Updated: Aug 7
Insights from online science workshops with KGBV schools in Uttar Pradesh.
- Adithi Iyer & Aditi Kothiyal
It was a Friday evening and our 30th session. We had just finished the activities in our biweekly session with 70,000 children in UP. During the interaction with the kids, I asked if the moon went around the earth at the same level. Nandini from Sultanpur, who I was speaking to, confidently corrected me “No Ma’am, No ma'am…. Upar niche jata hai, Aur isliye har mahine chandra grahan nahi hota.” This was very heartening for me. Not only did she understand eclipses, but she also had the confidence to explain it in front of the large crowd of 70,000 people. I could feel the online classes palpably moving where the intention was. It reiterated to me that the assumption that disengagement in online classes is inevitable, is wrong and engagement depends on “what” and “how” we deliver. But this was me skipping to the good part, let me tell you the whole story.
Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, as we approach the end of our online sessions with the girls of the 746 KGBV (Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya) schools in UP, a ritual that everyone looks forward to is interacting with each other. For several weeks, all the girls would say was how much they enjoyed the session, to which we would reply “Great!” and follow-up with a few questions of our own, usually to check if they had done the activity or made the model, and if they understood the concepts. But off-late a change is afoot, and a recent session focusing on the topics of shadows and eclipse formation, demonstrates this change. After asking us to give them a chance to unmute themselves, the girls of KGBV Dubeypur Sultanpur, did not just tell us how good or bad the session was. Instead, this time, they demonstrated eclipse formation and explained the phenomenon to us. Using their own locally available materials like a torch and differently sized balls, they described how when the moon comes in between the sun and earth and its shadow falls on the earth, we observe a solar eclipse, and proceeded to tell us how a lunar eclipse happens. Since we were not sure if they had understood all of it, we asked if the moon revolved in a straight orbit. They did not let us complete the question, and immediately interrupted saying “No, Ma’am! No, Ma’am, you got it wrong. The moon goes around like this, up and down in an angular orbit. That is why we don't have an eclipse every month.” Here they used appropriate gestures to show the inclined orbit of the moon, the way we had shown them using our dynamic model. Sometimes when we ask questions, the teacher sitting beside the students tries to tell them the answer.
But this time it was not a prompt or a guess, the reply was like a reflex - a very confident reflex.
With the raging discussion on social media on how the only ‘reflex’ which crores of students developed during the online classes was how to promptly go offline when a question was asked, this answer and the confidence of the young girls from socially backward communities in UP, feels like a revolution. We don't live with them as their parents and teachers, we don't teach them as regularly as a teacher usually does, and with 746 schools online in every session and wanting to be heard, we don't even get a chance to talk to them personally every month. Apart from joining the Zoom meeting at the assigned time to mark their attendance, there is no obligation or compulsion for either the teachers or the students to do anything. Because of the time crunch, a significant part of the session is us talking, demonstrating activities or the making of models, and trying to explain concepts and phenomena.
And yet, despite all these constraints, these girls repeatedly show us that they are curious, have a desire to learn and can learn even with the most limited resources, given the right materials to keep them physically and mentally engaged. Every week, right after the session and in the couple of days following, the teachers share numerous photos and videos of the girls doing the activities.
In these times, when everyone puts the blame for learning losses during the pandemic on the online medium, here is an effort from girls studying in remote schools and their teachers, who believe they can help in making these brilliant lives reach their true potential. They no longer care about how long the one hour session lasts - it frequently extends to at least 1.5 hours - or how much mobile data is left. All they want to do is make and test for themselves how a motor or generator works and discover how the angle of a source changes the shape of a shadow, or why the flames of a candle rise up or why is the moon reddish in color during a Lunar Eclipse. This change from being mere spectators to active participants and comfortable enough to ask questions without any self-doubt was possible only because they were given a chance to try things first. Once they made a thing themselves and observed what was happening throughout the experiment they were confident about its science which diminished their hesitancy. These girls were now comfortable enough in their knowledge to explain it on camera in front of hundreds of other teachers and thousands of other students.
Of course, there is a long way to go. The fraction of schools and teachers who regularly interact with us in the sessions and share photos and videos on the Telegram community is still less for several reasons, not least of which are the technical challenges such as internet connectivity and not having the right hardware. Still the sight of 40 girls crowded around a single mobile screen waiting to understand the scientific “magic” that is conjured on their screen, tells us that we are headed in the right direction. They say, where there is a will, there is a way. In the past two years humanity surely has found ‘ways’ to tackle huge problems in health and economy, but education did not make it up on the ‘will’ list. The confident answers from this group of grade 6,7 and 8 girls reiterates that if science, or any domain of education, makes it to the ‘will’ list, it is not difficult to find ‘ways’ to make a revolution.