My Soul-Searching Experience of Teaching in Bangalore

Naveeshini Nair is Malaysian student who’s currently doing her pre-medicine course in the US. She went to Bangalore to volunteer to teach, followed by an internship stint to remedy the caste-plagued system in India.

Last summer, I went to Bangalore India on a program called Global Social Entrepreneurship with my home institution, The College of Wooster. This program allowed us to work with a non-governmental organization (NGO) to learn about their practices .It was a two-credit course that consisted of a semester-long seminar in spring 2012, followed by a 6-week internship with NGOs in Bangalore, India.

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The seminar aims to enhance our understanding of the entrepreneurial approach of solving a social problem. By the end of the seminar, we should be able to understand livelihood, poverty and education in terms of the Indian context and understanding the ethical and philosophical principles of being a social entrepreneur.

The Starting Point

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We began our seminar in the spring by studying Martin Luther King’s speech “The World House” and what struck me the most was when he was speaking about poverty and how there should not be poverty when our world has the resources to remove poverty. He said,” There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in the human will.”

We possess capabilities that can bring about remarkable changes, even as college students. But do we end up using our talents for worthy causes that can bring about changes in the lives of others?

We looked at other journal articles, speeches and books in efforts to understand the social problems in India from their perspective. Often times, we try solving problems in a different culture or country and we fail to see “our” way is not necessarily better. When we try to adapt to a social setting, we tell them what worked for us and leave. Here, we learned that one of the social entrepreneur’s biggest asset is how intimate is he/she with the community where the problem lies. The entrepreneur might have resources, volunteers, expert knowledge but without thoroughly understanding the community, the people, the social spectra and their livelihood, it is almost an impossible task to create social change.

So, how could we, undergraduate students who have no significant experience in social entrepreneurship and no deep understanding of Bangalore and its people, are able to create a social change?

We could not. At least, not yet with the limited knowledge we had. The seminar was a preparatory course and it did prepare us to a certain extent. Theoretically, we knew that the Indian education system was based on the British education system. We understood that all students had to sit for the Secondary School Leaving Certificate Exam (SSLC), just like how we had to sit for SPM before leaving school.

The Problem of Status Quo

We realized that only 20% of elementary students manage to continue schooling and take the SSLC exams; the rest of them dropped out due to poverty and child labor. We understood that public universities had reservation policies for the disadvantaged people in India, specifically those who belonged to the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST). The reservation policy aimed to increase the enrollment of the SC and ST students in universities.

I wrote a paper on this topic arguing that the reservation policy was doing more harm than good and not helping the SC and ST students retain their seats in universities. SC and ST students are dropping out of university due to the lack of preparation to learn higher level material due to a lower cutoff marks and lack of financial support. Besides that, the caste-based reservation system is only helping the “creamy layer” of the SC and ST group and increasing the “incompetent” stigma attached to the SC and ST group. From a psychological perspective, using caste as a basis for university admission will increase the stigma attached to the lower caste. If a policy uses caste as a basis, the particular caste which benefits from the policy will be constantly labeled as the “helpless” caste. Reserved seats is equated with being incompetent and this stigma will be carried by the SC and ST students even after they graduate from universities.

Given how the SC and ST students are labeled, the reservation policy will only increase the stigma of being “incapable” or “incompetent”. People who have benefited from the reservation policy and affirmative action are assumed to be less capable and unable to succeed without the help of both these systems.

Our Proposal of Change

I proposed that the reservation policy should be improved in such a way that caste system is not used as a determinant in the admission polices of universities. The caste system should be used as an indicator but the students who are seeking admission should be evaluated based on parents’ income, level of education and occupation as well as personal hardships faced by the students. This is to ensure that only the marginalized SC/ST student will benefit from this policy. In ensuring them to remain in universities, financial aid and campus employment should be allocated to these students. Besides that, students who score lower than the cutoff marks should be enrolled in a preparatory program and additional peer support system should be implemented to reduce isolation and discrimination among SC/ST students so that the dropout rate can be reduced.

On a piece of paper, this solution seems like it could work. But how do you go against a caste system, a system so deeply rooted within the culture? How do you remove the social stigma attached to the disadvantaged community in India so that this stigma will not affect the education and livelihood of these children?

