Dabbawalas, tutorial networks, and the naysayers

In Mumbai, India, many workers prefer a hot, home-cooked meal instead of eating at a food stand or restaurant. So each workday 5,000 dabbawalas (“those who carry a box”) deliver 200,000 lunches from workers’ homes to their offices. Collecting dabbawalas, who are typically on bicycles, pick up individual lunch boxes from each home and bring them to a sorting location. Sorting dabbawalas then mark the lunch boxes with symbols and colors to mark their route and destination and put them on local trains. At each railway station, local dabbawalas collect the appropriate lunch boxes and deliver them to workers via foot, bicycle, and pushcart. The entire system works in reverse to get the lunch boxes back home again. All of this is quite complex but the entire 125-year-old system is organized organically by the dabbawalas themselves, not the government or a corporation. It is estimated that a mistake is made about once in every 8 million deliveries, which is particularly impressive given that many of the dabbawalas are illiterate. The dabbawalas have been profiled by the New York Times and NBC News, among many others, and there is even a Harvard Business School case study about them. 

In Mexico, what started as an experiment to improve 8 poor, rural public schools has now exploded into a national network of over 9,000 low-achieving elementary and middle schools. In these schools, student-centered tutorial networks rely on the knowledge and skills of youth to help scale up student learning at levels that would be impossible if done by adults alone. On any given day in one of these schools, a teacher might be tutoring a student, a student might be tutoring another student, or a student might even be tutoring an adult parent, community member, or educator. In this manner, new pedagogical practices can be disseminated nationwide through tutoring and social networks rather than just top-down professional development and educator training mechanisms. In these tutorial networks, everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.

Richard Elmore describes the system further:

When they have developed mastery in a given area, students play the role of tutor to other students who are undertaking inquiry in the same area. Students learn both the content they study and the practice of tutorials. Over time, the learning of the students and tutors, coupled with the training that tutors receive in the broader network, becomes a fund of knowledge available to tutors and students in other schools in the network. Learning is disciplined throughout by norms of mastery. Students and adults work together to build a fund of common knowledge that is available to all.

No one has told these students that they cannot control their own learning. No one has ‘schooled’ the adult tutors, who are largely recruited from the rural communities they serve, that they are ‘unqualified’ to teach or to serve as leaders of learning in their communities. The students and tutors share an understanding that, if there are things that they need to know in order to teach others, they will learn them through the teaching of others. The students and adults form a powerful social movement, with a common identity around access to learning. Most of all, students are given the gift of adult trust that by engaging in learning, by choosing what to learn, and by giving the gift of learning to others, they will discover their power as leaders of learning in their communities. 

Helen Janc Malone further notes:

What is unique and innovative about the tutorial networks is that they put the learner and the process of learning at the center of the education endeavor, and focus on tutorial relationships as a driver for democratic, equitable learning environment, absent of traditional, grade-level, standardized, rigid structures that often disengage students. Taking agency for instructional delivery and ownership of learning is empowering and motivating for both the tutors and the tutees. There is a great sense of pride that comes from receiving personalized learning, mastering content and sharing that knowledge with peers. An added advantage of such a strategy has been the excitement that spreads beyond the school walls and spills out into the community, where families again begin to see schools as centers for learning and development. This is particularly evident where tutorial networks have been able to positively transform rural, high-poverty, low-performing schools.

Nationwide community-driven tutorial networks that put students at the center. Complex, Six Sigma-quality delivery systems run by marginally-literate workers. Incredible, right? I can’t help but wonder… What could we do if we tapped into the power of our people and tried to actualize new possibilities instead of mere historical inertia? What could we do if our school organizations elevated the questions, “why not?” and “how can we?” over the reflexive “yes, but?”

As school leaders, we know that the naysayers will start chiming in as soon as anything new or different is proposed. Instead of allowing the change-adverse to dominate, maybe we could say, “Look at what’s happening out there. Given our greater resources and our incredible talent, there’s virtually no limit to what we could do. Let’s get started and do some things that are amazing!”

#dreambig #getmoving #makeitbetter

2 Responses to “Dabbawalas, tutorial networks, and the naysayers”

  1. These are truly revolutionary ideas–not new ideas by any means: they harken back to the Monitorial System of the late 1800s or the sort of events Paulo Freire got chased out of Brazil in the 1970s for trying to organize–but revolutionary in the sense of being outside the controls and purposes of governments. So good luck with that!

    “…absent of traditional, grade-level, standardized, rigid structures that often disengage students” is not a description of a system that has somehow drifted into error, that these systems are somehow the result of a lack of vision. These systems serve the purpose of reproducing the current status quo / social system very well. Learning, not so much, but there is good reason to believe learning was never the chief purpose of schooling….
    But I’m not actually that cynical. I think that the system is filled with contradictions that allow truly innovative leaders to achieve a lot, if they have the vision. They just have to adjust their thinking to learning and empowerment rather than social control and oppression. Viva la Revolution!

  2. In this county we call this process, meals on wheels. Meals are prepared according to dietary needs and distributed across a 25 mile (about 40 K) square county area by volunteers. Volunteers also “check in” with the recipients to provide conversation and see how they are getting along. My point is that processes similar to dabbawalas are not uncommon here. Of course there is federal, state, and county money providing support for the food/preparation.
    It doesn’t get done without the volunteers.
    The tutorial networks don’t get done without the volunteers.
    Change doesn’t get made without those who volunteer, by stepping forward to do it unless, of course, the powers of fear and coercion are available.
    Oh, wait. We already have scores, if not hundreds of volunteer networks in the education community.
    Start another one and get some volunteers!

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