Q and A with Huma Kidwai, research associate in India

June 24, 2013

Huma Kidwai is a research associate with the Columbia Global Centers | South Asia, working on the Model Districts Education Project (MDEP), and a doctoral candidate in International Educational Development at Teacher's College, Columbia University.

The project is a collaborative, five-year, demonstration project of the Columbia Global Centers | South Asia, the Government of India, and key stakeholders in primary education in India. The project draws on the experience to date of the Center’s Model Districts Health Project and on current scientific evidence and models of best professional practice to develop, implement and evaluate a high quality, cost-effective, scalable program of primary education in two rural districts.

Huma spent the month of April with the MDEP Team in its field sites in Assam and Andhra Pradesh.

Q - What was the purpose of the field visit? How does this visit relate to work being done by the project or center?

The purpose of this visit was to collect primary data for the two papers currently being written by the MDEP team in Mumbai. This work is being done under MDEP’s first year’s commitment to understand and analyse the primary education scenario in the two districts. For these two papers we are studying the challenges and opportunities that the administrative systems and policies, and the contextual particularities of our two sites, pose for developing relevant student curricula and effective teacher training. These papers are expected to build the foundation for an action oriented research project on rural primary education through which MDEP aspires to support the local structures and provisions of primary education in Assam and Andhra Pradesh.

Q - What does a typical day in the field look like?

We have been to these two sites on several occasions before. A typical day in the field depends on the purpose and agenda for the day. Previously we travelled extensively into the most remote villages to understand the educational, social, and physical needs of teachers and students in the two districts. Often we had to use small rafts and boats to get to the schools, especially in Assam, which is flooded for extensive periods of time. On any given day we travel between 300-400 kilometres to get to the schools. This experience gives us a snapshot of the problems of physical access that impact the reach and distribution of primary education.

On this particular field visit, our main purpose was to conduct interviews and focus group discussions with teachers, teacher trainers and volunteers, government officials, policy makers, and textbook designers. Some of our days were spent in the districts, organizing group discussions with teachers and trainers after school hours. Others were spent navigating through the state level government offices where we interviewed relevant people and collected documents for review.

Q - What were one or two highlights from your visit?

My major take away from this trip was the enthusiasm with which teachers wanted to talk about their day-to-day problems in the schools. At first the teachers were reluctant to speak about their problems, but gradually as our conversations progressed and trust was build, they wanted to talk about their issues and wanted us to provide ways of voicing these issues to policy makers. Although these exciting interactions brought with them immensely rich and relevant data, they also came with a challenge that most policy researchers have to face. How do we build trust in our respondents and provide the optimal level of responsibility towards that trust? We hope to grow and mature through these experiences and look back to them to reflect on the responsibilities of our project.

Q - What are some challenges that you faced on your visit?

In addition to the challenge described above, we faced several logistical challenges such as making appointments with officials and having to navigate through bureaucratic hurdles at district and state level offices. Often people did not keep their appointments and our own timelines were thrown off due to these scheduling problems. In addition, we often fall sick on these field visits, due the long travelling hours, hot weather, and the occasional lack of sanitary conditions.

Q - Describe something that reminded you of/related to something you learned as a student.

The experience of looking at the flow of education policies and their meaning and interrelationship across various levels (e.g.. from New Delhi to a village in Assam) reminded me of classes on World System Theory [1] and the versions that followed it. I could see the microscopic versions of the core and the periphery that existed, impacting the conception and implementation gaps in education polices. Education policies designed from a dominant core perspective in the cities has little relevance with the culture and needs of the periphery villages. This is particularly true for the content of textbooks that often do not reflect the culture and needs of the villages where children read them. It was interesting to see a real application of the core-periphery disconnect in education in person. We need not only compare developed and underdeveloped nations, as theory tends to do, but can also find local micro-perspective versions of these ideas within one state of India.

Q - Describe something that you could not have learned in a classroom.

The process of building interpersonal relations with people in the field is something that we cannot completely fathom through the sociological theories that we study in classrooms. There is no way to build relationships that are equal and candid other than to spend time with people, in their spaces, among their resources. In an exchange of knowledge, it is so important to give your respondents a feeling of self-worth and pride in their local knowledge and value. As researchers, coming from developed zones of the country and from outside, we need to learn and unlearn in many ways and to step into the shoes of the people we are studying to look at their world from within. No amount of training in sociology, psychology and ethnography could give me a complete sense of how to react and respond in the field. The practical experiences of being in the field has supplemented what I have learnt in the classroom and makes that knowledge more meaningful.

[1] The World-System theory is a macro-scale approach to social change and world history that divides the world into core and periphery countries on the basis of the nature of their division of labor. The theory posits that while the core countries focus on higher skill capital-intensive production, the rest of the countries lie more towards low-skill and labor-intensive production. As such, core countries constantly reinforce their dominance. In addition to core and periphery, there exists another zone – semi-periphery which acts relatively as core to some and peripheral to others (Wallerstein, 1984).