A new way of learning to challenge poverty

Nearly three decades ago Geeta Dharmarajan had a vision. She wanted to bring education to the children of Delhi’s overcrowded slums – who were being denied school because they had to work, selling patties or collecting rubbish to help their family survive – but she did not believe traditional teaching methods would succeed.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

An enthusiastic supporter of indigenous culture, instead she chose to harness the power of story to help lift families out of poverty. She wanted to bring the joy of reading to children through books that celebrate India’s myriad storytelling cultures.

Dharmarajan set to work in the Govindpuri, a large slum cluster in the south of the city, which was populated by families from rural areas in neighbouring states who had migrated to the capital in the hope of finding work. They were squatting in shacks and rudimentary buildings lacking water and sanitation, with no electricity, and no drainage, infested with flies and mosquitoes, and served only by lumpen mud tracks that turned to sludge in the heavy rains.

The average family income was Rs600 to Rs800 (then worth US$35 to US$47) a month and most children did not go to school.

Dharmarajan started as a children’s writer and volunteer with a colourful cartoon magazine, Tamasha, for first-generation school-goers, about health and the environment, designed to encourage the joy of learning. But she soon realised that children “first had to learn to read before they could walk the road out of poverty to self-reliance”.

From scratch in 1988 she built up a community-based organisation, Katha, and what she calls a “de-school”, established in 1990, in a former block of one-room dwellings, to bring a new way of learning, without textbooks, that would inspire children to explore their curiosity about the world, helping them succeed at school and become agents of change in their community.

At the same time the Katha Lab School has been offering income-generation training to women – in baking, electrical skills and tailoring for instance – to help them replace the income lost by sending their children to school, and in so doing overcoming a key barrier to parents allowing their children to go to classes.

A travelling bus campaign ran for ten years using storytelling, theatre and art to interest street children in reading and learning.

The work of the NGO she founded has been transformative and Dharmarajan believes there are important lessons that higher education can learn to better prepare their students for tackling society’s challenges.

The NGO, Katha (which means ‘story’ in most Indian languages), has brought schooling to one million children over the past 28 years and four out of five children from Katha Lab School, which caters for 1,200 students, now go on to tertiary education, at universities and technical institutes in Delhi. Many of the school’s alumni now have jobs with well-known organisations such as IBM, Citibank or in central government or the Delhi municipal corporation.

Along the way the school has gathered support from a long list of international organisations including ActionAid, British Asian Trust, British Telecom, Citibank, the European Union, the Ford Foundation, the International Labour Organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Dell Foundation, UNESCO, UNICEF, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the British Council and the USIS; and a host of Indian organisations, ranging from the Delhi government to the National Commission for Women and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Tata Trusts and the Tech Mahindra Foundation.

Katha’s reading campaigns, working with street children and in government schools, have brought the joy of reading to more than six million children. And more than 200,000 women have been trained in income-generation skills and social activism.

Pioneering publisher

But Katha has also been a pioneering publisher of indigenous literature, focusing on culturally distinctive children’s stories that foster curiosity and counter prejudice and stereotypes – Dharmarajan herself is an accomplished children’s writer – and has translated from Indian languages more than 100 books for children and 100 for adults and offered numerous prizes to encourage indigenous writers.

Dharmarajan’s achievements and those of the NGO she founded, in transforming the outlook for slum children from likely school dropouts to college graduates, is giving slum families the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

Dharmarajan herself has been awarded the fourth-highest civilian award in India, the Padmi Shri, for literature and education.

Katha’s work has been recognised internationally. The organisation has been nominated three times for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, sometimes dubbed the ‘Nobel prize in literature’, for its contribution to Indian literature for children and adults. And one of Dharmarajan’s own books for children earned the Darsana National Award 2011 for Best Children’s Book.

Other laurels include the Stockholm Challenge Laureate Award in 2001, the NASDAQ Education Award, and the 2012 Millennium Award instituted by the governments of India and the US, where Dharmarajan was named Innovator.

Katha started in education by working with four slum communities. By 2004 this had multiplied to 22 and today that number has multiplied tenfold, with some 1,500 volunteers “working to see that reading and the joy of reading happens”, Dharmarajan says. “India's children must get the quality books,and education they deserve, not just what their parents can afford.”

Today Katha has 9,450 children in 43 Katha Schools in Delhi and in four tribal schools in Arunachal Pradesh.

In addition, in 2009, on the basis of an extensive evaluation, the Delhi government asked Katha to scale up their activities and work with 500 government schools to help bring children into grade level reading.

Focus on creativity

What marked Katha’s lab school out from government schools was its focus on creativity and Dharmarajan’s innovative education framework “story pedagogy” which puts the children at the centre of the learning process, with the teacher as mentor. This fun pedagogy is being followed in the Katha Schools and other schools where teachers have been trained by Katha.

Katha found that children were not attending municipal schools regularly and the opportunity cost of sending children to school was not the only cause of large numbers of dropouts. Traditional methods of rote learning did not capture the imagination of children, and, coming from non-literate families, most had no one at home to help them with reading.

When this writer visited the Katha school it had become a haven of creativity and child friendly learning. Walking through the school’s iron gates I saw a giant children’s mobile of planets overhanging a narrow courtyard, night blue skies glistening with gold paper stars on the tiny classroom walls, pre-school children testing an iron rocking machine to its limits in a play corner, and a harmonium and tabla drums being squeezed and patted in the theatre room while students acted out a satirical play.

Indigenous literature is included in the curriculum and wherever possible subjects are taught through stories. Poor children do not have to buy textbooks to attend the school because young children use flashcards, games and singing and miming; and older children instead use activity guides, peer group research and a reference library, and were encouraged to take ownership of their own learning.

