Monday, August 22, 2016

Bawana Bal Gurus: Child Leadership Unplugged

On top of a treacherously high terrace, I looked through the camera lens of my student as it panned to capture an overview of JJ Colony, a resettlement colony in Bawana,West Delhi. It made a pretty picture of closely knit innumerable clusters of 3-4 storied pucca houses with a common boundary made of open bricks, colourful walls and roof tops.A variety of freshly hung clothes in the open terraces suggested many people living together.

Film Workshop Participant 

As his camera lens moved further down to ground level, up close, I saw an outgrown slum bursting at its seams attempting to mainstream itself with the rest of the city as if to get out of its misery of ill management, poor sanitation and public amenities. 

JJ Colony, Bawana Resettlement colony
As I walked through the streets of J J Colony, children of all ages were just about, everywhere. Most were loitering and hanging out. Some were working, looking after siblings and washing utensils. Many were playing with marbles others with cricket bats. Some children could be seen with cloth bags and books. 

There were a few who would look straight into the eye: clean, smart and focused. Most greeted me as I passed by them. And there were others, playing around, unaware, unkempt, uncared and almost wasted. This distinction between the two types of children was obvious. Some purposeful, others lost. To me this gap between the children in either side of the spectrum, seemed to be an area which needed intervention. Later I came to know that I was not far from reality. 

An 11 year old girl, neat plaits, long frock, rubber sandals, bright eyes, looks at me straight and tells me, “ I am a Bal Gurukul Faculty. I am a teacher. I teach children. Initially I started with one child and now I teach 12 children. And there are more who want to learn with me.”

Me: So what do you teach?

Girl: Whatever I know, I teach them. It could be English, Hindi, Math or Drawing. Anything.

Me: And where do you teach them?

Girl: In my Kitchen. When mom has finished cooking. I run my Bal Gurukul Class.

Me: When do you find the time? You go to a School yourself, don’t you?

Girl: I come back from school, go to remedial education at Centre. I come back home and run a class with my students.

Me: Why do you do this? Isn’t it strenuous for you?

Girl: I want each and every child of our colony to become literate, go to school and not dropout of school. Also when I teach them, I revise my concepts and both of us benefit.

Me: Do you charge them money for your services as a teacher?

Girl: No, I love teaching. Infact I give incentives to my students when they do exceptionally well. I give them a toffee.

Bal Gurukul Faculty 

I was still coming to terms with this conversation as she guided me through 5 feet wide lane towards her house. A self painted signboard displayed prominently alongside the rust tin door with bold text “Muskan’s Bal Gurukul Class”. Muskan helped me identify similar name boards in various other houses. I came to know that there were Bal Gurukul Classes running in nearly every lane of JJ Colony. 
Bal Gurukul Class Board
This initial conversation with Muskaan was enough for me to get interested in Bal Gurukul. Bal Gurukul is a child leadership movement which started in 2013. School going children who attend Navjyoti Foundation's Remedial Program have got together on a mission to enrol numerous out-of-school children and make them ready-to-school. First they prepare the children and then seek the foundation help to get them admitted to their local Government Schools. Within a span of 2 years, 700 Bal Gurus are reaching out to 7000 non-school going children in Bawana Resettlement Colony. The initiative runs as a university model, with children taking the roles of a registrar, heads of department, faculty, administrative and non-administrative roles. Children are an equal participant in the major decisions regarding their learning and development. To fast forward literacy in their area children have taken upon ambitious targets to make their community members, both kids and adults and especially women literate.

Bal Gurukul Faculty, 9 years, using her door as a blackboard 

The children who comprise the Bal Guru advocacy team conduct home visits and encourage the stay-at-home or out-of-school children to join Bal Gurukul classes. Once they have reached a certain level of school readiness, the Bal Gurukul Faculty gets them admissions in regular Government schools in age appropriate classes.

Bal Gurukul faculty Usmanaz, 8 year old, teaching a 5 year old 
In the words of Dr Kiran Bedi, the visionary behind the concept “Gurukul is the coming together of children who love to learn and then teach. It is a national solution to the removal of illiteracy in the country and also to check dropouts. It is also a vast reservoir of teachers in the making and instills early leadership, confidence and giving, at such a young age”.

Dr Kiran Bedi with Bal Gurukul Children

Bal Gurukul faculty has school going children from Age 8 to Age 21. They emit confidence and have the drive to bring about a positive difference around the quality of life around them. Lack of resources have been converted into opportunities.

