Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Tale of Two Schools

Lets face it, "A school, is a school, is a school". Not-so-famous schools, of uniform vintage, with similar looking buildings, teachers from the same background, and children from the same kind of neighborhoods. What could be so different after all? Well, I am just back from a trip that said: Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Each summer, my colleagues and I set out on a Yatra to see what is happening - actually happening - inside the schools we work with. This one was ten days long journey that took us to six cities and almost thirty schools. We had a fine selection; we went to all kinds of schools big/small, rich/poor, metro/non-metro, new/old, famous/unknown. All these schools had introduced XSEED - a scientific teaching method that emphasizes learning outcomes, hands-on experience for children, questioning and reflection, and regular assessment of student progress. Since this method requires teachers to acquire and practice completely new skills, which go beyond the traditional "40 minutes of telling", the first 6-8 weeks of implementation are critical. There is some struggle, support is needed, and the leadership's belief in change is  tested. We travel to witness all this in action. One would think there is only so much you could get out of visiting schools year after year. But each time it's such an eye opener that I shudder to think that we might not have done it. 

In our penultimate school, lets call it "N", we ran in to a group of very unhappy teachers. They had a tough life with long commutes, and large classrooms - sixty children. It was hard enough to teach the old way with text books, and now all this complication of activities, group work, workbooks etc was putting them through hell they said. To complicate matters there was some delay of materials and communication gaps between our folks and the school. Now, we have seen all kinds of school challenges and know that sometimes it can be a bit rough. But this one was a bit special, "What is all this nonsense you have brought in to our lives", one of them said getting to point quite quickly. Some of the others jumped in and listed their woes and unhappiness. The general belief was that this was unpractical, painful, and "impossible". It took a couple of hours of re-stating the case with evidence for them to even reconsider taking this on. However, we left the school somewhat despondent and a bit worried that are we expecting too much.

We moved on to "Y", our next school. Even the smiling principal, and the enthusiastic stride of the coordinators had not prepared us for what was to come. We went up to the classrooms in pairs, as we usually do when we visit a school, and slinked to the very last bench of the Grade IV math class, where children were learning about how to discriminate (greater than/lesser than) very large numbers. An activity in which children were given colored strips of paper with large numbers written on them and others with ">/<" signs was to be conducted. Groups of 4-6 to be made, children be allowed to play the game and compare their respective numbers, discuss, acknowledge errors, and then note responses in their workbooks. Madness was  supposed to follow, and all hell was supposed to break loose. Right? Wrong. Instructions were given simply and firmly, twice. In 90 seconds children were organized into their groups. There was talk, but only meaningful talk of numbers/comparisons/signs. They smiled, participated, ocassionally argued, but were always engaged. She gracefully wafted up and down the aisles to check if all was going to plan, frequently stopping to observe, help, bring order - whatever was needed.  The tone (oh! thats so important) was always kind but firm. Those twenty minutes we were in there we witnessed a performance no less magical than the Swan Lake. We stepped out to see the smiling faces of our colleagues - three other classrooms had witnessed similar stuff. It was possible. 

There were 60 children in each classroom.

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  1. So what was the difference between the two schools... difference in stage of training... as any school staff would be resitant to any change and am sure even the latter "happy" school must have had moments in start like the first school... or you found it was more than just training stage?

  2. I think your question is harder (to answer) than it looks. I have been thinking about it for a couple of days. I don't think it had that much to do with the training...both places had near identical training and at similar times.

    I don't have the exact answer but I think I have found a clue in this book* I received as a gift this week. It says "there is no evidence that the most successful organizations employ the most talented fact typically ordinary people working in extraordinary organizations outperform extraordinary people in ordinary ones". It goes on to emphasize "context" and culture count for 90% of performance. I think the culture (i.e. the shared set of assumptions) in the latter school was that its ok to try new things; there seemed to be some regard for the leadership as opposed to animosity etc....I am sure there is more though.

    * "Uncommon sense, Common Nonsense" by Jules Goddard et al (Jules is an LBS professor whom I ran in to earlier this year)

  3. wow.. thanks for sharing that thought..its put quite well.. something I keep discussing at my we need to keep expanding our bandwidth of potential with time...
    do share if there's any thought you stumble upon on the topic.. would be good to hear.

  4. Too good. loved 'context and culture' counts for 90% of the performance :)

  5. So what do you think you need to do differently at the N schools?

  6. Work more on will in addition to skill. We do that, but perhaps a bit more a bit different. Also to give more of a heads up to incumbent teachers.

  7. Swati Parasnis : Hey Ashish, I tend to agree with the 'context and culture' bit that you've written about on your blog. In innovation practice too, that's the first thing that needs to be tackled before people feel willing and able to do things differently. Are you now thinking of adding that to the teacher training that you likely do before schools embark on the program?

  8. We already do that Swati - akin to the reflective stuff we did with you guys, before we jump in to skills. But perhaps we need to do more/different, and start sooner. Also entry level teachers must get inspiration, earlier.

  9. I'd probably go with 'different', cos am sure the quantum of what you do is enough. I also find in my work with clients that it helps to co-create certain aspects of the experience (the learning experience for the students in your case). It gives them both a sense of ownership, and control.

  10. I guess its implementing XSEED is all about a question of mindset, I recall that even in the early days of implementation of XSEED, learning levels of kids improved to a significant extent and this was definitely supplemented through the findings of our assessment instrument Learnomenter
    Cheers Ashish keep up the good work