So far, I have just posted blogs about the sightseeing that the ITSA interns have done in Ahmedabad, but, as Emma already said, our reason for being here is not merely to explore the country, but to explore and gain a deeper understanding of the Indian education system. Before actually arriving here and participating in the workshops, Riana Shah & Jwalin Patel (the 19 year old co-founders and co-director of ITSA) had described the Indian educational system as extremely strict and rigid. The reason for this, she explained (I am going to give some brief history now, so stay with me), was that the Indian education system was set up under British Rule during the industrial revolution, and as a result was aimed at creating technicians, not independent thinkers. Consequently, the Indian education system involves a lot of rote memorization and teaching directly from textbooks, as opposed to discussion based, seminar style classes. However, not until I actually got a chance to participate in the workshops and talk with the students did this become evident.
Above is Rajvi (right) and Paranshi (left), laughing while playing The Boat Game. They were, no doubt, laughing about the fact that another participant, Nishant, had just said, “we must keep the 150 kg man. He’s most certainly a wrestler.”
On the first day, every student was asked to describe themselves in one word (the workshop’s theme was identity), and most of the kids described themselves as “obedient” or “tactful”, or, most popularly, “disciplined”, as opposed to what you might hear at Bard (to name a few: creative, independent, or a learner for the sake of learning). Afterwards, when we moved on to open-class discussion, most of the interns (myself included) felt that the students responded in a way that they thought we would approve of, instead of responding openly and self-critically. Riana & Jwalin explained this by saying that these kids had been hand-selected by their teachers to participate in the ITSA workshops, which means they already knew how to effectively promote themselves and give their teachers exactly what was expected of them.
In yesterday’s workshop, which was the fourth, we did a very provocative exercise called “The boat game.” In the boat game, you have 15 people who are described in only a couple of words, like a sikh man in the army, a beggar woman, a muslim mother, a 10 year old maid, etc. The world is undergoing some sort of epidemic, like a flood, and only 10 out of the 15 can fit on the boat, based solely on their few word descriptions. What this exercise aimed at doing was to explicate the point that you cannot define, or stereotype, a person based on only thing. The man who was described as 150kg, might be a genius, for example, or the smoker–an engineer. However, interestingly we found that the students had many pre-concieved notions, no doubt propagated by their society, their parents, and their educational system. For example, all of the groups eliminated the beggar woman without much hesitation pretty early on, and seemed to have no concept that certain social structures might change once only 10 people were left on Earth.
What this exercise, and the workshops as a whole, made clear to me is just how stifled these kids are when it comes to independent thought, and when it comes to doubting the structure of the world around them. In light of this, ITSA is like a breath of fresh air. In a set of interviews which we conducted yesterday (led by intern Mariah Widman), one of the participants, Paranshi, said, “every week I can’t wait for Friday’s and Sunday’s to come, so I can go to the ITSA workshops! It’s what I look forward to during the school week.” And considering that sunday is the only day these kids have off, that’s saying a lot.
Ana Powell is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom. Ana worked with ITSA as a Workshop Leader in 2011.