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  • Nikita Jha

Learning to Build Windmills: An Unexpected Opportunity for Indian Education

A green notice board displays skills like baking, block printing, stitching, and pottery, taught at Nai Disha Centre. Against each skill are photographs of its students engaging in these activities.
A notice board displays the skills taught at Nai Disha Centre. Several of its students have used these skills to secure employment beyond their education at Tamana. Photo credit: Nikita Jha.

In the final minutes of the final interview of my final school visit, a teacher perfectly—and unwittingly—captured the crux of my research.

“There’s a saying: samasyā mein bhāg lo, yā bhāg lo [which in context translates from Hindi to “you can engage with the problem or run away from it”]. Sure, we are in a pandemic. But within that reality, we can seek out scope for success. You see, the thing that is harming you is benefiting you too.”

In the aftermath of Covid-19, the overwhelming effort in the field of education in India has been to take stock of sectoral damage: learning loss, widened educational disparities, and heightened pressure on students’ and teachers’ mental health—all exacerbated by gender inequality and unequal access to digital resources. These challenges are unprecedented, and an understanding of systemic flaws is key to building robustness against future crises. But the emphasis on deficits has often meant the overlooking of success stories, especially from the more shadowed pockets of the education sector—accounts of responses to the pandemic that carry the powerful message of how crisis can mean not just destruction but also resilience, regeneration, and reinvention. Where Covid has revealed the fragilities of mainstream education, my doctoral research aims to explore examples of schools in India that demonstrated “antifragility” in their pandemic responses—a term coined by author and scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe the quality of being strengthened by adversity.

Consider one such example: Nai Disha Centre is the adult education branch of Tamana, an NGO providing rehabilitative services including special education, therapeutic interventions, and skill-training to members of the differently-abled* community in New Delhi. The Centre caters to families across the socioeconomic spectrum, with around a third belonging to “economically weaker sections” of society. Aged between 18 and approximately 40 years old, students are grouped by the degree of severity of their conditions, with those classified into academically “educable groups” taught at different levels of the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curriculum. Other services include therapeutic interventions like occupational and physical therapy (OT-PT), and speech therapy; computer classes; and skill-building activities including pottery, sublimation, stitching, baking, handmade paper-making, block-printing, and paper bag-making. The items made through these activities are exhibited and sold at the “Tamana Dream Studio,” and at flagship annual fundraising events.

Looking at some of the products on display in the Dream Studio, it is hard to imagine that the everyday wins celebrated at Nai Disha include things like the proper placing of a wooden block on fabric, the remembering of a rhyme, or the threading of a needle through the right hole of matty. And yet, it is within this reality that Tamana had to find a way to go virtual when the pandemic hit.

Not only did they find a way—they also found themselves evolving in unexpected directions.

A student learns to make a quilted sling pouch at the sewing machine. Her hands are guided by her teacher's.
A non-verbal student with a hearing impairment makes a quilted sling pouch at the sewing machine, guided by her teacher through physical gestures. At the end of the class, she'll receive a thumbs-up and a pat on the back to let her know she did a good job. Photo credit: Nikita Jha.

Ensuring effective learning online can be a challenge even in mainstream schooling, let alone for students with special needs. For Nai Disha’s staff and management, the task was often to achieve this in spite of immense economic, familial, and emotional hardships brought on by the pandemic. The shift to remote education also demanded that they rapidly develop new skills. Teachers had to learn to operate the software used to deliver online lessons, create demonstration videos to use as teaching aids, perform the activities to be demonstrated in these videos, and navigate YouTube to learn these activities. Suddenly compelled to master these diverse competencies, the teachers developed more confidence in their grasp of technology—but this was about more than learning new skills. Building the capacity to deliver results despite professional and personal challenges heightened community-members’ sense of self-efficacy, and in the process, becoming participants in the global digital revolution imbued these learnings with even greater meaning. “Never let yourself be fazed by problems. Had Covid not come along, we may have remained children in this arena,” a teacher said, recounting with a smile the process of navigating the transition from in-person to virtual education. “Now I too am a part of digital India!”

Both a driver and an outcome of these developments has been a strengthened spirit of collaboration across the organisation. Ensuring the smooth continuation of teaching and learning often involved picking up each others’ workloads or watching others’ classes if a teacher was unable to carry out their duties. Staff responsibilities were also redelegated to make additional academic support available to virtual learners. Administratively, troubleshooting and supporting employees became key focus areas, with some of the ensuing systemic streamlining still in operation today. As a result, teachers and staff members recounted developing a stronger sense of professional camaraderie, and a deeper appreciation for the support extended by the school administration.

