What does it take to build joyful learning experiences for children?

At the end of USAID’s program in 2015, we continued to work with government middle schools in Samastipur, Bihar, under our flagship program Anandshala. Over the years, we have researched, experimented and learnt a lot about what it takes to sustain these learning experiences.

Bihar’s dropout rate at the middle-school level (6-8th grade) is 8.9%; the highest in the country. Samastipur was one of Bihar’s most educationally backward districts. Low learning levels, coupled with a lack of infrastructure and resources resulted in high student-teacher ratio, which exhausted an already fraught situation. The subject-based curriculum training for educators was not adequate for 21st century teaching practices that children needed. A lack of recognition and support for teachers and headmasters also led to further demotivation.

Through Anandshala, the school dropout prevention model was adapted and integrated with existing government systems to support change at a school level. It was vital for us that the school, the community and the government work together to drive lasting change. There were 6 key areas we focused on to help create and nurture joyful, meaningful learning environments where children stay, engage and learn.

1] School enrichment

Curate and conduct activities that help children learn outside the classroom, engage with peers and sharpen their 21st century skills. For example regular morning assembly, Bal Sansad (student parliaments) and last class activities.

2] Student agency

Let students take the lead. Create a safe environment where students can talk about the challenges they face. Empower them and provide the support they need to find solutions to challenges. Strengthening Bal Sansads has helped build student ownership and created support systems to improve school environments.

3] Educator capacity building

Build capacities of educators to help them identify, curate and provide the nuanced support their students need. Boost data-driven response strategies and 21st century mindset to aid better feedback loops in the classroom.

4] Content and pedagogy support

Help teachers find ways to make content more engaging. Teacher workload, if designed properly – can be reduced, and their time can be focused on improving teacher-student relationships.

5] Parents and community engagement

Keep parents, caregivers and the community involved in the child’s learning journey. Build trust between parents and schools through regular open houses, home visits or an automated telephony system like IVRS to keep them updated on progress.

6] Change leaders and teacher recognition

Support the government system to train school and community stakeholders on building joyful learning environments. Recognize and reward educators and schools for good practices. The Anandshala Shiksha Ratna Puraskar has been initiated and run for over 5 years in partnership with the District Administration of Samastipur, and has managed to promote adoption of good practices across the district.

With the generosity of the district government in Samastipur and funders like – the Charities Aid Foundation, the Dalyan Foundation, Impact Foundation India, HDFC, The Hans Foundation, Voluntary Service Overseas, Porticus Asia Ltd., Give India Foundation, Idea, Max Foundation, Mid Valley Health Care Services Pvt. Ltd., Sanjeev Prasad, UNICEF and VIP Industries – we were able to co-create a scalable model for government middle schools that:

  • Nurtured a more responsive education system
  • Helped students from the most marginalized backgrounds stay, engage and learn
  • Increased focus on building 21st century skills
  • Improved learning outcomes
  • Bettered teacher-student relationship
  • Enhanced student leadership and ownership towards schools
  • Improved teacher motivation and community engagement

Since 2015, Anandshala has impacted 106,800+ children, 53% of whom are girls. It has built capacities of 3,800+ educators and worked with government education functionaries in 380+ schools.

Upgraded MSDE Employability Skills Curriculum Gives Prominence To 21st Century Skills And Self Learning 

There has been a sea of transformation in the teaching and learning process after the pandemic. Various government departments and institutions are trying to adapt to this scenario and shift gears to create new learning experiences that will resonate with the students. 

Keeping this in mind, the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) recently launched a revamped curriculum on employability skills in association with Quest Alliance, National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and various other curriculum bodies within the MSDE ecosystem. This initiative is being supported by the Future Right Skills Network (FRSN), a collaborative effort by Quest Alliance, Accenture, Cisco and J.P. Morgan.

In picture: (L to R) Ishvinder Singh, Cisco; Sourabh Anand, J.P. Morgan; Trishaljit Sethi, Director General – Directorate General of Training; Rajesh Aggarwal, Former Secretary, MSDE; Kotresh H B, Partnerships Specialist, Quest Alliance; and Nikita Bengani, Director – Youth Program, Quest Alliance.

