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YOGENDRA SINGH

India,

Yogendra is demonstrating that even among communities deprived of basic rights and resources children can and should receive a high quality primary education, characterized by autonomous teachers and child-centered classes. Having refined an alternative educational program for children in slums, he is grafting it onto the formal state school system and forming a partnership with the government to improve teaching and learning on a large scale.

This profile below was prepared when Yogendra Singh was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.

INTRODUCTION

Yogendra is demonstrating that even among communities deprived of basic rights and resources children can and should receive a high quality primary education, characterized by autonomous teachers and child-centered classes. Having refined an alternative educational program for children in slums, he is grafting it onto the formal state school system and forming a partnership with the government to improve teaching and learning on a large scale.




THE NEW IDEA

The organization that Yogendra has built pushes the notion of "individualized attention" to a new extreme. He knows that members of all communities buy into systems that respond to their particular needs, so Yogendra has created a program that helps every poor child and his or her family learn most effectively. In order to "sell" communities on the value of education, his program includes child-centered teaching methodologies, alternative forms of assessment, unique teacher training sessions, and, most impressively, very low student-teacher ratios.

Whereas many education practitioners run "non-formal education" programs, Yogendra insists that his organization be termed "alternative" education instead, because it can and should become the formal model. Yogendra's innovation is to blur the distinctions between formal government schooling and the alternative education that children have access to in seven slums of Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital city.

The "Common School System," as Yogendra calls it, has two prongs. On one hand are the 'Bodhshalas', which are new preschools and primary schools set up and supported by the residents of the slums and staffed by teachers trained in Yogendra's organization. The second prong throws the same principles of educational pedagogy and decentralization into the larger arena of government schools. The "Adoption Program," as it is called, is a pilot partnership that initiates existing government school teachers to the Bodhshalas' unique syllabus and training. This is the first time that the Rajasthan government has suspended its primary education curriculum and given a nongovernmental program free rein to implement its strategies in government schools.




THE PROBLEM

In the state of Rajasthan, where Yogendra operates, formidable obstacles keep the numbers of school-going children - especially girls - appallingly low. The high student-teacher ratio, antiquated teaching methods, and lack of curriculum enrichment programs have made schools hostile to students from deprived communities. Outdated textbooks prepare students for fact-filled examinations, the contents of which quickly disappear from memory and bear no relation to students' realities. If children do not drop out of school for these reasons, they may do so because most schools are far from slums. And while many children from disadvantaged communities have been mainstreamed to government schools, the communities have never been encouraged or allowed to participate in what should be their greatest resource.

Government school teachers have received traditional forms of training, and most enter the field out of desire for job security, rather than true dedication to the learning process. Furthermore, the government posts teachers to schools where they are foreign, even insensitive, to the concerns of the community, and many schools have spotty attendance from teachers who have no accountability. Even when the teacher is present, she or he commonly applies corporal punishment and rigid assignments to discipline raucous classes of 50 to 60 children, most of whom dislike being there.

An additional, yet subtle problem is that non-formal education (NFE) negatively affects the government system. When nonformal programs run alongside the government schools, they are seen as the laboratories for change and may in fact provide optimum learning experiences for the children in them. Meanwhile, the government schools limp along invisibly, stagnating in part because all attention has been focused on NFE programs. As over 60 percent of the country's total student population studies in government schools, this is clearly the area which deserves, but does not receive, the benefit of innovative ideas.

However, as Yogendra points out, some of the greatest obstacles to better education are psychological: "The adverse socio-economic situation of the slum-dwellers, the fact that these people are socially marginalized and make up a deprived section of society, the need for every able-bodied man and woman to work for sustenance, and the consequent impact on their familial relationships, with psychologically traumatic experiences a recurring phenomenon, leave little time for thinking and planning for their children's education. Any effort made to this end is drowned in the whirlpool of conflicting demands on their meager resources. Existing mainstream schools, totally unconcerned about these ground realities, do not provide sustainable interest in their methods of teaching and curriculum."




THE STRATEGY

Bodh Shiksha Samiti, the organization Yogendra began, has found a happy combination of creation and adaption: principles of his new education program for poor children are making their way into the government schools entrenched in tradition and centralized bureaucracy. Bodhshalas, funded by the central government and a private foundation, provide the testing ground for the teaching methodology that the Adoption Program carries on.

