During my early twenties, I spent a couple of years with children in the Kalahandi region of Odisha. One morning, when I saw a young boy toiling around in the field on a weekday, I asked him why he hadn’t gone to school. He replied that he had to work in the field since it was the harvest season.
I learned that out of 80 students, only 15-25 came to class. Some stayed home to take care of their siblings when their parents were busy working in the fields or they didn’t go to school because of bad weather – many lived 5 to 10 kilometres away. However, all of them said they liked going to school.
I enquired about the subjects they were learning. While they liked math, languages and science, they were not sure about the usefulness of the subjects in their daily lives. I saw that they were eager to learn more about the world they live in by the questions they asked. A student named Basumita asked, “How can I get crops to grow on the slope behind my house?” Sagar, another student asked, “Why do our wells dry up every summer and how can we stop that from happening?” Perhaps these questions are very different from those asked by children who live in cities. The students in the remote areas of Kalahandi live with little or no access to basic facilities. But they have aspirations just like any other children. How can we as citizens and change-makers do justice to them?
This question troubled me until me and my colleagues took our first steps to address the problem. We wanted to provide an open and conducive environment for the students to learn in. We wanted to deliver learning material in an engaging manner so that the students could develop their critical thinking abilities and absorb, understand and retain the learning.
We tried the following things:
- Learning by doing
We asked the students to observe and ask friends and family what were the common problems and issues they faced. Since theirs is primarily an agrarian society, the majority spoke about soil health, water tables and methods of agriculture. Guided by trained facilitators and external experts, students brainstormed to find the best possible solutions. The students used locally available materials and techniques to solve these problems. They exhibited their projects to government education officers, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other schools in an annual Innovation and Education Fair. The selected projects were implemented in the communities and they were also submitted in district and state-level competitions.
These sessions helped the students to understand their communities better, proactively come up with solutions to their local problems, speak confidently to their peers, teachers and members of the society and inspired them to study further in order to contribute to their communities.
- Provision of chargeable lights to study in evenings
In rural India, the supply of electricity is often irregular and students are unable to study. In response to this need, students were given lamps with a pocket-sized battery. They charged the batteries in school, which was powered by solar energy.
This helped students become aware of choices that we make every day as consumers and become more conscious to help protect our environment from global warming.
- Digital content
We provided learning material in the form of videos in the local language. The content complemented the topics they were taught in classes.
The additional tool helped the students to be focused and attentive and made it easier for them to grasp concepts and retain information.
Six months ago we noticed that they had begun attending classes regularly. Both, the students and the parents, saw the value in coming to school. The students enjoyed their classes and eagerly waited for it each day.
Now Basumita understands the various ways of farming, their importance and implements contour farming on her sloped land. Sagar understands water tables, the importance of water conservation and implements multi-stage use of water at home. They continue to make decisions that don’t adversely affect the environment.