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.

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

Gender and Self-learning: Autonomy for the Vulnerable During Crisis

Because making a choice is always a political decision. And when systems do not allow for that to happen, no amount of agency building exercise will be fruitful.

Our programs and processes have been built upon the vision of enabling self-learners.

Self-learning is a process by which the learner takes charge of her learning journey. This manifests in the form of choosing what to learn, when to learn, from whom, how, and to what extent. While the self in self-learning may sound like everything is dependent on the individual, it is not a lonely activity. The emphasis on self emerges from the need for placing the agency of choice-making in the hands of the learner as opposed to a system or an institution determining the best pathway for an individual to achieve their goals.

Continue reading “Gender and Self-learning: Autonomy for the Vulnerable During Crisis”

What It Takes To Prevent and Reduce School Dropouts: Insights From Our Landscape Research

Urged by global commitments under the MDGs and the Education for All goals that India pledged to at the World Education Forum (Dakar 2000), the parliament of India passed the Right to Education (RTE) act in 2009. The RTE went further than the reforms formerly introduced under the National Policy on Education (1986) to make education a right for each and every child in the age group of 6-14 years. 

Continue reading “What It Takes To Prevent and Reduce School Dropouts: Insights From Our Landscape Research”

How to prepare young people for the future of work and lifelong learning

“With little idea about the jobs of the future, the key responsibility of the education system is to equip young people with the skills needed to manoeuvre this ever-changing landscape.”

With the future of work and learning having been the key focus at Quest2Learn Summit 2019, Dr Anantha Duraiappah – Director of the UNESCO MGIEP – helped map the landscape of education to make sense of the opportunities that lie in lifelong learning.

Here’s a thought-provoking excerpt from his keynote speech at the Summit:

‘Leaving no one behind’ has been at the center of UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) with its emphasis on equitable and inclusive education. Anchoring his keynote speech at Quest2Learn Summit 2019 around this theme, Dr Anantha Duraiappah – Director of the UNESCO MGIEP – spoke about the problems plaguing the education sector and the structural changes needed to promote equity and inclusion.

Dr Duraiappah opens with some startling facts that shed light on the level of extremism and intolerance prevalent among the youth in India and the sense of anxiety and depression common among this subset of the population today.

Continue reading “How to prepare young people for the future of work and lifelong learning”