A common mistake when trying to transform the education system is the subconscious cognitive bias within those who help. People often seem to believe that school systems in first world countries- like the US or UK- are the most effective and should be implemented in schools being transformed. In my opinion, as a high school student who has studied in various school systems, many curricula fail to foster the most important skills in students: thinking, independence, and self-motivation. We are taught to study only what is on the exam and do only as the teacher expects so that we can get good grades. But during this process, are we really thinking about the significance of the lesson? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Western systems are completely ineffective. Although in my opinion, they may not always foster independence within students, there must be a reason this system creates such capable and powerful individuals right? However, many students that emerge from the Indian school system become just as successful as their western counterparts. I believe completely adopting the western system of teaching in India would be ineffective. The western systems are set in place to cater to a completely different society and with a completely different mindset. Instead, the school systems that already exist in low-income schools in India should be strengthened.
Perhaps the solution to this education issue is fostering independent thought and self-motivation, as well as providing students with resources in order to empower them. Instead of coming in with a new pre-made curriculum, should we be empowering teachers to create their own, and providing resources to supplement the existing one? Maybe we should encourage exposure to subjects the schools do not already offer and incorporate hands-on activities to supplement the existing school system. These were questions prompted by my experiences in my first internship with Mantra4change, a non-profit organization in Bangalore founded by Santosh More and Khushboo Awasthi.
I was truly inspired by the dedication, selflessness, and hard work of the Mantra4change team. The organization is focused on School Transformation and Empowerment (STEP). They have a systematic approach to empowering schools, which begins with a needs assessment, and is followed by specific action tailored to the needs of the school. This approach interested me as soon as I heard of this organization, as it took a unique approach to school transformation, and really focused on empowering low-income communities.
Our internship fits into the STEP initiative and included hands-on work in the low-income schools. During this internship, my team and I attempted to completely adopt the creative curriculum in the LKG classes in low-income schools in Bangalore. However, we soon realized the issue in this approach: many aspects of this curriculum were ineffective due to the different mindsets and learning styles of the students. In attempts to improve based on the findings of the first internship, Naina Mishra, Megha Sreekanth, and I started off on our second internship in Bangalore with Mantra4change.
I remember the first day distinctly. It was June 18th, 2017; we entered the busy roads leading to RM Aided School in Goripalya, dodging small children and animals playing on the streets. We walked up the staircase of the school as our ears filled with the chattering and giggles of small children. As we entered the Headmistress’ office, we were ready to ask for permission for the various programs we hoped to implement. We sat in front of her, completely unaware of the financial and educational situation of her students, and went off on our rehearsed explanation of our process to revamp grades seven through nine. The headmistress suddenly cut us off and explained that grades 8 and 9 were not in this school, and grade 7 does not have enough students for the specific program we had in mind. We initially deemed this peculiar but failed to give it any thought and instead readjusted our programs to fit the grades we could work with.
Four days from then, we were ready to implement our revised program. As we were talking a teacher on the first day of implementation, she explained the societal norms and culture of the neighborhood. She explained the priorities of the parents; for them, putting food on the table was a far bigger issue than parent teacher conferences. Because of the order of priority, many parents often do not send their children to school or invest time outside of school on their education. However, over a period of time inertia sets in. The teacher nonchalantly expressed, as she looked out in the distance, (not noticing the tears in our eyes) that many parents view school as a “waste of time” or a “nice to have”, because of which they withdraw their children from school and marry them off as soon as they come off age out of desperation for dowry money or their inability to financially support their child. This explained everything: the lack of strength in the higher classes, the kids playing on the road. One thing was clear: many do not see the value of education. How can we help someone who does not want to be helped? We can’t. We can’t change the societal norms or the mindset of the individuals. We can merely do as much as we can to allow them to understand the value. We were thoroughly shocked and heartbroken at the circumstances their students had to endure. The children were forced to take on roles of mothers at the age at which they should be focused on their lower class education. Noticing our shock and sorrow, the computer teacher said “This is why I stay here. I went to college, so I have many offers, but I stay here to help the education system, and make sure everyone sees the value of education.”
Now, I would like to put this into perspective, only because it took me two years to truly understand. The students in these schools live in UTTER poverty. Yes, I know it is a common fact, but allow me to illustrate the extent of that poverty. Remember those $100 Nikes that sit in the back of your shoe closet waiting to be taken out? Well, many of these kids can’t afford ₹100 flip flops. Some of these students come to school for the SOLE reason of their 11 am lunch period, where they are served food. Think about it, young children come to school just because they cannot get enough food anywhere else. When talking to the Headmistress of RM Aided School, she expressed the desperation within the students for something as basic as food by saying “The lunch time is at 12, but these students are so hungry they cannot think, so I serve them food at 11. You come see their faces, you will see how dazed they are.” Indeed, she was correct. We entered the classrooms, holding back tears, as we saw the dazed, tired, students. They had their youth, but they were no longer young.
It was heart-wrenching to see the situation of these young children. Each day so far has emphasized the need to better their lives and provide them with the quality education they need to have a chance at escaping the poverty cycle. In a conversation with the headmistress, she said something which touched all of our hearts. She said, “These children have no money. I will do everything I can to make their education as close to a private school education as possible. I will do everything in my power to revolutionize their education.” This asserted the need for us to provide them with sustainable resources that enable students to drive their own learning, in order to assist her in revolutionizing education. Being privileged people who are blessed to not have to deal with such issues, we MUST do everything in our power to facilitate the school and teachers, so they can improve their education system. This does not mean completely adopting foreign education systems into the low-income Indian schools, but strengthening the current education system with successful aspects of other systems worldwide. It is, for this reason, we implemented various programs in low-income schools to provide students with the necessary foundation and empower them.
We cannot change the education system, nor should we try to. However, we can strengthen the existing one. Despite the fact that many come to school only for food, we hope to strengthen their education system, instill independence, and empower them with the necessary resources to allow them to escape the poverty cycle, and hope in time the value of education will be understood worldwide. As Jean Piaget said, “The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things.”