No Blackboard, No Walls. But Storyboards and Tunnels. Dr. Swaroop Sampat’s Classroom

“The church is near but the road is icy. The bar is far but I will walk carefully.” How can drama and life-enhancement techniques make out-of-school children not just run to school but keep running to classrooms with excitement and anticipation? What makes them come back with life skills that fight rust, dust and termites of life better than a paper-report card? What makes them create excuses for not skipping school but for ‘walking carefully’? This veteran actress seems to have cracked the code.

How, in every sense of the word, did they do it? How did everybody get the idea, how did they persuade hundreds of people to join in the endeavour, how did they find and select the right stones, haul them across the country, shape them to perfection, heave them into position? …And it was all done by people who had no metals to work with, no tools sharper than flint or antler.”

What Bill Bryson wonders in ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ is just a better, funnier, more brutally honest, more observant version of the oohs and aahs that come out when anyone looks at Britain’s megalithic, pre-historic monuments in Wiltshire. Stonehenge was, and remains, a puzzle for architects, physicists, construction-workers, stone-haulers and civilization-experts alike – till date.

That mysterious ring of standing stones, with each stone around 13 feet high, seven feet wide and as heavy as 25 to 50 tons, and transported from quarries that were some 200 miles away – this legend keeps flummoxing people 5000 years after they were supposedly wedged there. Yet there are minds like Brandon Clifford, from Matter Design, who with Buoy Stone (the 1,850-pound sculpture) tried to crack the formula with bobbing stones and floating megaliths. We have seen MIT researchers looking at ideas around the use of the right density and center of mass, so that humans can move colossal stones with ease and with bare hands.

A few months back, somewhere not far away from Stonehenge, former Miss India and Bollywood superstar, Dr Swaroop Sampat-Rawal was receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Worcester. She had moved stones too, possibly heavier and more obstinate than the Sarsen blocks that Stonehenge pilgrims hauled. She had just been applauded for her years of work that a PhD in Education at Worcester, in 2006 opened the pages of. Her doctoral thesis on the theme of using drama to enhance life skills in children with learning disabilities was not just an eye-opener but a stone-pulley too.

Shining at Worcester. The brilliance of drama-based education works everywhere

Because while we have been busy, on our dinner tables, worrying about the dire state of illiteracy and school-drop-outs, thanks to poverty and girl-child prejudices; she has moved rocks, almost literally. She has been to the remotest and deserted pockets of India and dragged some bigger, more unwieldy gaps to an unexpected answer. She is not just working on bringing and keeping more children, specially girls, in schools. She is also questioning and working on the idea of ‘sustainable education’. Teaching them empathy, self-acceptance, acceptance of others, breaking stereotypes, kindness, resourcefulness and creativity – those are the bluestone rocks she would rather arduously put in a ring.

Yes, you are right. We are talking about the same beautiful, poignant, consummate and endearing actress who brings a new layer to every story with her unforgettable screen-presence whether it is a Ki & Ka or Uri. She is a delight to watch as she puts fine strokes and enlivens every character’s nuances, from Kareena K’s mother to Vicky K’s Mom. But she is also putting those strokes across the country, and abroad, as she takes children of all stripes, abilities and struggles in the loving embrace of her creative classrooms. These classrooms straddle across mango trees in a village far away, open expanses in the Indian hinterland and well-equipped schools in the UK.

As someone who is working relentlessly and without making much of the usual PR noise that some contemporaries do, Dr. Sampat-Rawal has walked deep into the trenches of community development and advocacy. She has conquered these uphill contours with a determined face and unrelenting feet across India to train teachers in the area of sustainable education and to eke out more children (specially from tribal communities and streets) into schools.

As she reflects on the long and metamorphic journey she has covered, she recalls the day when she proposed to teach life skills in the government primary school in her home state of Gujarat, and how its then chief minister, and now India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, encouraged her. It was a great opportunity but one cobbled with unexpected challenges, bureaucratic dead-ends and mindset U-turns. But as a member of the Governing Council for Save the Children and having worked with UNICEF to conceptualise a training curriculum for Jeevan Kaushalya (an adolescent girls project in Gujarat), her belief and confidence in this drama-based life skills intervention has only strengthened and blossomed. She has implemented this approach across 3,450 villages in six districts, reaching out to 38,000 young members of the village-level adolescent girl’s network.

sustainable education

Dr. Swaroop Sampat – Using Drama and Stories for Life’s Real Lessons

Clearly, there are more faces, stories, sleepless nights, intellectual wrestling-bouts and on-ground predicaments than these numbers can tell. Let us ask Dr. Swaroop Sampat what it’s like to use stories and drama to train not just disinclined school-drop-outs but also indifferent teachers along with those eager to learn.

