17th March was a red letter day for many people involved in education reforms. For on that day, a middle school teacher from the Chennai (corporation) School, made history when she stepped up to the podium at the NGO 2012 seminar – a prestigious gathering of NGOs from across the Country - and declared to the world that she is a Champion Teacher.
The people, who had gathered to hear a teacher speak, ended up listening to the inner voice of a life changing experience. The teacher’s voice trembled with emotion and she could barely string together meaningful words in English, but she communicated in the universal language of love –straight from the heart and with passion.
Yes, Sridevi is a not just a Champion Teacher, but a real champion in life who surmounted many challenges and today she could face the world with enormous confidence. “Sridevi Miss” as she is affectionately called by her children (she always refers to her students as ‘my children”) is part of the Reinventing Education Program – an education partnership program conceived by IBM and driven by Govt. school teachers in two southern states of India – Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu.
As I watched Sridevi articulate the transformation that she helped shape in her classroom through the Reinventing Education program, my mind raced back to 2007 when it all started. The setting was the Andhra Pradesh Residential School. There were a group of noticeably bored set of teachers, head masters (HMs) and education officials. Apparently, they did not relish the idea of spending a Saturday afternoon listening to someone who wanted to for some reason –to build a smarter planet
Anticipating a ‘techie’ to walk into the classroom with a laptop in tow, they were a tad disappointed to see me with no such gadgets. They had set up an LCD projector, again anticipating the inevitable powerpoint presentation and had closed all the windows rendering it dark and gloomy.
I walked in, and asked them to open the windows so that I could see their faces. I told them to switch off the LCD projector too. Now I could clearly see and sense that I had certainly created some curiosity and wee bit of attention. I introduced myself and my company IBM. I explained to them that I wanted to discuss with them about an education reform initiative proposed by IBM and asked them to list out their expectations. Now the audience’s curiosity turned into déjà vu. With practiced ease, much like a student reciting memorized lessons, the teachers and HMs started to narrate a ‘shopping list’. They said, computers are very good and their school needed more computers. Some of them wanted CDs for all lessons from 1- 10th grade. The more adventurous demanded that all teachers be given laptops! I only wondered if it were that simple, IBM could have just completed a one day laptop mela and sent me home without a job!
I realized that the teachers are so conditioned by the onslaught of technology companies on their sensibilities that they equated technology with gadgets and stuff. Wanting to shake them up from their techno – gadget fantasy, I gave them a simple exercise.
Requested all of them to forget about computers, technology and gadgets for a moment close their eyes briefly and reflect on their school days – when there were no such ‘distractions’. They obediently closed their eyes and soon they were travelling back in time. After few minutes when they ‘got down’ from their time capsules, I asked them to narrate a few things they remembered about their school days.
Now the narration was different, they are no longer producing a shopping list but articulating their experiences. Many said corporal punishment, strict teachers, lots of homework, exams all the time, too many books (heavy), memorizing tables and formulae etc. Some of the ‘enlightened’ teachers also said only boring lectures and no computers (sigh!)
I grabbed half a chalk that had been thrown on the floor by an exasperated teacher and made a list of things they told about their school days in a column on the not so black board. Quickly I had run down the length of the board and also had difficulty holding on to the remnant of the half chalk, I barely managed to scribble on the top of the column “Education in 1970s” – I could have as well named it ‘education woes’ – then I stopped.
Turned around facing the audience again, I asked them to close their eyes one more time and this time I wanted them to ruminate on education today, in the present, in the 21st century. They closed their eyes but quickly opened them with an understanding smirk and smiling eyes when they discerned the irony. Nodding in agreement to their dignified silence, I rubbed out 1970 from top of the list and replaced it with 2007.
The silence was broken when one teacher said ‘nothing has changed sir’ same boring lectures, more homework, more books and more memorizing. Then I asked them can IBM bring in the change? Can supplying 100 computers and 1000 CDs change the situation? Almost the entire classroom joined in unison and said No - We will have to bring in the change. I then said, IBM will join hands with them and we will make the change.
Thus began the long journey of Reinventing Education that had transcended the narrow understanding of technology, broke the barriers of attitude and years of conditioned behavior and transformed ‘boring’ teachers into bold Champion Teachers and insipid classrooms into thinking Transformed Classrooms. Presently there are more than 400 teachers who are touched by the Reinventing Education Program.
The significant change was, the teachers never again asked for computers, laptops and CDs. Instead they had asked me – teach us how to use them in my classroom, teach us how to open an email account. Show us how to download pictures and information from the internet and how to convert them into interesting lesson plans.
We listened, started training the teachers in pedagogical tools, ICT and together we created a Reinventing Education portal for the teachers to collaborate, share and learn. Today teachers like Sridevi for whom computers were once associated with computer labs and boring administrative work, are using it as a powerful learning tool. For her presentation at the NGO 2012, she had downloaded education quotations from the internet, created a PPT, loaded it on a pen drive and made a wonderful presentation. Today she proudly says: “ because of Reinventing Education, I have become a leader in my school, the commissioner and education officers invite me and ask my views on bringing in any changes in curriculum. I take pride in sharing my experiences with other teachers. My students find that I am a completely different person now and they say I smile more often. In my classroom even the quietest child will boldly answer any questions or even better ask me more questions”
The rousing applause that marked the end of Sridevi Miss’s presentation woke me up from my reverie. As people gathered around congratulating her, IBM’s tag line of let’s build a Smarter Planet – suddenly rang very true.