Learnings From NASA & Fulbright Scholarship For Strengthening Indian Education System
Charu Mathur, Founder and Managing Director, Socrates Foundation for Enhanced Learning, describes how her training stints in US institutions introduced her to contemporary teaching methodologies needed for the 21st Century learner
Pune-based Charu Mathur began her career as a high school teacher teaching science and maths, using long-established classroom teaching methods. The years between 2008 to 2012 turned out to be a watershed period for her. “I was selected to attend both the Basic and Advanced educators’ training at NASA in 2008 and 2011 respectively, where I learnt to use space science as a tool to develop interest in basic sciences among students. In 2011, I was selected for a Fulbright Scholarship programme, undertaking six-month-long ‘International Leaders in Education Program’ from a prestigious university in the US, where I studied innovation in teaching and leadership in contemporary schools," Mathur informs.
These three training programmes validated her resolve to make the teaching process engaging, interesting and relevant for students, who are the future citizens of the 21st Century. “When I returned, I was completely motivated to put my learnings into practice. I quit my job and started the ‘not-for-profit’ organisation ‘Socrates Foundation for Enhanced Learning’. The mission of the foundation is to assist schools to strengthen their existing pedagogy and improve learning outcomes."
She adds, "We wanted to blend 21st-century skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity in the regular curriculum, not as separate subjects. This was our objective when we formed the Foundation,” she explains.
As regards why the name ‘Socrates’, she elaborates that the Greek philosopher’s assertion ‘I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think’ struck at the core of modern pedagogy. As opposed to the traditional ‘lecturing’ method, the Socratic method encourages students to actively engage in the learning process by asking questions, nudging them to dig deeper by getting involved in discussions, and becoming active seekers of answers, thereby developing problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
Her learnings at NASA and as a Fulbright scholar are the cornerstone of her Foundation’s ethos - conceptualise, design and implement innovative, relevant and customised learning modules that can bring about a transformative change in teaching methodologies across classrooms. The programmes also motivated her to prepare a training proposal that won her first of several grants from US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), to implement her first workshop in 2012 titled ‘Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Students through Space Science Activities’ in Pune. This was followed by several other student-centric programmes on cyber security, citizen journalism, service learning, Human Rights etc.
Introducing school administration, principals and teachers to the ‘reimagined pedagogy’ was a strategic decision taken by the Foundation for sustainability of these programmes. Teacher Training workshops began in 2015, with the first batch of 25 teachers trained as ‘Master Trainers’ under the programme ‘Technology Integration in Classrooms – Tech Master Trainer Programme. While this remains the most popular flagship programme, various other courses on instructional strategies, blended learning, constructivist classrooms, social & emotional learning, using films and comics as teaching tools and several others are meant to keep the teaching-learning process effective and efficient.
Leveraging technology tools in classroom teaching remains a key focus area of the training programmes. The adoption of technology in lesson plans remained lukewarm, till Covid changed the perspectives totally. “It was then that everybody realised the importance of technology in the classroom. We customised our content and switched over to online training modules. Our interactive, online course ‘Transiting from physical to Virtual Classrooms’ helped schools continue the teaching process despite the closure of schools during lockdown’," elaborates Mathur. Through these online trainings, the Foundation reached out to about 2,000 teachers from Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Gujarat and the North Eastern states, as well as Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
The customised training programmes of Socrates Foundation are subject and standard agnostic, thereby benefitting teachers from Kindergarten to class XII, as well as faculty at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Training initiatives have benefitted over 7,500 teachers, over 5,000 students & hundreds of parents across India & abroad. She acknowledges the support that she has received from US Consulate, ECA & IREX, Rotary Club of Khadki, Foseco India Limited and Persistent Systems Limited for being able to reach out to the educators’ community with her programmes.
The Foundation serves the needs of schools in rural and semi-urban areas too. She describes an instance of training in one such school where the teachers were very grateful for the quality of training that they received. “The first reaction of the teachers after the training was that they never get to attend this type of training because everybody who comes to the rural area thinks that teachers in these schools need something very basic.” On the other hand, the Socrates Foundation provides the latest teaching tools in its training, which it calls ‘Classrooms of the Future’.
Her advice to teachers - “We can't predict what the future holds for you. Nevertheless, you should continually upskill yourself and adopt the best practices to engage with the students. These digital natives learn in a very different way, and our aim should be to bridge the gap between how they learn and how we teach.”
Plans for the future
Future is uncertain at best, and same holds true for the Socrates Foundation too. As Mathur shares, “Our approach is to be adaptable and agile. It's difficult for any organisation to survive for long unless it innovates and adapts. I can't say that I have a fixed plan, but we are definitely very responsive to changes and innovative in our approach. We'll try and reach out to as many people as we can, and are careful about the quality of programmes that we offer.”
Gender in schools
An area of concern is the skewed gender ratio in the professional community of teachers. Shedding light on this, Mathur says, “It is a women-dominated area - that is what everybody understands and agrees. But when I conduct trainings, especially in rural areas or semi-urban areas, there are more male teachers who attend the programmes.” The reason for this, she says, could be that female teachers have to balance their school-family life commitments and for them to take out time other than that routine is difficult. “And that’s why women don't get a chance to actually upgrade and upskill themselves. It's the men who are always coming forward.”
For this reason, she says, programmes that are done on the school premises and where administrators are involved, show better results than where teachers are supposed to travel to an outside location. The motivation level is higher and the chances of learnings being implemented are also higher.
Women leaders in education
On the issue of women educators shifting their focus from core teaching skills to taking up leadership roles, Mathur says, “Leadership is something actually women can do very well, but they need to be mentored to do that because they lack confidence.”
She adds, “Not everybody is self-motivated. Not everybody gets that sort of exposure where one sees leadership at work and gets inspired. So, we need to constantly keep pushing them to learn more, to upskill themselves and to get yourself mentored.”
She aptly puts it, “They need to understand that completing a course on Teachers’ Education Programme doesn't mean that they have become a teacher for life because things are changing at a very rapid pace. They need to upskill themselves. Once they upskill themselves, they get more confidence and that's the first step for leadership.”
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