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LEWITT SOMARAJAN

India,

Lewitt recognizes that despite the promise of Activity Based Learning (ABL), it has not spread to low-income schools in India as there have been no support structures to enable teachers to repurpose their roles as facilitators. Lewitt is bridging this critical gap by designing and codifying these support structures through a two-year long coaching process. Through easy-to-use toolkits, teachers are guided transitioning to their new roles as effective facilitators in low-income schools, nudging students to take charge of their own learning. Through his work, Lewitt is making it possible for any school to effectively apply ABL and improve learning outcomes.

This profile below was prepared when Lewitt Somarajan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.

INTRODUCTION

Lewitt recognizes that despite the promise of Activity Based Learning (ABL), it has not spread to low-income schools in India as there have been no support structures to enable teachers to repurpose their roles as facilitators. Lewitt is bridging this critical gap by designing and codifying these support structures through a two-year long coaching process. Through easy-to-use toolkits, teachers are guided transitioning to their new roles as effective facilitators in low-income schools, nudging students to take charge of their own learning. Through his work, Lewitt is making it possible for any school to effectively apply ABL and improve learning outcomes.




THE NEW IDEA

Lewitt recognizes that despite the promise of Activity Based Learning (ABL), it has not spread to low-income schools in India as there have been no support structures to enable teachers to repurpose their roles as facilitators. Lewitt is bridging this critical gap by designing and codifying these support structures through a two-year long coaching process. Through easy-to-use toolkits, teachers are guided transitioning to their new roles as effective facilitators in low-income schools, nudging students to take charge of their own learning. Through his work, Lewitt is making it possible for any school to effectively apply ABL and improve learning outcomes. 

With the assistance of his uniquely designed support mechanisms, children are able to move from being passive recipients of information and become active participators in learning instead. Lewitt is building the critical foundation to improve the quality of learning at scale in India. He influences school management and leadership to buy into the concept of teacher support for hands-on learning. Leveraging this supportive infrastructure he executes an intensive, non-threatening coaching support for teachers, which includes customization to each teacher’s competency levels, comprehensive toolkits that are 100 percent mapped to grade curriculums, a peer support network for sustainability as well as tracking both teacher and student progress. 

This 360 degree approach identifies key gaps and enables a classroom to quickly move to a new paradigm of teaching. Lewitt has reached 76 schools across four states in a short timespan of two years. 65 percent of teachers have completely shifted from making conventional lesson plans to planning and facilitating activity based classes while 80 percent of the teachers are convinced and motivated about ABL. Student scores have improved by an average of 43.81 percent on school exams and 68.5 percent on Life Lab assessment tests across the three parameters of knowledge, understanding and application. Lewitt keeps evolving his toolkits to keep them relevant over time and across geographies. The toolkits and his model satisfies the need of the school administrators to cut across grade levels, are mapped to the curriculum and raise test scores! 

Having proven impact with his model Lewitt has divided the teachers into three buckets of proficiency and is codifying the support structure in the form of resources, teaching aids and videos for each bucket. In this way, he is building a body of work that is open source, replicable and transferable to other organisations. He intends for this model to be taken forward by incubating a number of social change agents in the education sector who wish to impact the quality of education and will set up their own enterprises with this work as the foundation.




THE PROBLEM

The question of instituting quality and moving away from the detrimental practice of rote learning has plagued the Indian education sector for over two decades now. Evidently, a need for practices to improve the fractured process of imparting education in classrooms has been felt. Research confirms that students who practice what they are learning in a hands-on environment can often retain three and half times as much as opposed to just sitting in a lecture room and listening intently. Activity Based Learning (ABL) or Inquiry based learning (IBL) has for long been a proven pedagogy to improve quality of education and has been endorsed by several leading national and international institutions like the UNICEF and the Government of India. 

Unfortunately, despite the pedagogy existing for several decades now, it has faced significant limitations in scaling and being practiced in schools across India. Most successful initiatives have stayed limited to private/alternative schools. Efforts by large institutions have also met limited success. For example, UNICEF’s initiative in India has stayed limited to 270 schools over 12 years and the Indian government’s efforts have failed to scale beyond the first segment of primary education (grade 2). As a result, classrooms rooted in enquiry based learning remain far from a reality. Efforts by CSO’s through training of teachers on toolkits have also failed to integrate the method into the learning process. Activities are conducted as a practical extension of the theory and not as a means of arriving at the theory. 

A critical gap that all efforts have failed in scaling is in enabling teachers to transition to this new pedagogy. Practicing ABL or IBL requires a deeper conceptual clarity and competency on part of the teachers. 

However, teachers, especially those in low-income schools, are products of traditional methods of education and the Central Teacher Eligibility Test is increasingly revealing how ill-equipped teachers are - only 5.6 percent of the teachers passed the test in 2014. A growing number of teachers share that they feel threatened because they do not understand how to create an enquiry based classroom. Unless the teachers are taught, there is no way for the children to experience this way of learning. The teachers have traditionally only been trained in demonstrating the tool and managing behavior – the aspect that is left out is the skill to facilitate a conversation that draws questions out of the kids. There is a need for solutions that empathetically support the shift in mind-sets of teachers and enhance their skills and knowledge to function as facilitators to the child’s learning process at scale. 

