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Dhaka Tribune

A trip on the magic school boat

How Brac is bringing experiential learning spaces to underserved communities

Update : 15 Oct 2023, 01:13 PM

It was towards the end of 2021 and Brac, Bangladesh’s largest development organization, would soon be turning 50. We were brainstorming on ways to celebrate when I blurted out an idea for redesigning a bus like Brac’s flagship one-room school and taking it on a roadshow to showcase Brac’s play-based child centred approach to education. I repeated this in a cross-departmental meeting and was met with great enthusiasm.

And so began my search for a bus.

The search was short-lived, however, as leasing a bus was too cost prohibitive and the idea receded to some far recess of my mind. A couple of months later the Director of Administration Nazmul Bhai asked whether the “boat” classrooms were sailing around the country. My mind couldn’t help but cry out “eureka!” I told him the idea was to travel around in buses, but he had given me a brilliant solution.  

Brac has been at the cutting-edge of non-formal education and one of its innovations was the “Boat School” in the north-eastern wetlands that remain waterlogged for long periods. The region lies on the border of the wettest place on earth where the water vapors from the Bay of Bengal collides with the mountains of Meghalaya in India resulting in frequent rainfall. Traditional schools were difficult to access, and the comparatively lower educational attainments were no surprise.

Values Boat. Photo: Md Mohaimenul Rakib 

A boat to learn in

During the waterlogged months, the boat schools would pick up the children from near their homes, conduct classes, and then drop them back. During the dry periods the boats would station at set locations. The schools graduated over 16,000 students from primary level and gained recognition as one of the world’s 100 most innovative education initiatives by the non-profit HundrED. 

Most of the boats had been disposed of following the graduation of respective cohorts. The remaining few were in queue for disposal. That was brought to an immediate halt.

Science Boat. Photo: Md Mohaimenul Rakib

I was very clear from the outset that there should be a boat each focusing on math and science given the importance of STEM education. For the third, we decided on values education. The performing fine arts and values education were very dear to the late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of Brac, and he ensured that these were inherent in our schools. Conceptualizing values, however, was a very different proposition from math and science. 

Niveen, who had returned from graduate school abroad, was leading one of the curriculum units and developing original stories on values. This series provided some insights and I gave her the responsibility to lead the project and in particular develop original ideas for the “Values Boat.”

In the field, we had Rafiq, a 35-year veteran overseeing education operations in the north-east. He undertook the tasks of repairing the boats, recruiting staff and boatmen, preparing the river route and operational guidelines.

Maths Boat. Photo: Md Mohaimenul Rakib  

Rakib, a gold medalist graphic artist working in Niveen’s unit, was the final member of the team. Niveen provided the overall concept direction that Rakib would bring to life first on the digital canvas and then on the boats. He would end up spending the most amount of time on the boats supervising the painters, through rain and shine.

Challenges come and go

There were several impending challenges that we had not anticipated for which the stars must have aligned and willed us to the finish line. 

The first was the incessant rainfall making the work difficult and time consuming. Rakib had to innovate different methods to maintain design and quality. Next came two rounds of floods causing terrible destruction and havoc with over 4 million people at one time being stranded without access to food or relief. The devastation was numbing. All of our focus turned to relief, rehabilitation, and rebuilding. 

Meanwhile, the design of the content was progressing with the focus mainly on primary with some materials from secondary level. It featured original board games, digital content, puzzles, and fun hands-on activities on values, math and science for children to do in groups or by themselves. If a particular game or experiment posed a challenge, the facilitator would be there to guide. The boats also showcase posters of famous mathematicians and scientists, as well as materials on empathy, equality, and the environment. 

Finding a manufacturer for the materials was the next hurdle. We tried developing in-house and then with a fab-lab but neither panned out. By sheer luck, Niveen stumbled across an architect on social media who develops board games, thus solving the last piece of the puzzle.

Despite numerous delays, the launch date finally beckoned. Niveen, Rakib, Rafiq and their teams stationed out at the boats two weeks prior for the final touches. I joined them in the second week.

On September 17, 2022, the boats embarked on their journey towards the riverbank for their formal launch. The sight of the three boats, with their creative colours and design, sailing towards us was truly breathtaking, and during my speech I was overcome with emotions. We were also privileged to have the Honourable Minister of Education and Member of Parliament Dipu Moni inaugurate the boats earlier this year.

We were initially apprehensive as to whether children would visit, but the experience over the last year has proved our concerns unfounded. The boats have stopped at 20 sites, mooring near schools for one to two weeks, and have welcomed close to 31,000 children, along with parents, school and college educators, and government officials. Along the route, 120 women have facilitated the experience for visitors. In our second year, we want to prioritize accessibility for persons with disabilities. While the boats have special ramps, the mooring stations and river banks remain largely inaccessible.

Brac’s journey in creating floating experiential learning spaces has successfully engaged thousands and sparked curiosity, enthusiasm, and spontaneity among children, parents, teachers, and education officials alike. There has been an overwhelming response to the interactive, play-based methods of learning that stands in stark contrast to the widely prevalent rote and didactic approach. We want to continue this small journey and share our experience in the hope that others will also be inspired to make learning fun.

Safi Rahman Khan is Director of Education, Skills Development, and Migration at Brac. Views expressed are those of the author.

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