Reflecting on my experience as a Grassroots Project Volunteer

By Ila Tyagi

In this blog post Ila Tyagi, an LLM student at UCL, reflects on her experience volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project and how the education system in the UK compares to the education system in her home country, India.

When I first entered the state school in Eastlea, I couldn’t believe the kind of amenities and infrastructure a publicly funded school in UK could afford. Such facilities are not available even in some of the wealthier schools in India. We were required to pose for a photo-id for record keeping purposes. But much before that was a thoroughly conducted Disclosure Barring Services Check to ensure that the volunteers did not have a criminal record or a history of violence towards children. To conduct such procedural formalities for ensuring the safety of children was very impressive to me.

While undergoing the training for the Grassroots Human Rights Project, we were told to encourage participatory learning. This meant that we were required to assist the children in coming up their own answers and gently guide them towards the correct answer. The fact that we were not allowed to be dismissive or critical was remarkable to me. This progressive and inclusive approach helps to ensure that little or no harm is inflicted upon a child’s mental well-being and self-esteem during his/her formative years. These formative years are crucial in shaping who the child becomes as an adult and as such it is important to acknowledge that shaming or berating the child for answering a question incorrectly may adversely impact his/her confidence and estimation of self-worth.

I know that I am stating the obvious but shaming and criticising a child for giving the wrong answer is common across the lower-rung of schools in small-town India (which is to say a majority of schools across India). Some schools even believe in corporal punishment despite it being illegal in India. I remember being slapped for failing to attempt a math problem correctly, and being hit on my knuckles with a wooden ruler just because the teacher felt like hitting every child in the class that day. But to be fair, that was when I was studying in one of the worst schools in a small town in India. I will concede that there are many modern and progressive schools across the bigger cities in India and the government has enacted a law to ban corporal punishment in schools. But the law is poorly implemented especially in the Indian hinterland.

While teaching the children, I found it difficult to engage in a proper discussion of the issues at hand. Perhaps, it was to do with my own inability to assemble too many opinions at one time. It could possibly be attributed to rarely ever being taught like that in school. I admired the skill with which my colleagues could gather different opinions and present a succinct conclusion at the end of their presentation. The students were so impressed with one of my colleagues that they gave her a loud round of applause after she finished presenting.

But what was more surprising and clearly the highlight of my volunteering experience was the ability of these adolescents to engage in a meaningful discussion about human rights. Not only were they able to ask intelligent and rhetorical questions highlighting that there was no real difference between active and passive euthanasia, but they were also able to support their arguments in favour of or against the topic of discussion with sound logic and good reason. For example – when asked whether a murderer should be sentenced to death they counter questioned us by asking what if the murderer was suffering from a mental illnesses, could he not then plead the defence of insanity? To me this was surprising because I did not even know that mental health problems or a defence of insanity existed when I was their age.

Perhaps the students’ critical and analytical reasoning abilities could be attributed to the emphasis placed on the value of an individual’s opinion in the UK. The fact that we were not to disregard a child’s opinion during our training session is illustrative of the importance given to developing an independent opinion in the UK. Indeed, this is what our lecturers talk about when asking us to write essays for our assessment. This is something that I truly struggled with when I first came to study in the UK. It was difficult for me to assemble various pieces of information in my head to present a logical opinion or any opinion at all. May be this can be attributed to a system of teaching in India that suffocates independent thought and analysis. Many schools across India expect us to regurgitate the textbook in the exam without any analysis. At my previous university (which is one of the top universities in India), we were instructed to present a neutral answer in the opinion-based essay questions in order to avoid offending the examiner through our opinions. I think this practice hinders the development of the reasoning skills necessary to deal with the complexities of our professional life. The right to opinion is a necessary underpinning of a democratic society and perhaps the world’s largest democracy could learn something from one of the world’s oldest democracies on this matter.

However, what struck me was that the students were involved in a campaign against Donald Trump for Amnesty International. When asked why they were supporting the campaign, the students answered by saying that it was because he was racist and had no respect for women. I was amazed to see how much these thirteen year olds knew about issues like racism and sexism. I am of the opinion that Indian schools should incorporate raising awareness about racism and sexism in their curriculum considering the attitude of many Indians towards their fellow dark-skinned Indians, the African students studying in India and people from northeastern parts of India. On the issue of respect for women, India has infamously made international headlines for the many instances of sexual violence against women that take place regularly across the country. However, I would like to emphasise that there is a growing class of Indians who respect women and abhor racism but they are in the minority. I truly believe that education is the best way to solve such problems in India.

I believe that if India truly wants to emerge as the superpower it so desires to be then a starting step would be to reform the education system to promote critical reasoning and logical thinking rather than regurgitation because good education aids both personal development of an individual and the collective development of a society. India needs to act big and act soon before her demographic dividend turns into a demographic disaster. Perhaps, India could start by modeling its education system roughly along the lines of the one in UK.

In conclusion, volunteering for the Grassroots Project was an eye-opening experience. It compelled me to question the merits of the education system in my own country. It helped me to analyse my own weaknesses and learn from my colleagues and the students that I was teaching. It prompted me to reflect on my educational experiences and compare them with those of my students. It was a great learning experience for me. Grassroots Human Rights Project was different, refreshing and definitely more worth my while than I was expecting it to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *