July 25, 2008
Today we visited the Center for Learning Resources, a nonprofit organization where they are developing instructional materials for rural and village schools. Teacher content competency and teacher quality are huge issues in these village schools and so they are working to train teachers on how to teach and also they have developed a very innovative program in the teaching of English. On public Radio India, this organization has constructed English lessons that are interactive for the kids and are broadcast three times per week during the day. They distributed hundreds of free radios and so children in classrooms throughout rural India are able to have English instruction from someone who actually knows English, since many of their teachers do not even have a basic level of proficiency.
The radio programs focus on spoken English because the school curriculums focus on writing basic sentences and choral repetition of what the teacher says. In a longitudinal study of the effectiveness of the radio programs, they found that students were able to communicate significantly better after having three years of the program in school followed by a fifteen minute follow-up in the classroom by the teacher. Interestingly, families in the villages and many adults started listening to the broadcasts because they wanted to learn English as well.
In our modern world, knowing English is paramount to the ability to join the global economy. In India, knowing English and having a small amount of education could mean the difference between subsistence existences as a farmer and having a job where you might even be able to help the rest of your family. Many village schools are so low quality that they are unable to properly instruct kids in any subject, let alone their mother tongue, Hindi, and then English. In villages, language is an especially difficult issue for students because their mother tongue is usually a dialect of the regional language and then once they get to school, the instruction is in the regional language that they don’t know and then they also have to add English and Hindi to that! It is mind-boggling to think about it!
Today I kind of had an “a-ha” moment about instruction here in India. I had begun to have it a few times before but today really cemented it for me when I was looking at the instructional materials this organization had developed for rural schools. These materials were authentically interactive, discovery-based, fun, engaging, and hands-on. I have seen VERY little of this kind of thing in any other schools that I have been in. But, for the most part, I have only been in schools for the smart and the wealthy. My “a-ha” was that OF COURSE the materials they developed for kids who do not come from a culture of educated backgrounds, supportive families, societal pressure for academic achievement, and monetary resources are great! They HAVE to be, otherwise kids are not motivated and engaged enough to even bother coming to school, which is something we face in the US also. Why would you want to come to school if someone is just going to talk AT you with a fast pace when you are only catching maybe 1/3 of what is being said?
I have been thinking all along about how we educate everyone. In India, you are not likely to find a child who is living in poverty sitting next to a wealthy kid in class like you are in the US. Wealthy schools that cater to the aforementioned “smart” kids do not have to have innovative teaching methods, the kids will learn in spite of crappy teaching. When I think of my high-level students, I could just talk at them for an hour and they would learn it despite whatever I was doing because they are smart and usually have the same things going on as the Indian kids. But, kids who do not have those intrinsic and extrinsic resources are the ones who really need solid instructional practices in order to actually become educated.
During this trip I had begun to have doubts about what we are doing in the US when I see the extremely high level of science and math that Indian high schools students are able to do. But then today, I was proud, once again, of the great work that many American schools are doing. That is not to say that we don’t have room for improvement or important lessons we can take from India’s educated elite, they are really pushing kids to be high achievers. But, they would be high achievers no matter what was happening in the classroom because they have an entire culture of their family and their government behind them! This whole time I just couldn’t figure out how with all this rote memorization and little critical thinking in schools, these amazing amounts of engineers and doctors of the highest level were coming out of India. Well, now it is starting to make sense. All of that competition of a large population, the cultural pressure, the familial pressure, and the desire to make money and improve their life’s station can really work together to push someone right to the highest levels of achievement, especially if their family can pay to put them in the best schools with the best coaching centers after school.