The curriculum aims to orient and prepare students on how they can adapt to the job market post-COVID. Aspects such as career development, professionalism, adaptability and building resilience are given emphasis in the new curriculum. 

So far, most of the curricula for Employability Skills (ES) across the various skilling initiatives and professional courses in India, had a theory-first approach. The practical aspects mostly focussed on last-mile skill development such as the development of resume, interview skills were ignored. As a result of this, while students had technical skills, they did not have the critical 21st century skills to face an interview or secure a job. The current curriculum addresses this need and ensures that learners have the required skills and the right mindset that will make them more employable. 

More than 2.5 million students from over 15,600 government and private Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) will benefit from the program which includes a revamped and expanded 120-hour curriculum in Hindi and English.  Some of the modules include introduction to employability skills, digital skills, citizenship, diversity and inclusion, career development and goal setting, getting ready for work and entrepreneurship. Variants of the curriculum of 30, 60 and 90 hour duration are also being launched for both long-term and short-term courses. 

Speaking about the new curriculum, IAS officer Rajesh Aggarwal who led the initiative and was Secretary, Ministry of Skills Development and Entrepreneurship until recently said:

“For young people to be able to keep pace with the fast changing world they need to keep up-skilling and reskilling. Employability Skills are extremely key in enabling the transition of young people into the world of work with confidence, which is the single most important aspect any employers look for. Hence it needs to be embedded in every skilling program.” 

Explaining further, Aakash Sethi, CEO, Quest Alliance said, “The 12 modules in the curriculum have been chalked out keeping in mind the post-Covid job market and its volatility. The modules help learners build self learning mindsets and find a place for themselves in new kinds of jobs, such as those in the green and gig economy.” 

Since there is a dearth of ample job opportunities, particularly in small towns and rural areas, there is a need for young learners to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. The new curriculum in fact empowers learners to consider self-employment as their options. Besides this, there is a simple, yet practical exploration of digital fluency and safety. Some of the other topics that are also included in the curriculum are: safe banking, use of UPIs, use of MS office, mobile application for day-to-day use. The curriculum also aims to keep students abreast about financial and legal literacy. As the job market has become volatile after the pandemic, the new curriculum will equip learners with skills that will make them resilient and future ready. 

A Student Workbook from the Upgraded Employability Skills Curriculum

The curriculum will provide three key benefits to learners: build 21st century skills, develop a self-learning mindset and become career-ready in a post-pandemic world. 

Various experts in the industry too have pointed out how the revamped curriculum will improve the employability of learners. Speaking about the new curriculum, Harish Krishnan, Managing Director and Chief Policy Officer, Cisco India and SAARC, said, “Digitization is accelerating the need for new skill sets across production, manufacturing, and service industries, and it is important for candidates to keep up with the ever-evolving technology and business landscape. The revamped curriculum is aimed at addressing some of the industry- training gaps and helping youth navigate the future of work as well as improve their employability.”

Adding to that, Kshitija Krishnaswamy, Managing Director and Lead – Corporate Citizenship, Accenture in India said, “As industries transform in the digital economy, all types of work will be impacted and require a new set of skills. Developing these skills require the attention of the entire ecosystem, and collaboration between government, academia and industry.”

Maneesha Chadha, Head of Grant Programming, APAC, J.P. Morgan said, “The transformation of the ITI ecosystem is opening up employment opportunities for young people, allowing them to participate in India’s economic growth. We believe this growth should be inclusive and are focused on ensuring that young women graduating from ITIs have the skills it takes to build their career pathways.”

To help rollout the new curriculum in a smooth manner, a National Master Trainers Workshop was organized by the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) in partnership with Quest Alliance and the Future Right Skills Network (FRSN). The aim of this workshop is to strengthen the skill training ecosystem by transforming the way the employability skills curriculum is imparted. As many as  90+ educators across the skilling ecosystem have been trained so far. These trainers are amongst the 270+ master trainers, who will go on to train and mentor 2400+ Employability Skills trainers in adopting a blended learning model to impart the ES curriculum.