While the market has been flooded with models that can be used as tools for ABL, they are not mapped to the course content. The toolkits contain experiments that help learn concepts (such as force and pressure) but do not tailor them to fit the curricula of various grades, putting further demands on an already stretched teacher to map these new tools to his lesson plans. Models are also often built only for the teachers as a demonstration tool. The teacher fears damage to material and the children are unable to have the opportunity to work with experiments. The expectation on the children is to create their own working models, however there is no information supplied that can help either students or teachers to identify materials from their surroundings that may be used to do so.




THE STRATEGY

With a vision for cultivating “science as a mind-set” and making self-directed learning in low income classrooms a reality, Lewitt founded Life Labs in 2013. 

Lewitt’s intervention is a two year long engagement with a school where he enables teachers to shift their mind-set, acquire the skills and deepen their knowledge to be able to apply ABL in their classrooms. He is achieving this by developing a strong support network that coaches them through this process and tracks their growth continuously. In order to engender a mind-set that is invested in ABL, Lewitt conducts sessions with teachers on understanding the philosophy behind ABL, sharing qualitative and quantitative student achievement data, success stories from peer classrooms, open forums where teachers share their experiences and apprehensions before adoption as well as student showcases. These sessions have teachers performing the experiments like students and help them feel motivated to try out hands-on learning in their classrooms, engender a feeling of possibility and help them feel conceptually convinced about the role of ABL in broadening horizons as well as making learning fun and experiential for the children. 

Building on this, Lewitt builds the skills needed to apply ABL. He has broken down the skills needed to be an effective facilitator in a classroom into a clear pathway that a teacher can be coached through, thus moving it from an abstract concept to an accessible skill for teachers in municipal and low-income schools. He has mapped six key dimensions of holding the space of enquiry-based learning in a classroom. First, one uses students' existing knowledge to guide teaching. Second, one guides students to generate explanations and alternative interpretations. Third, one devises incisive questions. Fourth, one chooses materials and activities for students to test ideas. Fifth, one provides a classroom atmosphere conducive to discussion. Lastly, one offers opportunities for students to utilize new ideas. Each of these skills is further broken down to 4-5 scaffolded milestones that the teacher is tracked on. For example, “using students’ existing knowledge to guide teaching” is a standard mastered through the stages of 1) being aware of students’ existing ideas around a concept 2) bringing out the students’ ideas before presenting your own 3) challenging students’ initial ideas and finally 4) making new ideas accessible to children. 

The Life Labs team holds a day long training session for teachers to understand the ground realities and challenges involved in facilitating hands-on learning, probable solutions and open ended case study challenges to arrive at techniques to overcome constraints. After this session, the support is differentiated for each teacher with fortnightly visits by mentors (Life Lab staff) who assist in lesson planning with teachers to conduct ABL activities, developing activities based on teacher’s ideas or conducting co-teaching/demo lessons based on the needs and competence of the teacher. The mentors conduct detailed debriefs basis the skills rubric post classroom observations and make small recommendations that help the teacher see incremental improvement in the classrooms. The support structure moves from once a fortnight to once a month in the first year and is largely need based in the second year pushing the teacher to a higher level of independence. Lewitt has put together a strong set of mentors that are codifying the support mechanisms for the teachers as well as a curriculum for training more mentors. 

The final component of knowledge being the most sensitive is addressed on an on-going basis during the fortnightly debriefs. The mentors from Life-Labs ensure that they win over the confidence of the teachers as allies and not evaluators. The teacher rubrics are therefore purely used internally by the mentors while the tracked improvement in student learning is the only statistic that is shared with the larger community of parents and school staff. Once the teachers feel comfortable, they naturally come to share their lack of knowledge and conceptual understanding on specific topics and the mentors are able to use this opportunity to guide them to relevant resources where they may watch videos to augment their own knowledge or read articles to relate the concept to daily life better. The teacher manual supplied with the Life Labs kit already contains conceptual information on each topic to assist the teacher have a clearer understanding of the subject matter herself. In every debrief mentors consciously cover knowledge related aspects, be it by collectively reasoning the experiment observations with the teachers or in the form of sharing personal experiences with the teacher of how they relate to the concept in daily life.While he continuously tracks the progress of a teacher as a facilitator, Lewitt also conducts baseline and endline tests to measure the knowledge and mind-set growth of a teacher. The mind-shift towards a facilitator led classroom is measured through a scenario based design thinking test while knowledge is measured through a concept based paper-pencil test. 

