lesson after another. They focused more on helping children understand concepts and related concepts across subjects. As a result, they usually complete the entire syllabus half way into the academic year and spend the rest of the year engaging students in more challenging activities, thus further strengthening their cognitive foundations.
Involvement of Parents:
Parents often have a lot of expectations that their children should be able to quickly learn to read and write. They complain that their children go to the VGs and (constructivist) ZP schools and ‘play’ all the time. The approach of the teachers is to patiently listen to what the parents have to say but go ahead and do what they know is right for the children. Soon parents begin to see the difference in their children and become more supportive.
Some parents often visit ZP schools and interact with students, give talks and conduct sessions on practical aspects of life. Some parents also teach children art and craft.
Involvement of the Local Community:
I was told that on the advice of the teachers of the Eksar ZP school, parents of the village have stopped watching television between 7 and 9 pm everyday so that children can study and not be distracted at home. This is now a rule in the village that all parents follow.
In the same village, around 12 college students work with school children during their own study time in the evenings. These youth not only help the children with their studies but also give them practical advice on different things and offer them general mentoring.
Role of Gram Mangal
GM supervisors interact with the VG and ZP school teachers regularly. They have weekly meetings with the VG teachers which are also sometimes attended by the ZP school teachers, in which they share experiences and further refine their strategies.
GM supervisors observe the work of VG teachers regularly. They sometimes provide feedback to them on the spot on areas of improvement. At other times they address issues in their weekly sessions.
Points of Learning
What I saw and experienced during this trip were fully consistent with what I know of Constructivism and student-centered learning. My experience in this field had, up to that point, been limited to Constructivism in private, English medium schools. Observing Constructivism in action in rural settings within government schools was truly an eye opener.
An Effective Approach:
Constructivism based learner-centric approach is definitely more effective in helping children learn better, even as they enjoy their learning more. Students are fully engaged in their work, don’t need reminders, and are self-motivated. Also, there are no major discipline related issues among children, who maintain excellent relationships with their teachers. Active learning occurs through student-teacher and student-students interactions. Teachers too enjoy their work as they see their efforts result in constant improvement and progress among students.
Teachers should be willing to accept and adopt necessary changes–in terms of: teaching-learning methodologies, teachers’ and students’ roles, classroom management, assessment and evaluation, etc.– and make the necessary adjustments in order for Constructivism to take root, develop and flourish. For example, Constructivism based teaching-learning entails some amount of noise and movement in the classroom. The conventional belief that a quiet class is a better class is no longer true and should be reconsidered, among a host of other outdated practices currently used by teachers.
Ease of Implementation:
Constructivism based approaches can be set up and implemented with ease in schools, contrary to what most teachers may think or believe. Concerns related to time constraints, undermining the teachers’ role, and logistics related issues are all imaginary. The fact is that Constructivism is easy to structure, implement and carry out, as is evident from the example of some 90 ZP schools in the Wai area of Maharashtra.
Emphasis on the Process of Learning:
Teaching-learning should have novelty and creativity which children can find intellectually stimulating and challenging. Children lose interest if teaching-learning methodologies are boring. Children also will be disinterested in their work if they are required to do the same activity in the same way every time (as is happening in most schools today).
Active support of school Headmaster/Principal and other school functionaries is necessary for classroom based constructivism to work.
Classroom constructivism involves a great deal of hard work. I found out that many teachers stay back after school hours, and sometimes even work on Sundays, preparing teaching aids, assessing students’ progress and carrying out related tasks.
New Role of Teachers:
In Constructivism, teachers serve as facilitators who help children construct their own knowledge through supervised activities assigned to them based on their learning needs. It is important that teachers see themselves and their roles in a new light, distinct from that of ‘gatekeepers’ of knowledge, deciding what children should know. Emphasis should not be on content-based learning but on helping children learn as much as they can in whatever way they can.
Success largely depends on teachers’ commitment and willingness to learn. Teachers using the Constructivism approach need to treat children with love and respect, and should be patient, calm and understanding towards them.
Teachers should be actively involved in supervising students in their work and offer assistance as and when required.
Curriculum, Syllabus and Content:
These are meant to serve more as guidelines and a framework within which teachers work with students. There is so much more that children can be helped to learn.
Outreach, Involving Parents and the Community:
School based Constructivism involves a strong outreach component–reaching out to and engaging parents and the local community. It offers schools the opportunity of establishing positive relationships with parents based on trust.
During my Wai trip, I also visited Balshikshan Parishad, a sister organization of Gram Mangal which primarily works with parents and runs Balwadis, taking in children between the age groups of 3-6 years. This organization works on the constructivist premise that children pass through their most crucial learning and developmental phases between the age groups of 2 and 8 years.
Later in the day, I also attended a weekly meeting/training of Vikas Ghar teachers conducted by Gram Mangal supervisors.
The leading light and guiding spirit of Gram Mangal is Prof. Ramesh Panse, its co-founder. He is a Professor of Development Economics and a passionate educationist who has dedicated his life to furthering the cause of early childhood education. Among the many wonderful things that he is currently doing, he is serving as consultant to the Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana (BJS) in aligning its educational activities with the principles of Constructivism. It is my privilege to be working closely with Prof. Panse in this area of work.
I invite the readers to find out more about school based Constructivism, and wherever possible, see it work in action. You will probably marvel, as I did, on how government schools in rural areas are reinventing education, and achieving all that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and more. A silent revolution is currently at work in many pockets throughout the country. At long last, there appears to be hope for the future of India’s school education system, and a better future for India as well!
You can view videos that I took of the Zilla Parishad Schools that I visited on You Tube @ http://www.youtube.com/user/ShoghiPayam