I completed my first three-day trip to a group of Indian colleges to provide training in “student-centered learning”- it was a wonderful adventure! Although my plan was to conduct these trainings in the big city of Chennai, this group had contacted the Fulbright office on their own requesting support from American visitors. The Fulbright staff were impressed with the enthusiasm of this group coming from a rural area who wanted to upgrade their teaching skills and connect to the larger world. We spent most of the day practicing student group work and discussions, modeling how to mix the traditional lecture format with student engagement and participation.
Most Indians still live in rural areas. This town, Villapuram, is located in an agricultural area where a variety of crops are grown: paddy (rice), sugarcane, and some cash crops like cashew nuts. A wealthy Hindu family started the colleges several decades ago with the hope of uplifting women with education. Since then, they have also established a co-ed college, a nursing school, and an engineering school.
I was asked to train 55 faculty, although I prefer to limit my training groups to 35 for effectiveness. So we proceeded with this rather large group, who impressed me with their enthusiasm! We made do with a rather crowded meeting room, and spent two full days practicing and demonstrating a range of hands-on classroom activities. You will notice that in India men and women tend to sit apart, but I made sure that the working groups included both men and women. After some time, everyone seemed to be very relaxed and engaged.
Faculty shared a lot of skepticism and concern about these Western-style methods of learning because of India’s current rigid educational system. Students grow up memorizing and repeating information on exams created by external examining bodies. The exam system continues to be the focus, not quality of learning or skill development. Classrooms are small and over crowded with little room for group work and physical movement. Teachers are expected to cram a huge amount of information into students’ heads. My approach has been to encourage them to implement student participation in small increments, to experiment, to push the boundaries as much as they can. I decided to call myself a farmer: planting seeds! It is up to them, I said, to water and nurture these seeds as they choose. Surely some will sprout. They seemed to relate well to the metaphor.