Most striking about a visit to a Bodhshala is how, throughout each slum, classes are dispersed in various makeshift classrooms, all donated by the community. The blur between learning and living space establishes organic linkages with the community - the epicenter of these children's lives. Participation from parents and other community members is sought to develop curriculum, discuss students' needs, and find solutions to problems such as absenteeism. A women's group assembles daily to meet on these issues and learn skills themselves. Best exemplifying community participation are the "mother teachers," yet another group of residents, who become part-time semi-professionals in the preschool classes, thereby learning Bodh's philosophy.

Based on the belief that children learn best from personal and meaningful experiences, student-teacher ratios do not exceed 25:1, and children are placed in classes based on learning capabilities, not age. The flexible holistic curriculum evolves at the local level in each Bodhshala and includes courses which are typically excluded from schools for the poor, such as music. Bodh-designed lessons help children understand academic concepts fearlessly, with genuine engagement. Continual assessments replace formal grading and exams, as these have been found unconducive to children's progress. These are radical departures from traditional forms of education. Not surprisingly, the transition from such a system to the government schools is difficult, so Bodh has decided to expand Bodhshalas to Class VIII.

Through a three-month training program, the teachers - attracted by the Bodh philosophy and competitive salaries - become responsive facilitators, but not without challenges. They report, "Most of us have had a very different exposure than what we are learning to provide these children; at times it is very exacting. Constantly attending to the children's needs and listening to them is not easy, but once it becomes a habit, it no longer seems so difficult." They drive creativity and flexibility into the school environment and learn with the same equanimity as their students. Bodh teachers are researchers who play an active, extended role outside the school, interacting with the community to study and plot its character map.

Such a holistic and decentralized approach to the learning process, especially in a state as backward as Rajasthan, rarely stands the test of time, and even more rarely does it go large-scale. Yogendra is proving that Bodh, which has existed since the mid-1980s, can do both. The litmus test has been crossing over from alternative education - where the program's autonomy makes for smooth terrain - to the rough landscape of formal, state-run schools, where age-old constraints and attitudes hinder innovation. Yogendra says that the Adoption Program has emerged because, "Bodh has been able to demonstrate and impress upon the government the gains of its models of education."

Yogendra has worked out a precise and complex architecture to the Adoption Program, but there are some basic elements: Each of the ten participating government schools assigns the Bodh-run classes enough teachers to achieve 30:1 student teacher ratios. A Bodh-employed coordinator and a former Bodhshala teacher then take over the management of younger classes, jointly coaching the teachers in how to weave Bodh's teaching methodologies into the formal curriculum. All the themes of the Bodhshalas - community participation, grouping of children by capacity, no exams, and small classes - appear in the government schools. Results of these efforts include both emerging linkages between schools and parent-communities and a demonstrably higher level of cognition among children in Bodh schools. Once a government school has incorporated the new philosophies and strategies Bodh intends to withdraw its staff.

The Adoption Program will expand by using the government schools as nodal resource centers from which larger programs will be launched. Yogendra does not want to see a single mammoth model imposed on India; as one of his staff explains, "Only intense decentralized efforts can deliver education with good results." Bodh's current concern is to work out the optimum size of a model, while simultaneously learning how to replicate the Bodh concepts.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Rajasthan State Education Department, and the national District Primary Education Program have all approached Yogendra, asking him to introduce aspects of his model in other schools in Jaipur and outside Rajasthan. Yogendra is also encouraging government training institutions, such as the State Institute of Educational Research and Training, and nongovernmental organizations to work together and use Bodh's training modules for teachers in their programs.




THE PERSON

The PersonYogendra was born in 1955 in a small village in Rajasthan. The youngest of five children, he descends from a family of priests who were among the first to open the gates of education to their community. Yogendra's father was the first government teacher from his district. As an active leader of a progressive intellectual movement, his leftist leanings greatly influenced Yogendra.

Yogendra was an academically strong student until he reached Rajasthan University. As a student there, he became intensely involved with the progressive Communist Movement (the center of intellectual drive in the state.) This marked the beginning of Yogendra's political activism, which lasted for over a decade and sharpened his worldview, as he learned about reality's underbelly. His deep appreciation for the needs of disadvantaged children led to his convictions that "quality education is the basic minimum that the society and state owe to the children, irrespective of their social status." Yogendra studied law later and practiced in the Rajasthan High Court for six months. Hemmed in by the formalities and bureaucracy, he left the job. Inspired by Jay Prakash Narayan, a populist political leader during India's Emergency rule in the 1970s, and his call to the youth to understand urban poverty, Yogendra began working in Jaipur's largest slum. This work provided inspiration for what is today widely acclaimed as the "Bodh approach to education."




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