Your journey started with mental-health areas of education, right? How did this new forest path take shape from there?

Years back when I had cut down from my movie work, I was finding ways to make sure I do not waste my time. From active roles in school PTA meets to volunteer work for students that had hearing challenges, I drifted to teaching roles for those with learning disabilities. That is when a mentor told me to use my professional strength – ‘drama’ – in this space too. I tried that, worked hard on etching it well in the new context and discovered that it actually works wonders.

The group was a mix of slow learners plus those at other levels, but the whole group responded well. I started experimenting and working on the use of ‘theatre’ in classrooms and my research also corroborated that this method is great for all kids – not just one category. Today, I can say that I have tried this method everywhere from tribal villages to British schools to schools in Bombay to Army school workshops at LOC during Uri’s shoot as well. It is a beautiful method that is transformative and introspective. That’s why it works so well. Everyone loves it – be it a teacher or a student.


Making them learn through stories must be like creating new tunnels into their self-awareness and perception of the world. Why is that important at this stage?

We humans have a huge emotional lexicon and childhood is the best time to get deep into it and hone it. I have taught 450-out-of-school into school at the tribal village of Nandurbar – under a Mango tree. I have done a project on Child Protection-Child Rights that reached 5400 villages in Gujarat. I have tried the exact same method with the students from Birmingham and Worcester – understanding emotions lessons. It works everywhere – this formula of teaching self-acceptance, acceptance of others, empathy, and communication.

Any examples that help us understand it better?

I used drama as an educational tool to enhance life skills and facilitate a transformational change in adolescent girls studying in Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalays (KGBV) in Gujarat.

Sonal, a 14 year old, studying in Class 8 at Bhatia KGBV, Jamnagar learnt about emotions – that we can experience different emotions.

sustainable education through Drama by Dr Swaroop Sampat

The Indian Constitution, incidentally, recognises education as a fundamental right – a Constitutional Amendment in Article 21. There is also a Right to Education Act 2009 that mandates provision of free and compulsory education for each child in the age group of 6–14 years. Yet, some 32 million children have never attended any educational institution . The last Census showed a female literacy level in India of about 65 per cent.
Adolescent females are the first to drop out even if they enter schools. Some estimates show that about 63 per cent female students quit school during adolescence

Like all the other girls she participated in the workshop with full enthusiasm. Note that ours was a village where girls had studied a maximum of up to Class 5. These girls barely stepped out of their homes. Many had, in fact, never set foot outside the village. Today, they are proactive, making house visits to counsel families, ensuring girls who have dropped out of school re-enroll. They have stopped many child marriages and are actively pursuing village development activities. But this is no miracle, only transformation. It is the tapping of their inner strength and honing of life skills through the medium of drama that has made the impossible possible.

So you bring diversity, creativity, engagement and participation in the classroom?

Transformative education empowers learners and enables them to constructively consider multiple viewpoints and perspectives in dialogue with others and gives them the skills to engage in social actions. All we are doing is changing the ‘frame of reference’ and finding that there was an augmentation in the girls’ perspectives through which they interpreted and understood the world they live in.

Does it make you introspect and transform too?

Yes, often. As the drama teacher I was not an ‘on-looker’ and along with the girls’ transformation there is an important aspect – that of my learning and transformation. Reassessing my assumptions and challenging them enabled me to transform my understanding and act on my renewed perspectives and become a more socially responsible thinker.

How easy has it been – when you look back the long road you have covered till now?

It is difficult. Besides the difficulty of changing mindsets while trying to bring back school-drop-outs, sometimes dealing with bureaucrats and rigid minds is also a struggle. To explain them that this method is more than some Bollywood song-and-dance, that’s a walk in an inhospitable terrain. But every time there was a ‘no’, I went a step higher and have found support and curiosity in every form – students, parents, teachers, government authorities, volunteers and the University of Worcester – that are eager for and open to this method.

What about teaches – are they open-enough too? It can sound like quite a radical method to them. What turns the switch for them?

Yes. I recall one of my initial work-shops that had 40 teachers. 20 of them dropped out of the training because they were stuck in a particular mindset. I went on, nonetheless. But those remaining 20 were so good and turned to be such strong advocates that we soon grew to 100 and then 300. It worked so well that UNICEF got interested and decided on a special project for girls from socially-backward backgrounds. We have done some incredible work there.

