In March I was extremely fortunate to accompany the International Links Co-ordinator and Head of Humanities to visit our partner school, Sri Sankara Vidyashramam School, in Chennai, India. Whilst there we also had the opportunity to visit Chennai High School, a government school. As well as achieving our aim of formulating international projects for our students in India and England to work collaboratively on, we also left with an enhanced view of education and the power it can have.
As we arrived at Chennai High School the Headteacher was writing a chart on her newly painted blackboard in her office, she explained that the chart detailed the number of staff that she has and the number which she is short.
It soon became clear that this Headteacher is an amazing example of how leadership can make a real difference to a school even where there are limited resources.
This Headteacher, who works without any leadership team, takes all her paperwork home in order to allow her to plug all the teaching gaps. She leads by example and her solution to making sure that the students were in the right frame of mind was to learn yoga in her own time so that she could teach it to the teachers so that they in turn could teach it to students. Afternoon lessons now always start with a yoga session.
Education can change lives
Two teachers from the ‘Teach for India’ programme, part of Teach First, teach two primary classes at this school. They work wonders and are an absolute model of inspiration. In an area where the school lunch is often the only meal that students receive, and in rooms with no chairs and desks, these teachers demand that students use their brains, they refuse to reveal answers without pushing students to the limit and they make it clear that they can and will achieve highly. The students respond enthusiastically and passionately. They rise to all challenges, they want to answer all questions and there was hardly a moment when their hands were not in the air.
It was evident in these two classrooms that education is transforming lives and a glance at all the motivational posters makes it clear that this vision will be achieved.
Knowledge, skills, curriculum and examinations
Upon arriving at our partner school it became immediately clear that the students have a great love of learning and are keen to impress you with their knowledge. The students knew so much about all the topics covered and, for example, talked eloquently about energy consumption, herbs, medicines, butterflies and sustainable lifestyles without any supporting notes. Furthermore all students wanted to share with us what they had produced; so much so that we left with most of their ‘Go Green’ project materials.
This extreme thirst for understanding stems from their aspirations and all students were keen to tell us what they wanted to be when they were older, this mainly included doctors, scientists and mathematicians.
This extremely impressive level of knowledge that students have, together with a look at the textbooks (every school in the region uses the same which are sent by the government), could lead to the assumption that this ‘knowledge based’ curriculum must be at the expense of the development of thinking skills. However it soon became clear that this was not the case as students were able to answer all our high level questions extremely confidently and enthusiastically.
A clue as to how these higher level skills are nurtured can be found by looking at the examination system. There is a real focus on examination in order to measure student progress but the nature of the questions means it is impossible to ‘teach to the test’. The structure of the papers may seem less modern by our standards, but the nature of the open ended questions (in many cases students are just asked to ‘write about…’) demands high levels of creativity and independence; there is no one set way of responding to what is asked.
There was not one instance witnessed where teachers had to manage any negative behaviour and this results from relationships between staff and students that can best be described as a ‘distanced friend’. Students have utmost respect for their teachers as they believe that they hold the key to them achieving their goals and in return teachers treat them in a friendly and professional manner.
The Headteacher of Chennai High School explained how her primary goal is to produce such good citizens because without this there is no point to anything else. The absence of external judgements of the school seems to allow time for this to happen. The headteacher explained that she loves the visits from her ‘area advisor’ because he does not judge her school but works with her in devising interventions and solutions.
The power of Skype
It was amazing to watch the students at our partner school take part in a Skype session with our students in England. The asking of questions back and forth concerning schooling and living sustainably was a wonderful way to aid student understanding of different cultures and lifestyles. It is evident that this is an educational methodology that is extremely beneficial.
Living a sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle is an integral part of education in India. Students presented to us their ‘Go Green’ projects which varied from water purification, energy saving mechanisms, sustainable food sources and green energies.
We were then guests at the school’s Interact Presentation where 130 students sang, danced and performed role plays all relating to the theme of energy consumption.
It was soon clear that the reason for this emphasis is so that students go home and challenge their parents to live and act differently. The problem is very real in Chennai as evidenced by the daily two hour power cuts.
An emphasis on nature and heritage
There is also a huge emphasis in Indian education on heritage and nature in order to quell the concern that many cultural traditions will be forgotten. This is partly achieved by school trips to the new botanical garden and heritage museum. This botanical garden has been set up in the centre of Chennai to teach students about how everything from nature can be used as medicine. This garden is considered of such educational importance that they help preserve it by only allowing teachers and students to visit; in fact our hosts had to go to great lengths to provide paperwork to explain that we were actually teachers.
This has motivated and inspired our partner school to set up their own herb garden which students are proud to work in.
The new heritage museum traces Indian communities and housing throughout history, provides interactive displays of various cultural traditions, and directly matches the social studies curriculum.
Students also play a keen role in the school’s butterfly garden that the school has set up with the aim of hosting and preserving butterflies and swallows. Our hosts explained that the latter is so important because the swallows end up falling from the sky because of the radiation generated from the new mobile phone masts.