If I was to go back to school anytime soon, I’d want Arun Chavan as my teacher: he’s intelligent, articulate, inspiring and best of all, not afraid to rock the boat a little.
Now in his third year of a PhD in Evolutionary Biology at Yale, USA, Arun may have come a long way from his home village of Shirgaon, India but he hasn’t forgotten his roots.
It was there that Arun first encountered the Internet as a 12-year-old, placed in a hole in a wall by Professor Sugata Mitra as part of his early experiments into self organized learning.
Now Arun is taking part in Skype sessions at the School in the Cloud lab at Phaltan, Maharashtra, just an hour from where his parents grew up. Having known School in the Cloud’s research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni since he was a child, Arun didn’t take much persuading to give something back to the project.
His first session – switching often between his native language Marathi and English – was with a small group talking about all the different birds and trees found around the school.
“The Hole in the Wall seems a very long time ago now,” Arun admits. “I do remember surfing the net and searching for things and that it was all in English – a language I barely understood at the time. I used to copy it down and go back to ask my father what it meant.”
Arun, unlike many of his peers, was in a privileged position as he had educated adults around him who helped to foster his love of learning.
“I was very fortunate that my father was involved in so many things outside of my own village,” he explains. “From a very young age I was introduced to many of the artists and scientists he mixed with and could talk and listen to them and my parents. I didn’t understand all of these conversations but that wasn’t the point – just being around them made a big difference.”
“SOLE gives you the opportunity to communicate with people outside of your village who see the world in a different light than you. ”
– Arun Chavan
Arun is quick to point out that this is exactly what School in the Cloud does – especially in the more remote regions of India. “It gives you the opportunity to communicate with people outside of your village who see the world in a different light than you,” he says. “It doesn’t have to do anything else – if it sparks just one in a hundred kids to go out and do something different to everyone else then that’s enough.”
Arun says much has changed for children in India today, as many more have access to the Internet, but he says the difference with School in the Cloud is that it encourages them to make sense of what they are looking at and gives them skills to communicate it.
“SOLE supplements regular schooling and that’s what makes it meaningful,” he says. “Ultimately, I’d like to see education change so that kids are finding out more things on their own rather than just sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher.
“I’d like to teach the kind of science where the kids ask their own questions and design and carry out experiments to answer them without having anything prescribed by somebody else beforehand.
“They might end up replicating experiments from the 17th century or doing something completely new and creative. If they agree with Newton for example, then that’s exciting, and if not, that’s exciting too!”
“Obviously I study science so I’m looking at it from that point of view, but I think it relates to all disciplines.”
Arun, who also teaches undergraduates at Yale, plans to take the next few years to finish his PhD but eventually wants to return to India. Ideally, he wants to find a position where he could combine teaching with research, although that is more difficult as Indian institutes tend to specialize in either one or the other.
“I miss my family and friends back home but I really like Yale and love being surrounded by like minded individuals every day – it’s like being on an intellectual high all the time!” he says.
Arun’s obvious passion for teaching will make many hope that if he does have to choose between research and science education that his heart will lead him towards education.
“To be a good teacher you need to be able to motivate students but also be willing to invest time and patience in just being there for them and that’s how SOLE works,” he suggests. “It’s not simply about the technology – it’s the people on the other side of it that matter.
“For me, a teacher’s primary goal should be to give children that urge to find out something, to spark that element of self discovery and in doing this, you must be prepared to fail some of the time.”
And the story doesn’t end here…watch out for updates on social media in the coming months about Arun’s regular mediation sessions with the Grade 8 children (13 year olds) at Phaltan.
Arun as a teenager in India