Owing to India’s impressive demographic dividend, educational reform has long been at the forefront of its developmental goals. With the Covid-19 pandemic and newer operational realities framing our present, reforms in the education sector have become the need of the hour. This is where organisations like Involve Learning Solutions Foundation aim to bring hope for India’s future by utilising the pedagogical power of peer teaching as an institutional set-up.
Banking on the idea of students’ agency, Involve prioritises active participation of students in classroom settings. With virtual classrooms creating additional hurdles for students, the organisation tries to address the problem by introducing novel ways of learning in group settings. Involve coaches student leaders and provides them with content training, resources, and tools to create an engaging classroom for their learners. This pedagogical practice ensures that the student’s voices are addressed within the classroom and that there is greater ownership of the learning practices. With the need to shift learning to an online medium during the pandemic, the project quickly adapted itself to a WhatsApp-based Learn from Home program as well as other virtual meeting platforms like Google Meet, Zoom, and Teams.
When talking about the inspiration behind institutionalising peer teaching, the Involve team traced its origin back to the college days of its founders at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Both the founders were part of Avanti Fellows, a programme that trained grade 12 students to take the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). Drawing motivation from the programme, they wanted to scale it up to a level that involved general school teaching as well. Their model was based on the first-hand experience of the positive impact that role models (student leaders) and a peer support system can have on young people.
The idea for creating such a learning environment did not sit idle for long——the pilot programme was established in Delhi and it soon started garnering a positive response from students. According to its website, the organisation has witnessed remarkable growth within half a decade with more than 7000 student leaders and learners reaping the benefits of the programme.
As is the case with most online ecosystems in India, Involve too had to face the difference in accessibility and privileges with its own student groups, owing to the country’s persistent digital divide. The team informed the author that in the early stages of the pandemic, there was a dip in students’ participation and engagement but once they created the necessary infrastructure, virtual learning almost became ‘normal.’ Nevertheless, the organisation still considers in-person interaction essential to learning.
Involve’s efforts have been valuable in identifying gaps in India’s education sector. The team shared that there were three major problems in the sector that they could deduce—— a lack of preparedness for the future, the absence of parity with the grade level, and the absence of ownership by students.
It is from this analysis that peer-based pedagogy emerged as a way to induce greater responsibility and involvement of students in the learning process. This method also posited an alternative support system for students who were not able to grasp certain concepts from ordinary classroom teaching. The goal of this method is to act as a buffer from undue stress and inspire confidence in the process of learning.
According to the Involve team, an extraordinary aspect of the programme is its emphasis on the social and emotional well-being of the learners. In pairing the student leaders and learners in a 1:4 ratio, the programme makes space for a much more intensive engagement with the lives of the students. The model underlines the importance of human relationships and attempts to inculcate skills like empathy and problem-solving, making education grounded in the application of theory. As the organisation is trying to inculcate such skills in young learners, it can positively affect the growth and development of the students into conscientious citizens of tomorrow.
While there have been significant research studies from across the world that affirmed the viability of peer teaching as an effective learning practice, it is still a novelty in India. Therefore, the mindset of the individuals within the school system proved to be a challenge to the Involve team initially. The additional requirement of a teacher staying behind with the student leaders along with questions regarding the role of experienced teachers itself, became issues that the team had to address. However, currently, many schools have integrated the programme into their normal school timetables as zero hour and likewise.
While researching peer-based pedagogy, the Involve team realised the dearth of learning resources available for such projects in India. In response, they developed an open-source content database to widen the availability of content that can guide peer teaching. This initiative is aimed at creating a structured and accessible flow of information.
The organisation has received multiple media recognitions and awards, the most recent being certified as a “Great Place to Work.” Involve is currently based in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. The team is now planning to upscale their programme with the cooperation of the government and state apparatuses, and is in the process of landscaping potential avenues. Their goal is to reach 1 million students in the next three years.
Despite the growth of the organisation, the concept of peer learning remains isolated and severely under-explored in the country. While we have different versions of peer-leaders in all our classrooms in the form of a friendly topper, the moral superiority such a role might take, or the sense of insecurity such an arrangement might generate need to be explored. The dynamic of teachers as facilitators often leaves questions regarding accountability for the information provided in the classroom unanswered. Further empirical information on gender, caste, and other markers of ‘peer leaders’ and learners are required as they may also highlight the social inequalities that pervade classrooms. The difference in privileges that make some and not other students as leaders need to be constantly revisited and challenged. Such disaggregated data would be crucial in contesting structural prejudice and enforcing lasting change. Institutionalising peer-teaching can be a plausible reform only if such concerns are addressed in real-time.