Interview

Meet the woman who is redefining the way children learn English

Photo: Sidharth Soma

Kanchan Shine,  an educationist  who has worked for over 12 years in the education sector, is now transforming the way  young children adapt to learning.

“I have been inspired by Prof. Sugata Mitra. Through his projects, Hole in the Wall & School In the Cloud, Prof. Mitra proved that children have the ability to teach themselves. This does not mean that schools can function without teachers; it means that some part of the learning can be offloaded to other means, like a computer-based program. Thus, I began researching how we can use computer-based programs to help non-english speaking children develop English reading skills,” says Shine. She aimed to get five-year olds, (first generation English Language Learners) teach themselves to read by performing activities on a phonics software application.

India Today Prime had a conversation with Shine over her project.

So how did you get this idea and what was your vision?

I have always been passionate about education. I have been working in this field for 13 years. And I am currently pursuing my Masters in Education. My company works with schools and publishers in the private sector, where every year, new and effective methods of teaching and learning are being introduced. But if you look around, you will realise that nothing changes at the ground level. Majority of the people in our country don’t have access to private schools, and they continue to receive the education that was designed and developed decades back. There is a huge gap in the quality of education provided in our country. Those who can afford it, get the best kind of education, while those who can’t have to make do with whatever is available. One of the challenges that our country faces is lack of well trained teaching staff; we know that teachers are the ultimate deliverers of education, to change the way we teach means we have to train teachers at a mass level – it is not impossible, but it will take a long time to make that change happen. What can we do while we wait for that kind of change to happen?

I have been inspired by Prof. Sugata Mitra. Through his projects, Hole in the Wall & School In the Cloud, Prof. Mitra proved that children have the ability to teach themselves. This does not mean that schools can function without teachers; it means that some part of the learning can be offloaded to other means, like a computer-based program. Thus, I began researching how we can use computer-based programs to help non-english speaking children develop English reading skills. Through my research, I realised that people in other countries have conducted such type of study and have had success. Then, I decided to conduct my own study – my goal was to get 5-year olds, (first generation English Language Learners) teach themselves to read by performing activities on a phonics software application – a method Prof. Sugata Mitra calls Minimally Invasive Education – as the name suggests, this method has very little teacher intervention and requires students to teach themselves.

I wrote a paper about what I was proposing to do and backed it up with education theories. Then, I reached out to people to share my idea. I approached every big and small NGO/not-for-profit organisation working in this space, requesting them to read my paper and give me a chance to present my idea in person to them. 90% of them never responded, while the remaining 10% gave me an ear and politely refused to try the idea, because it wasn’t in line with their goals.

Then I met, Mr. Kelkar, who has worked on various grassroots development projects across the country. He listened to my idea over a cup of coffee, read my research paper, and introduced me to a government-aided English medium school. I made a presentation to the trustees and staff, and got a green signal to begin on 2nd January.

What has been the impact of your project so far?

The project was planned as a  36 hour intervention program across 3 months (3 sessions a week). I began by conducting a reading assessment of 50 students in Sr. Kg class. The school does not teach phonics. The children were asked to read simple sentences and answer questions and their performance was marked on a scale. The class teacher and one school trustee were part of the assessment. 34 students were in the red zone, that is, they were students who struggled to read words; they could only read the letters, not pronounce the word that the letters made.

Out of this list of 34, I used a random selection formula to select 28 students, 14 boys and 14 girls – because the computer lab in the school has only 14 computers.

The school purchased the membership of the website that has developed the phonics program. It is a US-based non-for-profit foundation, and the one-year membership for a computer lab (unlimited number of computers within a LAN) is approx. Rs 10,000/-. The activities available on the website are well designed, and I felt that it had a huge cost-benefit, because ’n’ number of students can benefit from a one-year membership. I created a curriculum plan, detailing which activities the students would do in each session, and how they would progress across the different reading levels. The school procured headsets for the students, as the activities require students to listen to phonic sounds. I did not charge the school any fees for conducting the study. The school assigned one teacher to the computer lab, who would facilitate the sessions for the students.

