Bal Sansads: Rethinking education in a changing world

Rajeev Ranjan may be on his way to becoming an able retail manager, but the Bihar native still fondly remembers his experience as the ‘Prime Minister’ of the student parliament – or Bal Sansad – in his school. Democratically elected, he identified problems in his school and undertook change-projects to resolve them with the help of the school administrators and community.

Thus, tasked with overseeing key functions and activities around the school, Ranjay unwittingly ended up grooming his bargaining and presentation skills – crucial in his current job, which regular classroom teaching would have left him lacking. As a Bal Sansad member, he in turn cultivated the skills of leadership, networking, self-expression and most importantly, problem-solving.

As the economic landscape shifts with the introduction of automation technologies and AI, education must adapt to keep pace with the needs of the labour market. Technical expertise needs to be supplemented with certain life skills to enable students to effectively deal with the demands and challenges of everyday life.

This throws light on the reality that in today’s day and age, it is simply not enough to ensure that children go to school. Classrooms must keep abreast with a constantly changing world for education to be relevant (and engaging) to students. Skills – meant to cultivate collaboration and problem-solving – will become essential for businesses across all sectors and hence, necessitates the need for schools to make ’21st Century Skills’ a core component of education.

What are 21st Century Skills?

Although overused in the parlance of education, the term has evolved to encompass all the skills needed to navigate one’s personal and professional life in the context of a fast-changing world.

21st Century Skills – as we have come to understand – is a potpourri of skills that aims to boost one’s self-awareness, critical thinking faculties, relationship-building abilities and the capability to communicate effectively. These skills will help an individual

· Reflect on the self and understand multiple dimensions to their personality,

· Locate, analyse and synthesise information, identify problems, take informed decisions, ask questions to challenge existing norms and move towards finding solutions and triggering change,

· Collaborate, build enabling relationships, taking responsibility for one’s actions and be adaptable,

· Articulate oneself clearly without inhibition, and comprehend others effectively and respond with compassion and sensitivity.

Jobs in the future will be characterized more by one’s ability to develop these skills – skills that need to be nurtured from childhood. If learners are self-aware, equipped with skills to ask critical questions, have a solution-oriented mindset, articulate themselves confidently and build supportive relationships, they can be effective drivers of change.

And one way to integrate 21st Century Skills in learning ecosystems is through Bal Sansads – or student parliaments – in schools.

Bal Sansads: Problems & Interventions

Present times demand that young people thrive as self-learners and equipped with 21st Century Skills, drive their own development pathways. In this context, the aim of Bal Sansads has been to create ownership opportunities for students as they cultivate aforementioned 21st Century Skills.

A major issue in schools has been the lack of teachers. One feasible way of countering this problem is by assigning responsibilities (outside the teaching domain) to students by way of Bal Sansads. Under this, students monitor various aspects of the school – handled by teachers up until then – including conducting assemblies, ensuring bells go off on time between classes, keep a track of good practises and shortcomings as well as plan and execute corresponding solutions. They also engage students during classes when teachers are absent or unavailable.

Such a set up makes it easier (and faster) to get things done, especially since students don’t wait for instructions from teachers and only rely on them for guidance. This empowers students and encourages them to take a leadership position, becoming problem-solvers in the process. Moreover, when they are actively involved in various aspects of the school, they begin to see the institution as their own. Another critical takeaway is that students – who were earlier not taken seriously – felt ‘useful’ by playing an important role in encouraging others to learn better.

Hence, instead of shrugging it off as tedious, students typically express a lot of excitement in organizing student parliaments. Following any other election process, students can file their nominations and conduct campaigns, and this is followed by voting, counting and the final oath-taking. The entire operation is handled by students under the supervision of teachers. In fact, by the time they get elected to respective posts, they would have developed a lot of aforementioned soft skills already.

An interesting initiative started in a school in Samastipur district of Bihar with the help of Quest Alliance is the Bal Mitra Nayalaya. Under the aegis of Bal Sansad, it is designed to operate as a children’s court with the objective of addressing issues of discontent among students. Complete with a Magistrate, Secretary and Director, this weekly court will hear complaints through a well-structured application process, with ‘verdicts’ announced every Saturday.

While similar drives are organized by Bal Sansads across schools in Samastipur, some need a nudge to get things going. Through this lens, Quest conducts workshops as part of its Anandshala program in schools to build the capacity of student parliaments. This exercise also throws light on problems that are prevalent across institutions, including missing drinking water, toilet and handwashing facilities, as well as recreational rooms and libraries.

Thus, in addition to preparing them for school-to-work transition, Bal Sansads link students and school administrators, ensuring that students’ voices aren’t ignored or dismissed. Additionally, Bal Sansads have also demonstrated its significance in tackling the issue of student absenteeism in schools. Although concerted efforts by organisations like Quest and its collaboration with government bodies has led to a reduction in dropout rates among students, the average attendance rate in classrooms is still abysmally low.

Lack of quality resources and infrastructure, combined with discriminatory social norms has been a common stumbling block. However, the introduction of Bal Sansads has reportedly corresponded with students attending school more regularly.