Other stakeholders also contributed to this effort in novel ways. With the transition to online classes, parents who were typically outside of the school during working hours could now “enter the classroom,” becoming intimate witnesses to the student-teacher interactions that had so far been a black box. In the process, they found themselves equipped with an upgraded personal toolbox for supporting their own children within the home—observing these interactions, according to teachers, afforded families a better understanding of how to engage socially, emotionally, and academically with their children in everyday life. Parents also became mediators and assistants in the teaching of both academic and practical subjects during lockdown, sharing suggestions about the design and content of online activities that teachers welcomed and incorporated into lesson delivery. For instance, one parent urged teachers to use videos in their classes, because their children enjoyed watching movement on the screen. This key piece of pedagogical advice encapsulated the shift in the role of students’ families from a more passive, peripheral presence, to being both observers and active participants in the educational space. As a result of this shift, the teacher-parent relationship deepened and came to be grounded in a new kind of respect and understanding for Tamana’s work.

"With the transition to online classes, parents who were typically outside of the school during working hours could now 'enter the classroom,' becoming intimate witnesses to the student-teacher interactions that had so far been a black box."

To ensure that teaching translated into learning, pedagogical strategies also had to be collaboratively adapted to suit the online mode of instruction. New approaches included slideshows, flash cards, hand-and-body actions, role-playing, videographic teaching aids, and live demonstrations. For instance, lines of song or poetry would be taught to students using gestures and movements as physical cues to help learners commit the words to muscle memory. The nature of the learners’ needs required that one parent or family member be constantly present during online lessons. Accordingly, universal accessibility was prioritised in creating the curriculum. Class tasks were designed to make use of items that were readily available in households, such as dough for clay modelling lessons, and coins for explaining the concept of money. The school also arranged for tablets to be distributed to some of the students without access to digital resources.

Seven students and a teacher sit at their desks in a classroom, watching a film on a television.
Students of an "educable" class watch Taare Zameen Par, a seminal Indian movie about the experiences of a young boy who struggles with dyslexia. Photo credit: Nikita Jha.

Though conventional assessments (in the form of questionnaires with written or typed responses) were still conducted throughout the course of virtual schooling, teachers would cross-reference the results with oral and practical tests to accurately gauge students’ comprehension and progress. In doing so, the teachers found their adjusted lesson strategies accompanied by an unexpected development: some of the most “severe,” multiply-challenged pupils began to show progress, and students who had struggled to learn within the classroom could now grasp concepts—like time and money, for example—that they had typically struggled to learn. Learners who usually remained silent within the classroom also began to engage verbally in virtual class. “We didn’t know he speaks this much!” a group of teachers told me as they described the changes they began to see in students during virtual lessons. Learners typically unable to make eye contact could look at the screen for extended periods of time, while others demonstrated significantly improved attention spans and remained calmly engaged in lessons for longer. Teachers have since continued to see improved results vis-à-vis retention and comprehension for some of their students, as the pedagogical strategies introduced and successfully employed in virtual lessons have now become regular fixtures within the classroom.

This is not to romanticise the story. Tamana is still wrestling to recover from the setbacks of the pandemic: depleted funding reserves, student attrition, reduced enrolments, and diminished staff and administrative manpower. The Centre-parent relationship has also had its hiccups; some families were unable or unwilling to provide the support that online learning demanded, with student learning suffering as collateral damage. Meanwhile, several students who had benefitted from individualised parental support during online lessons—particularly those on the autism spectrum—became less responsive with the return to in-person teaching in group settings.

Yet, the point here is not whether Tamana’s successes were unequivocal—they weren’t. It is that even through immense adversity, the Centre proactively sought avenues to innovate and expand using the resources at hand. For all stakeholders, the pressure to navigate a more complex role—alongside personal challenges—elicited an antifragile response, that is, an upgrade in skill and effort to fulfil their respective roles. The result has been a more cohesive, efficient institution with an enhanced spirit of cooperation and greater self-efficacy. Crucially, this evolution occurred not just despite the pandemic, but because of it.

Crisis need not be something passively experienced before we can move on in its aftermath. Rather, crisis itself can serve as a stimulus, as we move through it, to grow out of entrenched practices and perspectives. By studying the experiences of spaces like Nai Disha, we can better understand the determinants of antifragile behaviour in the face of adversity, and apply these lessons to support efforts to provide high-quality education in a post-Covid world. The winds of change will always blow; let’s learn from those who built windmills.

*This piece was written in consultation with Tamana, and reflects their preferred terminology.

This article is based on interview and observational data collected over a month of visits to Tamana Nai Disha Centre in New Delhi over November and December 2022. Sincere thanks to Dr. Shayama Chona (President Tamana, Padma Shri, and Padma Bhushan awardee) and the entire Tamana family for their welcome, time, spirit, and vitally important work. You can read more about Tamana’s work at their website here:


Nikita Jha [2021] is a PhD student in Education, and is driven by a fascination for empathy as a tool to build bridges, solve problems, and enrich life. She is currently applying this itch to the question of post-pandemic educational futures. She also illustrates.

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