from the perch: in kids we trust

What used to be big ideas – that today’s schooling system was made for an Industrial Age, that it’s highly ineffectual, and that there are other types of learning that need to be emphasized – have come to be commonly acknowledged and accepted. Without Ken Robinson reminding us, we know that we need to take a long hard look at the way we are educating children today.

Still, we know we’re not there yet. A recent Brookings study found that while 70 percent of countries recognize skill development as important even name specific skills within their national policy documents, few of them have a vision for what this may mean. Even fewer mention skills progressions or how in fact children would learn and develop these skills deemed to be essential for living and working in the 21st century[1].

Keeping in mind the other problem I have discussed in detail in the past – namely, that even in today’s world, there is significant disparity between the quality of schooling for children from under-privileged backgrounds and those from more privilege – this brings us to a two-fold issue.

  • How can we eliminate educational inequity, such that all children receive high-quality education?
  • How can we ensure that this “high-quality” education includes holistic development, with an emphasis on skills and values that will help children thrive as adults in a fast-changing and volatile world?

This implies any solution needs to be adaptable such that it can be contextualized to low-income and under-resourced environments without losing its efficacy.

In my experience, under-resourced communities do not always have the kind of teachers that are equipped to do their role well. If also expect them to facilitate the development of 21st century skills, we need to take something off their plates.

In my work with India’s largest education NGO, Pratham, for the past several months, I’ve begun to formulate my own ideas about aspects of what will work. Over the next couple of blogs, I’ll discuss each idea in some detail.

Imagine your own (hypothetical) child. What kind of adult do you want them to become? Presumably, someone who is caring, thoughtful, intelligent, social, and articulate. A leader who can bring a vision to life. But just as learning math requires practice, so does leading.

Thus, children must be trusted to practice leading at an early age.

We know that leadership has countless benefits in terms of other essential learning. For instance, being asked to choose what they want to learn, rather than being dictated to by a curriculum, means that children feel ownership. And ownership breeds interest and better learning.

In Pratham’s program, children get to choose from a “menu” of options, and while some will focus only on science courses, others like to explore all the options available to them. Regardless, this process is powerful. I visited villages that did not have them Pratham program, and asked children to explain why their favorite subject in school was their favorite. Without fail, their answer was somewhere along the lines of “because it’s easy” or “because I get good marks”. On the other hand, in villages where children had experience making choices, they could explain their likes and dislikes better. Children liked science because it taught them about the world, or English because it helped them communicate better. The answers were not perfect, but there was a distinct and perceptible difference.

Extending trust also means allowing children to make mistakes. During TFI, we let our student captains choose the starting line-up for football matches. Once, Chinmayee was pressured into choosing her friend as the striker. Halfway through the game, she realized that it was a mistake, and quickly asked us to put in a substitute. At the cost of a recreational football match, one of our students learned about the perils of nepotism – something senior officials and Bollywood stars have yet to understand. Most likely, such a lesson would not have had the same impact had it been delivered through a classroom lecture.

This does not mean teachers are not required. Rather, it means teachers should increasingly move into the role of a facilitator and coach. For a Learning Circle exercise, I paired together one of the highest-achieving boys in our Teach for India class with a girl who struggled academically. I sent these vastly different sixth-graders out into the community by themselves with one task: help someone. During the experience reflection, the boy observed, “Prachi is an inspiring leader, and I can learn a lot about self-confidence and expressing myself from her.” It is this coupling of activity and reflection that leads to children’s deepest and most fulfilling learnings.

Finally, trust must be coupled with respect. Not only are they capable of leading themselves, but others. But you must allow yourself to observe them and learn from them in return, for this to be a mutually symbiotic relationship. If a teacher is willing to learn from his / her students, I guarantee you that teacher’s students will learn from him / her.

The practice of leadership itself has cascading benefits, which can be discussed further later. But it’s difficult for most of us to extend trust to people with less experience than us. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s when it is most necessary. Increasingly, I believe the education revolution will only begin when we invert our approach and trust children to lead their own learning.


shallow diving

It’s been two weeks. Now, much of this delay can be blamed on the busy schedule of a TFI fellow, but to be honest its more the daunting task of writing something I believe to be worthy of your time. As unique and interesting as this fellowship sounds, and as incredible and insurmountable the challenges seem, my day-to-day life is not the most exciting. To be rather honest, it’s difficult to imagine people wanting to read about it.

