Saturday, November 22, 2008

Beyond lectures: new ways of learning

All of us who have gone through the institution of formal education know how easy it is to sit through a lecture, look attentive and not absorb anything! Even with a desire to learn, there is a limit to what can be absorbed and retained in the standard lecture format. In recent years, many innovative methods of learning have been experimented with and implemented in schools and non-formal learning centres, among village-level activists etc. During the orientation and mid-term review at CHC Bangalore, we experienced firsthand the benefits of such approaches.

During the 6+ weeks of sessions in June, July and September 2008, we sang, danced, acted, drew, presented and debated. For me, these interactive sessions often crystallized the content of lectures into valuable insights. One game, in particular, challenged our perceptions of the world we live in and ourselves. This was the monsoon game, led by Ravi Narayan, which we played on the 3rd day of our orientation. It is a role-play which simulates life in a village. Most participants were divided into 8 upper caste, OBC and Dalit families with varying amounts of land. The huge landholders were all upper or the dominant caste, as is common, while the Dalits were marginal landholders. Other participants were moneylenders, government officials, journalists etc.

The game took us through 7 years of planning what to 'plant' and then 'reaping the harvest' in a good, average or bad monsoon. Those who did not have enough to eat 'starved' and a family that went through 3 years of starvation 'died'. While all this was going on, the moneylender was lending money at exorbitant rates; government officials were announcing relief schemes, very few of which the most needy were eligible for and the journalist was documenting the abuses. Finally, at the end of the game, 3 families were dead and the moneylender had acquired a lot of land!

In the post-game discussion, we realized how easily each of us had fallen into our roles, becoming complacent and often selfish as an upper-caste family and feeling powerless as a Dalit family. We appreciated the difficulty of mobilizing communities that are living a hand-to-mouth existance. We also realized that we had forgotten the activist part of our psyche! We hadn't protested, refused to obey the rules or 'organized'. The game was a powerful tool to make us appreciate the lives of the rural poor.

Dwiji and I traveled through the US in September-October visiting chapters of the Association for India's Development (AID), an organization both of us have volunteered with. While planning sessions on topics as varied as Sustainable Agriculture and Group Dynamics, the games and other activities at CHC provided plenty of inspiration and ideas. We wanted to have more discussions and debates and found that these methods were very effective in getting inputs from participants in these sessions.

While we did not have the time to play something as elaborate as the monsoon game, we tried to come up with a shorter role-play to illustrate group dynamics in the presence of an 'outsider'. The role-play is quite simple – most participants are villagers, while two are the 'change agents', representatives of an NGO. Each person is given a chit that assigns them their role and provides further information that they can choose to share or not share. The background is that the change agents are at the final stage of selecting the village as the site for a new high school which their NGO will manage, but they feel there is something the village is not sharing with them that could impact the success of the project. Their goal is to find out what this 'secret' is. On the other hand, the villagers are vested in seeing the school set up in their village and the resulting benefits. At the beginning, both the change agents and the villagers are allowed time by themselves to strategize – then comes the interaction between the two groups.

We played this game with the volunteers of two chapters and found it was even more successful in illustrating group dynamics and negotiations between groups than we had expected. Hierarchies were formed within the village group and the change agents in both chapters took different approaches – confrontational and friendly - while engaging with the village. We analyzed these interactions later and discussed their pros and cons, comparing them to modes of engagement in the field. Further, a number of issues were raised that were not covered in our initial briefing but are, in reality, important for a school's success. We discussed child and adult education, child labour, migration to cities, public land in a village, mid-day meal schemes and more.

Whether these interactive approaches are more effective than traditional methods remains to be seen. I think they are and we certainly enjoyed planning and participating in them! I hope to benefit from more such games and interactive sessions in the future, whether as just a participant or a co-ordinator and planner as well. In such an interactive process, we all learn and what could be better than that!

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