Saturday, July 19, 2008

The educational conversation continues...


A puzzle piece I didn’t even know I was missing…

Just when I thought I had it all down and I was getting a solid picture formed in my head about what the Indian education system is all about,

 another wrench was thrown in. It is seriously like you are doing a puzzle and you think that you have found a piece to make it fit together and then you realize that there is another entire part of the puzzle you can’t see. Today I visited another school in Hyderabad and it was totally NOT what I was expecting.

This school, called Meridian School, is a private school for preschool through grade 10 (the level where they take their first major board exams) and has about 1700 students. When we arrived, they had a group of about 10 girls in beautiful dresses waiting to give us a traditional welcome. They put a red bindi dot smudge on your forehead, an orange smudge of something on the side of your cheek and they sprinkle rice over your head. They sang us a song of welcome and then toured us around the school.

The principal was one of those people who you just know is a visionary leader. Her focus is on developing the emotional health and happiness of the students and the entire school community. Every Friday they have a meditation assembly and a discussion of topics like (these are my words, not hers) “how not to sweat the small stuff” and “how to find joy in the little things” and “how to take life one day at a time.” It was very interesting. The reason this was so shocking is because this is the first educator here whom I have heard really address that kids have social/emotional side that must be acknowledged. In the US, especially at the middle school level, this is a major focus for us and so I was wondering if I was ever going to hear anything about it.

Kids are divided into multi-age “houses” like in the British system (or the Harry Potter system for those who are more familiar with that!) and they have a house competition all year. But, her big thing is that she really doesn’t want kids to be competing with each other, she wants them to be competing with themselves and your house can be awarded points for achievements made by students outside of school as well as within school. 

For example, if a student participates in  a dance class, they can get points just the same as if they competed in a school debate or a sporting event.  Each week they have a house meeting where students mingle with other students in their house and they work on figuring out what talents everyone has individually that could contribute to the group as a whole.

Interestingly, we also discussed child abuse in India and we asked her if teachers are mandated reporters like in the US. She said they would call the parents but they don’t have an obligation to call a social service agency. She explained that abuse is so stigmatizing here that people often do not report abuse on girls because later in their life, nobody would marry them and this would be a major problem because your family name would be at stake, etc.

I also asked her about ADD and ADHD because it is a common topic at home but I haven’t heard anyone mention it here. Well, she said that yes, kids have the diagnosis but not many of them are medicated. She said at her school (which I need to remind everyone is private and has very high tuition and is able to keep class sizes around 30) the teachers do not label the kids but work with the student and family to try to accommodate them via classroom management strategies, learning support, etc. However, I imagine in some of these public schools where they have 50-60 kids in a class, there is NO WAY they can be doing any type of individual accommodation of any needs whatsoever.

This principal has worked to develop a social conscience in her staff and students and they spend a lot of time doing a variety of community outreach projects. After the Tsunami in 2004, they collected over 175,000 rupees worth of recycling (about $4300 which is a huge sum here, more than a lot of people’s entire yearly salary) and traded it in and then donated it (in person) to many of the victims. Her staff members were even encouraged to volunteer their time at less fortunate schools a few hours to help develop teachers at government schools or to teach an extra class in a poor public school. Everywhere around the school kids had made posters about ways to be a better steward of the Earth.

She felt that if people were happy and healthy (they feed kids breakfast and lunch) then academic achievement naturally follows. I agree to a point, but without good instruction that can’t really happen. Or so I thought….

I still have not witnessed what I would consider solid instructional practices. Even at this school where the principal said that she encourages teachers to deviate from their lesson plans and go with teachable moments, I observed fast-paced lectures with fill-in-the-blank, choral response questioning techniques. I have said it before, I am really trying to not judge instruction through my American bias, but I have read research on instructional methods and just from observing the class, I can see that a limited number of students are participating in the constant choral response. There is obviously some hidden thing that I am not comprehending. 

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