Lewitt understands the importance of engaging the entire ecosystem that a teacher functions in to be supportive of the ABL methodology in order for the same to become the norm in a classroom. He therefore gathers data to show the academic growth of children in ABL classrooms to build confidence with parents and the school administration. The same also helps him attract more schools, key partners and greater funding to his work (student scores improved by an average of 68.5 percent over the academic year 2014 -2015). Since, his final objective is for children to have a mindset of questioning, conjecture and observation to engage in self-directed learning, Lewitt conducts a design thinking test to see the growth of children on these parameters. 

In order to minimise teacher effort in execution, Lewitt is creating toolkits with experiments mapped to the course content right from Grade One through Grade Ten with each experiment designed to be effectively delivered within the available 20 minutes of class time ensuring ease of integration. All the experiments in his toolkit are created from materials easily available in the surroundings of low-income communities. This makes it possible for a pair of students to have their personal experimentation material to work with in the classroom and also encourages them to re-create the same outside of the schools. In order to enhance the ability of children to take charge of their own learning Lewitt is building student manuals in the form of comic books that can be used by students to understand and assemble any activity, he is also preparing an exhaustive list of materials that can be used to create various experiments to encourage students to work with whatever may be available at hand and finally he is planning to integrate technology in the form of a mobile phone app to measure metrics such as force, pressure etc. during the experiments so that the students can calibrate different possibilities and arrive at true conceptual understanding with the teacher only playing the role of asking cogent questions. 

The sustainability model for the toolkits involves children from higher grades creating the experiments for children from lower grades thus making them move to a higher cognitive level as well as placing them at the centre of this self-perpetuating model. The sustainability model for the teachers involves creating a peer support community over WhatsApp that helps them continuously exchange challenges as well as “wins” in the classroom. He is also working at building an active support network of trained corporate volunteers to continue to assist teachers in their growth. 

Lewitt recognises the dependence of his model on mentors and is therefore currently codifying a mentor training curriculum as the core group of mentors are formulating support strategies. The intervention also becomes a tool that the schools can use to attract more students as the student performance on test scores improves. Lewitt is also marketing the toolkits to elite schools to create a cross subsidy model as well as increase the demand pull from low income schools owing to the aspirational quality of their use by private schools. 

Once all the prongs of the intervention have been documented and proven across a 100 schools, Lewitt plans to scale through existing organisations that may benefit from using part or whole of his intervention and incubating entrepreneurs who wish to work in the sphere of driving quality in education.




THE PERSON

Lewitt was born in a middle class Indian household. He was a notorious student and academics could never capture his imagination. He struggled to equate the value he derived from a classroom as commensurate with the number of hours he spent therein. The only purpose of education then was to “get good marks” which he felt he could comfortably achieve by reading books on his own. As an only child, who spent most of his time around his mother, school life was very protected and spent in a cocoon of complacency. 

After 12th grade, he decided to pursue a degree in engineering purely based on his parents’ desire. In college he was exposed to diverse views of people from varied social, cultural and economic backgrounds and living away from parents lead him to explore avenues like debates and public speaking that he had hitherto been apprehensive of. As he represented his college in and won many business plan competitions, he began formulating a new definition and understanding of education – one where how you use what you learn is the source of joy. 

Completely consumed by the aspect of setting up a business founded on a new and innovative idea, Lewitt came up with the concept of a “Shoe Laundry” in his third year of Engineering, 2007. It was a concept that was to cater to the elite market segment and involved a technology to wash shoes using liquid carbon dioxide! Lewitt even applied for a patent for the same which got approved and is currently in the “patent pending” status 

Lewitt was convinced that he would float the Shoe Laundry as business post engineering and started laying the ground work for the same. The turn of events from that point on though resulted in a different life path unfolding. He fell in love with the daughter of a professor at college. The professor soon discovered this and expressed his displeasure emphatically. Lewitt would constantly look for excuses to escape his class thereafter and found the perfect opportunity in the Tata Jagriti Yatra! That escape turned out to be a turning point and eye openers to the kind of work social entrepreneurs were doing to improve lives. 

Lewitt returned, deeply questioning the purpose of a business like a “Shoe Laundry” and wondering what lasting value he could hope to achieve from it. The question soon lent itself to his life and he decided to search deeper the question of what purpose he wanted to devote his life to. 

Keen to explore the development landscape but gravely oblivious of the same, he joined an educational start-up in Hyderabad while simultaneously volunteering with NGOs like the Nandi Foundation and WWF. As he explored to sense what called out to him, he felt a deep dissatisfaction with school and college – as though all those years had been a waste – not having prepared him for life. He was intensely moved to discover the real purpose of education and decided to join Teach for India at the age of 23 in the hope of finding the same for his classroom and himself. Being in the shoes of a teacher made him look deeply at the structures and complexities teachers operate within and their inability to facilitate learning spaces that deliver value to students. In his second year as a Fellow, Lewitt experimented with various hands-on learning models and implementation structures in his classroom and founded Life Labs with a keen product focus. He soon realised that working on the mental models of teachers to a point that products actually become irrelevant was the missing piece and he formulated his work at Life Labs to reflect the same.




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