Photo: Sidharth Soma

Shine interacting with children in her classroom. Photo: Sidharth Soma

I planned to video record all the sessions, because I wanted to document the ongoings as well as have tangible proof to showcase the impact – especially the before and after reading progress of the selected students. I ran a crowdsourcing campaign to generate the funds for paying the director who agreed to shoot all the sessions and create a documentary at the end of the program.

The selected 28 students began attending the ‘Language Lab’ 3-times a week. I began with 2 induction sessions – the purpose was to teach them to use the mouse. None of these students have ever worked on a computer. They don’t have a computer at their homes. But it took them only 1 hour to learn to use the mouse on their own. I demonstrated on one computer the point and click and click and drag functions. Then, I asked them to try it on their own, they struggled, but within an hour all of them were able to point and click and click and drag .

At the beginning of each 1 hour session, I would set the agenda, that is, I would tell them what activity they would have to do. In the beginning, the progress was very slow – the students were used to recognise letters with their names – A, Bee, See, Dee… Now, through the program, they had to say ऐ, ब, क –  I wasn’t sure how long the unlearning and new learning process would take. But, after about 4 sessions, they began grasping the phonetic sounds. And then, I would sit back and watch in awe, as they listened to phonetic sounds and words on their headsets and began repeating them aloud. I would end each session by having them read aloud words on flashcards that I had prepared – this was done to get them acquainted with the print format. I would track their reading progress on a chart, children who would read well would get ‘gold stars’ on the chart – this worked as a great motivation for them.

To ensure that the program was progressing as planned, I had planned a mid-assessment after the 8th session. The students were put through an informal reading assessment, based on the words they had learnt in their previous sessions. The mid-assessment results showed a distinct change in some students, while a mild change in the others – the fact that change was happening was an achievement for me.

Children participate in an engaging session with Shine. Photo: Sidharth Soma

As of today, 4th April, the students have only 3 more sessions to go. On 7th April, I will repeat the assessment with the children. They will take the same assessment that they were not able to clear before we began the program. I am quite confident that majority of the students will be able to clear the assessment with ease. They have made drastic progress in reading since they began; I have been watching them read sentences through the program. When they come across a new word, they immediately say the phonic sounds of each letter and then attempt to pronounce the word – this is a very positive development.

Are you seeking any external funding to your project?    

I am not seeking any external funding for the project. I intend to charge a one-time consultancy fee to enable others schools to implement and execute this program. The pilot program was done only for Sr. KG students; but the program can be implemented right from Nursery to Standard 2, within the one-year membership amount.

The program is very easy to implement for a school. The minimum requirements for a school are: a computer lab, good-speed, reliable Internet connection, good quality headsets, one-year subscription membership of the website and a facilitator.

What are your goals for the next 2 years?        

To enable schools to use technology and effective teaching methods and create engaging and meaningful learning experiences for students.

What is your opinion on conventional versus creative learning?

The late, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam said ’Educationists should build the capacities of the spirit of inquiry, creativity, entrepreneurial and moral leadership among students and become their role model.’ The concepts (addition, subtraction, air, water, atoms/molecules) that we learnt in school are the same as our children learn today, but the way of learning and teaching has to change.

We were taught to memorise data, because we didn’t have information available at our fingertips. But that is not the same case today. Information and data is available everywhere, in all formats. Children are not expected to memorise it. Instead they will are expected to figure out what can be done with the available information and data –  they have to be able to analyse it, organize it,  use it to foresee future trends/solutions/challenges.

Today, education is not just about teaching ‘content’ it is also about ‘building competencies’, and the only way to do that is by adopting creative teaching methods, which have been around for many decades. Around the world, countries have recognised this, and are working actively to reform their education systems, the reform has started in India too, and I’m doing my bit to help make the change.

To learn more about her project write to Kanchan@episteme-learning.com

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