Bal Gurukul afternoon class in her kitchen 
Space is not a limiting factor to run classes, whether on the roof top or inside their homes or under a tree. Walls and doors have been converted into blackboards. And the Bal Gurukul brigade are unstoppable. The Bal Gurus of Bawana view literacy and education as gateway for their better tomorrow. They realise that a big reason for a lot of children not going to school is because of societal beliefs and practices have strong inroads due to sheer ignorance. As a result child marriages, child labour and under valuing the potential of the girl child is common and accepted as a way of life.

Bal Gurukul  Evening Class on the road side 

Beyond academics, Bal Gurukul Children are impacting the social fabric of their colony in many ways.

To improve things around them, they conducted sanitation drives to clear their drainage and reclaimed parks and planted saplings.

They have stopped child marriage of their peers. 

Some have even got their fathers and other adult members out of alcoholism.

The work they are doing has gained them a lot of trust amongst the community members who view their efforts with renewed respect.

Before meeting the Bal Gurus of Bawana, I understood 'child leadership' differently. For me leadership that was encouraged within the walls of a school and did not go beyond class monitors, project leaders and other school representatives who took lead in sports, editorial and co-curricular activities. During the film workshop with Bal Gurus, as I entered their lives, saw their daily struggles and negotiations. I saw an uncommon child leadership in action. When I interviewed some of them, they candidly share that a teacher is the leader of a class. And the role of a leader is to serve, give and take everybody along. Constantly improve self and impact society. Bal Gurus practice leadership as a way of life to emerge out of illiteracy, ignorance, neglect so that they could lead a life of productivity and dignity. Literacy for all is the first mission they have accomplish. Education for all will be their next step. 

Film Workshop participants with me while making their film 'Bal Gurukul Selfie'

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The 'Pester Power' of Children

Children opinionate, decide, persuade, buy.
The advertising and marketing industry have been using this knowledge and targeting children as initiators and influencers for particular products and then developing an appropriate communication strategy targeted at these members to evoke the desired response.
‘Pester Power’ is a common tactic which young children practice which includes crying, nagging and whining which gets their parents to buy them things. As they grow older, pester power gets further refined into nudging, coaxing, arguing, reasoning and even emotional blackmail to achieve what they want. Furthermore as children involve themselves more with a product which appeals to them, they begin commanding an increased level of influence on family matters and decision making.
When it comes to product buying, I am intrigued with the level of brand smartness of our children exhibit and their evolved sense of decision making, brand values and their active viral circle of influence courtesy their peers and social media networking. Perhaps as a social communication experiment, it is worth it to know that, with children being the nucleus of a family, can they extend their influence to impact decisions and practices beyond products and materialism within their ecosystem. Is it possible to harness this remarkable pester power which they possess for behavioural change? Of their Parents. Of Adults. Of the Community. Can schools be the fulcrum to drive change with high quality facilitation and support?
Take for example road safety. Undoubtedly, parents and adults have proven to be extremely poor role models. Increasing road crashes are a testimony to how we conduct ourselves on road. We unabashedly flout rules, pay bribes, maim and kill people and become passive bystanders in case there is a mishap on road. Above all, we are leaving behind a poor road environment which our children will have to put up with and negotiate as they grow.  So our key question: Can children be influencers and take centre stage, firstly to become responsible road users themselves, and secondly, to nudge responsible road behaviour amongst the adults around them?

Through the CineArt Steer to Safety Program, we wanted to find out that with well designed road safety education will children be able to create media messaging which will change mind-sets and attitudes towards the way people engage with roads. We decided to test waters and see whether school students are able to apply their road safety learning to improve their road environment which they experience everyday. Will they be able to sensitize their parents and adults and show them the mirror?

Students of participating schools created their road safety projects which they would drive. Most students were concerned with safe travel to their school. Students created street plays, puppet shows, wall art and quizzes to attract the attention of adults. They took to the streets where their school is located. Bold and confident these road safety volunteers knew that they were on the right side of the law and enforced road rules, their pester power way. They pointed, nudged, sensitized, informed and pleaded. The results were dramatic. Parents were taken by surprise. Most were embarrassed and were quick to admit their fault. They were defensive. Some felt truly guilty. Many admitted they would never do it again. No excuse is justified when deep down you know what you are doing is careless and bad in law. And most parents did not know how to react when children stopped them on the road and earnestly requested them by saying that they loved them and that is the reason they should wear helmet, which is good for their safety and for well-being of their child with them. Small wonder cops indeed!

Through their road safety projects which were smart and snappy, students sensitized bus drivers and van drivers about their vulnerability on road and driver responsibility with school children. Students created attention grabbing artistic speed breakers, installed bilingual warning signage about Blind Curves, worked out solutions for school peak time traffic congestion, created innovative eco-friendly transportation projects and mobile apps aiding safe roads around them. They collaborated and advocated the through radio shows and public campaigns. Each of the 30 student driven projects contributed to the safer school travel with a new learnings, especially for adult road users.

