Learning To Reach Out: Embracing New Ways of Connecting

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership September 30, 2020

We have been all been in lockdown, sometimes in containment, some even quarantined. But spirits have remained high. Our energy and enthusiasm come from daily interactions with children. Exploring new ways of connecting, of contacting communities, and of communicating with children has been challenging but also exhilarating. Every day, we are learning from these experiences. Children are learning from us. And while we are far away, we seem to have gotten even closer than before.

Here is a glimpse of our adventures since the lockdown began in the last week of March 2020.

When the lockdown hit us in March, there was fear and uncertainty, tension, and bewilderment. No one quite knew how to think or what to do. In Pratham, we have a large team of almost 8000 young and energetic people; all of whom are accustomed to face-to-face daily contact with children. No school? No meeting? No visits? What would happen now? What would children do? How will families cope? How could we help?

Each in their own way began to reach out – exactly the way we did within our own families. Starting with those who could be easily reached to those who we felt may be struggling. Phones rang constantly. WhatsApp and SMS,  beeps and buzzes. If there was no phone available in the home, then neighbors called out to deliver messages across the wall, over the gate and from one terrace to another. The first two weeks passed in a whirl of frenzied, almost haphazard activity.

But from the chaos, a systematic pattern began to appear – an organic ground-level strategy emerged that was effective. In February and March, Pratham’s “direct” work was in about 6000 villages and communities across the country. “Direct” meant that in a village or slum area, a Pratham person was working with children, schools, and communities. Starting here, we first made sure that we had established contact by phone with at least one person in every one of these locations.

This was not always easy. For example, two hundred of our colleagues in Uttar Pradesh had gone home for “Holi”, a festival in the first week of March. The lockdown happened and they could not return to their work locations. Phone numbers of people they knew, especially those with basic phones, remained in notebooks and diaries locked in cupboards where they lived and worked. So, village headmen or “Pradhans” were called. Once the “Pradhan” understood what was needed, he or she sent phone numbers to the Pratham teams. Outreach to the representative of the village local government brought in awareness about the effort too.

From the first contact in the community, we moved quickly to connecting with more people in each neighborhood. We tracked progress by measuring – at least one contact in each village, then at least one contact in each neighborhood and from there to as many children as possible in every home. Word got around. Phone numbers poured into our network – more from each community and many from other communities too. By June 2020, we were connecting with almost 200,000 phone numbers in more than 11,000 communities. Day by day, we understood the real meaning of the word “outreach”. We learned that the more you reach out, the more you can reach.

Content, Connect and Communicate

In the first few days of the lockdown, we were simply checking in with families, making sure people were safe. No attention was paid to education or learning. The focus was on connecting and establishing regular contact. In such a time of tension and crisis, engaging children in interesting activities seemed to be an important way for the family to deal with stress. We are lucky that in the past few years, our digital team had developed a vast repository of digital resources in eleven Indian languages. We selected fun activities and learning tasks from this collection and started sending them via phones. The campaign came to be called ‘Karona: Thodi Masti, Thodi Padhai’. (The “word Karona is a play on “Corona” but it means “do it” in several Indian languages. Thodi = a little. Masti= Fun. Padhai = Learning). With our teams and in our communities, we could also share authentic information in multiple languages on the virus and ways to stay safe.

We learned quickly that many families do not have smartphones. Basic phones are much more widely used especially in rural areas. Quickly more phone numbers were gathered through our village volunteers, children, and their friends. (Here is an extract from the diary of a Pratham team member from Uttarakhand.) SMS messages were developed in eleven languages, and we began to experiment with how one can communicate an interesting activity idea in a short text message.

In addition to sending messages, children get excited and motivated when a known person calls and chats.  It is from this “voice connect” that we learned how the family was doing, whether children could follow instructions we sent, and whether they enjoyed the activities we sent. Routinely, children also sent us pictures and videos of their daily activity. This two-way communication has been a huge boost, for learning, connecting, and building up for the next steps.  

A small taste of what we are sending, and what children are sending back to us:

Make your own Mask | Let’s make words | Song on the Coronavirus

Spread the word on handwashing | Gond Art for Earth Day | Make a story with 6 words

The little ones were not to be left behind! Watch them play the Pattern Game with parents.

Looking Ahead

Uncertainty still looms over the future. We do not know when schools will open and when they do, what will be possible. Locally and globally, there is deep concern about how school closures will impact the future of schooling and learning. But what we do know is that we have learned a lot in the last few months. Our teachers have been children and their parents. Their energetic and enthusiastic daily responses have taught us so many things. We have learned what activities which children like to do. Motivation to learn and curiosity are key elements in the adventure of learning. Sometimes these are lost between the pages of textbooks. We have been able to observe who in the family enjoys doing activities with children. Sometimes parents and grandparents who are not very educated are neglected in our usual rush to connect children with curriculum. Brothers and sisters are proud when the younger ones in the family complete tasks successfully. Everyday problems, difficult questions – all of these seem to engage the entire family more than academic textbook-like tasks.

These are challenging times. There is widespread hardship in families and trouble in the economy. We are plagued by unequal access to technology, healthcare, livelihoods, and inequities to utilize the available opportunities. Despite these difficulties, using our available resources and trusting the human touch, we have been able to stay connected and grow closer to our children. Whatever the future may hold, we are confident that together we will know how to learn, grow, and thrive.

Till then, follow the precautions set out by these young girls in this rap video, and stay safe!