The Solution Taken by Others

That’s what the organization that I interned with is trying to do. PremaVidya, is an NGO that uses technology to make learning easier for kids. The SSLC exam tests are majorly regurgitation of facts from textbooks. If you are able to memorize all the facts and write it down, you can pass the exam. For these kids who are affected by poverty or are unable to spend time with their books as they are working to support their family, these videos will help them remember the facts.

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The videos are distributed under Project 1947, a tribute to the freedom fighters of India. These videos are free of intellectual property rights and can be used by anyone to help these students with learning. The video is made from PowerPoint software and PowerPoint presentation is recorded in sync to the recorded audio. These videos are then distributed to schools and are used by teachers and teaching assistants. Based on data collected by PV, we found that these videos helped increase the SSLC pass percentages in schools that used the program.

But how did the videos help with increasing the pass percentages of the schools?

 Quantifying Results. But Are There Any?

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That task was given to us. We know that the SSLC pass percentage is increasing when PV intervened in schools. What we don’t know is how or why the SSLC pass percentages are increasing. There could be a number of factors affecting this, and we intend to show that PV is actually contributing to the rise in SSLC pass percentages.

So how do we get the data that we need?

We thought that surveys would be a good starting point. Our professors handed out surveys at the end of each semester to analyze the quality of their teaching and their teaching materials. We emailed different education professors in the US to get their opinion as we crafted the questions for the survey. We also emailed high school principals to find out how they have been assessing  the quality of education in their schools. Using these, we crafted questions for the surveys. We got the surveys translated to Kannada to be distributed to two PV schools.

We analyzed the surveys only to find that the answers were not what we were hoping for. We were hoping to find the learning processes the students are using while learning with the video. We also wanted to find other factors that might influence the child’s ability to learn in class (lack of motivation to go to school).

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Therefore, we did quite a bit of research and came up with a focus group approach. A focus group allows the interviewer to speak with 5-10 students on a certain topic and it is mostly driven by the answers obtained during that session. The interviewer will be with another person who will be taking notes on the session. Here, the second interviewer pays attention to the body language and certain subtle phrases that you will not normally get from written surveys.

Basically, a focus group gives a rich set of qualitative data. And the interviewer has to be able to intepret the data objectively and be able to recognize repetitive aspects. For example a few students may say that “The moving objects help me remember better.” From this, we can draw a hypothesis that animation within the videos help with student’s retention. To test this hypothesis, you can do statistical analysis to determine if the animations in the videos really help with retention.

We found out that PV’s pedagogy is actually parallel to a learning theory, Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory.

This theory states that learning happens through these four domains :Attention, Retention, Motor Reproduction and Motivation. We found out that PV’s engaging audio visuals(attention),Question-Pause-Answer Method(retention), confidence in asking questions(Motivation) and Peer-to-Peer Learning(Motor Reproduction) are parallel to this theory. If the focus group is conducted using these four domains as guidelines and the answers support this theory, we can say that PV’s pedagogy is successful as proved by this theory.

Tolerating Differences

There were times while working on this project; we were frustrated by the way things were in general. But we always had to keep in mind that we were not there to tell them what was right or wrong. We were there to co-learn. We wanted to learn about social businesses in Bangalore and wanted to help them with their knowledge of the target population. We had to remember that we have to think about what is important for them and what they want. In the end, we presented our report on how PV could get the data they needed to understand how their intervention is impacting the SSLC pass percentage. The administrators of PV seemed happy with our work and we are constantly keeping in touch with them to redefine our report and supplement them.

This was certainly one of my most challenging summers. As a Biochemistry student, I was forced to take a different approach of thinking when dealing with social problems. When we first arrived at Banglore, where we met Tanya Jairaj from The Ashoka Foundation and she said:

“Social entrepreneurs are not here to give a fish or teach someone how to fish. They will not stop until they have revolutionized the fishing industry”

The question is, am I social entrepreneur? I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think I am there yet. There are many more social ventures out there I want to learn about and many more social entrepreneurs I would like to meet before I decide to revolutionize the fishing industry.

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