What we also observed was that parents were largely, open and willing learners. In fact, they were proud that students were showing them the way. As our program grows in scale and purpose we are witnessing that the student community can be counted upon. They are the future citizen. Going forward, it is going to be their road environment. They are the ones who aspire for better living and smart cities. They need to engage with the road safety issue so that they can solution it as town planners, engineers, architects, designers , social scientists, administrators, managers and above all, as commuters and road users.

I believe, just like generating brand awareness for products, all principles of marketing practices can be used to enable road safety learnings to get internalized by students at an early age. This includes integrated road safety campaigns, message repetition, content sessions, creative arts and even incentives and prizes to attract their attention and encourage them to become responsible road users.  With this orientation, these young road safety champions will easily take on the role as change-makers for the larger society. After all, as John Whitehead said “children are the living messages for a time we will not see”. We need to prepare them with the right content so that they can weave their own story, for increasing the collective consciousness towards creating a positive road culture around them.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Classroom Videos: A Pedagogical Game Changer

As a film practitioner engaged in creation and usage of videos to enhance learning experiences, both, within & outside classrooms I am forever conscious that I do not overate & overstate their impact until I happened to be a part of a scenario which all of you at schools would identify with.

Subject Teacher is absent unexpectedly…sort of an Indian version of French leave.  Class is in disarray. The academic coordinator quickly scrambles a substitute teacher to fill-in for the main regular teacher. She asks the children to gather in the Audio-Visual room where they get to watch a science video on ‘buoyancy’.  Once the film is over, the substitute teacher takes over and checks out on how much concept clarity has been achieved.  This is the first time she is using an educational video and she is skeptical of the outcome.   

To her surprise, what followed was one of the most enriching classroom discussions, emerging either from a striking visual; a tricky text; a graphical representation; the animated protagonist or the sequence of events from the video all of which acted like triggers for an active debate, uncommon in typical classrooms. Later, both, the main subject teacher and her substitute shared with me that the concept was clearer to  many more children than they had bargained for;  more children were asking questions; shy children expressed more; and on the whole,  children were focused while watching the video and during the interaction thereafter. Also when I complimented the substitute teacher on the way she conducted the debrief, she attributed this to the co-viewing experience wherein she had donned the hat of a learner along with her students and was equally engaged in her own learning quest during & after the screening. One thing seemed clear- the use of this video in class had greatly helped the children in achieving the Learning Outcome of a complex lesson, that too with unexpected ease. This is just a sneak peek into the learning environment of a new age media driven class and perhaps gives some ideas about the possibilities that can unfold.

Most learning institutions share a common set of experiences when it comes to managing their learning and the epicenter of this lies within the classroom, specifically the quality & efficacy of knowledge delivery by the teachers.  While a school gets known usually because of the good teaching it offers, ask any school owner and (s) he’ll tell you that achieving quality teaching is easier said than done. I would like to direct the spotlight on teachers who are the ultimate learning delivery frontiers.

Finding good teachers is as easy as sighting the Snow Leopard or finding an honest politician. Many come with a baggage; Teacher attrition rate is unusually high; a significant majority is under-qualified and under-motivated. Teacher training, if, wherever & whenever it happens is mostly executed as a formality just because the rules mandate it and there is a budget allocated which ought not lapse lest it lead to queries & comments from auditors & the finance guys. Teacher training is seldom conducted with a missionary zeal and most such sessions are used as a break from mundane teaching routines.  Finishing the prescribed syllabus within a given timeline is considered the ultimate achievement for a teacher considering the numerous holidays we enjoy due to bandhs, festivals, weather truancies, annual school events, fund raising melas, elections, census (local, state and national) and the mandatory national holidays.  Ironically, good teaching is often the first casualty in any learning institution. And the biggest loser in this process are the students, the customers who actually should be at the centre stage stand marginalized even though they are the ones paying for it and in whose name the entire system runs!

So, how can we compensate this disparity in the knowledge & motivation levels, presentation and assessment skills of teachers and the typical vagaries in-built into our education system?

This is where educational videos step in! Of course, using videos as an integral component of the knowledge delivery process entails some transformation of pedagogy and calls for re-inventing the teachers’ role in such a classroom, though only slightly. What a teacher needs to understand is that the key difference lies in expanding the learning outreach and appreciating that the learning delivery through videos is ‘standardized’ and insulated from personality-centric transactions wherein several variables can come into play & compromise the efficacy & mar the impact. For example, mood of the teacher at that particular moment; her interpersonal communication skills & her own understanding levels of the topic, to name a few.

