At a time when we are being informed of the importance of incorporating greater levels of digital technology into our teaching, it is heartening to hear that there are still projects taking place that make a real difference to the lives of people without recourse to expensive resources. A recent article in India Together reports a successful initiative to raise levels of literacy amongst women and girls in poor communities in Rayagada, Kalahandi, Koraput and Nabarangpur districts of Odisha, and demonstrates that the critical factors in initiating successful learning and teaching are enthusiasm and innovation.
In villages in this area volunteer teachers, who come from similar circumstances and speak the local dialect, have been organising forty five day literacy camps in which they spend the mornings of each day teaching classes and encouraging individuals to gain the confidence to acquire and use new skills and knowledge. Whilst the focus of the teaching is upon raising levels of literacy amongst a population that has had little engagement with formal teaching, the intention is much broader and the interpretation of the term literacy is highly functional. Through the provision of skills associated with reading and writing, the female students are learning about critical issues associated with health, well-being and social skills.
Women in these areas have no history of schooling and live challenging subsistence lives in which they must work hard in order to ensure the welfare of their families. When the scheme was first mooted they were reluctant to participate, suggesting that this would be a distraction from their working lives and that they were able to live without the learning that was on offer. However, after a period of encouragement by the volunteers and with the added incentive of a meal provided at the end of each day’s lessons, some of the women gradually began to join the classes.
No formal resources are used for teaching in these workshops. The volunteer teachers draw upon the women’s own experiences and needs and have generated a social atmosphere in which the women gain pleasure from their interactions and are able to celebrate their achievements together. The teachers have called upon the traditional knowledge of the villagers in order to define the focus of the literacy teaching and have thereby demonstrated their respect for the members of these communities. The teaching of literacy has served as a vehicle for the women to learn more about health and social issues and has been seen as having a wholly practical function
After early reluctance to participate and a slow start to establishing this scheme, the workshops have gained momentum and there are new demands for similar approaches to be established elsewhere in the region. Awareness of the scheme and its benefits has been partly achieved through the work of Kalajatha, a traditional form of folk theatre which has travelled the region enacting stories that increase awareness of the advantages of literacy as well as giving important messages about health, welfare and hygiene.
Modern teaching approaches are, of course, helpful in today’s classrooms, and the use of technology can be a great motivator for children and teachers alike. But the first principles of teaching remain those associated with establishing respectful relationships and building upon existing knowledge. This has enabled the volunteers in Odisha to develop such a successful programme and to bring increased levels of literacy to local communities.
Most of the debate surrounding the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) in India has understandably focused upon the needs of children. But it is well known that the learning habits of parents, and the value that they place upon education has a significant impact upon the attitudes of children towards their own schooling. By providing these opportunities to mothers, many of whom take their children with them when they attend the workshops, the instigators of these sessions are establishing positive attitudes to learning. This is certainly an important initiative which should have long term benefits.
The literacy workshops are simple in their conception and basic in their delivery of teaching and learning. I suggest that in the environment in which the volunteer teachers are working this is the most appropriate approach that could have been developed. It is to be hoped that others may follow their example and that many more communities will gain similar advantages in the future.