It will further help educators to upgrade their skills for new age classrooms and familiarize themselves with blended learning models. While physical books covering the revamped curriculum are being released now, digital copies for blended learning will be available soon.

The new curriculum along with cascade trainer capacity building model is a step towards addressing critical gaps in the skilling ecosystem and building ownership amongst educators to adopt new pedagogical practices and mentor their peers in the same. 

Trainers from not only government-run vocational education institutions but also from short-term and long-term courses conducted by the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and Sector Skill Councils (SSCs) are part of the trainer capacity building intervention. 

This marks a strategic shift in government policy towards employability skills and is a testament to multi-stakeholder collaborative efforts like the Future Right Skills Network in building consensus for the need for employability skills in the vocational education ecosystem to ensure young people find jobs and remain relevant in the future workplace.  

The Future Right Skills Network is on a mission to empower young people in technical and vocational training institutes with employability skills for the knowledge economy. The partners of FRSN have also come together to advocate and create awareness, disseminate critical knowledge and shape a forward-thinking mindset to empower students with future-ready employability skills.

Written by:

Tanu Kulkarni

Communications Specialist

Educators who are driving the wheel of change: Insights from Gujarat

In Gujarat, Quest Alliance began implementing IBM’s STEM for Girls project through a facilitator-led model in 2020. Currently, the project runs across 143 schools of 6 districts. Building on systems-driven change, STEM for Girls builds capacity of school teachers to become champions of STEM education for their students, and to carry the work forward in schools through modules on self-awareness, gender-awareness, computational thinking, and career-awareness. Facilitators from Quest Alliance and implementation partners work with the school and the community as a whole to develop an ecosystem that encourages students, especially girls, to pursue their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Progress and change, however, are varied and subjective across locations. 

5 Educators and their realities on the ground: Facilitators talk about the challenges of their jobs

Facilitator Dhaval Patel in a classroom.

Dhaval Patel and Jessica Parmar embarked on their facilitation journey with Quest Alliance in 2020 when STEM for Girls kicked off in Gujarat. Today, they are seasoned facilitators, but not without having faced challenges. As a male facilitator in an all-girls’ school, Dhaval would be met with giggles when he started to explore the differences between sex and gender with his students. But, with examples of how one has to fill in their sex or gender in application forms, he got his message across.

“A teacher’s body language matters. Strong content is not enough, strong facilitation is key,” says Dhaval.

He notes how rampant gender stereotypes are. But, it is not only stereotyping, but also concern about unsafe environments that drives parents to restrict their daughters. In a parent engagement event, a parent commented to Jessica, “You are asking us to let our daughters study away from home. Who will be responsible when they elope? How will you help then?!” Taken aback, Jessica realized how deep-rooted are the issues with which we are faced. 

Facilitator Jessica Parmar with some of her students and their guardians.

In rural Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, Mahmad Iliyas, a facilitator of Quest’s partner, Human Development and Research Centre (HDRC), finds that he cannot conduct sessions on menstruation. Instead, he calls upon help from female anganwadi workers to speak to his girl students. 

Facilitation that drives change

Through continued, interactive facilitation techniques, the needle starts shifting. Teachers express interest in the training curriculum, and even visit STEM for Girls classrooms to pick up a few facilitation techniques.

Jessica recalls how a particular teacher sat in her training sessions to understand why a student who rarely responds in his class, is an active participant in Jessica’s! With increasing emphasis from the government on smart education, teachers, too, understand why the curriculum is important, and encourage students to explore Scratch (a block-based coding language for young learners) in the school computer labs – in a government school ecosystem, this is a change that our facilitators are proud of. 

Facilitator Mahmad Iliyas

In Iliyas’s schools, teachers, headmasters, and parents have come to know about and support our work with students. Influential community members pay visits to schools, and running water has been made available so that girl students do not need to stay at home during their menstruation cycles. 

Facilitation as mentorship

When a student confided in Jessica about how her mother is abused at home, Jessica informed the school authorities to ensure a proper intervention. 