And creating a video-savvy class is no rocket science. As usual, the teacher enters the class with a specific learning outcome in mind. She plans to do this through as many creative ways and experiences as possible as long as these are converging towards that goal. A wide variety of teaching styles can work and coexist to reinforce concepts within the same topic: some use technology; others do not use it at all.  In my view, the rich interaction with the students and the conceptual clarity that emerges is far more important than any pedagogical parameter. In this context, a well made film offers multi-sensory engagement and allows for students to construct their own learning. Also when the teacher decides to use videos, it is entirely in her hands as to how she converts this opportunity into an organic learning experience. Another positive aspect is that, with the video successfully managing to do a part of the teacher’s job, specifically lesson delivery; it leaves her with more time & energy for individualized attention and enriched interaction with all the students. It also allows her to plan richer learning experiences to manage the finer aspects of her students’ learning... Even moderately tech-literate teachers may find it beneficial to use educational videos to accelerate, embed and amplify good learning.

However, taking a reality check, more often than not, videos are currently being used in the learning process, more often an afterthought or an ‘add-on’, rather than an integral part of the instructional design, or they are used merely to replicate a classroom lecture. Or worse, they might be used as a `show-off’ to browbeat the competition & give a `cool’ branding to a school. Sadly, there is hardly any attempt to exploit the unique characteristics of the medium of film itself and its potential of treating content and make it a good ‘watch’.  Not every educational video has an efficient learning design with production values to engage all learners. In other words, not all academic or educational videos make good classroom videos. So how does one decide as to which video to use & which ones are best avoided.

A simple checklist should to form the criteria of inclusion:

  • The content of the video should be convergent as well as divergent. In simple terms, while it should be focused to meeting a specific learning outcome it should also be a window for projecting interrelated view points, alternatives and diverse discourses and misconceptions related to the concepts.
  •  Core concept, topic or subject needs to be clearly demonstrated or visualized and be linked it to what the student is intended to learn.
  • The video is well produced with clear camera work, well designed graphics, effective presenter and clear audio.
  • The duration is short and to the point with an effective learning design for student engagement and attention span.
  • It should be child friendly and age appropriate.
  • The video should offer “out of class” experiences to the students.
  • For enhanced impact, the video needs to be Glocal perspective: Local in context and Global in vision. Examples and on-screen demos must try & use as much locally available resources/materials as possible.

So despite their apparent benefits, why are videos underused in our classrooms?

The first roadblock is the mindset. Schools and faculty feel that Higher and Secondary education is primarily about abstraction, lecturing and printed text is considered more appropriate for abstraction and theoretical interpretations. Many are of the view that a well made video is expensive as compared to other commonly available teaching resources. Some teachers feel that the preparation for a viewing experience is too much work. However, many of these (mis)perceptions about the medium can change once the management & teachers are aware of the learning benefits it offers.

The second roadblock is the absence of knowhow of using videos. The teacher needs to create a learning environment conducive for a pleasant viewing experience.  And that’s a prerequisite.

Here’s how one can help create a video friendly classroom environment-
  • Classrooms must have curtains or black screens to block light that filter on the projector screens
  • The room should not have a techno echo or a feedback due to faulty technical set up gaps.
  • The audio should be clear with no crackle, hiss or noise while playing.
  • Teachers must be trained on basic operational know-how to be on top of the technology so that she can pause and take strategic breaks during viewing for classroom discussions.
  • Teachers need to create a learning environment similar to that of going to a movie hall with minimal distraction and movement while the video is playing.

·        A litmus test for a teacher to decide whether to use a particular video would be if she was engaged with the content and its treatment when she first viewed it so that she can visualize how she can turn her class around when she incorporates it within her plan. 

·      The teacher should ensure that the video viewing experience should have a specific purpose which would help her achieve the overall learning outcome defined for the class.

·      It is also advisable for the teacher to plan for a good lead-in conversation before watching the video and a proper de-brief on the takeaways of the students post watching the video.

·       The teacher may conduct her classroom observations to map the visual learners in the class and identify those who benefit most through this experience.
         Lastly, it is important to be aware that videos work best as a blended learning tool and overuse of the medium can be counterproductive.

Unfortunately, good educational videos complementing the curriculum are rare. For many, an educational video is what one gets to see on TV channels like Gyan Darshan or UGC’s Countrywide Classroom which can put even a die hard insomniac to sleep! Well, it is time we woke up to the game changing role which videos can play. Yes, educational films can actually be as gripping as a Sholay or an Indo-Pak one day international.

We need to play further, use, mis(use) and experiment with videos to get to know the tremendousness of the medium and its educational potential.