#EducateToEmpower

With the objective of empowering 300 Bal Sansads in Bihar through its Anandshala program, Quest is on a campaign to strengthen and nurture student leaders by supporting them with stationery, training, a toolkit and a small fund to help student parliaments drive the change they want in their schools.

As established earlier, Bal Sansads yield big results by giving students the agency to drive change – from starting libraries, creating kitchen gardens, building water stations, to reaching out to parents to get them to send their girls to schools – and our campaign is built to nurture these micro-communities of self-directed creative learners across schools in Samastipur district in Bihar.

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The Educator: A Designer, Innovator, and Thinker

“To facilitate effective learning spaces, educators must also think of themselves as method designers. You are in the role of a hacker or a ‘prototyper.’” David Jul, a learning designer from Kaospilot, outlines five questions that educators must ask themselves when they design learning experiences.

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The educator plays one of the most important roles in determining how young people experience learning. We at Quest have worked with children from diverse age groups and backgrounds for over 12 years, and we have observed that the educator’s role is a constant and highly important factor in young peoples’ learning. How students experience their learning environment has a significant impact on their attitude toward learning as a whole. It is the educator who cultivates this environment and determines how young learners interact with various forms of knowledge and with each other.

At Quest 2 Learn 2018, we had the opportunity to interview David Jul, who is a learning designer at Kaospilot. We discussed how Kaospilot designs learning experiences for its students and how educators use a variety to tools and methodologies to design education environments. In the conversation, David outlined five questions that an educator must ask himself or herself when designing learning experiences.

Continue reading “The Educator: A Designer, Innovator, and Thinker”

By students, for students

How Bal Sansad, or child parliaments, enable students to find their voices

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“The PM has a budget for the nation. Why don’t we have a budget for the school?” – Bal Sansad Student, MS Dalsinghsarai, Samastipur District, Bihar

With non-cognitive skills such as critical reasoning and the ability to engage in meaningful debates becoming ever-more important in a fast changing job market, enabling young people to articulate questions such as these is crucial.

The idea of Bal Sansad (or ‘Child Parliaments’) within government elementary schools is not new. A model United Nations program has been running internationally since the mid twentieth century, while the Indian government first proposed the idea of Child Parliaments almost twenty years ago. In practice, its implementation has been sporadic and inconsistent. In Bihar, where Quest Alliance run the Anandshala program in the Samastipur district, interventions to enliven the Bal Sansad Child Parliaments date back to 2012.

Continue reading “By students, for students”

Digging Deeper: Budget Implications for India’s Youth

The 2018 budget saw the highest ever allocation of funds for skill development. What does this mean for players in the sector, and how can we help translate this investment into a real difference in outcomes for India’s youth?

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Quest Alliance’s Ashutosh Tosaria, who manages the 45-member MyQuest team helping youth across India learn employability skills for career development, shares his thoughts on the 2018 Budget with Manish Sharma, in this Q&A piece.

Continue reading “Digging Deeper: Budget Implications for India’s Youth”

Grit and Determination plus Digital Literacy? A Recipe for Success

Is the youth bulge a problem of plenty? India must combine old wisdom and new technologies to harness its demographic dividend.

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By 2020, India will become the world’s youngest country in terms of its population. When the certainty of this ‘demographic dividend’ became clear, it was seen as a huge opportunity by economists, academics, think tanks and social scientists, a problem of plenty. As the sheer size of the issue became clearer, and as more data on youth entered the public domain, employers, civil society and the government soon joined the conversation. Over the past decade, this one issue has become arguably one of the most emotive of issues in several Indian policy circles.

Continue reading “Grit and Determination plus Digital Literacy? A Recipe for Success”

President Obama meets Quest Alliance

How often do you get the chance to ask the former President of the United States for advice on your work? It’s an opportunity that Quest Alliance Executive Director Aakash Sethi was given earlier this month, when he was invited by the Obama Foundation to the December 1 Town Hall session in New Delhi.

Joining almost 300 young Indian leaders for discussions around active citizenship, Aakash spoke directly to the president about youth employability in the Indian context. After introducing President Obama to Quest’s work in school dropout prevention and job-readiness, Aakash probed the president on the best way forward in creating young people with 21st Century skills. We were struck by how far the president’s answer, with its focus on the importance of building scalable models, resonated with Quest’s values and larger vision.

Listen to the question and answer at 1 hour 59 minutes in the video above, and read the transcript below.

Continue reading “President Obama meets Quest Alliance”

A Growth Mindset at The Riverside School

Riverside School teachers Neena Mehta, Jahnavi Mehta, Mira Thomas & Ranjhani Iyer take us on a walk around the school campus in Ahmedabad, sharing the unique pedagogy of one of India’s most successful schools, and discussing the value of alternative education models.

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The Riverside School has been demonstrating a child-centred learning model since its inception in 2001. Built on the principle of putting common sense to common practice it creates a nurturing environment in which every child can thrive. As a sector focussed on learning and creating environments that facilitate learning, we have a lot to learn from Riverside’s 15 years of experience.  Continue reading “A Growth Mindset at The Riverside School”