A Teacher Learning Centre shows how to create a local and vibrant community of intellectual exchange and social support
It was in Kembavi that it started. A discussion of a group of teachers had just got over at the Teacher Learning Centre (TLC) and some of them were complaining about the sole computer not working reliably. I was amused to hear that their real interest in the computer was to do with the standard movie-making software. Some of them had been trying to make movies, edit it, and give voice-over, etc., on the computer.
They were all government school teachers from around Kembavi. After one round of complaining was over, I asked: "Can you not use this film-making for your students?" This incident happened in January.
Kembavi is 30km from Surpur, the taluka (administrative subdivision) headquarters; the district is Yadgir, in north-east Karnataka (NEK). This area is no different from the disadvantaged parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Rajasthan. For most whose impressions of Karnataka are formed by the glitz of Bangalore or languorous estates in Coorg, NEK will seem like another country; these districts are among the most deprived in the country on lists that assess human and social development indices.
I returned to Surpur in June. In the heat, the landscape there is menacing. Hills of rocks all around, you seem to be in one of the scorching scenes of Sholay. I was taken to the first floor of the government Urdu Elementary School. One room in the school is used as the Surpur TLC. The school was stuck on one of the rocky hills. One old haveli joined with another old building attached to two new rooms, made the school. Getting in required us to go through a maze of low doors, down a short flight of stairs, and up another.
The TLC room was darkened. It was ready for a movie show. It was full of teachers and some of my colleagues. My friend and colleague Umashankar, who had been with me through the trip, had kept this secret well; actually for the past six months. He sat with me gurgling with laughter and happiness as the events of the next 90 minutes unfolded.
I was told that they had taken up the challenge that I had thrown at them in January, and had made films for children, and that's what they were going to show me. To pick up one statement in one meeting as a challenge takes a certain character and sensibility.
They showed me five films. Each of the film made by them was directly related to something in the curriculum that they were teaching at school. Each was 4-5-minute long, shot on the small, cheap digital camera at TLC and edited on the computer there. The films' topics ranged from water scarcity to pottery and to different modes of travel. It even included a short animated story.
The films were of excellent quality. Well-thought-through scripts, excellent shots, appropriate voice-over and music, almost professional editing; it was hard to believe they were made by a bunch of government elementary school teachers living in villages and towns around Surpur.
They were very excited. They had become film-makers, who have an almost mythical status in our country. Each one of them narrated how the films were helping them in the class. It used to take two 45-minute periods to teach the transport lesson, with the film it was being done in more effectively in one period. The intricacy of pottery, from collection of the mud to baking, was there for all to see. By comparing ponds in a few villages, the causes of water scarcity had come alive. And so on. After the show was over they discussed their plans, of involving more teachers and also children and then we parted.
The films in themselves were good, but their effect on the teachers was far more dramatic. It has given them a sense of confidence that is far more valuable. They had taken charge of the curriculum, in a way which usually only remains as a wish of educationists. It is one of the most effective capacity development exercises that I have seen for teachers. As an aside it is also one of the few truly effective uses of technology that I have seen in the reality of our country, enhancing real education rather than stunting it.
But let's not start distributing digital cameras. All this (and much more) has happened only with the sustained institutional space created by TLC—that is the heart of the issue. Our system with its institutional rigidities, super-centralized structures and an approach that treats teachers (and others) as irrelevant cogs in the wheel breeds indifference. A TLC subverts this situation, creating a local and vibrant community of intellectual exchange and social support, while still being very much a part of the system.
But it does take long; in the case of Surpur it has taken eight years of work to get here. There are no short cuts in the journey to improving education.