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Vataara Shaale: an experiment in education with limitless possibilities

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Students learning about computers in a Vataara Shaale in Yadgir district. Photo credit: Bheemashankar


Over the past two years, YCF has conducted a number of activities in the fields of education, empowerment and the arts. One of its most recent interventions has been in collaboration with the Department of Education, Government of Karnataka to run their Vataara Shaale initiative in several districts of Karnataka between August and November 2020. This blog highlights some of the insights gained by YCF during this intervention.

The Vataara Shaale or community school education movement in Karnataka, created to fill the vacuum in government school education during the COVID-19 pandemic, grew into a space that encouraged new approaches to education and community participation. Vataara Shaales evolved into spaces that actively encouraged creativity, critical thinking and curiosity–behaviours important for a student to develop a 21st century mindset. Behaviours that get stifled in conventional school classrooms. With conscious efforts made to involve the larger community from which these shaales draw their students, through performances of street plays on gender equity and school enrollment or by conducting classes in very public spaces such as temples and community centres, the Vataara Shaale experiment sought to ultimately give the community a sense of ownership over these schools.

Yuva Chintana Foundation (YCF), one of nine partners selected by IBM India Pvt Ltd, The American India Foundation and Quest Alliance to implement their STEM for Girls (SFG)initiative in the state of Karnataka spearheaded the work in these shaales in collaboration with the government of Karnataka. YCF reached 5,000 girls and 3,000 boys in 67 schools across 11 districts giving them access to technology and skills and a chance to understand and critique the gender stereotypes and superstitions that surround them to help them develop a scientific mindset; an important tool for any student, irrespective of gender, trying to find solutions to the problems crippling their respective regions.  

YCF has decades of experience working with both teachers and students. Their engagements lie at the intersection of science & technology, art & culture and capacity building. They seek to give students and teachers access to skills and technologies that ignite their passion for learning. They specifically want to foster an interest in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They also recognise the importance of an individual’s identity and sense of self in shaping their willingness to accept new ways of thinking and learning. For this they often employ the arts through theatre activities to work with communities in order to build their trust and make them stakeholders in their own development. SFG is a natural extension of the work they have done so far. It is a three-year programme consisting of three modules designed to build communication skills, confidence, self-awareness & critical thinking and digital fluency & problem-solving skills. Basavanand Mudhol, Bheemashankar, Dhanalakshmi and Vijaylakshmi are four teachers who are facilitating the programme for YCF in the Yadgir and Gulbarga districts of Karnataka. They come from different disciplines and have varying degrees of teaching experience.

Basavanand was a diploma teacher before joining the programme and he worked with college going students. Working in a school has been a challenge for him.

Bheemashankar worked in an organisation called Kalike for four years where he helped students considered to be slow learners, work on their language and communication skills. “I also conducted activities such as read-aloud storytelling sessions with students and parents to encourage the larger community to see the value of the efforts being made with their children.”

Dhanalakshmi worked with government school students for two years on a project teaching them about health, hygiene and sanitation. She also worked with Kalike for two years on the same project as Bheemashankar.

Vijayalakshmi worked as a Kannada teacher for PU students. She found that in her previous workspace, she got into the habit of focussing on the completion of her syllabus without too many deviations from her schedule. “For the SFG programme I have to be more empathetic towards my students. I know a lot about them now.”

Addressing gender stereotypes

One of the reasons Bheemashankar found this role of a facilitator attractive was because he wanted to empower girls to stay in school because he has seen a lot of girls drop out of school in his locality. Basavanand says that addressing questions of gender stereotypes and superstitious beliefs is very difficult in these communities. “We don’t want to anger their families. This aspect of the programme is quite challenging.” The others agree with him. So how do the teachers work around this challenge? “The activities we do in the classroom encourage students of both genders to ask question about uncomfortable topics such as their body or the difference between a person’s sex and their gender. They get used to using certain words that made them uncomfortable before and are more confident about expressing their views on the subject,” shares Dhanalakshmi. Bheemashanker has found that sending students, particularly the girls, out on research assignments has made them more confident. “Parents often tell their girl children not to go to public places on their own where there are big crowds because there are a lot of men there. While we aren’t trying to encourage students to disobey their parents, we do want to make them confident so we gave them a project—to interview people at a local temple about their beliefs concerning women. Our girls were definitely more confident after this assignment.”

