Rural school teachers are trailblazers, ensuring students’ scientific temper is not confined to rote-learning
The Azim Premji Foundation has been working to contribute to improving quality of government schools through its field institutes across a number of districts in six states. The author visited nine schools in the Ganga Valley blocks of Uttarkashi district between 21 and 24 August and ten schools in Yamuna Valley between 11 and 15 September.
In the course of his visits, two aspects became clear to him – first is the instances of Science teachers who are inculcating the spirit of inquiry in an inspiring manner and the other is that an increasing number of teachers are writing their daily reflections in a diary, a practice that seems to have taken root.
As we crisscrossed the Ganga and Yamuna Valley in Uttarkashi district, visiting government schools, we met teachers bound by a shared passion to teach Mathematics and Science in a manner that would kindle a lifelong liking for these subjects. For these teachers, it might just be a day’s work, but what we saw was a quest to instil the spirit of inquiry in their students and prepare them to be curious and engaged learners.
At the upper primary school, Sunali in the hills of Purola, Chandrabhushan’s aim is to help his children make connections between textbooks and the world. “Zindagi se jodna (connecting with life)”, he said while adding, “I have trekked every hill of the Yamuna Valley and videographed everything. Children are taught too many things too fast but they need some space to think, ask questions and build conceptual understanding.”
Pointing to the Baanj tree (oak) that abounds in the Yamuna Valley, he said that his children have dug at the mud around the tree and found water. Therefore, they know that a place with Baanj trees means plentiful water. Like all good teachers, he thinks that learning Language, Mathematics and Science goes together.
Back in Barkot block, when the education department decided in 2015 that they would make the school at Gangani village a model school, they invited applications from teachers. Prabha cleared the qualifying examinations and joined the school to teach Mathematics and Science. When colleagues suggested that she should prepare students to participate in the National Children’s Science Congress, Prabha grabbed the idea with alacrity.
Two student teams are preparing on ‘medicinal plants in our hills’ and ‘local foods and nutrition’ for the congress that is three months away. Along with my colleagues Sanjeev and Ashish, I browsed through the project reports by the children who also did an impromptu presentation for us. When they did not have answers to some of the questions that we posed, they simply said, “Pata karenge (we will find out)”. We wished them the best and left Gangani.
The village of Molda is only 10 miles (16 kilometres) from Barkot but is a bone rattling journey up the hill on a path of mud and boulders. For 10 years between 2006 and 2016, Dhyan Singh Rawat and his colleague ran the upper primary school. Both of them lived in the village, leaving their families in town. Dhyan knows everyone in the village and every few metres, some man or child greets him or touches his feet.
At Molda, Dhyan prepared his students to develop science projects and compete in the National Children’s Science Congress. The first time in 2010, Molda qualified with a second place in Naugaon block among 20 schools. They have also competed at the district level and emerged best among 24 teams. They also qualified to represent the state in the National Science Congress at Jaipur.
Dhyan had to plead with the parents of the students to allow them to go to Jaipur because the parents were ignorant of what their children had achieved. How different is this situation from cities, where parents either do the projects for their children or buy projects from the market.
Molda’s children did everything themselves. Be it a project on ‘environmental protection’ or ‘dwindling water resources’, they did everything themselves. This teacher who put Molda on the science map of Uttarakhand, is an MA in Hindi and his school had the most rudimentary of science materials.
Nestled in the serene hills of Bhatwari block is the small village of Laata. Shoorvir Singh Kharola of upper primary school, Laata is a short, soft spoken man. He is either teaching Mathematics or Science or creating material to make the subjects interesting. In the room where teaching materials are kept, one can see a multitude of resources created out of old wedding cards, disused cartons and cardboards.
Suddenly the concept of fractions, highest common factor, lowest common multiple and prime numbers all come to life. On a bench is the cross section of a tree and Kharola asked us to estimate the age of the tree. Our guess was off by some years. He corrected us and said, “I planted the tree and I was there when it was cut, so I should know!”
On his table was an empty bird’s nest that held a fascinating story for us and a lovely educational experience for his children. When a bird began building its nest in their school compound, Kharola co-opted his students into a project to study the nest to mark the transition from an egg to when the bird takes flight. Research ethics were explained – no touching, no disturbance, just quiet observation and jotting down.
Among the fascinating things children learnt, was that the mother bird keeps her nest very clean by pecking out all the baby bird droppings from inside the nest and dropping them outside. Kharola’s students recalled that he explained the concept of light and its constituent colours by creating a rainbow on a bright summer day by spraying water from the garden hose against the sun.
Recently, when the computer was stolen from the school, Kharola was distraught. However, only for a short while. On a visit to Dehradun, he saw a man selling a rectangular lens in a pink plastic frame (6 inches by 4 inches for Rs 150 only). Quick as a flash, Kharola bought it. Today, he places this in front of his mobile screen whenever he has to show a video to his students.
The National Education Policy and National Curriculum Framework for many decades have emphasised the need to inculcate scientific temper among students. But this remains confined to the documents because of the vice-like grip of rote learning and the tyranny of admissions to higher education based on marks in examinations. To break free and create classrooms that encourage the spirit of inquiry is a huge uphill task even in enlightened city schools with all the necessary equipment at their disposal. This is why people like Dhyan Singh and Chandrabhushan in rural schools are trailblazers. They may not have formal degrees in science nor any equipment but their methods are the kind that kindle scientific spirit in the minds of children. Perhaps the Kharolas and Prabha Devis are telling us that we can temper our despair with hope.
S Giridhar is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org