The corridors of St Stephen’s College

Notes from inspirED 2014 conference

Over the last weekend, on chilly Winter mornings at the St Stephen’s College in Delhi, I had the chance to attend the inspirED 2014, the education conference organised by Teach for India . This was my first time attending this conference was very curious to find about the happenings in the field of education. There were individual presentations, educators talking about their initiatives, talks about the work at TFI, the performances by students, the panel discussions etc.

The opening keynote was given by Arvind Kejriwal, who spoke on the need to improve the quality of government schools and that the government has the money, but needs individuals who can take up this challenge.

The goal should be that over the next 5 years, we should all come together to build quality in the government schools, so that even the officials are proud of sending their kids to these schools. Key points emphasised by him.

  • Teachers should only Teach and not be involved in other administrative and government and clerical duties.
  • Teachers should not be put on contract, and should be paid well.
  • The notion of Guru Samman needs to be emphasised upon.
  • The school infrastructures need to be improved.
  • There should be autonomy in the functioning of the school and not be at the disposal of the visiting education officers.
  • The principals should be the boss of the schools and the parents should have a say in the functioning of the school
  • Empowering the local community is important
  • Indians are born entrepreneurs, so one needs to make our youth to be Job givers rather than Job seekers. Promote entrepreneurship early in the education.
  • Education Systems should be designed to be built as Incubation Centres of ideas.

There was also a panel discussion that debated the initiatives being taken towards improving the quality of education. This was chaired by Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today, that had the leaders from three major parties in Delhi, Nalin Kohli (BJP), Manish Tewari (Congress), Yogendra Yadav (AAP). Here is the link to the panel discussion on The Education Vision 2030 (What will improve primary education in India?). Though the discourse here went political at times, it nevertheless made for an interesting session.

An important thing I have often spoken about in the past is that Teachers have to be trained as Leaders. Tiffany Chang from the Dignitas Project (Kenya) facilitated an excellent session on Transforming Schools through Leadership. The Dignitas Project in Kenya works with urban communities and schools in urban slums in the Mathare Valley in Kenya (60,000 kids). So far they have trained 475 teachers with their leadership program with an outreach to around 17000 students. Some projects are community projects (like working to clean schools, create better learning environments) and some projects that focus on the individual and their needs (like shoes, dress etc) Their motto is simple. Dignity through Education — one community at a time. Create Small change that can have a Huge Impact. The work is really commendable and can definitely be applied to the work around different contexts in India too. The work with existing schools for a few years, and then move out by handing it over to other NGOs who want to continue their work. They do not build the schools, but work with what is available. During their period of involvement with a school, they work towards improving the conditions and creating effective leadership. The schools thus become fertile ground for other organisations to work. She spoke at length on her 3 week long transformation module that takes the teachers from being teachers to leaders. Here are some key takeaways from her session:

  • The key components of the transformation program are recruiting, training and coaching.
  • School and Community mapping is an important factor to find out the community they want to work on and the teachers they want to work with.
  • Have proper assessments for students (English/ Maths) before deciding on working with them.
  • Reflect the data back to the community through town hall meetings and focus group discussions and through it introduce the programs and vision of the organisation.
  • Build upon the existing assets in the community based schools.
  • Respond to school leaders’ needs, priorities and their aspirations.
  • Shift and create a culture of high expectations for both the NGOs and schools.
  • At the Dignitas Project, the 3 weeks of training comprise of the following :
  • Week 1 –Leadership
    Modules of leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Ethical Leadership, Power and Influence, Entrepreneurship, Team building for problem solving
  • Week 2 — Strengthening Schools
    Improving Practice, Effective family engagement, Supporting students with special needs, Guidance/counselling, Developmental Psychology, ensuring Psychological safety in schools, understanding own education biography
  • Week 3 — Improving Teaching and Learning
    Gender responsive pedagogy, purposeful planning, lesson plan execution, Aligning Assessment Activities, Effective Teaching practices, Building a Reflective Practice
  • Coaching is an essential part of the growth of the individual into a leader and will result in reflective practitioners.Through Coaching one has to look to transformation through three different levels : Behaviours, Beliefs and the Being.When it comes to coaching there is often 5 gaps that one needs to consider. They are the will gap, skill gap, capacity gap, knowledge gap, and above all the emotional intelligence gap.Objectives of Coaching should include the following
  • Holding the space and listening well, shrink the change, recognise growth and success, develop autonomous leaders.
  • Have a robust mechanism to Measure your impact.Plan successful exits from the schools

Tiffany is also working closely with the Indian School Leadership Institute (ISLI) and one hopes that their program becomes something that can truly transform teachers to be leaders.

