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Editor's note: In August 2017, six North Carolina STEM teachers traveled to India to learn about India's education system, economic development, and STEM education. Thanks to Burroughs Wellcome Fund in partnership with the University of North Carolina and Go Global NC, they were able to visit public and private schools, universities, businesses, and nonprofits from Bangalore to Delhi. This week we are looking back on the trip and offering reflections and lessons learned.

In October, EducationNC staff traveled to Asheville to catch up with five of the teachers who traveled to India and hear about how the trip impacted their teaching this year. In partnership with the Collider, we hosted a panel with five of the teachers and Jenny Dissen from the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies, who grew up in India and has worked on their national climate assessment. Several themes emerged as the teachers and Dissen reflected on education in India. 

“Good teaching looks like good teaching no matter where you are”

One of the similarities the teachers noted between their experiences in North Carolina and India was the pedagogical methods they observed in India. As Lily Dancy-Jones stated, “Good teaching looks like good teaching no matter where you are.”

The teachers observed similar pedagogical strategies and teachers who really cared about their students. At one school, we observed Teach for India fellows who were employing similar classroom management techniques as Teach for America corps members in the United States. 

Students in Dancy-Jones’ biology class match pictures and descriptions of different steps in the translation and transcription processes.

Teaching students to think critically remains a challenge in both the U.S. and India

Another similarity Matt Kinnaird observed was the challenge of getting students to think critically. He went to India on a mission to learn how to teach his own students critical thinking, but he soon learned through discussions with teachers in India that they also struggle with increasing rigor and critical thinking in their classes. 

Nathan Arvey said he saw more emphasis on procedural understanding and “drill and kill” teaching methods than a focus on conceptual understanding. He felt like the teaching methods he saw in India were similar to how teachers in North Carolina were teaching five years ago before shifting to teaching students a more conceptual understanding.

Students in Kinnaird’s physics class used rockets to learn about projectiles moving at an angle.

There is a nationwide emphasis on STEM education in India

One of the major differences between the U.S. and India the teachers observed was the emphasis on STEM education. Sallie Senseney described how in India there is a “country-wide momentum behind STEM education,” where everyone from the schools to businesses to families are united behind a STEM pathway for the students. 

Dancy-Jones spoke with teachers at one school we visited and learned that middle and high school science teachers collaborated together on lessons, something which is rare in North Carolina. She also noticed how schools there introduced students to computer science classes in early grades, whereas in North Carolina students often do not take any computer science classes in elementary school.

Dissen experienced the focus on STEM education during her early education in India. One of her strongest memories from her childhood is coming home from school and talking with her parents about what she learned in science that day – not math or reading, but science. 

Senseney demonstrates natural selection in her biology class with an experiment.

Focusing on educating the best and brightest leaves many behind

There seemed to be few pathways to success for students in India who can not get into a university. Ryan Smith heard business leaders complain about the lack of community colleges and vocational training to provide workers with skills outside of universities; “We did not hear conversations about education that meets students halfway that don’t want to go to university and be an engineer but want to be something else, be an electrician.” 

In 2006, a group of education leaders and North Carolina legislators traveled to India to study the education system and the economy through the International Studies Program, a collaboration between the Public School Forum and the North Carolina Center for International Understanding (now Go Global NC). In their subsequent report, they outlined how the lack of opportunity for students who do not get into university is not a mistake but a result of a strategic choice by India to focus on the best and brightest students. One consequence of this choice is that many students are left behind. 

Ryan Smith uses real life connections to teach his students about heat transfer.

Solving community needs through innovation

The teachers noticed a focus on innovation in India as a method to solve student and community needs. Arvey described how innovation was “integrated into their curricula, the way they are thinking.”

At Agastya International Foundation, one of the world’s largest hands-on science education centers, students brought real-world problems from their lives into the innovation lab and spent eight days brainstorming and prototyping solutions to these problems. For example, two sisters used the innovation lab at Agastya to create special gloves for their father to wear in his job as a stone laborer. 

Seeing this focus on solving real world problems made Arvey think about how to better motivate his own students. He said, “it’s really hard to make a kid want to solve for X,” but when you have real problems for students to tackle, it motivates them to learn. 

Arvey teaches his math class to calculate composite area using the shapes and patterns from the Taj Mahal.

More hands-on learning in the classroom

Michelle Ellis changed the way she teaches after visiting India and observing hands-on learning at Agastya: “You always hear kids need to learn what they want to learn. One of the presenters said this, and I thought, ‘well why can’t they?'”

To put this idea into practice, Ellis created what she calls explore day. At the end of every unit, her students have a day and a half where they can learn about anything they want from that unit. Using materials Ellis brings in and they find in class, students build and create whatever they want using the concepts from the unit. After their rock cycle unit, some of Ellis’ students used sugar cubes to create sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rock structures. 

Speaking of the impact of the India trip on her teaching, Ellis said, “Everything since India has been clicking with how I work with my kids. I’m more hands off now and ask kids to work together.” The hardest part about this shift in her teaching, she said, has been watching her students make mistakes and resisting the urge to fix them. 

Ellis used a lab kit to explore renewable energy with her students.

Building more effective group work in the classroom 

At one of the schools we visited in Delhi where Teach for India fellows teach, class size ranged from 50 to 100 students in one room. The teachers were amazed to see classes this big, but what was even more astonishing was the use of group work.

Teach for India fellows used group work to help them reach all 50 students in their classrooms. Each student in the group had a role, and one of those roles was the group leader. The group leader was responsible for reporting on the progress of the group to not only the teacher but also the parents of the other students in the group. The group leader would accompany the teacher to parent-teacher conferences to share with parents the progress of the student in the group.

Arvey and Senseney are both working on building more effective group work in their classes after seeing the group work in these classrooms. 

Modest facilities and little technology did not hurt student motivation

The 2006 group that traveled to India reported seeing modest facilities and larger class sizes. In 2017, not much has changed in that regard. 

The school facilities were modest compared to the U.S., and there was significantly less technology in the classrooms we observed. While two of the schools (one a private school and the other a top government school) had computer labs and television screens in their classrooms, the large urban school had no technology in the classroom. No school we visited had one-to-one devices found in many North Carolina schools. 

Despite the modest facilities and lack of technology, the students appeared very engaged in their lessons. Kinnaird said it made him realize how technology is not always the answer to motivating students. 

Watch the full video of the panel below.  

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.