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Student leadership and redefining learning

“What is the purpose of the brakes in a vehicle?”, my aunt had asked me one day. My aunt has this unusual habit of using anecdotes to make me see the world in a different light. I thought for a while and I stuck to my mechanical chain of thoughts- “to stop a vehicle”. What do you think is the answer to this question? Take a moment.

I have been working in the education sector for three years now. As a TFI fellow, I taught a bunch of 64 students in a low - income school in Malwani, Mumbai. Working with students helped me realised the complexity of the problem at hand - equity in education. It gave me an understanding of how jobs of their parents in an unstructured economy, poor health conditions of a community, inaccessibility to resources and other problems cause multiple setbacks for a student to learn. Having experienced working in a classroom I wanted to work at scale.

While working with LFE, I have had the opportunity to visit government schools in various districts in Maharashtra. These schools have to tackle multiple challenges on a regular basis. One of the biggest challenges for our system is to improve the learning levels of the students in the school. Recently, I got the opportunity to visit the Washim district which lies on the border of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Most of the residents are farmworkers in this region and farming is the major occupation of these districts. Washim has been listed as an ‘Aspirational District’ with a lot of efforts being put to improve the socio-economic status of the district. I visited Washim to understand the initiative taken to improve the Education index of the district.

Currently, our classrooms look something similar to - A teacher with multiple responsibilities struggling to finish the syllabus while working with students on different learning levels. The students learn what the teacher is able to deliver and in most cases, their learning is limited to that extent. The focus is more on what the teacher is able to deliver. The belief is that the better or more the teacher is able to deliver, the better will be the learning of the students. In a setup as such, a few questions that occur to me. In a world where information is no longer dependent on experts and is so easily available, is this current method helping our students?

My visit to Washim helped me see a learning model where the learning is more dependent on the learner. For our visit to the schools, we travelled between farms on kaccha roads which had diverted from the state road, crossing water canals and resting farmworkers. The schools you would imagine as any of the village schools- a thatched roof structure with 3 to 6 rooms with a huge tree in the courtyard.

In one of the schools, the students were sitting in the courtyard in groups of multiple grades (grades 1 to 4) practising mathematics. The students were given a list of activities that they had to do in their groups and the teachers were supervising the space. I joined one of the groups. Vaishnavi, a grade 4th student, was practising increasing order and decreasing order of numbers with her group. She had given different questions for practice to every student and correcting their answers. In this manner, she had managed to work on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division questions. In a general classroom, one would have seen a bunch of questions on the board and the entire class trying to solve the questions and later the teacher solving the answer.

Here what I witnessed was that students were learning from each other, they were able to communicate their challenges, encourage each other to think about how to get to the solution. It felt so different from a general classroom where so many students struggle but are unable to voice and clear their doubts. The environment of the groups and thus the class here was of trying, failing, learning, and trying again. As adults, don’t we do this regularly? I felt the students were practising, working with each other in teams, delegating work, monitoring each other’s work. Take any workplace, these are the skills that define teamwork and are the fundamentals on which the progress of the workplace is dependent.

While the students were busy with the group activity, the Gram Sevak had visited the school for a ‘Balak Sabha’ to know what improvements and changes in the school were required. Usually, in these cases, the teachers share a list of items that they feel that the school needs. To my surprise, almost 80% of the students participated in the sabha. Some of their needs were of a glass classrooms such that the classroom is naturally lit, toilets, white flooring as it makes them feel better, caricature paintings so that the school looks more appealing, benches for studying, LPG connection for preparation of Mid Day Meal, compound wall with the handpump inside the school so that they could practice gardening in the school, racing tracks to practice for sports, electrical tools room for experimenting and making regular tools amongst a lot of other things.

The students had built multiple models of houses, charts, and tools. One of the tools that caught my eye was that of a lever based scoop to pick up sand and soil. The student was inspired by the functioning of a JCB. This got me thinking about my days at school. I would be nervous speaking to my headmaster whom I saw regularly at the assembly but here were a bunch below 10-year-olds who were making their opinions heard. If the Gram Sevak said that there is no need for a school bus the students asked for a bicycle instead. They were confident, informed, and critical about their needs. To think of it, haven’t the students practised voicing their opinions in a democracy and made their case heard? Isn’t that what adult life is?

In another school, a grade 3 teacher had challenged the students to write a poem. Back in my days, I wrote my first poem in grade 9th and since writing poetry was a high order skill I was sceptical whether these young boys and girls would be able to make their own poetry. I was unsure whether the teacher would be able to deliver the class with the grade 3 students. But I was proven wrong, here the video of this teacher simplified this activity for the students:

What I enjoyed about these experiences was that the students were independent learners trying to understand concepts on their own. The teacher was just facilitating the outcome. No two students had the same idea. Every individual was sharing his/ her thought and they were equally appreciated for that. And, while at it the students were laughing, smiling and enjoying. It was an environment where the students were challenged but it wasn’t competitive where generally few are appreciated and others feel dejected. I feel the students are in an environment where they are appreciated for their own learning speeds and they were loving the space where they were unabashedly being inquisitive and expressive of their thoughts and ideas. When I was a kid we all were given the same essay and everyone wrote the same content. It was more about our memory retention skills rather than sparking our imagination. Here, the students were encouraged to imagine and the teacher was always there to spark the imagination by facilitating the space.

Being in those classrooms, I realised a few things. The teachers had put their faith and trust in the students. So rather than imposing the learning, they were facilitating the learning spaces. The teachers would have a lot of patience to work with all the students to support unfold learning for them. At Teach For India, we believed that every student could be a leader and the attempt was to provide multiple learning opportunities to the students to enjoy and express their leadership skills. I feel the pedagogy model here gives children multiple opportunities to form their own learning experience and express themselves rather than fit into a mould that is prescribed for them.

The modern world is morphing at a faster rate. A number of articles from around the world point at the depleting need of human beings in major industries. Most of the manual work has been taken care of by machines and technology. Leading thinkers have said that our future generations need to develop the 4Cs (21st-century skills) to sustain themselves- creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. These students in Washim are following these at an early age. Isn’t this what managers are supposed to do? Manage different team members based on individual strengths and weaknesses?

The continuous changing times demand us, adults, to learn and unlearn regularly. If one is to Google “Learning to learn”, one will find multiple management articles and self-help books. The modern need of the hour for us is to adapt to the changing pace of the world and for this, we need to continuously go through the process of learning and unlearning. If this is a requirement for adults, why wait for the students to become adults when they learn this skill?

This brings me back to where we began. Answering her own question, my aunt then replied, “Child, having a brake allows you to accelerate how much ever you want.” Perspective, Yes she taught me perspective. The brake although used to stop a moving vehicle, is the reason we trust to accelerate in situations. Similarly, the syllabus is just a minimum that a student is expected to do. Currently, the maximum that our students mature is only the syllabus. Could this student-centred learning style be a model that helps our students become future-ready?

The author Sayak Ray is an associate at Leadership For Equity. Sayak holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the SRM University and has previously worked with Teach For India. He can be reached through email at

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