A School’s Purpose and the Place for Alternative Education

A few weeks ago, as I sat down with community teachers to plan the field test for a heritage-focused lesson I had planned, the community teachers made one thing abundantly clear: if the students visit Isa Khan’s tomb in the morning, we absolutely need to make it back in time to distribute the mid-day meal.

The SDMC school that I have conducted much of my work in.

For readers unfamiliar with the vast array of government schemes in India, the mid-day meal scheme is a government program started in 2001 to provide students in government schools as well as many private institutions access to a free meal that meets particular nutrition guidelines (Ministry of Human Resource Development: Department of School Education and Literacy). In most primary schools that I have observed, the mid-day meal is served between 10:30 and 11 am: the middle of the Indian school day. For this reason, while the midday meal is a crucial program that has had a demonstrable impact not only on improving student health but also in improving academic performance, family stability and retention rates (Samal and Kumar Dehury, 2017) it does present some challenges when coordinating trips outside of the classroom. Namely, how do you get a large group of students to walk a kilometer, visit a heritage site, engage in activities at the site and then proceed to walk back all before 10:30am?

In response to this dilemma, some might ask why the students can’t bring a lunch from home. In fact, during the longer excursions and trips that I have been a part of while implementing community-oriented, heritage-based lessons, my host organization often provides some bananas, mango drinks or chips. However, many schools are not fortunate enough to have the financial support of an organization like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. As a result of the cost and simply the larger size of the mid-day meal compared to these snacks, the full meal l is a far preferred option for the school, students and their families.

In this way, the mid-day meal scheme is one important responsibility for the school to consider when trying to incorporate the surrounding community’s history and heritage into education in India’s urban context.

In another instance, as I was showing the community teachers a craft activity that could effectively incorporate sewing techniques from the community into the government-mandated math curriculum, I realized that it was really challenging to speak over a community teacher’s crying infant wrapped in a blanket next to us. We took a break so that she could comfort him and put him to sleep in the neighboring computer room. As I sat waiting, I began to think about how unfamiliar it is to be in a professional work environment (even a primary school) where my colleagues bring their infants with them on a daily basis. There were three babies in the room with us and no one, including myself, thought anything of it.

But when it comes time to go on a field trip, or find a space to bring a class together prior to leaving, knowing where the babies are sleeping or nursing (as well as which teacher is caring for them) is another important responsibility to consider.

Aside from working directly with teachers to organize field tests of the heritage curriculum, I also spend a lot of time translating stories, activities and instruction manuals from English to Hindi. As I was doing so the other day, I thought back to an experience I had working with a particularly shy student. Nonetheless, I could tell she did not quite understand the activity we were working on. When I prodded her with questions to try and get her to problem solve the solutions on her own,  I received blank stares and smiles. Another student told me that she does not speak much Hindi. She migrated with her family from West Bengal in search of work and therefore was most comfortable speaking and reading Bengali. Meanwhile, some of the other students in the class, echoing her confused looks, could understand me and the teacher but were not literate and therefore could not read the activity I had given them. We therefore had to complete it in groups and provide a lot of individual attention to the struggling students.

A third important thing to consider when educating a diverse city like Delhi is the linguistic and cultural diversity present in many classrooms.

Aside from sharing some of the important lessons and experiences that I have learned about education in a globalized setting during the course of this Fellowship, each of these experiences also pushed me to think about the purpose that government education in India serves. While education is indeed meant to teach important academic concepts, ultimately, urban primary schools in India have many purposes of which traditional ‘academic development’ intended to prepare students for higher education and involvement in the skilled labor market is in fact, not the one that these institutions are most prepared to pursue.

And oddly, after working as a Fellow for close to 9 months, I think that this is not only okay but also demonstrative of how important alternative, non-traditional approaches to education in urban, government schools is.

I would be surprised if this statement did not garner a lot of criticism and push-back. Even for me, I found that coming to this conclusion came with a lot of internal debate. I mean, if schools are not educating youth to perform and test better in math, language arts, reading and science, what are they there for? They aren’t learning the skills they need to ultimately work and improve society! What is the point? To this, I have two ideas:

  1. If academic achievement really is the main goal of government education, then schools are being asked to do entirely too much. They are serving the role of nutrition centers, day-cares, places of intercultural dialogue and community centers. How can they also educate effectively in these hard skills? Furthermore, I recently watched young children go through an intensely competitive testing season. The stress, pressure and expectation simply caused students and teachers to attempt to cram information that might be useful in a testing environment rather than in their present and future day-to-day lives.
  2. The lessons that schools with so many competing responsibilities can teach: social skills, pride in one’s community, creative approaches to diversity, an appreciation for the their school’s heritage, how to apply basic academic skills to “real-life” settings: these are the lessons which can be most accessible through alternative methods. Just as importantly, these are the lessons that students will remember after they finish school.
School facilities are often used for meetings and celebrations rather than merely for student classes.

From this perspective and in this context, perhaps schools should actually stop trying so hard to prove that they are “teaching real material” to students through testing and complex workbooks. Instead they could focus on providing what the children, teachers and community really need: a space that youth and their families feel makes a positive impact on their lives. In such a space, learning is not diminished as a priority. Rather, the type of learning and topics of learning that are viewed as important changes. For example, my project uses class time to visit sites in the community and learn about the past. In doing so, the students are not ignoring other academic topics. Rather, they are learning about their community and in doing so, cultivating a relationship to the region they live in, using their imaginations to dream about the past and even learning some math and reading skills that they can use in their community along the way.

Furthermore, by taking students outside the classroom and therefore not viewing the classroom as exclusively intended for rote-learning, the community can be an academic resource and the school can also address the community’s other needs. Parents can gather and discuss ideas for keeping the local park safe. Religious leaders can host gatherings for Eid and Holi. While the students learn in a safe manner about their surroundings, day-care students can sleep in peace. Thus, from this perspective, the school is not meant purely as an academic space and it is also not the only academic space. Instead it is embraced as a community space with the goal of serving the community’s youth and bringing them in contact with lessons and resources that I view as equally valuable to academic ones in this setting.

Asking “what should be a school’s primary role?” may seem like an easy question. However, I have learned that primary schools in Indian cities are often inadvertently required to be so much more than pressure-filled academic centers. They are also places of education and security for the entire community. If we want them to remain relevant and effective in providing for youth and their communities, it is time to embrace them as such.

Works Cited:

Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education and Literacy. “Mid-Day Meal Scheme.” Government of India, Accessed May 1, 2019. https://mhrd.gov.in/mid-day-meal.

Samal, Janmejaya and  Kumar Dehury, Ranjit. “Family Impact Analysis of Mid-day Meal (MDM) Scheme in India with Special Focus on Child Education and Nutrition.” Journal of Development Policy and Practice 2 no. 2, 2017: https://doi.org/10.1177/2455133317703212.

Dan graduated with his undergraduate degree in international relations and Asian studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania. Dan spent four months studying at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, India, where he conducted research on public perceptions of Pune’s LGBTQ community and pursued course work on India’s political, economic and social development in the 21st century. Dan also participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program, studying Hindi in Jaipur. In between semesters studying at Saint Joseph’s, Dan thoroughly enjoyed working for the International Institute of New England, where he assisted in the resettlement of refugees in the greater Boston area. In addition, he interned with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia where he taught youth in under-resourced middle schools about international affairs and prepared them for Model United Nations conferences. In his free time, Dan especially enjoys traveling, cooking, hiking and coaching athletics for children. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Dan is extremely excited to further expand his experience working with youth as well as his knowledge of South Asian languages and Indian society.

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