The Perfect Mix

It’s 9:30am and a Shaishav staff member is flying down the streets of the Kumbarwada slum on their bike as I grab onto the seat behind them. We are on our way to catch the second half of a Lokshala session.  Lokshala is an educational initiative by Shaishav meant to track the progress of non-school going children and integrate them back into the public school system.

Lokshala Session Photo Credit: Adrian Fisk

There many theories about the forces which affect access to quality education.  I believe three aspects dictate the quality of education: money, time and willpower.  Through my own life lessons and observations in educational institutions, I found that if this trio is incomplete, quality is often jeopardized.

Money

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a good education, arguably the surest way to a good life.  The Right to Education Act of 2010 was meant to equalize educational access.  However, public education infrastructure has not caught up to the number of children being enrolled, resulting in overcrowding and children being pushed out from lack of attention.  Indian parents often supplement their children’s education with after-school tuition. (1)  With no method to compare the quality of private tutoring in slums however, parents depend on hearsay and their own financial constraints when choosing a school. (1)    

The Lokshala I am visiting is held in a room within a private home.  The medium sized space is adorned with colorful posters explaining the alphabet, pictures of Indian heroes and the crafts from past classes. The utter joy of the children’s faces as they join the Lokshala teacher in a learning rhyme makes it hard to imagine an environment that could be the exact opposite. Shaishav caseworkers recount children avoiding the bathroom for fear of losing their place in a crowded classroom or being subject to corporal punishment while attending private tuition within slums.  Although RTE act has passed, Shaishav saw that public schools would need a lot more support before education was equalized for all children.  In the meantime, some intervention would be needed to curb the private tuition market in slums.

Thus, the idea of Lokshala, a community education center, which prepares children of all levels for reentry into formal education, was born. Other than a small fee which is at most 100 rupees and meant as a symbolic investment from the parents as a commitment to their children’s education, financial barriers are removed at Lokshala. For those who can’t pay, the entry fee is waived.  Every child is treated to the most innovative educational methods possible, developed by Shaishav’s team with past Fellows, NGOs and local educational stakeholders assisting as well.  Through the hard work of Shaishav facilitators and local community mobilizers, parents were slowly convinced that an education which cost less could in fact be better quality or that the loss of their child’s wages would be worth it in the long run.

Time

Time is an interesting concept, because it can signify a child’s age or the amount of time they have in a day to devote to learning.   In order to circumvent the problem of overcrowding, public schools hold 4 ½ to 5 hour morning sessions for boys and 4 hour afternoon sessions for girls, filling the 45 hour workweek required of teachers.  Lokshala supplements these lessons by holding morning sessions and afternoon sessions for children to attend before or after their formal educational classes.  This type of schedule also makes it flexible for children who are still unable to pursue a full time education due to labor or familial pressures.   

Watching how Lokshala utilizes this precious time is inspiring.  If we each had all the time in the world, we could learn concepts as equally as the next person.   Shaishav recognizes that how long  each child takes to master a concept is unique to them, and a longer learning time does not mean the child is hopeless.  Children are split into groups according to their learning levels, not age, and patiently learn at the pace of their peers.  It is partly because Lokshala teachers are skilled at managing time and juggling several groups of students, that children keep coming back.  The overwhelming sentiment was that the spirit of childhood should be incorporated into each lesson with games and songs.  That a child shouldn’t look back and see time spent learning as an experience that didn’t make that their childhood more joyful. 

Willpower

Growing up, I thought talent was the last aspect of the trio, not willpower.  I believed our performance would be maxed out by a certain amount of talent or IQ allotted to us at birth.  Shaishav works against this notion, pushing its educational philosophy so that every child has a chance to have their ‘ah-ha!’ moment.  There is no such thing 

A working model of a lung Photo Credit: Subha

as ‘can’t’ at Lokshala, only why and how, fitting for a country known for its jugaads (2).  Lokshala teachers constantly consider why a child is at a certain achievement level and how to bring them to the next plateau.

The search for knowledge is not tied to our IQ because as long as we seek, we will try.  Lokshala teachers are filled with stories of students overcoming all odds to return to school, and proving talent needs willpower.   Our students possess an amazing amount of willpower to begin with and Lokshala tries hard to keep the momentum going by creating as joyful and encouraging of an environment as possible.

The Perfect Balance

So how do these factors influence each other and affect Lokshala children? Is there a perfect balance? Given the complex inner lives of the children, it is hard to pin down a definitive combination, so I tried to think of these concepts within the context of Lokshala.  There is heaps and heaps of willpower, stemming partially from the healthy learning environment and the natural enthusiasm of the children.  Money holds little influence as no child is turned down due to inability to pay.  The remaining scarce factor seems to be time.  Although no child in Lokshala is rushed, it is hard not wish for more time observing how they learn and imagining new ways of teaching them.  But then isn’t time is an elusive factor for students of all ages? All in all, it feels like Lokshala is slowly finding a balance to preserve both quality and access.

As the Lokshala lesson wraps up, students press palms in the air with each other and exclaim “de talli”! which roughly translates to high five.  Not a single person leaves without this high spirited gesture with each child or adult present.   In this way, new friendships are created among newcomers while old friendships are further bonded.  Thus far, I have only been watching, unable to offer anything but smiles due to my language barrier. However, this simple, lovely gesture quickly makes feel me a part of the Shaishav family, much like it must have for the new children joining Shaishav.  

Big changes start with small gestures.  Over the next 10 months,  I look forward to seeing how Shaishav achieves its mission of being child right’s organization emphasizing a child participatory model.

References

  1. Dang, Hai-Anh and Rogers, F. Halsey, How to Interpret the Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring: Human Capital Deepening, Inequality Increasing, or Waste of Resources? (February 1, 2008). World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, Vol. , pp. -, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1098628
  2. Jugaad means a creative solution to a complex or unyielding problem.  The equivalent of a “hack” or “macgyver” in English.
subhashanmugavel

subhashanmugavel

A recent Emory University graduate interested in child welfare and poverty alleviation, Subha would like to eventually work for an NGO. By serving with Shaishav as an AIF Clinton Fellow, she hopes learn more about their world class philosophy for children's empowerment. Prior to joining AIF, Subha interned at the American Association for People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., and the Global Village Project in Atlanta, Georgia, as a development and policy intern.

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