For students, facilitators become guides and mentors. Our facilitators realize that there are some deeper crevices that need systemic intervention.

L-R: Jhanvi (student), Vaishali (facilitator), Khyati (facilitator), Niyati (student)

Facilitators like Khyati Kadvatar from our partner, Navajeevan Trust, find inspiration while they inspire. Under Khyati’s mentorship, her students Niyati and Jhanvi from Rajkot have grown confident and articulate. Niyati dreams of becoming an architect, and designs home plans on her mobile phone. Jhanvi is a recipient of the district-level Inspire MANAK award for her model of a foldable solar panel, and will soon compete at the state level. In fact, it was upon seeing Jhanvi’s art work in projects did Khyati encourage her to begin building the models she drew. 

Khyati, as well as her fellow facilitator, Vaishali Parmar from HDRC, enjoy facilitating the curriculum. Their methods are student-centered and engaging. 

Facilitators as champions of impact

Our facilitators agree that true change begins one person at a time – and, often, with how they each change their own lives! Jessica recounts how she did not have such awareness of gender, self or career when she was a student, and now knows how deeply gender stereotypes can be challenged. For others like Dhaval, Khyati and Vaishali, facilitating curriculum in classrooms and aiding positive change is a way to fulfill their purpose of enabling gender equity and enabling quality education opportunities for their students. The curriculum has impacted them as much as they have impacted their students.

Written by:

Shinjini Chowdhury

Communications Manager

Personalizing Blended Learning Experiences For Learners

Bengaluru: Twenty three year old Nayana M. initially found it difficult to comprehend lessons taught during her online classes in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She dropped out of the B.Com programme and took up a job at a government office on a contract basis.

She picked up digital literacy skills on the job. It took her a few months to understand how to operate the computer, but is now adept with technology and says, “If I face any hurdles, I try to solve them on my own.”

She later enrolled into the National Skill Training Institute for Women to pursue a course titled ‘Architectural Draughtsman’. She has also been using the Quest App regularly and says that she finds it easy and interesting as it helps her learn through experience. The app developed by Quest Alliance has around 250 hours of interactive, gamified content and aims to help the youth build skills around Communicative English, Life Skills, Work Readiness, Digital Literacy, Technology in Careers and Self-Employment.

Nayana says that online resources are useful as it helps her learn at her own pace and gives her flexibility to learn during her free time. After navigating through the app and many other online resources, she says she often needs to get a few doubts clarified and therefore finds the combination of online and in-person classes useful. Nayana’s story is one of many examples that demonstrate blended learning as the way forward in a world where the teaching and learning process has changed dramatically after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Educators and their experiments during the pandemic 

Teachers and students were initially caught off guard and were forced to switch to online classes as educational institutions had to be closed during the pandemic. After several months of experimenting, teachers realized that merely replicating what they did in offline classes on online platforms served no purpose. So they decided to tweak their pedagogies and upgraded their digital skills to make classes effective online. Similarly many educators also realized that merely livestreaming their offline classes for students who were attending classes online was not serving their purpose.  

Anusha G., who worked as a facilitator in Bengaluru Rural and Chikkaballapur districts for the IBM Stem for Girls project said that teachers and educators are now eager to use online tools to supplement their offline classes.

“I have realized that students learn many concepts easily when it is presented in an audio visual format and hence ensure that I conduct some classes online as well. Moreover, as an educator, I strongly believe that a lot of learning can happen outside of the classroom space and we should encourage students to adopt self learning.” 

How blended learning made its way into classrooms 

With schools and colleges reopening for the 2022-2023 academic year, many teachers have decided to incorporate the best of both worlds (online and offline classes). A concept note on the Blended Mode of Teaching and Learning published by the University Grants Commission (UGC) defines blended learning as “the term given to the educational practice of combining digital learning tools with more traditional classroom face to face teaching.” 

However, the same document also points out that blended learning cannot be looked at as a mere mix of online and in-person classes. It defines blended learning as a “well-planned combination of meaningful activities in both the modes.” The blend depends on various factors which are focused around learning outcomes and the learner-centered instructional environment.

