How Literacy and Numeracy will help save the Environment
by Karishma Modi
Sea-turtles brought Dakshin Foundation to the Andman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) and Odisha. Over time, it became more and more apparent that the complete well-being of communities in close physical, economic and cultural proximity to the oceans and other marine ecosystems needed to be prioritised by any organisation with a long-standing connection to a place. Dakshin Foundation’s Environmental Education (EE) and Community Well-being and Environment (CWE) Programmes do just that: prioritise communities in the coastal and island geographies of India. Our interventions, that problematise education and practices related to health in these communities, are responding to community needs and building solutions from the ground up.
Smruthi Ananth, who interned with Dakshin Foundation’s Environmental Education Programme, notes that in the conversation about development, education is uniformly considered an equaliser. However, “place, social network and teacher quality vary across contexts. Sometimes, education itself could worsen some existing inequalities.” The Environmental Education Programme notices the deeply localised effects of inequities in literacy levels between our various geographies. In our geographies and in our work with some already-marginalised coastal and island communities, low literacy comes in the way of developing a sense of stewardship for the ecosystems that people inhabit along with non-human elements and any imagination of environmental awareness and responsible decision-making based on critical literacy must be based on localised solutions to fix low literacy levels. For Dakshin Foundation, this is how foundational literacy and numeracy find themselves deeply connected to social and environmental justice.
Whose problem is literacy? Where does an Environmental Education Programme fit in?
Ananya Mukherjee, Ipsita Mohanty and Smruthi Ananth – all students at Azim Premji University – were part of a team conducting literacy and numeracy surveys via WhatsApp for the locals in two of our field sites in order to better understand the needs of the communities from the point of view of education. We used Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report’s (ASER) tool for measuring literacy and numeracy levels across our field sites. Results from these assessments help us demonstrate the need for our interventions in our geographies and provide a starting point for planning literacy and numeracy support for students from across a spectrum of schools in our field sites.
“Students that I spoke to who attend government schools were able to complete the literacy task for Odia but were not able to do the same for maths and English,” Ipsita Mohanty reflects on her experience testing students from Puruna Bandha, Odisha. Ananya Mukherjee says “In Mayabunder (Middle Andaman), we only tested the children there in English and mathematics” since Karen isn’t a Schedule Eight language in which children can receive formal schooling and “one can’t really have much of a conversation in Hindi.”
Dakshin Foundation’s Environmental Education Programme recognises that the development of the language competencies of young children carries more importance than just to meet the needs of schooling, the primary “occupation” of children. Language development occurs gradually and needs to be supported well right from the start so that, eventually, it is strong enough to process individual and community experiences. The capacity to comprehend input and express with mastery is the basis of agency-building. “Conversations within the community become richer through improved literacy and language abilities. Then, it doesn’t matter what the common language is,” Ananya adds.
The ASER and us
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has been measuring students’ abilities to read in 16 Indian languages (including English) and complete basic arithmetic operations, in nation-wide surveys since 2005. ASER has been developed and deployed by the national-level non-governmental organisation, Pratham, through partnerships with organisations working at smaller, localised levels in different parts of the country. ASER’s origins are in the information gap that arose in the early-2000s when school enrolment figures were easy to come by but no one was surveying learning outcomes. Since then, other measures of the “quality” of education have emerged: the National Achievement Survey (NAS) is one such measure. However, unlike the government-led NAS, developed by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT), that assesses curricular comprehension in Languages, Mathematics and EVS in classes 3, 5 and 8 for students of only government and government-aided schools, ASER assesses all students’ abilities to read and perform basic arithmetic operations even outside the framework of the school.
For organisations whose primary work is rooted in areas other than education, the ASER tools provide a “common framework and a common vocabulary” to measure and make meaning of realities in the terrain of education. As a sample-based survey, ASER isn’t mandated to make it to every part of the country. Places like ANI are already under-researched and under-represented in educational discourse. The most powerful consequence of using the ASER tools is the ability to share learnings from marginal geographies and marginalised communities in easily transactable terms. The assessment of literacy and numeracy levels is the first step in a journey that is still, admittedly, very long.
The differences that Ipsita noticed between the accomplishment levels of students attending government and private schools confirms larger national trends as well as what we have seen through our intervention in Wandoor, South Andaman Island.
Hyper-local capacity-building and place-based interventions
Since 2017, Dakshin Foundation’s Environmental Education Programme has been running the Islands of Wisdom project in Wandoor, South Andaman Island, since 2017 under a Wipro Applying Thought in Schools grant. This project takes the shape of a Learning Lab where students from anganwadi to class 8 get support in foundational literacy and numeracy through local teachers embedded in the local community. Dakshin Foundation’s education model sees teachers – from the formal and outside-school education spaces – as the carriers of change into educational practices. Dakshin Foundation sees local teachers’ interactions with local realities on the one hand and school curriculum on the other as the site for introducing ideas of place-based education so that students can gain more meaningful learning from the processes of education. Our Learning Lab houses a classroom for dedicated teaching and learning activities and a children’s library where students from all age-groups are welcome to engage with children’s literature and activities around literature.
It is the final aim of our work to help students engage meaningfully with their communities and place and literacy and foundational learning-support is only the first step.