Did you know that school students in Tamil Nadu often tend to memorize textbook content instead of developing a conceptual understanding? Athreya Shankar visited Chennai and observed first-hand the ways in which Chudar is helping students enhance the quality of their education through school-based interventions and after-school programs.
Bringing Meaning to Education
“If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages in the world and the encyclopedias the Rishis”
– Swami Vivekananda
School education in large parts of India struggles to impart skills to students, and instead simply programs them to clear the next examination. In Tamil Nadu, this trend has taken on an extreme avatar in the form of rote learning, wherein students become accustomed to memorizing the content that will be tested in examinations. For instance, it is common for students to memorize exercises from their Math textbooks, including the specific numbers, since questions in exams typically come straight out of the textbooks (commonly known as “book-back questions”). Change the numbers, and it is likely that the student does not have the conceptual understanding to solve the new question. In some cases, rote learning is evident in languages as well: Students often memorize entire pages of prose from their textbooks and when asked to read the paragraphs in order, they can simply recite it from memory. On the other hand, they fail to read specific words or sentences because they have, in reality, not mastered the skill of reading. In the long run, the lack of conceptual understanding, and even worse, the inability to distinguish skill from fact, places these students at a gross disadvantage when it comes to dealing with high school syllabus and competitive exams for higher education, leading to tremendously low self-esteem and self-confidence and as a consequence many even dropout of school, especially in the eighth grade.
Chudar, founded by Dr. A. Ravishankar, is an organization based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, which focuses on identifying and strengthening key skills for school students in the sixth to eighth grades. An initiative of the Eureka Education Foundation, Chudar works with students in government and government-aided schools, where the need to improve the quality of education is the greatest. With active programs since 2016, Chudar has developed a two-pronged approach to imparting skill-based education in Math, Science and English which is in line with the curriculum prescribed by the State Board: By upskilling school teachers to focus on the critical skills in these three subjects and thereby strengthen the conceptual understanding of students, and through Chudar’s own after-school centers where their field resource personnel (tutors) work with students to achieve outcome-based learning.
As part of their school intervention program, Chudar organizes observational classes in schools where their resource persons conduct focus classes for students, and school teachers are encouraged to observe the teaching methodology. Chudar also provides these teachers with modules and worksheets that are designed to assess whether students have learned a particular skill. Through discussions with teachers, they are encouraged to be observant of when students are actually applying their understanding rather than simply utilizing their memory.
Chudar runs around ten after-school centers in and around Chennai. Here, part-time volunteers work with students to improve their ability in two or three crucial skills in each school term across Math, Science and English. These volunteers are trained by subject matter experts who create content, design efficient learning methods and develop assessment tools that measure the learning outcomes. Focus is placed on understanding, and where possible, simple experiments are demonstrated to enable a deeper appreciation of the subject. A highlight of the after-school programs is their culmination in a declaration event, where the entire community is invited to come and watch their students display the skills they have acquired. The joy of genuine learning and its tangible outcomes are very evident in these celebratory events where students willingly step up to solve problems and are wholeheartedly encouraged by their peers and their community. This not only provides a tremendous boost for the students’ confidence levels but also motivates and recognizes the efforts of the teachers and tutors who have worked towards these outcomes.
In the last two years, Chudar has adapted its operations to address the education crisis brought about by the pandemic. During the pandemic, Chudar’s after-school program assumed an online avatar to continue engaging students. Student communities were formed through WhatsApp groups, and students were provided with smartphones and tablets for accessing education content. Chudar volunteers upskilled themselves to adapt to the new demands of a pandemic. They developed high quality multimedia content for engaging students in an interesting and interactive manner. When possible, volunteers also went in person to ensure that students were benefiting from the online programs. In addition, members of TeenAIDers, a sub-chapter of AID that is based in California, also conducted classes on diverse topics like Creative Writing, Art, and Health and Hygiene for these students through their ACE (Achieving Community Excellence) program. Chudar also engaged interested children in higher classes within the community with other programs like robotics, python programming and website designing using local resources.
With schools closed during the pandemic and students promoted to higher classes without learning the required concepts, the learning loss is heavy and there is an urgent need to bring students up to speed. Moving forward, Chudar aims to take a hybrid approach where in-person after-school classes are complemented by the power of multimedia and online learning.
You can participate in Chudar’s educational program at several levels. Chudar depends on donations from people like you for supporting its team, developing high-quality education content, organizing after-school programs and celebrating its students’ achievements. In addition, Chudar is also looking for volunteers who have experience in developing and reviewing educational content for school children. And last, but not the least, if you happen to be in and around Chennai, please feel free to visit one of Chudar’s after-school centers to encourage the students and tutors and to see transformation in action!
– Athreya Shankar | May 2022
Athreya Shankar researches quantum physics in Innsbruck and volunteers for AID. He finds volunteering with AID as a means to learn about the most pressing challenges in people’s lives today and to make a small positive difference in their lives where possible.