The National Education Policy 2020 too has emphasized the promotion of blended learning in schools and higher education. The policy states that while “promoting digital learning and education, the importance of face-to-face in-person learning is fully recognized. Accordingly, different effective models of blended learning will be identified for appropriate replication for different subjects.” 

In fact, Robert Gagné had proposed a series of events that form a conducive environment for learning – which are also extremely relevant for designing blended learning experiences. The nine events of instruction are as follows: gain attention of students, inform students of the objectives, stimulate recall of prior learning, present the content, provide learning guidance, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance, enhance retention and transfer. 

Designing blended learning experiences for different learner personas 

While there are students like Nayana who are adept with digital devices, there are many students who are struggling with technology and devices. For Thanushree H.S., a class nine student in Girls Government High School, Gauribidanur, Chikkaballapur district, online classes were a struggle as she had poor internet connectivity at her home. Besides this, she found it difficult to get access to a mobile phone as her sister also had to attend online classes and there was just one smartphone to access.

“It was very frustrating as I would get disconnected midway through the session as the internet was patchy. I was disappointed that I was not able to learn through online classes.”

She however says that as classes are now offline, she is able to learn better. 

The examples of Nayana and Thanushree suggest that students’ association with technology and online learning behavior differs based on their learning personas. A single approach for learning may not help all types of learners. 

Providing blended learning solutions for different learners 

The study titled “Blended Learning: Experiences in public education and  design principles for low tech environments” published by Quest Alliance classifies learners into five categories or personas – ambitious impeded learners, self driven learners, adaptive learners, instruction-dependent learners and isolated learners. The study was led by Indira Vijaysimha, Founder, Poorna Learning Centre, and Farhat Ara, Researcher, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

The research paper maps different personas based on students’ online behaviors, digital literacy, various contextual challenges as well as their attitudes toward blended learning. This classification has paved the way to understand the needs of different types of learners. The study in turn has recommended different designs for blended learning. 

The qualitative study was conducted with students, teachers, principals and parents from 11 states which are – Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Uttarakhand.

The study noted that designing an online learning environment for different types of learners necessitates a “radical approach in pedagogy and technology use”.  

Priyanka Krishna, Research Specialist, Quest Alliance who oversaw the study said that the key idea of keeping personas in mind while designing for blended learning is to build learner-centric environments that support the diversity of learners and create inclusive environments which drive belongingness for improved learning outcomes.

“Instead of a tech-first, one size fits all approach, keeping the diverse needs of the learners as a focus helps build blended learning models responsive to different kinds of learners and their social circumstances.”

It is evident that the different types of learners have personalized needs. Teachers and educators will find it easier if they are able to understand their learner with regard to their access to and usage of technology, their attitude towards technology and blended learning as well gauge how much of a self learner they are. This inturn will help them design a blending learning approach which is effective and centered around their learners’ needs. The design principles suggested in the study provides direction for educators, institutions and other stakeholders of how they can design as well as implement and execute their blended learning approaches.   

Download our research paper: Blended Learning: Experiences in Public Education System and design principles for low tech environments ↗.

Written by:

Tanu Kulkarni

Communications Specialist

Nurturing adolescent aspirations in Jharkhand

Girl Champion Neelam at the Kishori Ekta Youth Club in Jharkhand

Celebrating the International Day of the Girl Child this year was special with a visit to Jharkhand in early October. The Kishori Ekta Youth Club, a good two-and-a-half hour drive from Deoghar in Jharkhand, is located in the Phadam village in Palajori block, and is well connected by tar roads. The drive speeds past hillocks, lush green landscapes, clear air, herds of goats, and ducklings. Towards the end of the village, just next to the main road, is a pucca house with a narrow entrance. The world behind the narrow entrance took me by surprise. The walls are full of artwork by adolescent girls – hearts, parrots, peacocks, menstruating women, arms raised asking for menstrual hygiene,  impressions of girls’ hands on the charts with their photographs, their names and much more. 

