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Thursday, 31 July 2014

More than just a field trip

In our most recent workshop, we went on a field trip to the museum of conflict, better known as “The Conflictorium.”  Their description reads as: 

“The Conflictorium, Museum of Conflict is a space that invites people to participate, co-create, experiment, collaborate, study, read and engage in a process of meaning making. So come here to showcase or appreciate up-and-coming talents-musical, intellectual, artistic-or use this free spaces for any other activity that relates to the city or makes us grow as people…”

And they do a stupendous job of that. The museum tackles the issue of conflict by situating it within the context of Gujarat and its histories of resistance and struggles for social change. In doing so, they aims to replace the culture of silence omnipresent in Gujarat, with “conversation and constructive reasoning.”

The exhibits were obviously informed by extensive historical knowledge and research. Yet, instead of merely reciting “historical facts,” many of exhibits presented this information through non-conventional artistic methods. Just presenting the information differently spurred so much dialogue amongst our field trip groups and forced us all to re-conceptualize matters that we had previously covered in our workshops. I can only speak for myself, but I feel as if the Conflictorium successfully in meaning some of its aims. 

Managing the trip once we arrived was somewhat messy due to unforeseen changes in the exhibits. Despite this, these mix ups became a small detail in comparison to the fun we had throughout this trip. It was a wonderful change of pace from our typical workshop format and a more drastic change from the structure of classroom in participants’ schools. Of the students i spoke with, all of them expressed excitement and enthusiasm about our trip. In light of it all, I would gladly organize another trip to this museum.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Beyond Black and White: Seeing Education in a New Light

“But what is the right answer?” a workshop participant asked me. We were having a small-group discussion on possible ways to socio-economically uplift Dalit women, who are considered to be untouchable in the Indian caste system. A year back, I probably would have chosen the ‘best’ answer that had been offered during the discussion and urged students to think about why it was right. And if I were participating in the workshop, I might just have asked that question too.

But there needn’t always be the right answer, especially in the classroom. It took my first year at Swarthmore and my time at ITSA to realize this. At Swarthmore, my courses challenged me to think in new ways, although it was not until ITSA that I became more aware of how my college experience has changed my expectations and assumptions about classroom discussions, activities, questions, and more. My interactions with workshop participants have not only been revealing my expectations, but also reflective of their origins. This has helped me understand how I have evolved as student and how I can improve my facilitation skills during ITSA workshops.

I studied in a school that followed a similar curriculum to the ITSA workshop participants, the CBSE  Indian curriculum Although the CBSE demanded a lot of hard work, it did not necessitate students to critically engage with the syllabi to thrive academically. The need to know what is “right,” and perhaps more importantly, to be able to exclude what is not “right” is something I can easily relate to. Right. Wrong. Black. White. That’s not how social issues spring up. That’s not how they are solved.

I had known that one of the reasons ITSA had been founded was because of the lack of emphasis on critical thinking skills in most Indian classrooms. It was only in the past few weeks that I understood this reason.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Old Habits Die Hard: The Stubborn Specter of Traditional Education

There’s a reason this organization is called ITSA and not SAIT, and it’s more than just verbal aesthetics. It is no coincidence that “independent thought” comes before “social action." Whatever social action we try to inspire and foster in our workshop participants is subordinate to independent thought. When we talk about “igniting the flame of social change,” there is no question that that flame is located squarely in the human mind. 
And in our experience, the best way to foster independent thought is through an egalitarian classroom environment.  
We create this environment in many ways – student-generated safe space rules, equitable facilitation, flexible and tailored curricula. The most salient of these, however, is the physical arrangement of the classroom. At ITSA, we recognize that the battle (for lack of a better word) between traditional and progressive education is fought largely over the physicality of the classroom. Indeed, the physical classroom environment has, in many ways, been the line along which the traditional/progressive split has occurred. As far back as 1938, John Dewey warned that “the fixed arrangements of the typical traditional schoolroom […] put a great restriction upon intellectual and moral freedom.”  
Realizing the correspondence between mental and physical states is what prompts us to discard the traditional schoolroom in favor of the discussion circle. So great is our aversion to traditional schooling that even the chair, an otherwise harmless piece of furniture, is discarded. Our workshops occur largely on the floor – not out of some misguided radicalism, but simply because the pull of years of traditional education is so strong that we must differentiate ourselves from it as fully as practically possible. Only this way can truly new ways of thought occur in both us and the participants. 
You might think that one or two workshops conducted in this way might be enough to shake off the reflexive impulse to fall back into traditional modes of schooling and learning. But experience has shown otherwise – most starkly during our July 18 workshop. We had just conducted an activity that required chairs – one of very few such activities, and were having a discussion afterwards. The activity itself had gone very well – students had had productive group discussions and, as always, raised some very good points. For the discussion, we thought it would be too cumbersome to go back to our circle just to make a few comments, so we stayed in the arrangement we had been in during the activity. 
As it happened by the end of the activity most of the chairs were turned in the direction of the board, where a workshop leader was writing down what students were saying. It seems that his superficial resemblance to the traditional classroom was enough to re-ignite the habits of traditional learning in full force. We began our discussion, and students did something they had never done before – they stood up to speak, they faced and spoke to the “teacher," often even when responding to points others had made. It was but a short discussion, and we soon switched back to the circular arrangement, but it was a stark reminder of the mammoth deterministic power of the physical classroom. 
A few unfortunately arranged chairs, a workshop leader, and a board had threatened the fundamental structure of the ITSA classroom.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Confronting Social Mores, One Stereotype at a Time

Being in Ahmedabad with ITSA has certainly caused me to think more critically about how I perceive others based on social cues. Although much of this thought has occurred in adjusting to city life here, the “Stereotype-Rank Game” used in the ITSA workshop curriculum, helped me to further reflect on these interactions.

To play, participants are given a post-it note with a certain occupation on it – for example, male lawyer, female adult beggar, secondary school student, ITSA intern, etc. Although participants can see the post it notes on others’ heads labeling what social group others belong to, they cannot see what occupation is stuck on their forehead.

Participants are thus asked to guess what label is on their forehead through noticing how others treat them when engaging in conversation.

The activity ends by having participants try to sit in a circle and guess the label on the post it.

Ultimately, participants make a chart of how much power each individual from a social category carries. For instance, students ranked that a school principal possessed more power than a vegetable seller.

It’s interesting because both times that I saw individuals play these games – the workshop facilitators played it while preparing for the workshop, and the secondary school students played in the workshop -  was striking because it drew attention to just how many social cues others provide in order to identify how they should treat others.

I noticed that when both workshop participants and the ITSA interns had an easy time identifying what occupation they were, but how they discovered this information varied. Despite the differences in upbringing of the Indian workshop attendees and foreign interns, their interactions took on a similar character. For instance, individuals who were beggars in this activity discovered this information because of the body language of others, such as when others in the activity would not make eye contact with them. On the other hand, individuals playing roles such as school principal inferred the occupation on their sticky-note through verbal cues.

Watching the interns and workshop attendees play this game proved to be a timely reminder in thinking about how social inequities are reproduced through daily interactions. Inequities do not just exist through material means, such as through differences in access to health or housing, but also within interpersonal interactions. Words become a special form of currency reserved for those deemed powerful enough to provide a response; principals may fall into this category, while beggars do not.

Although the activity is known as the “Stereotype-Rank Game,” it touches uncomfortably close to the unspoken assumptions underlying everyday life.