Students are encouraged to don the guise of science sleuths, bio-spies, geo-detectives, puzzle solvers, media hounds and legal eagles to learn their prescribed curriculum.

Social campaigns

And a key part of that learning involves carrying out community and market surveys which not only help them develop their analytical, reasoning and questioning skills but also enable them to generate information about local services that arm the community with the facts they need to challenge government to change their situation.

Children have taken part in social campaigns such as Say No to Tobacco, Say No to Polythene Bags, the Anti-Cracker Campaign and the Dengue Rally. But they have also carried out their own research and considered how the problems of poor health and poverty can be addressed.

The donation of a microscope, for example, enabled them to examine microbes in the drinking water and test ways of putting bottles out in the sun to disinfect the water.

Through a partnership with British Telecom and Intel and donations, Dharmarajan secured 50 computers and designed two child friendly computer labs where children can investigate in teams. When I visited they had been going out into the community to survey and record information on issues such as the sanitation and water supply problems, map them on their computers and think of ways to solve them. This information was then used by the community to put the case for improvements in services to the municipal authorities.

Five or six years ago when the authorities started holding consultations in the slum communities on water, electricity and primary health, the children went out and made short films on problems that needed to be addressed, such as the centre that had been locked up and left empty for six months, to show to the officials.

“The child is doing [the learning] and getting excited,” Dharmarajan says. “And by the time they reach college the children will be able to bring about change of herself, able to look at society and see this is what I like and don’t like.”

“When you think like that, whether you land up in university, a job or at some technical institute, you will become entrepreneurial. The way Katha defines entrepreneurship is not just being able to start your own business, but that in a job you take responsibility, be a leader, take things on your own.”

Scale up activities

Now Katha is working with 100,000 children in slums and in schools in Delhi.

Not only do Katha students take responsibility for their own learning, but they bring learning to others. Katha has 1,500 students who are taking their learning into the slums and passing it on to others. Each of those has three or four students of their own, who in turn have three or four students of their own.

Dharmarajan cites an example of nine and 10 year-olds going up to 15 and 16 year-olds in the street with a borrowed mini-computer and teaching them how to use Flash. She concedes that there is no guarantee that the peer teaching is good quality, but it is an important part of Katha’s attempts to spread enthusiasm for stories through 45,000 children living in 200 slums and another 50,000 or so studying in government schools.

The impact of Katha’s methodology is rippling outwards, internationally too, through a partnership with Melbourne University, Australia. For the past five or six years students and professors from Melbourne have worked in the schools every year and in return Katha’s teachers have been invited to Melbourne for training. And Dharmarajan is working with the Encyclopaedia Britannica on what she calls an “untextbook series” for teaching/learning English in schools across the country.

Dharmarajan’s journey from teacher to story writer, educational leader and social entrepreneur began in rural Tamil Nadu in south India, where she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and was used to seeing great eagerness among parents for their children to go to school. She was shocked when she came north to Delhi in the 1980s – when her husband, a civil servant, moved jobs – and found a very different picture.

She has her own theory that since the north has borne the brunt of all the invasions of India, including by Alexander the Great and the Moghuls, the experience has encouraged a “regressive culture” in which children were not going to school because men always felt the need to protect their children and their women and that this culture has continued into modern India, even though it is no longer needed.

“There is a feeling [among them] that girls need not go to school, must be protected and married off,” she says. “I thought if we can get girls excited about going to school, maybe some change will happen.”

Now some of those girls, as well as boy students, are coming back as alumni suited and booted and working for companies like IBM.

One day recently Dharmarajan was heading for the school when she saw an official car drive past with a red light on top, denoting a government minister or other important person on official business. When she arrived at the school she found the car parked there, and inside a former student was visiting. She had passed her civil service exam and worked her way up to deputy secretary, and had come back to give a talk to pupils at her alma mater.

Another mark of Katha’s impact is that while a typical family in the Govindpuri slum cluster earns Rs4,000 or Rs5,000, Katha’s children are now earning 20 to 30 times what their family was bringing in.

Challenge inequity

Geeta Dharmarajan studied in Chennai (formerly Madras), completing a masters at Madras University before moving to the US, where she was an assistant editor of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Gazette, famously founded by Benjamin Franklin. Ten years ago she returned to the US, this time to Harvard for a course for CEOs of non-profits, which helped her refresh her thinking on Katha’s mission.

University World News asked her what higher education could do to create more people like her, who could find ways to challenge social inequity and achieve transformative change.

“Higher education in India does not allow young people to think, to ask questions, to bring them into lively discussions, to take that into an action point where they can go and change society – even if it's only a small change,” she says.

“Until we change our Ivory Tower way of learning in Indian colleges and universities we are always going to be producing people who don’t fit into any work situation at all."

She says she has been able to mould her own story, to change her life, but she questions how college can prepare young people for that.

“Humanities for instance, are moving out in India, yet the humanities make us humane, they give us an understanding of who we are and the life we are living. How can I be a leader if I don’t know the human predicament?”

She says higher education is becoming so compartmentalised that the student doing economics doesn’t know anything about society, doesn’t tackle any of the problems people experience in the slums, for instance.

She also says that too often people dismiss children from non-literate families as not having the leadership qualities the country needs.

“We are always looking at children from English medium schools, fancy colleges, to get into the civil service, banks and hospitals. But with about 400 million children aged 0-18 can India really say only the cream of society can lead the country?

“We have to give up learning from textbooks, move away from direct instruction and learn from life, do more learning on our own,” she adds.

“I am not saying I am a great leader, but to produce leaders that is what I hope India will do.”