At the adolescent girls’ centre, about twenty girls aged between 10 and 16 have gathered. After a round of introductions, they head outside into the open space around the house for some routine gameplay. Once back inside, they energetically fished out board games – one on myths about menstrual hygiene, another on factors that could support or impede the journey of an adolescent girl to be self-reliant, and another on problem-solving in times of crisis. Some of them hadn’t played the games before. They read the instructions out loud, shared their own interpretations and ended up in a laughing heap as the confusion grew.

The Kishori Ekta Youth Club, Jharkhand

As we spoke, I found the girls loved to play and paint at the centre – two very powerful mediums to liberate the body and express voice. Some of these girls had just restarted school as secondary schools are now slowly reopening in Jharkhand. Others were looking forward to the opening of their own schools – some of which are a good 8-10kms away from the village. I wondered what that distance would mean for them, and asked about their commute. “We will cycle to school!”, they all said confidently. Not even for a moment was there an iota of doubt in any of them – they were determined to to study, and they had worked out how to overcome the barrier of distance. 

During the lockdown some of them learnt to make rakhis, decorate diyas that earned them Rs 10-15 each. They kept these earnings to use in the club, where even some the younger ones proudly shared that they had “learnt something to earn that money.”

Adolescent girls playing board games in the Kishori Ekta Youth Club in Jharkhand.

Neelam is a Girl Champion for the community where this centre is located. A Girl Champion is a peer educator who facilitates club activities and is often seen as a role model in the community. She told me that while the club usually welcomes about 10 or 15 girls on a typical day, they had a special reason for gathering in larger numbers on that day. The club was getting a computer, and the Quest Alliance Anandshala team was setting it up. Like any ‘NGOwali’, I checked if the girls had used computers before. None of them had, even though some of them were in grade 10 and 11. But they had seen a computer, and understood the concept. When I asked some more questions about accessibility to digital platforms, they revealed that a majority of them had used a mobile phone for calls or messages, but not computers. Intrigued, I wanted to know what caused the excitement over this computer here at the centre. One of the girls volunteered an answer – “We will use Google!”. When asked how that would help, she replied in a typical adolescent tone – that unique mix of exasperation and amusement – “Humko nahi pata aur kya ho sakta hai computer pe, hum dekhenge toh pata chalega na?” (We don’t know what else can be done with a computer, we will know once we work (look) into it).  The spirit of curiosity and exploration was obvious, apart from the palpable joy of the entire group celebrating the arrival of a computer. 

Seeing the club in action gave me hope, and sparked many thoughts and ponderings. The girls in this club in remote Jharkhand seem confident, curious, wanting to explore, and ready to take risks. If we assume a similar spirit kindled in adolescents across the state, why then does Jharkhand have high child marriage rates, and issues of early pregnancy? The delicate spirit of this group resonated strongly with me. It is a spirit which, if nurtured, could only grow stronger and take on challenges as a community, but if throttled could get discouraged quickly. 

This was a sobering reminder of what many individuals experience during the adolescent phase. In contrast, Neelam is a wonderful example of that spirit nurtured. Having had to discontinue her studies due to health issues in the family, coupled with mounting education fees and other costs, she saved an honorarium payment, enrolled in college and is currently facilitating the club and pursuing her studies. In a way, she personifies the impact of Girl Champions in the community.

The Kishori Ekta Youth Club, Jharkhand

As State, society and civil society organisations, can we truly be open to engage with adolescent girls and parents, with the objective to encourage them? Each one has a role to play in making our schools a space that is encouraging and engaging. How do we as CSO’s not label programmes and not favour certain kinds of strategies over others? How do both state and CSO’s make parents allies and not operate in the paradigm of “parents are not interested”? These are questions that need quick and effective answers. Most importantly, we must acknowledge that adolescent girls are part of the solutioning, and models can be built to harness the adolescent spirit. Games, play, income-generating activities, modules and courses, health, computers, literacy – we need it all to support adolescent girls in the country. Many more Neelams are in the making at the club. They have defined their own paths, and we owe it to them to support their dreams and ambitions. 

Words By: Deepika K Singh, Quest Alliance
Photos By: Shitanshu Sharma, Quest Alliance