Another session that I attended was the panel discussion on Inclusive Education. This was a very important discussion in the context of the the rule in the Right to Education that requires all private schools to have some seats for children of the economically backward classes of the society. One major point discussed in this session was that Academic inclusion is a mean to Social Inclusion. The role of the teacher in a class where there are children from different strata of the society therefore becomes critical. Not just to overlook the academic advancements of the child, but also other psychological issues that the child goes through. Things like extra classes, private tuitions that form an integral part of the private school education are often not accessible to the children who come from the not to financially strong backgrounds. This creates the social disparity within the classrooms. School need to avoid being Academic Crazy and emphasise on marks as the only criteria for testing student intelligence. At the very basic, the students need to be happy. Schools should foster the environment that will ensure that tstudents are happy. Only then can proper learning happen. Schools that are doing Social Inclusion based education well need to be highlighted and stories be told. An interesting point that Sister Crysl made was that in her school, there is a norm that the Private Tuitions are for the Mentally challenged students and that a teacher giving private tuition is a slap on the school not being able to give proper education within the classrooms.

The community needs to be educated on what education is. Moreover the criteria for Social Inclusion will differ from State to state, as with the diversity, cultural backgrounds and the state’s GDP.

The session by Pankaj Jain of, that re-looks and rethinks the role and responsibility of the teachers was interesting. He also mentioned that the state of education (infrastructure, government programs) in India as compared to many other countries is actually better. A basic premise that the design of the curriculum to be delivered in the classrooms should not be left to the teachers, but a separate team does it. The teacher should teach and focus on the delivery, impart knowledge and hold interactions with the children . There is a need to differentiate the learning from the teaching. Knowing the context is important. What makes the model of work at Gyanshala really interesting is that takes people from the community who are high school pass to get trained to teach students upto grade 3. A lot of the things mentioned by Pankaj validated the work being by my team at the Happy Horizons Trust in Bihar too.

  • A good support system should have effective human interactions
  • Someone having the grade 10 pass certificate are good to teach grade 3 syllabus. Gyanshala uses this considerably.
  • Holding only the teacher accountable is not the right thing to do. The parents also need to get involved.
  • Teachers as a support system needs to be built and is a need of the hour.

The session by Sid Talwar of the Lightbox Venture Capital firm, was interesting to attend to. The key to their investments being that they invest in education companies that use technology for their work. A few points focused by him are:

  • Technology should not be a replacement for the teacher. It should encourage and assist them.
  • Free Ideas and tools that can be used in an interesting manner for improving education in schools include the usage if WiFi, Tablets (promoting the idea of Bring your Own Device), WhatsApp (though its group feature to make announcements and share information), Infographics (to represent content in a more pleasing manner, SMS, Twitter, Facebook.
  • Insist students and teachers to write up blogs and share information that are often expression of opinions.
  • Data should be more objective.
  • Constructive and Actionable feedback should be given to all stakeholders within the system (parents, teachers, students)
  • Teacher empowerment programs should be taken up at a larger scale.

Amongst the other interesting initiatives the I came across was the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network. The idea is to connect schools that are empathy driven and show a dedicated effort towards bringing a change to the education system in the way it delivers the education and impacts the society.

The panel discussion on RTE amendments was nice too, but I missed out on most of it due to an urgent work that came up.

Panel Discussion on RTE amendments

My takeaways from the conference
At the end I was happy to have attended the conference, but I expected more. It was wonderful to meet up passionate people and some friends. One of the things with many conferences these days is that there are many sessions running in parallel and you are bound to miss out on some great sessions and end up attending some not-so great ones. I do have some clear takeaways from it.

  • There is a lot of work to be done and we are barely getting started.
  • Teacher training is important and needs to be fixed.
  • Collaboration has to happen amongst different people and organisations working in the field.
  • The work in Bihar that the Happy Horizons Trust is doing, needs to have a better execution when it comes to the training of the champions.
  • Technology is a great tool to scale the outreach and impact of your work, but building a strong local ground is important.
  • Children and students require Support Systems. This can come on the form of well trained and passionate teachers.
  • Parents need to play an important role in the education of the child too.