But yet you’re here, so I’ll begin.


Class is…going. It’s overwhelming to try and fit in speaking and listening, reading fluency, reading comprehension, grammar, and writing all in the 2 hours I see them for everyday. And yet, without a holistic approach to my teaching, impact will be minimal – so I have to keep trying.

You won’t believe the number of teacher resources available. From Pinterest, to just Google searches, to TFI’s drive and website, to books and friends and everything in between. I am so excited to have so much, and also so overwhelmed. I have to figure out how best to use all this to facilitate growth and learning for my students. I finally understand why this fellowship needs to be a two-year commitment. For a lot of us, much of the first few months is spent simply figuring out how to teach. And despite a five-week-long training, nothing can substitute for running things yourself (or even with your co-fellows) in your school.

As I’d mentioned last time, the majority of my time is spent working with the struggling learners in our class. One of the reasons I love teaching is that you can visibly see the students learn and grow before your eyes. In the past two weeks, one of our quietest and most shy students has started actively participating in class. Much of this progress can be attributed to the smaller classroom size and the confidence lent to her surrounded by peers on a similar learning level.

Which brings me to my next point…

Theory of Separation

 Our students are separated into three groups of higher order, middle order, and learning order based on knowledge and learning levels. Most of classic teacher theory would be insistently against this, as it is necessarily increasing rather than bridging the achievement gap – and that is fundamentally against TFI’s vision. When I entered my school, I knew this separation was wrong and had to go.

Now, I’m not sure. I can see the benefits of the class we have here, and I’m not sure what would be best solution for all the students.

 The small LO classroom enables the children not only to receive more individual attention and grow faster, but also to become more confident and volunteer answers during class. On the other hand, in a heterogeneous environment, they would constantly be surrounded by peers who could help push them and pull them up. They could certainly grow faster with someone next to them who could help them all the time.

But then again, wouldn’t this be pulling down the HO kids? My co-fellows, who know these kids much better than I do at this point, certainly believe that is what has happened in the past couple of years in heterogeneous classrooms. While it may “bridge” the achievement gap more than the current set-up of homogeneous classrooms, would that bridging occur at the expense of the HO kids? Even if we invested extra time with them outside of school, would that make up for the instructional time effectively “lost” with them during school because the content was too easy/slow for them?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’ll certainly continue talking to other fellows and reading. And of course, I’ll share my thoughts when I do solidify them a little more.

Warm and Strict

Besides school routines, with children there are always moments of frustration. Why can’t they just listen? There are moments of anxiety. Are they telling the truth? What is the best way of responding to this situation so that they learn their lesson but don’t feel too bad? Basically, I don’t want to be too strict, but I cannot afford to be too lenient either. What is the balanced response?

Honestly, the right answer depends on you as a person and on the student in question. You have to understand the student to know what to do. I’m learning slowly…I’ve understood that if Harshal wants to go to the bathroom, he’s probably just restless; whereas if it’s Sania, she should be allowed to go. Still, this is a continuous process and something I struggle to get right on a daily basis – along with a few hundred other things! 

Life Outside

Crawford Market

Outside school, life is never boring. When I’m not lesson planning, making charts (our house will soon resemble a craft store!), or still moving in and setting up the house, I do find some time to explore Mumbai and spend time with people. I plan to write separately about all the food I’ve had a chance to taste here. But for those who are thinking this life sounds depressing, it isn’t without its perks. I managed to go for a movie with my co-fellows, a play at the NCPA with my roommates, and dinner/drinks with a few other friends during the school week. I also discovered Naturals ice-cream this week, which is seriously the most delicious!

Finally, I had a chance to see Crawford Market and bargain through the streets there last weekend. Although it was super-cool and historic, I do have to say…it doesn’t hold a candle to the street markets in Delhi.

Crawford Market 1 I’ve been travelling by all modes of transportation, from walking, local busses and trains, autos, taxis, and friends’ cars. There’s a lot to learn still about using local transport, but hopping onto a moving local train on Saturday did make me feel more like I may eventually belong. It’s always the little things 🙂