Abhijit Bardhan is using his established networks to launch a grassroots movement to train teachers to change the way science is taught in government-run schools. He began by creating a competitive program to reward innovative scientific experiments in secondary schools. It culminated in the National Children's Science Congress. In getting the program established nationally, Abhijit realized that only a fraction of secondary school children were participating, which caused him to launch a new effort to bring innovative science education to all students in a new way: through their teachers.
Beginning in rural West Bengal, Abhijit is launching a national teachers' movement that advocates large-scale reforms in curriculum and teaching methods in government schools. A teacher in a remote, rural government school, Abhijit has generated large-scale interest and enthusiasm among the teachers who now realize that teaching can be fun even in a resource-poor, large student population. He introduces teachers to scientific experiments, mathematical puzzles, and mapping of the local environment to understand social science concepts. These techniques are then used in the classroom to make the lessons interesting and interactive, thus improving student attendance and enthusiasm toward school work. Abhijit is making learning more relevant to the future lives of the students and is relating what is in the books to their "real" environment. He is engaging the students in a dialogue and discussion so that they remember what they learn. The aim is to adapt their cognitive abilities to the needs of a changing social system.
According to a study conducted across India by the National Council for Educational Research and Training, the national body that sets the curriculum and standards for teaching, secondary school students fared poorly when tested on practical application of what was being taught in school. Several attempts by the education system to popularize science education and to introduce innovative teaching methods failed in enabling the students to apply their knowledge and acquire lateral thinking skills and problem-solving aptitude.
In the past, teachers were significantly underpaid; their jobs were thankless with few or no incentives. They worked in a resource-poor environment and were not interested in taking on any additional responsibility to make the lessons more engaging.
The government increased the pay of school teachers across the country and the teachers received arrears, which added up to a significant sum. Now the teachers feel validated and are willing to support Abhijit's effort on their own. Abhijit is seizing this opportunity and garnering teachers' support and putting them in charge of solving the problem. He is empowering them with the methods to do this.
A teacher for many years, Abhijit and a small group of "resource" persons started by organizing science camps in schools. The basic aim of the camps, which sprang from the experience of the Bhopal tragedy in the 1980s, was to make the connection between science and society. These camps became extremely popular and were replicated in different parts of West Bengal. The camps helped produce groups of student advocates for Abhijit's program. Senior students, even when they leave the camps, provide a support base for the program.
Abhijit decided to train high school teachers to use experiments and other simple techniques to make the lessons interesting. For this he initiated workshops with government school teachers. School education authorities were invited to the workshops. They were so impressed with the teacher turnout and enthusiasm that they decided to give the teachers time off from official duty to attend the workshops. Now the training workshops have picked up momentum, and teachers are taking it upon themselves to organize the workshops with their own resources thus making it a teacher-driven program, rather than something imposed on them. This is an important achievement for Abhijit since it is helping build ownership for the program.
A handbook and kit for science and math teaching have already been produced. They are now being pretested and will be ready for publication (with government support) by the end of the year and will be available for 50 rupees a pack. A manual for social sciences is being developed. The teacher-training workshops are designed first to understand and appreciate the resource-poor conditions under which the teachers operate and second to help them realize their potential within these constraints. Abhijit and his team have received an overwhelming response from the teachers and have been impressed by the commitment the teachers can reach when they are inspired. In the last five months more than 500 teachers have been trained in the South 24 Pargana district of West Bengal.
Abhijit is working to make South 24 Parganas a model district where there will be one complex with a higher secondary school, three to four secondary schools, and three to four primary schools. Each complex will have its own pool of resource persons to conduct workshops within the complex. There will be regular interactions between teachers, students, and the parents. There are about 800 schools in this district out of which 500 are already members of the program. If 10 teachers of the school are members of the forum then the entire school becomes a member. Membership is a nominal fee of 20 rupees a year per teacher. There are plans to give a piggy bank to all students and ask them to collect about 10 rupees a month from the village. This money will then be put into the school education fund. After each workshop there will be an open forum discussion among the teachers to decide on how to utilize the funds, what kind of training is required, what will be the activities vis-à-vis field trips. There will also be a printed wall magazine in every school complex reporting the activities.
Abhijit envisions this model school district will be ready in six months. Then teachers and school authorities from other parts of the state can be brought here on exposure trips. Since the teachers organize everything themselves and nothing is imposed on them, the exposure will help the teachers decide for themselves the kind of training they need and when to take it up.
Abhijit has been interested in working with science and people for a long time. During his student days in the 1980s he became involved with the Bengal Science Association, which had been started by the noted scientist S.N. Bose to spread scientific awareness and thought in the mother tongue. Then he joined the Students Health Home, an organization run by schools and colleges to provide low-cost healthcare.
Following the Bhopal gas tragedy in the early 1980s, a network of scientifically curious activists joined together in India. The people active in this network were passionate about building an interest in science and scientific temperament among the young, and they had the zeal to transform this passion into an activist movement.
In 1987 the Ministry of Science of the Government of India decided to organize the "Rashtriya Jana Vigyan Jathas" with the objective of promoting science and rational thinking across the country and of collecting information on teaching standards and local initiatives on science education in rural India. Four jathas, or ceremonial processions, started from the four corners of the country; they were to meet at Bhopal. Each jatha traveled more than 10,000 kilometers over 45 days. Every 30 kilometers the jatha would stop to perform, demonstrate the floats and tableaus that were accompanying the jatha, and collect data on the problems of the local people, local innovations, inventions, and knowledge. As the leader of the Eastern Regional jatha, Abhijit gained invaluable experience both in being able to understand people, their needs and problems and in being able to deal with the emergencies and logistical problems that are a natural part of leading an effort as large as the jatha.
Abhijit's involvement in relief efforts after the Bhopal tragedy had a long-term impact on his career. It was in Bhopal that Abhijit made the connection between science education and the concept of activism; the vision and philosophy of "alternatives" in development and also in education dawned on him. Abhijit nurtured the contacts made in Bhopal and launched the science education camps that led ultimately to the Children's National Science Congress.
During this time Abhijit continued as a teacher, commuting two-and-half-hours each way to his village school with no electricity and 15 teachers for 1,800 students. Now that his program has gained momentum, he cannot sustain activities by asking for time off from school. He needs to devote his energy full-time to launching this teachers' movement across the country.