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.
On a rainy Sunday evening in the hill town of Uttarkashi, while most people were sitting snug and warm inside their homes, 105 teachers travelled several kilometres to attend a lecture by Devendra Mewadi, a philosopher of science from Kumaon. Mewadi had drawn a full house the previous evening as well, in Chinyalisaur, a small town in the same district, where over 130 people listened to his talk titled ‘Shikshan Mein Vaigyanik Chintan’.
To understand the significance of such enthusiastic participation by teachers in academic meetings, perhaps a short background would help. Over the past few years, the concept of a voluntary forum where teachers get together periodically, either on holidays or in the evenings after school, to discuss academic and pedagogic issues has taken root in every district where the Azim Premji Foundation has introduced it.
In these districts, the foundation has also established a number of “teaching learning centres” that serve as hubs for teachers to meet informally, browse books, access material on the internet, and so on. The attendance for these voluntary forums is usually around 20, depending on the subject or the topic being discussed (themes such as the aim of education, school leadership, or the Constitution of India have been discussed).
The teachers invest their personal time and their own money for transport to attend these forums. It is well recognised that self-development initiatives are effective when participation is voluntary, and not because of some instruction from the department. Based on this principle, ‘Voluntary Teacher Forums’ were established as a platform for self-motivated teachers to discuss academic and pedagogic topics that will help them become better at their profession.
A key reason for the gradual increase in the number of people attending these voluntary teacher forums in recent times is the role of WhatsApp groups that teachers have formed. The ‘Math resource group’, the first to be formed, now has over 150 teachers. The science teachers of Uttarkashi district, after attending a workshop two years ago, formed the ‘Innovative science group’, and this group now has over 100 teachers. In 2017, language teachers created their own group called ‘Culture of reading and writing’. Teachers have also formed groups for their respective blocks, cutting across lower primary and upper primary schools and across subjects, such as ‘Purola block teachers group’ and ‘Naugaon block teachers group’.
The full house in attendance to hear a lecture by a philosopher of science on a holiday is evidence that these WhatsApp group formations do help galvanise teachers’ interest in self-development. How did 105 teachers attend Mewadi’s lecture at Uttarkashi and 130 at Chinyalisaur? The answer lies in the reinforcement of a desire to learn through regular academic dialogue that take place on these WhatsApp groups. In the distant villages of Sunali or Bhatwari, when some respected teachers informed 200 colleagues on their WhatsApp groups that they were looking forward to a lecture by Mewadi, two things happened: Every teacher received intimation of such a lecture (in case s/he had missed earlier announcements) and it also served as an endorsement that these talks will be useful and relevant.
However, even the best of training workshops face a limitation, in that teachers may love the programme and give great feedback to facilitators, but then go back to their routine practices at schools. In an unexpected way, these WhatsApp groups help the longevity of training workshops and courses, as the teachers continue discussing elements of the programmes and their applications in their WhatsApp conversations.
The key to the sustainability of these groups is the richness of academic and pedagogic issues that are discussed. For example, a teacher initiates a query on the best way to introduce the subject of data, frequency and graphs. A teacher in another block 100 kilometres away responds saying how she does it in her class and also uploads pictures of the material that she used. This helps not only the teacher who posted the query but also perhaps many others. Puzzles and problems are often shared — from books, question papers, internet — followed by solutions.
Some conversation threads can get long as several ideas are offered on the teaching of a concept. The group is usually not satisfied by just the correct answer and probe each other for the “how” and point out if any step is not correct. Multiple ways of cracking the same problem emerge by this collective effort. It seems to be a great way to spread local solutions and approaches. A Mathematics educator might critique some of their models but what is important is that they are thinking and designing instead of buying readymade material for their classrooms.
The nature of academic exchanges are similar in the Science group as well. In the generic Block Teachers groups, the exchanges include government circulars and such relevant information, the announcement of workshops and events or news of the achievements of their colleagues, especially if s/he receives an award. If a Hindi version of a good article is available, this is immediately shared in the group.
Teaching English is perhaps the most stressful, as even the better teachers are inadequately prepared. Shanthiprasad, a very experienced teacher, explained how the internet and WhatsApp groups are helping teachers like him. “After Azim Premji Foundation conducted a workshop on English teaching in 2016, around 50 teachers from Tehri and Uttarkashi formed a ‘Project English’ WhatsApp group. This has become the platform for us to ask queries, look for solutions and exchange information. Smartphones are the biggest change makers. Now we don’t have to be computer savvy because we access the internet on our smartphones. We have instant references there. Our group’s reading has increased significantly, as also our mutual sharing and learning. Although our conversations are mostly in Hindi, our discussion is on the teaching of English. None of us has an opportunity or occasion to talk in English, so you can imagine how useful such a forum is for us,” he said.
There is perhaps a lesson here for all of us — technology in education works best as a natural solution for teacher networks here rather than as a forced input.
WhatsApp groups can descend to inane conversations or as forums for hot tempered political arguments. But thus far, the teachers’ groups in Uttarkashi have kept such things out of their exchanges through stern moderation. Trends are encouraging: Groups are focussed on their academic purpose; key resource persons who are good at their subjects are contributing to conversations without dominating the exchanges. What is equally critical is that the teachers who are not visible in these group exchanges are also engaged. We know that a large number of teachers have always had a desire to learn and develop, but do not possess the initiative for their self-development. By joining these WhatsApp groups, these teachers are now learning and developing their understanding.
We can leave the final word to one of the senior teachers, a veteran with over 30 years of teaching experience. “A sense of comradeship has developed. It seems that these WhatsApp groups are paving the way for teachers to be in touch with each other professionally and learn and grow in a continuous manner. It is also a window through which they connect to the outer world and share their work,” he said.