I had the best of intentions to maintain my blog while working and living here in Lucknow, but, alas, time flies by, and memories of such intentions fade. BUT, I have tacked on this blog to my NY resolutions. Although I have had a mixed bag with my other two resolutions (orange fight in the Himalayas, like a snowball fight with oranges, total success, watching Tron dubbed in Hindi, total fail, I waited too long and it is no longer in theaters), I am feeling good about this one.
Alright first blog, about my research work. This won't be laden with chuckles, but I feel important, so lets hope I can hold your attention:
So I am working with Digital Study Hall, a project that uses advances in video technology to improve teaching quality in semi rural government schools. So why does teaching need to be improved? India government schools are pretty uniformly horrible, to the degree that if any parent that can afford to send their student to a private school will do so. This leaves the children most marginalized by society, in terms of caste, class, gender, locality, are stuck in the worst schools.
Oh my gosh where to start with the problems of public education here? As you can probably tell already, one of the most fundamental problems are the overarching societal discrimination in terms of caste, gender, and class that permeates through all of India's public systems.
There is the bureaucracy: languid, corrupt, ineffective, and completely frustrating.
There is also the institution of teaching, which is plagued with inept training, a lack of rigorous teacher selection, and a union that makes America's look like a perfect system. Teachers are fairly well respected and get paid pretty well here, but there is absolutely no oversight. I have actually heard here, 'What is the point of trying to teach well, when my paycheck comes in whether my students learn or not?' Teachers have a ridiculous amount of leave time, which, believe me they utilize. At all of our schools there is at least one, typically two or three that simply do not come to school. They are on medical leave, family leave, personal leave, which can accumulate to an entire year off. Additionally, the government views teachers as field workers for other programs, so much of the time, teachers are working on polio vaccination campaigns, voter registration, census duty, etc.
In light of all of these issues, we are working with teachers to improve teaching and student learning. Obviously there are good schools in India too, mostly in the private sector. One must not forget India's prominent educated class that has be dispersed in highly technical fields across the world. Our aim is to share those (Above photo from www.dsh.cs.washington.edu/)
best practices in the private schools with government teachers through our in-service training program. We partner with really great teachers in private schools, record their lessons covering state standard curriculum for all subjects, then burn them onto DVDs. We then give the DVDs to teachers in government schools, along with training and staff support (i.e. my great research peer, Esha, and me going out to schools once a week to monitor the progress of each teacher and offer feedback). The intention is not for the teacher to merely play the film while the student passively watches: the teacher mediates the content for their students, pausing to check for comprehension and infuse their own examples and styles into the lesson. Ideally through this process, government school teachers will start to adopt some of the aspects of good pedagogy from their private school counterparts. Check out our website for more info.
Overall, I think that the program has been a success, especially with para-educators who are appointed by the government to teach the lower primary grades and are given very limited training. We have found that the majority of the para-educators really have a desire to improve their practice and are very receptive to constructive feedback. And with this effort, we have seen dramatic improvements in teachers interactions with students, offering more examples, asking more questions , etc.
We also have seen how students are really receptive to our content. Recently we have been showing the films to students without teacher mediation and have been surprise how students have maintained focus throughout the lesson, self-managed behavioral issues, and worked through sticky aspects of the lesson through discussion, referencing available material, and actively engaging in activities shown through the DVD. In a couple interesting cases, we have seen students ask their teachers to use more techniques that they have seen in our DVDs.
Working with mainstream teachers has proven to be a bit more difficult though. I do believe that we have seen some basic change in teaching patterns in this demographic but it isn't as stark as with the para-educators. I think we hit a wall with the perception that they have already received training. Unfortunately, I have also seen the education that a government teacher has to go through, and it is just as bad if not worse than what is being provided in the primary school buildings. There are varying levels of investment in our participating teachers for sure, but troubles me is this perception that once a student teacher leaves their preparation program, the process of becoming an educator is over. It is of my belief that a quality educator is always evaluating their craft to provide the best possible education to their students. And what is more troubling for me is when I see teachers say that their students just cannot learn. I hear this time and again, but never hear how they might have to modify their teaching strategies to meet the needs of the students. It's more like, 'I taught them, it is there fault if they don't get it.'
There are obviously other factors at play. I often times hear, 'They are poor, they cannot learn.' Or, 'They are simple, village children, they cannot learn.' All of the teachers we work with come from high castes, they live in Lucknow, they would be considered middle to upper middle class. When I started to go through the class registers in our focus classes, I started to see only scheduled caste or tribal names, essentially the lowest strata of Indian society and a majority of female students. Additionally, all of the students live in the village in impoverish household. In other words, the backgrounds of teachers and students couldn't be more diametrically opposed. And if a teachers believes that a student cannot learn because of attributes beyond their control, e.g. locality, class, gender, etc., what incentive do they have teach in a rigorous manner or make use of a program like this?
The teachers that we work with are not bad people; I really enjoy their company and truly believe that some of them really do care about their students and respect their profession. They have an incredibly difficult job to educate India's most marginalized students through all of the obstacles that the central, state, and local government place on them. But what I cannot accept is teachers giving up or taking advantage of their position at the expense of their students' education, which I unfortunately see more often than not.
But to give you just a picture of how frustrating the job of research can be working in Indian schools, take a look at these fun facts:
- Indian government schools recognize holidays from all faiths, meaning a continual string of breaks. Many a time, I have arrived to a locked up school to realize it was a Shia or Parsi holiday that I have never heard of… Many students and teachers take the liberty to extend holidays for more popular celebrations (Dusshera, Holi, Deewali) for up to a week.
- Teachers acquire personal leave that they lose if they don't take by the end of the calendar year. This means many teachers take up two to three weeks leave before the Christmas vacation. They also do this fully aware that:
- Every year, the district or state closes all schools due to the cold. This year it was pretty bad, it got down to freezing temperatures, so classes were suspended for three weeks. Added to the personal leave and Christmas holiday and the week after the closure where students still did not come to school, there have been some schools where they children hadn't seen their teacher for over a month and a half!!!
- During harvesting seasons, it's not even worth it to go to the schools. Parent pull their kids to have extra hands in the field and attendance can dwindle to about ten students in a school of 200.
- There is considerable road work going on out in these villages, and some of the schools are linked only by one road. Since the road work is ill planned, far too often the road is completely choked of for the week or so it takes to finish the road.
- The most fun bit I actually learned TODAY, is that the majority of our focus teachers have been assigned to Census duty meaning that they will not be in the school for the NEXT MONTH. Added to this, this week they have been mandated to take test, therefore no instruction will take place, thus we cannot work with the teachers. SO, in the past three month, some student will have received maybe three weeks of instruction.
- I have also been informed that students will not come to school during the month of March, due to the potato harvest and the Holi festival. Parents pull their kids to have extra hands in the field and attendance can dwindle to about ten students in a school of 200.
Kind of hard to do research when their are no students are teachers in the actual building. It has been a mental exercise indeed thinking through how to navigate these issues. But more so, it is infuriating how all of these factors, from parent's perceptions of education, bureaucratic ineptitude, and teacher apathy, all set up the children that need the most support, most classtime, best instruction, to fail. That is something hard to swallow, but with the status of education as it is right now, I know that an NGO cannot be the only agent of change: there has to be a societal shift of consciousness in the entire society that values these children and wants to see them succeed. For now I am not seeing that shift and it breaks my heart…
So yeah, frustrating.