Introducing students to technology

Basavanand and Bheemashankar say that introducing students to computers has been challenging because they don’t know what the parts of a computer are and how to use one. “Using a phone is something they are accustomed to but this is very different,” says Dhanalakshmi and Vijaylakshmi agrees with her. That said, the excitement of being able to handle a computer is definitely one of the things that brings so many students to the Vataara Shaale, which has only been operational for a month. Progress may be slow but it is taking place. “At first my students asked innocent questions such as, ‘If I touch it will it break?’ This is the first time they are getting to touch a laptop. They have desktops in their school but they rarely get to use them. I am fairly confident that considering how excited they are, they will learn how to use the computer very fast,” says Dhanalakshmi.

Resistance and acceptance from the community

For Vijaylakshmi, getting the students of class 8 back into school proved to be quite a challenge because she faced resistance from the teachers of the school itself. Once the lockdown was imposed there was some confusion over which teachers would take their classes. Both the high school and higher secondary school teachers denied responsibility. So, Vijaylakshmi stepped in. “I took the phone numbers of all the students from the principal and encouraged them to join the Vataara Shaale. I was able to get many of them to come. After witnessing the overwhelming participation of their students in the shaale the high school teachers also began to show an interest in attending sessions and teaching them again,” says Vijaylakshmi. This example illustrates how facilitators themselves model the type of behaviour the SFG programme wants to see in its students—taking initiative, solving problems faced by the community, encouraging a passion for learning that seeks to surmount all obstacles. Vijaylakshmi also recounted another incident where a community member loudly disrupted one of her sessions. The location of the shaale is a public one, it is also where people gather to talk and unwind. “At class the next day, the locals were not there. They later told me that they had decided to find another place to get together so as not to disturb the Vataara Shaale.”

A unique opportunity

Vataara Shaales are different. They present an opportunity to re-examine existing approaches to education and try something new. The first big difference between these shaales and regular schools was noticed by Basavanand. “Both government school students and private, English-medium school students attend these shaales and they have realised they are not so different from each other in terms of their capabilities.” This realisation breaks down some of the stigma surrounding the education in government schools which are perceived by many to be inferior to private English-medium schools.

The activities conducted in the Vataara Shaales are also very different from those conducted in school, “Our lessons are not according to the school syllabus. They benefit all students, even students considered to be slow learners,” says Vijaylakshmi. “We also have the benefit of teaching a smaller class, around 20 students at a time. This allows us to pay attention to each student,” says Dhanalakshmi. “We conduct activities, give students worksheets and play role-playing games. We use theatre and art. All of this makes students eager to know what they are going to do next. They recollect the things we have done in previous classes and ask for specific games or activities that they liked,” says Bheemashankar. All the facilitators speak of how students start out being unresponsive and reluctant but after a few sessions they become confident and outspoken.

It is a credit to the facilitators that they have given their students the agency to make decisions in their own classroom and ask for things they like. To hear and acknowledge a child’s likes and dislikes is to give them a voice and to have a voice or an opinion is the basis of developing the ability to ask questions and think critically.

Before they were shut down in November 2020, Vataara Shaales were showing signs of becoming spaces where the loftier aims of education could find expression. They created individuals who enjoyed the process of learning, who were growing confident about their identities and their potential to make a change in the world around them. They offered educators a space to experiment with their teaching techniques and be creative. In the future, they could offer communities a space to work with students to solve local problems. In short, Vataara Shaales have a right to coexist along with schools as they fill important gaps in a child’s education and YCF hopes the government will consider restarting them in the future.