Monday, November 14, 2011

Islands of Progress

Picture a school with an average class size of 15 students, where attention is paid to individual learning needs, and where teachers are willing to devote a full Saturday to building their toolkit with new instructional strategies. In broad strokes, this describes APL Global, a relatively new school in Chennai, India, where I’ve just spent a full day working with teachers interested in project-based learning.
Right off the bat, I noticed that the school design sends a welcoming message. Colorful graphics, big windows, and lush greenery provide the backdrop for learning. Modular classroom furniture is designed to be rearranged in an instant for small group work or individual study. Students and teachers share South Indian vegetarian lunch in an open-air cafeteria.
But it’s the student-centered philosophy that most distinguishes this school. The majority of government schools in India stick closely to the traditional model, where it’s all about covering the curriculum and preparing students for the big tests that rely on memorization. At APL Global, a private institution, the vision is personalized learning through a varied instructional approach. It’s an island of progress in a sea of conformity.
In this morning’s Hindustan Times, the perils of tradition were spelled out in an op-ed piece by Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation international professor of economics and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT. Citing a recent report on the status of education, he bemoaned the fact that about half of students in government schools lag years behind grade level in reading and fare even worse in math. Results are only slightly better at private schools, where even poor families struggle to send their children to help them gain an edge.
Why? Here’s Banerjee’s theory: “The goal of education is to permit the most successful students to get through the difficult exams that get thrown at them and hit the jackpot of a government job or a place in an engineering school. The rest, unavoidably, will just drop out.”
But then you find islands of progress. It’s mostly in private schools where innovative teaching and learning is taking root in India. This is where you find teachers determined to do the hard work of learning to teach in new ways—very different from the way they were taught. The teachers I worked with at APL Global seemed eager to get started on their journey with PBL and ready for the challenges ahead.
Like many teachers who are new to the project approach, they wrestled with the difference between engaging activities—which they do already—and project-based learning. But by the end of our day together, they were seeing how they could remodel activities into academically rich projects. And they had no shortage of good ideas for real-world projects that I’m certain will engage their diverse learners. A business teacher got excited about a project idea she called “It’s My Business,” in which students will develop business plans for their own enterprises. A primary teacher was keen to find a partner school somewhere else in the world for a collaborative project. I fully expect to read someday about Indian students who have helped eradicate mosquito breeding grounds, who have addressed a difficult social issue, or who have designed an eco-friendly car engine. It won’t surprise me a bit if they come from Chennai or one of the other islands of progress in this vast country.
Photo: Teachers in PBL workshop, APL Global School, Chennai

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