Today I visited the Indian equivalent of an "inner-city" government school in Hyderabad. As part of its community service activities, my host company for my stay in India, a large engineering firm, has adopted several of these schools. In most cases my company kicks off its relation with a new school by installing reverse-osmosis water filters (you can't learn when you are sick, as it was explained to me) and then gradually fills in other necessities.
In a previous visit the company had given each student a backpack. Each backpack came stuffed with notebooks, a writing board, pens, and a school uniform. The latter is a source of pride for the students, as every private-school student wears a uniform but many government-school students can not afford them. Today I noted that many of the students were in uniform and almost all still had their backpacks, looking dusty in most cases, but still serviceable. And what about that "writing board"?
The k-10 school consists of ten small classrooms organized in two tiers around a dusty central courtyard. There are 1150 students attending the school. That number is not a misprint. At any given time, about half the students are outdoors in the courtyard. Strips of carpet are laid down in rows, and can be moved around to define separate "classrooms" within the courtyard, and to keep as many children as possible sitting in the shade of several large trees as the day progresses. The students sit cross-legged, knee-to-knee along the carpet strips, with their small writing boards on their laps. Teachers stand in front of each "classroom" and speak over the sound of horns from the street. It's quite loud and seemingly chaotic. In the indoor classrooms, the scene is much the same. None of the classrooms has desks or chairs. There is no glass in the windows nor doors in the doorframes but it's still hot in the crowded rooms.
I had been told that one of the draws of the government schools is the free lunch served to each student at midday. My first thought on seeing the overstuffed school was that the lunch must be the main point here -- surely no real learning is going on. But after I had walked around for a bit,I realized my first impression was entirely wrong. In one kindergarten class (held in one of the indoor classrooms) the children were learning the letters of the Telugu alphabet. Under the watchful eye of the sari-clad teacher, the little children came up one by one to take their turns leading the class in call-and-response, pointing at the various letters and calling out the respective phoneme. To go upstairs, I had to edge past a class of sixth graders, sitting in two orderly rows all the way up the stairs but leaving me space along one side to get by. They were taking a social studies exam. I couldn't read the questions on the handouts, but they evidently all could, and were tidily writing their answers in the rune-like Telugu script. Obviously by sixth grade every child had attained more than just rudimentary literacy.
The purpose of my company's visit today was to distribute a free tenth-grade text book to each of the hundred-odd advancing ninth graders. (other than the books we brought, there were very few books in evidence at the school.) The all-in-one text book we handed out is inexpensively printed on thin paper, and each is the size of big-city telephone book, with separate sections on each of the subjects they will study in tenth grade, and sample questions to help practice for the all-important after-tenth-grade college board exams. I watched each student carefully as he or she came up to get a book. At least half of them took the book hungrily. I don't think I am imagining the slightly fierce look I saw in their eyes, a look that said "I am going to learn every last thing on every last page in this book and then so help me I will crush those board exams next year." I wouldn't bet against at least some of the students doing just that.
Elsewhere, in a very different India, more and more private schools are equipping each student with a laptop computer in a wi-fi enabled classrooms. But if conditions are right, you might learn a great deal, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor of a government school with a writing board on your lap. Conversely, from a high-end laptop computer it's no sure thing that you will learn anything but fluff.