Sometimes, the switch is – the fun part of the class. Sometimes, what resonates with them is the idea of loving your students. I would also like to bring attention the problem of ‘teacher depression’ here. How can you correct a child’s health if you have not enhanced yours or have unresolved issues? That is why this method is a win-win. Every time you teach, it helps the teacher to understand oneself along with the child.

sustainable education with drama

‘I still remember that on the first day the participants were scared to speak, participate and were very reserved. It was observed that at the end of the training they become more confident, expressed themselves freely and each one was eager to participate.’: Hetal, District Consultant, Banaskantha and Rajkot

So what gaps should our current curriculum structures look at?

Most of them are not all encompassing. There is need, all across the world, to have factors like gender equality, substance abuse, Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL), critical thinking and creativity incorporated in what/how we teach. My curriculum proposition includes these life-enhancement parts like self-awareness, empathy, coping mechanisms and learning how to communicate well. Drama is the best way to blend experiential learning, participative learning, mindfulness, coping with emotions, self-awareness and reflection. In my classes, I encourage children to let go, be imaginative and introspective.

We use drama, role-plays, story-boards, discussions about experiences and characters. Once you learn how to know your emotions and cope with them, you immediately find answers to stress, alcohol abuse, people-issues and other life challenges.

Wow! So what you are teaching is …

Yes, we teach them to learn to learn. That’s the beauty that works everywhere and endures. That makes these girls – who were once school drop-outs – think about child marriage, men abusing alcohol, village sanitation and other issues with a new strength of critical thinking. They are also better communicators and negotiators after this intervention so they can actually bring about change. That is what they are doing now.

A girl, for instance, recounted this experience to me –“I saw another girl in the bus being disturbed by a nuisance sitting next to her. I got up and gave my seat to her and taught the fellow a firm lesson after sitting in her seat.” I asked the girl what changed in her that made her do this. She said “I could empathise with that girl.” So – yes, we teach them to think. We teach them to learn.

Dr Swaroop Sampat - Sustainable Education through Drama

A new research by UNICEF and Barca Foundation (based on 300 sport for development (S4D) programmes in 100 countries) shows that participation in sport improves empowerment, leadership and self-esteem, and hence, overall well-being and future prospects of children

What has been your observation about children with certain difficulties?

I strongly opine that teachers can share the efforts of the mental health establishment in life skills enhancement in children. Efforts in life skills education are usually restrained to mental health professionals. However, I believe that teachers have a large role to play in this field. This is because it is the teacher who meets the children on a daily basis. It is the teacher who first encounters the problems a child faces. Therefore, if teachers are trained in life skills education, and life skills instructions are scheduled during the school day as an integral part of the total school curriculum, they would be able to deal with most of the problems at the classroom level.

Difficult cases could subsequently be referred to mental health professionals. This will lead to a more complete and well-integrated service system. Plus, we have to do something about the huge gap of mental health counsellors in India. Four lakh patients per psychologist! That’s not a good scenario. We have to equip teachers because they are close to children and can diagnose the issues well ahead in time. They can work on the child once they catch the problems first. If not, they can recommend to a counsellor. Life skill is also about socio-psycho health.

How do you assess the arguments that some researchers have posited about dyslexic children having super-powers, thanks to the way their brain works better around metaphors and complex data?

The gift of dyslexia – no, I do not agree with that. Because these abilities are present in all children. They need the right methods to discover and leverage these powers.

CSR in education – how much has been covered and covered well so far?

It can be effective but the problems we face today have to be addressed at all levels – all schools, pre-schools, age-groups and ability-levels. It is not just about including new methods in curriculum but what really matters is that these are taught in the right way.

Any parting words for our readers?

I feel that being in a democracy, we have the power and responsibility – as an individual, in whatever small or big way we can – to get up. Democracy is not a noun, it is a verb. Voting is good but just electing a good government does not mean citizens have no responsibility – we should do our parts wherever we can.

She smiles and makes us think afresh.

As Bryson also notes with his characteristic sharpness and witty candour, “trudging back up the long, low hill, I wondered idly what the builders of Stonehenge would have created if they’d had bulldozers and big trucks for moving materials and computers to help them design…then I crested the brow of the hill with a view down to the visitor centre, with its café and gift shop, its land trains and giant car park, and realized I was almost certainly looking at it.”

Our education system does not need bulldozers and car parks. It needs change and impact. Like what a workshop-student from Dr. Swaroop’s class wrote to her years later after the seeds of self-reflection were sown in her mind.

Sonal: “I am studying in the Science stream and would like to become a doctor. Miss, you taught me to dream….”

Now isn’t that a beautiful Stonehenge?

By Pratima Harigunani


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