This was the response a 12-13 year old gave me when I asked her what she had learnt from the agriculture vocational training program at her school.
This answer was as unexpected as it was insightful.
I was visiting rural schools near Pune which participate in a program launched by Ashoka Fellow Sunanda Mane through her organization Lend A Hand India. The vocational training program covers four streams: Agriculture, Energy & Environment, Engineering (e.g. welding, drilling), Home/Health.
In Energy & Environment module they were learning about electrical circuits, switches and different types of wiring when I visited. One girl said she now felt confident that she could install a new bulb holder for her home.
In Engineering module, I saw girls practicing welding. One was quite nervous, but another (photo) handled it quite confidently. Apparently the kids have made some of the benches for their own and other schools.
In Home & Health, they had just finished making ‘chikki’ (peanut brittle), which they were all very excited about.
Farming as a business
In the Agriculture module of the training, the kids were in the process of planting marigold plants in preparation for the Dussehra season demand for these flowers.
The children were learning how to prepare the field, creating nurseries, how to plant etc. But equally important, they were learning how to do backward planning – knowing when the flowers will be in demand and counting the cultivation period backwards to plant accordingly. If the flowers bloom too early or too late – the crop wouldn’t earn much.
The children were learning how to keep proper accounts of purchases and to calculate total input costs. They were also learning how to calculate gross profits from the crop, by figuring out how many seeds were in the seed packet, what percentage actually generated plants, how many flowers did each plant give on an average and how much they could sell these for.
None of the children wanted to grow up to be farmers. One boy admitted that “I want to be a doctor, but if I can’t become a doctor, I will have to be a farmer. And this training is useful – I will know how to do cultivation and selling of produce.” Many other boys nodded in affirmation.
Most kids said that the most important thing they learnt through the vocational training program was ‘how to sell’ and how to calculate price – precisely the kinds of things the next generation of farmers need to become much better at. Two girls said that they learnt how to talk to customers.
It was then, that another girl stood up and said, I learnt how to talk to a security guard so that he will let me in [to the industrial complex, instead of sending me away]”. According to the instructor, the kids go in groups of 3-4 with one adult to sell flowers to the managers running the factories in the industrial complex nearby.
When asked which of the four modules they find the most fun, one boy (maybe 11) answered with Home & Health. His reason was that he enjoyed making chikki. A girl stood up and said she enjoyed welding and making things. The rest of the kid’ answers, predictably, followed more stereotypical gender roles.
When I asked the kids if any of them had applied their agri-learnings on their family farms, most said that their parents wouldn’t listen to them. But one girl responded that she learnt about proper spacing of plants and told her parents, but they ignored her the first year. However, she persisted her father is now experimenting with the new plant spacing technique on their plot in this year’s crop.
The program seemed well designed and the instructors enthusiastic. The kids seemed to take away different things from the programs depending on their individual inclinations — learning some useful life-skills along the way.
One day per week is dedicated to the LAHI curriculum. Each day covers one of the four streams. So the children come back to the first topic after a gap of 3 weeks.
The instructors are local farmers and entrepreneurs who are better educated. They are trained by LAHI in teaching and other program activities. I met several of the instructors — one agri instructor stood out in particular. I could see he was really enjoying teaching the kids.
Perspective of School Teachers
I asked the school teachers: “Doesn’t this increase your burden”? “Yes, but we enjoy our work more. We get to break the class room routine. It is interesting work. The children also like the program for the same reason. They get to do different things that they can talk about at home. Our school’s attrition rate has dropped.” This last comment she added triumphantly. She seemed genuinely excited about this program as were the LAHI instructors.
The existing school teachers take responsibility for one program. For example a math teacher had taken up the energy stream. Another was responsible for the entire LAHI program. The teacher coordinators have to coordinate various activities with the instructor for her program, and also coordinate with other teachers and instructors for the remaining 3 streams. In addition, many of the activities require trips outside of the school (to buy marigold seeds or ingredients for chikki, to sell the flowers, etc.). The teachers escort the students on such trips.
Note: Program Design section updated March 2013